New Constitution Through the eyes of a citizen
By Ananda Ariyarathne
One cannot fathom what has happened to this country as it has become so confusing. There are so many issues to address, that we really don't know where to start. In order to address the issues, one would need to be extremely determined. If this country had complications related to its geographical background, one can be sure that it could never have been anything to do with 'vastness.' The population of Sri Lanka is made up of one major ethnic group and several minorities.
Back in the day, the largest local minority was Ceylonese Tamils and then came the Muslims. British rulers left their mark on Sri Lanka. The Indian Tamil community was larger than the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The British did not address the issues of the Tamil community. The Muslim community was spread all over the country, but were never alienated among the Sinhalese. It was quite natural for such communities to be in clusters, but never for security reasons. It is not fair to accuse the British of not thinking futuristically and mark borders and allocate regions for communities. The great British archaeologists who stumbled upon ruins of ancient times saw that the Sinhalese had been all over the country, but with smaller numbers in the North and East.
Around 80% were Sinhalese, and the most logical arrangement was to leave matters as they were.
Post Independence Era
The First Constitution did not have any reason to take ethnicities into consideration, but all communities were happy with it.
Before independence, people lived in harmony and they only had to serve one 'master." Post independence, the situation changed and certain individuals craved for power. Suddenly, a Sinhalese became the Prime Minister and a majority of ministers were Sinhalese. After some time, even the Governor General's position was filled by a Sinhalese, but still the minorities did not have any reason to be alarmed as the medium of instruction in schools was English and people who were educated in the English medium could apply for prestigious government jobs. All the top schools in the country had highly qualified Tamil teachers who taught important subjects including English. Tamil youth could easily join the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Police Service and highly qualified individuals could become engineers, doctors, lawyers and accountants. Likewise, there were also Sinhala medium schools in the countryside which provided education from Primary School right up to Ordinary Levels and prepared children for teacher training.
The entire country used the same system when conducting examinations (index number) and the best and brightest passed with flying colours and were granted scholarships to study at local universities. There was no bias or discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.
Although, it was still a Sinhalese dominated government, under the United National Party (UNP), which prevailed up to 1956, the Tamil people had no reason to be alarmed, as the ordinary people were not harassed or inconvenienced in any way. Even the Muslims had nothing to worry about and all ethnicities got along very well.
Relevance to Modern Socio-Politics
We are still in the process of recovering after the 30-year war, which claimed countless lives and left thousands of people displaced in their own country. Some people fought for the Sri Lankan Government and others fought for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but at the end of the day, they were all human beings and they died in vain. This bloodbath could have been easily avoided. This clearly occurred because politicians had got their priorities mixed up and reacted very slowly to a rapidly deteriorating situation. When the extremists did not get what they wanted, they took up arms and called for retaliatory action, which initially started as small skirmishes and later escalated into full-scale warfare. In fact the extremists developed so much courage, that they decided to take the Sri Lankan Armed Forces head on.
Delayed Effect of Independence
Although it was not visible immediately after independence, the hidden potential was there. It was based on the simple equation which clearly showed where the 'power base' in Sri Lanka was. Sinhalese who were easily over 75% by then had enough votes to elect a person of their choice to the high office. As the pioneering political party, the UNP had the right of way. However, the power struggle within the party exposed the more enthusiastic and ambitious. Instead of coming up with a 'plan' to develop the country, those stalwarts tried to outsmart each other. If the late Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became the leader of the UNP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) would not exist today.
The power struggle ended with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike identifying the 'five great forces.' The Buddhist Monks, indigenous medicine-men, Sinhala teachers, farmers and workers definitely accounted for the majority of the Sinhalese. In the election that followed, the UNP was reduced to just eight seats in the Parliament. The election promises took a more patriotic line and that was how, the 'importance of Sinhalese' surfaced starting a steady trend in promoting a highly enthusiastic communal line.
Sinhala was made the official language in Sri Lanka creating chaos and confusion in the country. It was followed by the proficiency examinations in Sinhala for the government officials to stay in office and the irony was that even English educated Sinhalese were compelled to pass the Sinhala proficiency examinations. When the government offices gave preference to Sinhala, the Tamil people were obviously uncomfortable.
A simple farmer in Jaffna getting a letter in Sinhala could never have become acceptable. Such a farmer getting a letter in English was never a problem, and he would not have felt bad. Getting a letter in Sinhala was different as the underlying intonation was the superiority of the Sinhalese.
Then, adding insult to injury, the medium of instruction in schools was changed to Sinhala and this created even more chaos and confusion. This created a lot of division in the country. When the Sinhalese relocated to more developed areas, they had better opportunities. For Tamil youth it was the opposite. This is a rather lengthy topic, but it is the main reason why we are facing so many issues today.
That disastrous language policy was the beginning of the end for Sri Lanka. That same language policy affected the education system in the country and the standard of education dwindled. Even the universities were affected by this, but this anomaly was corrected by the current Constitution. Now, Tamil youth have nothing to worry about. However, they are still living in fear as they still have doubts about opportunities. This issue can be resolved by adding a clause in the Constitution, which addresses this issue. If the two main languages are made compulsory for all the schools in the country, it would resolve a lot of issues. If a Sinhalese student has to at least get an 'S' for Tamil and a Tamil student has to get at least an 'S' for Sinhala in order to enter university, it would promote communal harmony and not alienate Sri Lankan citizens in their own land. However, the most important solution is to make English compulsory for Higher Education. This will help standardize the education system and the index number system will ensure that everyone is treated equally. This way, nobody will feel uncomfortable and nobody will be prejudiced against one another. If such a clause is added to the Constitution, people will be compelled to comply.
Aspirations of ordinary citizens
If the Constitution protects each and every citizen within Sri Lankan borders, what else does one require?
A citizen will be able to live without looking over his/her shoulder if the State protects him/her from unlawful elements.
That depends on a powerful, but law abiding Police Force and a Judicial System that ensures the Rule of Law is implemented and doesn't just remain confined to a book.
By amending only the relevant sections, giving more meaning to the relevant articles it can be done. So, what is all this fuss for?
It was recently reported that there are experts on United Nations (UN) payroll who are assisting with the drafting of the New Constitution. However, the UN has literally been breathing down our neck in Geneva.
Sri Lankans may not be as well off as citizens in other countries, but they are definitely not 'guinea pigs' and therefore, should not be treated like guinea pigs.
Another key issue which is not being addressed is 'hate mongering.' The Constitution should make it crystal clear that such behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstance.
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