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A ‘House’ divided, and a country at crossroads


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 3 March 2017 00:00


In the past week or so, two news items of national interest have driven if not dominated some media discussion. The first was when a spokesman for the governing coalition reawakened a country’s dormant interest in the constitutional reform process. This provoked something of a furore when so-called nationalist elements started barking at the referendum-caravan. The second was in the immediate aftermath of our Foreign Minister’s crafted statement at the UN sessions, which was essentially a canny appeal to all stakeholders concerned in the national-reintegration process for more time. That resulted in a spate of hurrahs, catcalls, and hard to interpret tweets; none of which was as succinct as a moderate Tamil politician’s response that the Government had not delivered on promises made at the human-rights confab as far back as 2015…

In both of these media reportages, a common thread has been debate and discussion – with some diatribe – about the constitution-reforming process. Maybe no other issue in recent times has been as contentious for the people and their elected representatives. Which makes it all the more ironic that the stated aims and objectives of a new constitution include inter alia a new, united, integrated, national identity. In this context, it comes as something of an anti-climax to hear our FM say to the UN that we “must have the courage to acknowledge that Sri Lanka’s first experiment in nation-building post-independence in 1948 has failed”; adding bathetically that “as a result, for 69 long years, we have journeyed through pain, violence, loss of life, and precious human resources, ruining our chances of socio-economic progress”.

Be that as it may indisputable, one of the main concerns for nation-builders and national-reintegraters has been the plethora of voices drowning out sense and sensibility in the marketplace of ideas today. On one hand, citizens sensitive to the challenges faced by government can sympathise with those at the helm of the ship of state. On the other, more impatient stakeholders cannot but help sense that something has gone wrong, radically, somewhere, to effect this slowdown in the reforms process and even suspected backsliding on promises made…

An analysis of the competing nationalisms represented by the panoply of stakeholders in the constitution-remaking process might offer further insights into why government – and nation-state with it – are at something of an impasse today.

Naïve 

If we were to begin with the Government’s position, we’d see that it is natural for the Foreign Minister himself – Sri Lanka’s chief ambassador – to embrace the normalised view that “the January 8 mandate was to create a unified nation” … by shaping “a new constitution that would protect minority rights”. Maybe it is naïve – and not a little disingenuous, given Mangala Samaraweera’s track record as a sophisticated campaigner in realpolitik – to further essay that “this is the wish of the people from north to south of the island”. Would that it were the case, indeed, that these amorphous ‘people’ were anywhere nearly as ‘united’ as that… No, regrettably, it is only tender-minded philosophers and perhaps other sophisticates who conveniently assume such a ‘uniformity’ of will, desire, purpose, such that government’s imposition of a monolithic constitution will prove that one size fits all. Perhaps apologists for the Government will rebut this apparently lopsided assessment, for Samaraweera’s own position – that “there needs to be a reasonable solution for the issues of the Tamil people” but “every nationality within this country has equal rights” – suggests that government’s valence is far more nuanced than the Joint Opposition amongst other nationalists would give it credit for.

Normal/natural

Such a nuanced position would gain traction with moderates while going against the grain of competing nationalism with the ‘nations’ 01(or did he mean ‘ethnicities’ at best or less desirably ‘races’?) that our Foreign Minister slips so insidiously into the discussions – as reported in media analyses.

At one end of the spectrum, it is becoming entirely normal for what has been criticised (by nationalists on both sides of the national chasm) as a lame, tame, Opposition to essay that they can be content – or at worst, simply satisfied – by steps taken by the Government. A corresponding normalisation has been to jointly credit both President and Prime Minister with the constitution reshaping process – although it is clear to all but some woolly-headed moderates that there is growing tension between these two heads. The more impatient Tamil nationalists – or, seen through a different lens – the less moderate middle-of-the-path Tamil legislators – have countered such complacency by their unequivocal commitment to the process; while not hiding their displeasure at the relative lack of progress made since Sri Lanka co-sponsored the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.

