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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 9 New Delhi February 16, 2019

The games that Sri Lankans play

Sunday 17 February 2019, by Apratim Mukarji

If there is one issue on which almost every Sinhalese would agree, it is the incompatibility of federalism in Sri Lanka. Yet, their government has introduced a draft Constitution to replace the traditional executive presidency system with a Westminster type of government and a federal state.

The question naturally arises about the prospects of such a move; will such a Bill pass muster in a House consisting overwhelmingly of Sinhalese members? Will these legislators dare to antagonise their electorate by voting in favour of the draft Constitution which seeks to divide the country into nine autonomous provinces with vast powers than ever granted in this tighty-held unitary state?

Anybody knowledgeable about the political history of Sri Lanka would know that this deleterious issue of federalism lies at the root of the ethnic divide that has characterised this small nation of 21 million people of diverse religion and culture.

The question, therefore, is: if the reality renders such a move—to convert the unitary state into a federal state with a prolonged history of bloodshed, intense racial disharmony, and a secessionist armed movement—a virtual non-starter, why is the National Unity Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe moving in that direction at all?

The inborn hollowness of the move is further exposed when we see that the move is entirely an initiative of the Prime Minister and his United National Party (UNP) and the minority ethnic communities of Tamils and Muslims.

Does this mean that the UNP, an entirely Sinhalese-based party which introduced the executive presidency system in the country, has embraced the Tamils and Muslims as its own and is prepared to help the latter achieve their hope of living in an equal society of opportunity?

It is difficult to believe that any member of the minority communities in Sri Lanka suffers from any such illusion. In fact, judging by the torrent of derogatory tweets from Tamils following the introduction of the draft Bill in Parliament on January 11, it does not require the experise of a pundit to know the eventual fate of the Bill. There is absolutely no iota of possibility that the Sinhalese community, which dominates the legislature overwhelmingly, would suddenly change its heart and agree to the “fearsome” concept of federalism.

We can begin right at the top of the government that has introduced the Bill. President Sirisena is dead set against it, both as a Sinhalese and as the incumbent President. Apart from seeking to introduce federalism, the Bill also seeks to abolish the executive presidency system which Sirisena is famously enamoured of.

The innate hypocrisy of Sri Lankan politics is well-reflected in the fact that after working in tandem with the UNP and Wickremasinghe from January 2015 towards curtailing the extensive powers of his office, Sirisena had turned fully against the concept by 2017 and spent the latter half of the year in trying to extend his five-year term to an additional year. However, the Supreme Court dashed his hope by summarily rejecting his petition.

Soon thereafter, he crossed over to the parliamentary Opposition by siding whole-heartedly with his nemesis, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the previous President, and has since cam-paigned vociferously in favour of the virtues of executive presidency in a country like Sri Lanka where the so-called “enemies” of the state are prowling around to harm the majority community.

Thus, as the draft Bill has been introduced and its copies along with those of the expert views on six subjects, distributed among the 225-member House, the government has invited a feedback from the members on each and every clause of the Bill. It is only after receiving the views that a debate will ensue in Parliament.

Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa have already aired their strong opposition to the Bill, and judging by their combined numerical strength in the House, it wold be impossible for the government to manage its passage.

However, this is not the full story. Wickrema-singhe himself has been non-committal on the issue so far. He is obviously biding his time with a view to skilfully avoid any public commitment to the Bill.

Along with the rest of the country, he knows well enough that there exists enough opposition in Parliament to kill the move because a two-third majority is required for its passage and without help from the Opposition, it is unachievable.

He has simply piloted the Bill in Parliament to satisfy the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil group in Parliament, and other minority parties that the government is committed to bring in such a Bill and try its best to get it adopted. If the majority support eludes the Bill, it would be beyond his capacity to help in the matter. His chicanery is thus quite palpable. His current non-committal stand cannot mean anything else.

A far more important question is how the Tamils in particular would react to the final betrayal when the draft constitutional Bill is eventually defeated in Parliament. Would they veer once again to the path of violence? Little chance, judging by the present mood in the community. Not just the elders, even young Tamils appear to have decidedly moved away from thoughts of secession for the purpose of creating a state of their own. The brutal but decisive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 appears to have made the minorities realise that come what may, they have to live in the majoritarian state preferably with as much respect as possible.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of Central and South Asia. His latest book, Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka : An Unfinished Story, will be published shortly.

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