It is not easy for societies riven by internal disagreements or mistrust to draft a democratic constitution, especially to replace the existing one. And that too after a deadly ethnic war, the trauma of which still remains fresh in peoples’ memory. As Sri Lanka, despite its continuing sociopolitical polarization, embark on a constitution re-writing journey shortly, the leadership needs to be reminded that for a constitution to be lastingly effective it must not only be framed for the future, keeping in mind the peoples’ sentiments, but also justifiable on ethical, moral and practical grounds.
Many right-thinking Sri Lankan citizens are eagerly looking up to President Maithiripala Sirisena for an egalitarian statute, which does not give prominence to ethnicity or religion.
Indeed, Sri Lanka is in dire need of a nationalist constitution, which eternally embodies the highest values and aspirations of the people and gives equal status to all religions practiced in the country while recognizing the three major spoken-languages as official ones simultaneously. To reap the benefit of a new constitution, Sirisena must strive to evolve a popular consensus on the necessity of replacing the flawed charter that has remained in force since 1978 with intermittent amendments. Since, continuation of a constitution depends on public acceptance of its provisions, the people of Sri Lanka, especially those who are apprehensive of a new constitutional arrangement, must be taken on board by explaining the urgency of overhauling the current constitutional mechanism, which is partly responsible for the bloodbath that the picturesque island nation has witnessed for over two decades.
Though, none can ever apportion blame to the constitution alone for the devastating and long drawn ethnic conflict or violent terror acts, the fact is, it did promote a unitary presidential system that was exploited by leaders with authoritarian attributes. Moreover, such a constitution was not conducive for mitigating fratricidal violence. The constitution also had a negative impact on the economy, which ended up creating vast social disparities. As previous promises to abolish the current presidential system — the fountainhead of obnoxious authoritarian rule — have remained unfulfilled due to partisan political reasons, Sirisena has a golden opportunity to break this vicious cycle once and for all by revamping the constitution.
However, for Sirisena’s endeavor, of restoring an equitable governance model with adequate constitutional checks and balances, to succeed, the national constitution-making process should not degenerate into a tactical instrument to stave off international retribution. Indeed, there is global pressure for instituting a hybrid judicial enquiry, based on UN Human Rights Council’s Geneva resolution, into the indiscriminate massacre of hapless minorities by the Sri Lankan Army during the ethnic war, particularly in its final stages. After all, a robust domestic constitution-making process continuing in right earnest gives the impression of Sri Lanka moving steadfastly on the path to creating a just political order so as to efficaciously deal with the horrors of ethnic fratricide, majoritarian communalism and serious distortion in the country’s political process.
Not many knows, when Colombo was on the verge of losing all legitimacy in the eyes of the world in the immediate aftermath of the bloody ethnic strife, a team of friendly nations led by America proposed a two-fold solution, involving domestic and global manipulations, to extricate the island nation out of the mess. And making Sirisena, with his clean image and impeccable track record in politics, the face of a new Sri Lanka, longing for ethnic amity and democratization of governance, was one part of the master plan that had New Delhi’s tacit approval. Sirisena made all the right noises on ushering a radical power-sharing arrangement on pluralistic and egalitarian lines, thus helping his beleaguered nation to tide over a serious credibility crisis. Thankfully, Sirisena will find in Sri Lanka’s new generation a more liberal voice of reason, who believes in accommodation and pragmatism to take the country forward. There seems to be a realization in this segment — representing the future of Sri Lanka — that geographically concentrated minority communities within a particular landmass wants much more than the right to equality guaranteed by constitutional law. They not only seek an inalienable right to manage their own affairs locally but also demand political recognition of unique sociocultural identity in a majoritarian milieu.
Since ethno-political conflict is essentially a struggle for achieving shared sovereignty, there is a conviction in Sri Lanka today that by shedding majoritarian ego and displaying magnanimity the country can be re-invented and all citizens irrespective of ethnicity can work shoulder-to-shoulder for the common welfare of the state. And it is this conviction that Sirisena must harness for greater conviction of togetherness and an honest willingness to recognize the legitimacy of the numerically inferior. As Sirisena seeks apolitical support to bear a “beautiful constitutional offspring,” his goal cannot be accomplished unless regional and global powers stop treating Sri Lanka like a client state in their geostrategic matrix.