|There is no evidence that the government or its ministers are enthusiastic about the APRC and its recommendations. Photo TamilNet
The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) reminds one of a sunny Parisian cafe where a bunch of retired bored men and women gather to engage in casual deliberations about various political issues, and, in the meantime, enjoy a good cup of coffee.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa set up the APRC six months after assuming power with the express wish of finding a political solution to the decade old ethnic problem. Irrespective of whether it is a Trojan horse or a genuine one, the president’s choice of the jockey, Prof. Vitharana, is commendable.
Though the APRC was set up by the Government with the participation of other political parties, there is hardly any evidence to prove that the government or its ministers are enthusiastic about it - with the exception, of course, of the leader of the Lanka Samasamaja Party, Prof. Tissa Vitharana.
And the members of the international community.
Despite endless criticism, some analysts tend to believe that the APRC is perhaps the final glimmer of hope for the desperate situation in the country. It may not be the most desired route to take but surely it is the only presently available one. Speaking at the “Nagenahira Navodaya”, a function organised by the Government to celebrate the recapturing of Eastern province, President Rajapaksa reminded us that he established the APRC so that all parties could come together to formulate a political solution to the burning ethnic problem.
In this context, it is interesting to examine the probability of the APRC being able to deliver. Providing a political solution to the Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem is a formidable task.
The APRC has a much greater battle than simply working with the LTTE. This is because; in order to find a permanent solution one cannot simply satisfy the needs of the LTTE- what is more important is the inclusion and consideration of Sri Lanka’s many and varied ethnic groups.
The only pragmatic answer is to draft an entirely new constitution. Constitutions are made through both constitutional and non-constitutional means. According to the second republican constitution of 1978, to change the present constitution, one needs to have a two-thirds majority in parliament and a simple majority from a referendum.
Winning the support of a parliamentarian is more a matter of rupees and cents rather than convincing him or her of the rationale and desirability of the issue.
Of course, President Rajapaksa will find less trouble than the opposition leader, Mr. Wickremesinghe in advocating a meaningful proposal that is appealing to the minority communities if he (Rajapakse) is already enjoying the favour of 53% of the opposition UNP’s MPs- as Minister Fernandopulle claims.
On the other hand, the Rajapaksa regime will have to employ many resources if it is serious about creating any progressive proposal through the APRC.
Prof. G. L. Peiris, one of the architects of the political package put forward by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2000 and the government’s chief negotiator of 2002 - 3 peace talks who agreed to explore a solution within a federal structure is a member of the Rajapaksa camp now.
Interestingly, the biggest critics for any power sharing arrangement with minority communities, the NMAT (National Movement Against Terrorism) and JHU (the Buddhist monks’ party) are with the Government and will certainly give Rajapaksa their unconditional support so long as they are able to retain their Ministerial portfolios.
However, what we are interested in and would like to discuss in this article is to inquire into the possibility of receiving mass support for a constitutional change that would give equality and justice to everyone irrespective of their ethnicity, religion and region.
In order to make this inquiry into such public attitudes on the APRC and the other related issues, the authors used data from the latest Peace Confidence Index (PCI), publish by Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
President Rajapaksa’s professed reason for setting up the APRC was to craft a proposal on southern consensus that one would then present to the LTTE. Therefore, it is vital that the two main political parties and all members of the Sinhala community are able to first come to perfect accord with each other, else, the peace process cannot continue.
The results of the PCI survey of February 2007 show that it is only 14% of the Sinhala community who are aware about the APRC even after six months of its existence. Levels of awareness amongst the same group regarding the APRC’s majority and minority reports were even lower.
We are certain that if one conducted a survey awareness of the happenings of some of the Sinhala dubbed Indian teledramas, one would see two to three times the amount of awareness than the APRC, a mechanism that has been setup to design the future of the country.
It is hard not to believe that this is what the Government wants. If one analyses most of the speeches of Rajapaksa and his ministers, it is quite clear that war and military victory is the message for the local audience while peace process, APRC and political solution are is just the window display for the international audiences.
As it shown in the latest PCI (PCI – June 2007) 51% of the Sinhala community do not know or cannot decide what type of constitution they prefer.
In point of fact, they could not make a decision regarding this matter even after they were provided with different options such as retaining the present state of the constitution, changing the present constitution without changing the unitary structure and the position given to Buddhism, decentralizing of power within a unitary state structure or establishing a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.
