Constitutional divides

by Sanjana Hattotuwa

You would think that for a country that has embarked upon a historic process to create a new constitution, society and polity would be greatly animated with discussions around ideas, opinions, fears, aspirations, hopes and challenges related to what should and should not be considered or included in the final text. And yet, to date, public interest in and input into the process hasn’t taken off. Many, surprisingly even in Government, haven’t even heard of the Public Representations Committee (PRC), mandated to seek oral and written submissions from the public on constitutional reforms and appointed by the PM with Cabinet approval. There’s a website. There’s a Twitter account. There’s a Facebook page. Some ads were placed in the mainstream media. And that’s basically it really. Aside from the occasional column or editorial in mainstream media or some random pronouncement by politician, the PM, President of clergy, there’s really no understanding around how to create a participatory process or make citizens feel as if they have a say and stake in what the new constitution will reflect.

Since opinions can be more easily contested than hard data, and because it’s important to know what the public fears and wants, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) conducted an islandwide survey on constitutional reform mid-January. The final report, which will be released publicly soon, contains some very useful, indeed humbling insights into the constitution making process. Tellingly, what defines the responses is the level of ignorance amongst the public around key issues.

An overall 79.1% said they didn’t know what the word federalism meant. Of those who said they did, there is a clear Sinhala – Tamil divide. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most favourable and one the least, 50.4% of Tamils rated their favourability towards federalism at 10. Only 1.1% of Sinhalese ranked their favourability at 10 as well. At the lower end of the scale, representing the most opposition to federalism, 6.1% of Sinhalese scored one, compared to 4.9% of Tamils. Noteworthy though is that 67.5% of Sinhalese had no response to the question. One interpretation of this is that they were hesitant to come out with their political opinion to an unknown enumerator. Another, perhaps more optimistic reading, is that even with the significant demonisation of the term, for years on end, the majority in the South has no concrete opinion on it. In turn, this suggests that strategic, grassroots level, multi-media campaigns, in Sinhala, begun now, can serve to shape minds and opinions over this year around what is a key component in the new constitution – the nature and degree of power-sharing.

Nationally, nearly 40% don’t know what a ‘unitary’ state means. Again on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most favourable, only 11.1% of Tamils scored 10, in contrast to 36.1% of Sinhalese. The greatest opposition to a unitary state also comes from the Tamil community, with 37.8% scoring one, in contrast to just 3.9% of Sinhalese. Interestingly, the opposition to a unitary state cuts across the Up Country Tamil and Muslim communities as well, of whom 18.1% and 15.1% respectively also scored one. Here again, the unsurprising discovery of an ethnic divide suggests policymakers have yet to really engage the public around the term ‘unitary’ – including its demystification as the binding glue of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity.

Of those polled, 84% don’t know about the 13th Amendment. That one point alone is fodder for many political critiques and essays. And yet, when asked how important it is to establish devolved institutions, 57.2% or Tamils, 61% or Up Country Tamils and 40.2% of Muslims said it was very important, compared to just 25.2% of Sinhalese who said the same. Another clear divide can be seen through a question that asks how police powers in Sri Lanka ought to be exercised. 47.8% of Sinhalese believe it should be exclusively by the central government. Only 14.3% Tamils concur, with 37.7% saying instead they believe it should be shared between the central and provincial governments.

The data shows something else that’s quite remarkable, aside from the obvious. For example, questions around how important it is police powers are devolved to the Provincial Councils and how important it is police powers are NOT devolved show a clear divide in the opinion between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. This isn’t surprising. What is however quite revealing is that when asked by those who said it was or was not important, why they answered the way they did, over 70% in both cases said they didn’t know. So here we have a counter-intuitive phenomenon of entrenched opinions without clear understanding, an emotive, group-think instead of a more reasoned evaluation of devolution’s merits. This is turn recommends national level dialogues and awareness raising programmes, involving all possible media and fora, around in particular unfounded fears of devolved Police powers to the provinces.

If there’s going to be any single issue that risks entirely derailing the new constitution building process, it is around the status of Buddhism and its relationship with the state. Article 9 of the present constitution states Buddhism shall be given ‘the foremost place’ and that it is the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. On a scale of one to 10 (one being extremely unfavourable), respondents were asked how favourable they were towards the inclusion of this clause on Buddhism in a new constitution. 70.4% of Sinhalese responded with 10, i.e. they were extremely favourable. 75.9% of Tamils, 56.6% of Up Country Tamils and 62.8% of Muslims responded with one. In a follow up question, 48.1% of Sinhalese said only Buddhism should given a special place in Sri Lanka’s constitution, while assuring the freedom of religion to all others, whereas 56.1% of Tamils (and high percentages from the Muslim and Up Country Tamils as well) averred that the Constitution of Sri Lanka should protect the freedom of religion as a fundamental right.

What does this data suggest? A country inexorably divided or a ripe moment to really engage with the fears and aspirations of our citizens? If the constitution is an elite construct, removed from what moves the public, does it stand a chance of ever being accepted? If nothing else, isn’t this data a clear indication of the pressing need for a comprehensive public education campaign coupled with a rigorous process of political communication, by political parties and civil society, addressing the communal divides and with a view to stymieing what will be concerted efforts by spoilers to derail the entire process? Will the 225 in Parliament, plus our Prime Minister and President heed these signs, or continue with business as usual?

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