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The new constitution should target national unity as one of its primary objectives

Jun 5, 2010 8:28:01 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. A.C. Visvalingam President, CIMOGG

Most of our politicians, intellectuals and other opinion-makers continue to give prominence to the issues that divide us and offer myriad solutions to deal with the fragmented society that we have become.

What is really needed is to look at what we are (a motley collection of Veddahs, Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, other groups and random mixes of all of these) and find ways and means of creating a common Sri Lankan identity, so fashioned that every member of these groups would accept it without reservation in order that it is only mutual respect and shared interests, and not compulsion, that will help to unite the Nation.

As long as we keep trying to make separate provisions in the Constitution and our laws to cater to the demands or perceived needs of the various ethnic and religious components of our population, majority or minority, there will always be a sense that too much or too little of the cake is being given to one or the other of these components. Instead, all laws should be directed, without any bias whatever, to the needs of Sri Lankans as a whole so that those who belong to each and every group will benefit equally. If the new Constitution that is being proposed were to stipulate that every Sri Lankan shall have equal rights and responsibilities, there would be no need to add the words "irrespective of race, religion, caste or occupation".

In general, there would be no room for differentiation on the basis of any criterion other than merit. Provided that the Constitution and subordinate laws are framed so as to safeguard the interests of the individual citizen and if its provisions are honestly and systematically implemented, the problems of both the majority and so-called minorities will become virtually identical and there would be a positive incentive to work together to go forward as a united nation.

Our Constitutions have generally been framed in such a way as to meet narrow political agendas and not to safeguard the interests of the country or the people as a whole. We emphatically need to put a stop to this type of politically-motivated lawmaking. Hence, the new Constitution should be formatted so as to include features that would encourage citizens to adopt a common Sri Lankan identity and discard features that would tend to accentuate ethnic, religious and other differences. Parliament should pass comprehensive laws to bring the provisions of all international covenants, protocols etc that Sri Lanka has ratified (including a comprehensive Bill of Rights) into legal effect and also improve the procedures for appointing and funding Independent Commissions or Authorities, free of political and administrative interference, to reassure the People that good governance and the Rule of Law will be fostered, and no Sri Lankan’s rights could be violated with impunity. Furthermore, we must have a Right to Information Law which is an imperative for good governance.

Obviously, the mere changing of the Constitution will not have a positive impact if those who have sworn to safeguard and uphold it do quite the opposite. Therefore, the new Constitution, should incorporate simplified procedures for taking action against those who hold responsible positions but are guilty of violations of the Constitution considering that the currently available procedures are, for all practical purposes, quite useless.

The detailed ground work required to re-write the Constitution is definitely not a task to be entrusted to Members of Parliament, most of whom do not have the necessary expertise and most of whom, in any case, just sign the attendance register on the days when Parliament is in session and promptly disappear from the House. Indeed, we have grave reservations as to how many of them have even glanced at the present Constitution. Moreover, the political agendas of powerful political parties will contain inherent contradictions and, if given too much weight, will result in the new Constitution joining the earlier ones under the classification of "periodicals". In the light of this reality, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has always urged that the foremost requirement for drafting a good Constitution is a well-balanced team of academics, constitutional lawyers, other professionals, administrators and civil society activists to work together on this vital exercise, and that this team must be given sufficient time to do its job properly.

If there is one single development after independence that has overwhelmingly destroyed the unity of the Sri Lankan people, it was the streaming of children into monolingual schools, frequently accompanied by a mono-religious instruction. It is more than obvious that, when the youth of the several disparate groups of people in this small land of ours have little or no opportunity to mingle and communicate with each other, there could be no question of asking them to shed their group identities and adopt an ill-defined universal identity. Only an optimist verging on lunacy could expect a united nation to develop in these circumstances.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has very correctly identified English and Information Technology as the keys to economic development in a globalized world. These subjects have, at the same time, the potential to become a powerful combined tool for creating a common Sri Lankan identity because Sinhala-speaking, Tamil-speaking and English-speaking children and grown-ups throughout the country will be able to communicate easily with each other - which they have not done for decades, particularly from 1956 onwards.

