No symphonies, only constitutional cacophonies … and the forgotten legacy of Sobitha Thero


Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero

by Rajan Philips

Even the invocation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Ode to Joy) in the opinion letters published in The Island last week was hardly going to moderate the shouting match that the constitutional reform process is turning out to be. There are no symphonies, only cacophonies of intemperate tone and temper that are beginning to fill up the media in opposition to the proposed constitutional changes. The unity government itself is divided on the scope of the constitutional changes. The two parties to the government, the UNP and the SLFP, which were united specifically to consolidate the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament, are divided over whether or not to go so far with changes as to require a referendum. Interestingly, may be not surprisingly, even the Joint Opposition has come disjointed on the constitutional question. Wimal Weerawansa and his National Freedom Front have decided not to further participate in the constitutional process, but the Rajapaksas and the rest of the JO have decided to stay on if only to see what mischief the UNP might be up to. The so called Leftists in the JO are also reportedly against boycotting the process as it would only alienate the minorities. Last, but not least, the TNA is back to its old refrain that the UNP and the SLFP must unite to reform the constitution. Easier said than done, even though what is said and what is to be done are quite obvious.

Much of the cacophony, however, is coming from outside parliament because there is nothing continuously going on in parliament on the constitution. The intervention of the Sangha has created a very non-agnostic distraction, the insistent certainty that no constitutional change is needed. While this has triggered a whole debate on the role of the Sangha, often more heated than enlightened, there has been a surprising omission of one name that is so central to the project of constitutional change – the name of Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero. It was Sobitha Thero who almost single-handedly mobilized public opinion in favour of constitutional change and created the momentum without which Maithripala Sirisena would not have become President promising to abolish the Executive Presidency, and Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have become the de-facto executive Prime Minister. The two men renewed their vows at the funeral of Sobitha Thero, and one would hope that the two remain equally committed to living up to the legacy of the late prelate.

How does the Sangha relate to the legacy of Sobitha Thero? Obviously, not everyone in the Sangha would have agreed with Sobitha Thero’s position on the constitution. But no one will disagree that there was no alternative Sangha position that countered Sobitha Thero’s stand at the January 2015 election. And the Thero’s call for constitutional change was one of the two cardinal premises on which that election was decided. The other of course was the call to expose and end corruption. Two years are a long time in politics and it may be that those in the higher echelons of the Sangha do not think much anymore about Sobitha Thero’s legacy, but it seems odd and strange that while ignoring Sobitha Thero one could also endorse someone like Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero of BBS notoriety. Let the legacy of Sobitha Thero suffer political injury, if it must, but does it deserve ex cathedra insult as well? That is a question that is best left to the organized supporters of Sobitha Thero to deal with.

Time will tell

Of course, the political blame is ultimately with the government. To my mind, the government made both strategic and tactical mistakes on the constitutional file. The government should have known that the ultimate Achilles Heel for any constitutional change was going to be not the Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, not the Tamil Diaspora, or not even India or the West (or what is left of it after Donald Trump) – but the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan south. While a whole lot of energy and resources were spent on consulting with the converted and developing constitutional details, proportionately insufficient effort was made in the south to maintain the momentum that was created in January 2015. When it comes to securing public acceptance of constitutional change or reform, the devil is not so much in the details as it is in the broad outline of change that resonates with the public mood.

There have been reports that the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, was going to seek the audience of the Mahanayakas to make his plea for constitutional change. It is unfortunate that such efforts were not made earlier. NPC Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran in a recent press interview has blamed the TNA leadership and Parliamentarians for their inability to get across their message to the Sinhalese people. In the same interview, Mr. Wigneswaran has rejected the idea of a separate state. Perhaps, the TNA leadership could involve the Chief Minister to be their interlocutor in the south. Such a move would also positively isolate the Chief Minister from mischief makers in the north.

It is also inexplicable, or perhaps not, that the President and Prime Minister were not focused on keeping the Mahanayakas and the Sangha informed of the need for and the government’s plans to, reform the constitution. This failure is attributable, on the one hand, to the general inability of this government to target and address risks and problem areas promptly and consistently without letting them morph and magnify into unmanageable challenges. On the other hand, and more importantly, the government’s ethical flaws and lapses have hugely eroded the credibility that the people invested in it in January and August 2015. Unless these flaws are addressed and lapses reversed, the government cannot make a moral claim for implementing constitutional reform.

On the more practical side, the President and the Prime Minister are increasingly drifting apart on critical issues. And nothing is more critical than the constitution and corruption investigations. The President and the Prime Minister are giving marching orders to their respective parties to prepare not only for the overdue local government elections and upcoming provincial elections, but also for the next presidential and parliamentary elections. It is disappointing, if not betraying, that the President and the Prime Minister are not thinking about honouring the promises they made to the people in 2015, but are planning to win elections that are not due till 2019 and 2020. They were not elected in 2015 to prepare for the next election but to fulfill the mandate they were given before the next election. As things stand, they have little to show on the two critical files.

In December 2015, following Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Lecture in which he outlined the constitutional changes that the government was planning, I speculated in my Sunday column that time will tell whether the Prime Minister’s 2015 lecture will become a historical companion to JR Jayewardene’s 1966 lecture to the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s 1969 talk before the Socialist Study Circle at the CISIR auditorium. I wrote with much optimism, but developments since that time have done much to wash away that optimism. I can only hope that I was right then and I am wrong now. Time will tell.

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