It is interesting to note that 13% of the Sinhalese do not want to change the present constitution while 25% agree to amending the present constitution without changing the state’s unitary nature and the supreme position given to Buddhism.
Regretfully, Professor Vitharana, only 5% of the Sinhala community would agree to a federal state within a united constitution- a proposal that you made in order to combine the majority and the minority reports presented to the APRC.
Not only that, only 6% of Sinhala community are willing to consider a decentralised power even within a unitary structure.
So, it is clear that if the Government decides to hold a referendum to consult citizens on their choice of constitution the result would not show any progress from the present one- a unitary structure where Buddhism is constitutionally recognized as the preeminent religion and a central power that decides what other regions need and what is good for the rest of the country.
Does this mean that over 50 years of democratic struggle of the minority communities which has now evolved into a military struggle has completely been wasted? What happened to the good work of some of the politicians who strived to advance the constitution? What happened to the countless seminars and advocacy meeting of the NGOs?
A majority of the people who identify themselves with specific political parties are not sure about what their choice is for a new constitution. However, self-identified JVPers want the present constitution to be amended while retaining the unitary chaacter of it and preserving the status given to Buddhism.
Since independence it has always been the UNP or the SLFP that headed the country’s governments.
During President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime, the SLFP created a political proposal that has been commended by many scholars as the most progressive we ever had.
Under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe the UNP agreed to explore a political solution within a frame of federal structure.
But, majorities of the people who identify themselves with either party were unable to state what their desired constitution is. Ironically, 36% of the SLFPers and 45% of the UNPers, under the present political context, prefer either a continuation of the present constitution or amending it without changing the Unitary structure and Buddhism’s prime position.
What happened to the devolution and federal debates that were initiated years ago by the leadership of SLFP and UNP? Only 9% of the UNPers support a federal type of constitution while 7% want to decentralize power under a unitary structure.
Choice for the SLFPers - whose leadership once claim that 76% of Sri Lankans support federal constitution – brings further disappointment to someone like Prof. Vitharana as only 4% support a federal type of constitution and 5% agree to decentralization within a unitary state.
The attitudes and perception we see amongst the Sinhala community might cause a degree of cynicism amongst those who attempt to bring about a new constitution and thereby to restructure the Sri Lankan state and find a solution to the protracted ethnic issue.
This is because it clearly articulates the fact that the country has not been able to progress, instead it had actually regressed alarmingly.
The latest PCI shows the perceptions of the Sinhalese on federalism in terms of some of the criticism.
Addressing the party leaders of his coalition government in Kandy, President Rajapaksa rejected a federal solution. His rationale was that people voted him in for the preservation of a ‘nobeduna ratak” (undivided country). Therefore, he will not explore the idea of a federal solution.
It seems he has indirectly acknowledged that he too shares the anxiety of nationalist political parties i.e. federalism will lead to secession.
However, according to the opinion poll, one fifth of Sinhalese think federalism would lead to secession and 10% think it will ensure the unity of the country. Nevertheless, 65% says that they do not know whether federalism will lead to secession or create unity.
Further, amongst the Sinhala community 19% believe a federal solution would be disadvantageous to their community; 17% believe it will threaten the status quo of the Buddhist community; 10% think federalism will impact the economy negatively.
Interestingly, that for all these anti-federal arguments more than over two third of the Sinhala community do not which is the correct one.
Therefore, Prof. Vitharana, we must tell you that, at present, there is no clear support base for you to support your opinion that the future constitution will be some form of federal constitution. None the less, take heart in the fact that the Sinhala community does not reject your idea outright.
One should not ignore the substantial degree of unawareness and the indecisive nature of the Sinhalese with regards to constitutional choice. The degree of ignorance and confusion on the issue of constitution is crucial as it provides space for supporters of progressive constitutional reforms as well as the advocates of such constitutions to win their support base.
The present media campaign that followed the military campaign will certainly dim the enthusiasm amongst the Sinhalese for finding a political solution.
The present speechifying of the ruling party on the military’s might will certainly undermine the communication of the APRC’s proposed political solutions to the Sinhalese.
Therefore, the undecided are more likely to lean towards war than peace.
And Professor Vitharana will then have no other employment but playing maitre d’ at the “Café d’ APRC – exclusively for foreigners”.