Another crucial step that needs to be taken is to introduce graded lessons in school, from the earliest classes to the Advanced Level, to teach ethics, good citizenship, transparency, accountability, social responsibility, national unity and so on. There must be a wealth of educational material in countries such as Canada, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries on the teaching of such subjects. All that needs to be done is to have them translated, but with adjustments to suit the local situation.

All State documentation should be in all three languages and there should be an independent and powerful Official Languages Commission which would proactively send out its officers to government offices and all public places to monitor whether the provisions of the Official Languages Act are being observed in letter and spirit, without waiting for individual members of the public to make formal complaints. State employees who work in predominantly Sinhala-speaking or Tamil-speaking areas must necessarily be fluent in these languages or, at the very least, have a sufficient number of language-competent colleagues to interact with all citizens in their areas of authority and responsibility, whatever their mother tongue.

The media have a very big part to play in building national unity and it is a pity that excessive space is given to those who dwell too often and too much on the divisive aspects of race and religion. Merely stating editorially, for the record, that national unity is very important is not enough. Constructive opinion should be given more backing than ill-informed, prejudiced or extremist views.

The Sinhala people and their language are only to be found in Sri Lanka. Besides, the nature of Buddhist beliefs and practices in Sri Lanka is rather different from those of other Buddhist countries. In this background, most Sinhala Buddhists have been conditioned to believe that their race and Sri Lankan Buddhism will disappear unless the State continues to give Buddhism special protection, ignoring the inescapable corollary that the adherents of other religions will be compelled to accept a measure of step-motherly treatment. The feeling of discrimination that such special provisions would tend to engender in non-Buddhists will affect their commitment to building national unity. This is just a matter of psychology and emotional reactions and does not imply any antagonism on the part of those belonging to other religions or non-religions towards Buddhism or Buddhists per se. However, taking the history of this issue into account, it is probably quite unrealistic to expect anyone to stick his neck out to tinker with the current constitutional provisions in this regard.

Government-sponsored colonization is a controversial issue even where race and religion are not in contention. For example, when the first few tracts in the Walawe Project had been ready for allocation to landless farmers, the government decided to give the initial allotments to landless Sinhalese from the Kotmale area. When these poor families were trucked in to Walawe, with all their worldly possessions, they were attacked with cutlasses and other weapons and chased out by their southern Sinhalese brethren on the grounds that the local landless should be given priority over outsiders. It was a conflict between the interests of the local Sinhalese versus Sinhalese from outside. The lesson here is that, when citizens of whatever origin are given land by the State, it should be locals first and outsiders thereafter, if friction is to be avoided. On the other hand, it would be unfair for Tamils to be able to buy land anywhere in the Island if, at the same time, they want the land in the North to be reserved, by Thesavalamai or otherwise, only for Tamils.

Ideally all national symbols should not be those solely associated with any particular group. The question continues to be asked as to whether the present Sri Lanka flag has the same emotional attraction for the minorities as it does for the Sinhalese. The two coloured vertical bands to represent the Tamils and the Muslims and the lion to represent the Sinhalese are constant reminders of our separate identities. In contrast, in the Indian flag, the saffron colour of the top stripe was meant to signify sacrifice, the central white stripe signifies truth and purity, and the bottom green stripe represents prosperity. The blue wheel at the centre is said to reflect movement and progress. There are no racial or religious connotations in any of these components. However, given the background to the design of the Sri Lankan flag, it is to be expected that no politician will want to get involved in even studying this matter.

The new Constitution should target national unity as one of its primary objects. CIMOGG urges our people and our leaders to support and implement those elements of our culture and education which will tend to unify the diverse components of our society and try to do away with those elements which will tend to highlight the differences between the groups to which we belong by accident of birth or by upbringing.