At the other end, a gamut of nationalist correspondents expresses what else is par for the course in this push and pull between competing nationalisms:

Politicos in the fray can be quite outspoken, as was this player who began with the UNP, broke ranks to join the SLFP, and is now a JO mouthpiece: (QUOTE) “This government is attempting to fulfil its promises to the leaders of the north in order to establish power. It is clear that the president is fully entangled in this conspiracy as well. Meanwhile, there is also an ongoing operation to weaken intelligence agencies and the defence services. This short-sighted government is trying to take the country before an international chopping block and split it into pieces via a new constitution.”

Prelates have been no less expressive: (QUOTE) “We are also slowly going mad from the confusion that is ‘yahapālanaya’. No such thing exists. In the recent past we had a ‘chinthanaya’, which also turned out to be a myth. Today there is talk of a new constitution. The people have no real need for a new constitution. This constitution is an illusion.” (QUOTE) “The constitutional reforms stipulate the devolution of police powers to provincial councils. This would bring about the loss of [several national assets named] … This government is attempting to implement a constitution that ransoms the country to divisive interests, while separatist conspiracies plague the country economically, politically and culturally.” 

Nuisance

In-between these two camps or shades of opinion, there are those players whose kaleidoscopic positions over the years has not diminished their appeal to the hoi polloi. On the contrary, if anything, their penchant for swinging – or appearing to swing, simultaneously – both with and against the pendulum has won them applause from both government and opposition. Often at the same times for the same positions taken – or not taken. If such an analysis of the JVP annoys you, imagine how much more mundane their public utterances on matters of the most import could be – if only they would cease and desist from commenting in the vein, “the Joint Opposition is engaging in opportunistic politics”, and in the same breath, “we are suspicious as to why the Government is postponing the reforms process”! To back or not to back, and whom or what to support if it is not part of their own strategy, will always be this has-been party’s dilemma? Me, I can’t make up my mind if they’re a nuisance or a necessary evil…

Not necessary evil

Amidst some chaos and much confusion as to status of the new social contract in the making – or not – comes the statements of government ministers designed to curry favour with party leaders while shaping their own futures within a coalescing SLFP. Ironic that they should accuse other stakeholders in the process of a pack mindset or even tribal mentality, when it is clear that they are the ones running with the hound. Especially when their personal position tantamount to something like this… As reported in media analyses: “On behalf of the President and the SLFP, I will say that we have decided not to support any amendments to the constitution which would harm the country’s unitary character, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. We will support a new constitution or constitutional amendments which will not require a referendum. It should be understood that the public mandate entrusted to the SLFP and the UNP during the last election was not for the implementation of a new constitution.” Coming from a strongman of the SLFP – and previously the UNP – the reintroduction of the traditional bastions of ‘unitary character’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘territorial integrity’, are less than useless in a post-war milieu tending, straining, leading, yearning for a post-conflict mindset.  

Necessary 

instrument/agency

Thankfully, amidst this storm and stress, saner counsel prevails. Some maintain that a referendum is necessary not only to publicly ratify the desirability of an actual new constitution presented, but also assess whether the proposed new constitution is desirable as an idea in itself. Media – especially in the mainstream vernacular newspapers – have kept questions, issues, discussion, commentary, alive and well… And political actors even on the fringe of engagement have contributed rational thoughts to the debate: (Quote) “Especially in a country divided by religion and ethnicity, it is essential to call for a referendum before implementing a constitution that would institute devolution of power.” Meanwhile, some members of academia as reported are also bolstering the necessity – but limitations – of a referendum: (Quote) “A constitution should not be implemented without effecting a change in public opinion … Creating a constitution according to the views of the public is futile since a constitution must always be more far-sighted than the people.” However even the present lacunae in presenting the people with even a draft of the proposed constitution has come in for no little condemnation by public-interest bodies: (Quote) “Not even a draft of the new constitution has been created yet, let alone a new constitution … Currently there are only proposals. No draft has been prepared as yet.”

Only time will tell.


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