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Susil in Politics: Some inside stories

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Susil in his office at the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation in 1970 when he was Chairman and Director General

Remarkable astrological predictions

by Sumi Moonesinghe narrated to Savithri Rodrigo

Having built up one of the biggest businesses in the country from scratch with the help of Maha and Killi (Maharaja), and of course Susil, and then selling it for a substantial price sealed the end of a very eventful chapter for me. Susil was my rock, always there to guide and advise me and to comfort me when things went wrong. But his strong political ambitions were not far from the surface and it was just a matter of time before we all became enmeshed in politics.

I was introduced to politics by Susil, whose wide network of political friends and alliances also meant that we were always engaged in long political discussions. He was a great guru and I a good student. Susil absorbed politics into his very being. From our early days in Singapore, I would listen, discuss and debate politics with him. I remember how he studied the successful transformation of Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew incessantly, while we were in that country and even after, very enamoured with Lee’s brand of politics.

Lee was Prime Minister of Singapore for 31 years and his political pragmatism was hailed globally. He was credited with transforming Singapore from a third world to a first world country but was an outspoken critic of the western ideal of democracy. Susil’s leftist ideas resonated well with Lee’s ideology but I have always been a great believer that a good left and right balance is the key to good governance. Eventually, Susil began thinking on these lines and I like to think it was I who converted him!

As the 1977 elections drew near, Susil, who had worked hard for the SLFP government in earlier years, was fully involved with the opposition UNP. Having seen Mrs. Bandaranaike’s socialist policies reduce the country to depths unimaginable, there was renewed vigour to work towards electing a more pragmatic, open economy-oriented UNP government. Prior to the elections therefore, our home became ‘election central’. Susil was working closely with the UNP top guns J R Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, who all became close friends and would end up at our home, discussing issues and strategies well into the night.

Often there were times when J R would invite us for coffee to his home at Ward Place for some nocturnal discussions. He was 70 years old and had amassed a wealth of political experience and knowledge. Wickrama Weerasooria, who would eventually become Anarkali’s father-in-law, and Gamini Dissanayake would most often be at these little informal chats, and quite a young Ranil Wickremesinghe too.

It was at our home over dinner one day that I remember J R casually mentioning he would be removing Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights. We were utterly and truly shocked. This was unheard of and could be construed as vengeful and manipulative. This would also mean Mrs. Bandaranaike, who would be the Leader of the Opposition if J R won, would be expelled from parliament. This wouldn’t augur well for Sri Lanka’s democracy and I remember each of us at the table, Gamini, Susil and I, vociferously voicing our opposition to the removal of her civic rights. Elina, J R’s wife who was also at the dinner, looked at J R very sternly and said, “Dicky, don’t ever do that!”

But J R wouldn’t listen and went ahead. It was not just Mrs. Bandaranaike who lost her civic rights. He extended that diktat to two of her most powerful acolytes as well –former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice Nihal Jayawickrama and former Cabinet Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike who were both eminent lawyers. J R impounded their passports and appointed a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged abuse and/or misuse of power by the Bandaranaike Government.

The proceedings and findings seemed one-sided and almost vindictive, and with the imposition of civic disabilities, Sirimavo, Nihal and Felix were prohibited from seeking election to parliament, holding any public office or engaging in any political work including making political speeches. They were thus banned from politics for a total of seven years. This was so wrong and went against the fundamental principles of democracy. It is the voters who decide on their elected officials, and permanent secretaries like Nihal, carry out orders given by the elected minister.

It was in 1974, a few years prior to the 1977 elections that I met Gamini Dissanayake, while Mrs. Bandaranaike was yet in power and the country was going through some upheavals. Susil and I had friends in both major political parties – there was Sivali Ratwatte and Upali Wijewardene who strongly supported Mrs. B (as she was called), and J R, Gamini, Lalith and Premadasa who were movers and shakers in the UNP.

Mrs. B had already extended her term by two years and was becoming quite dictatorial. Mrs. B’s son Anura was also among our circle of friends, but he remained non-partisan, although J R was constantly enticing Anura to cross over to the UNP. During the Kalawewa by-election in 1974, J R and Premadasa wanted Anura to get into Parliament. Multiple meetings were held at our home and J R assured Anura that the UNP would not put forward a candidate if Anura contested.

However, the procedure wasn’t that simple. First, the SLFP, which was Anura’s mother’s party, had to nominate Anura as their candidate. Given the relationship, we figured this would be merely procedure; after all, Anura was of Bandaranaike lineage and the Prime Minister’s son. When the SLFP nomination committee sat to make a decision, we assembled at Anuruddha Ratwatte’s home near the Army Headquarters waiting for the results from the nomination board.

But, to our complete surprise, the nomination committee selected an unknown entity to represent the SLFP at the by-elections. The Committee comprised S W R D Bandaranaike’s stalwarts. It was clear that Mrs. B had made it known to them that Anura may become J R’s pawn if he won the election. Anura was inconsolable when he heard the news, quite unable to comprehend being let down by his own mother so publicly.

No sooner had the news been communicated, Sivali’s wife Cuckoo promptly took Anura and his sister Chandrika’s horoscopes and went to visit Mr. Arulpragasam, the astrologer who lived at Station Road, Nugegoda. Having studied the horoscopes for a few minutes, Mr. Arulpragasam looked at Anura’s horoscope and said, “This one will never become anything more than a minister,” but pointed to Chandrika’s and said, “Now, this one will go right to the top!” His words were prophetic. While Anura did eventually get into Parliament but only as Speaker of the House, twenty years after the prediction in 1994, Chandrika was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s fifth President.

Susil was a pragmatist and being a voracious reader, a fount of information and knowledge. This helped him immensely in carving out a successful political career which was well matched with his language capabilities and I should say, handsome looks too. He was elected Chief Minister of the Western Province in 1988, a post he held until 1993. He was Leader of the Opposition of the Provincial Council in 1994, and then went on to become a Member of Parliament for the Colombo District from 2000 to 2002.

Sri Lanka was continuing to grapple with the murderous deeds of the LTTE. Realizing the futility of reasoning with a terrorist organisation, J R decided to enlist the help of the Indian government to quell the LTTE. It was widely believed that Tamil Nadu was quite a hotbed for LTTE supporters and J R needed to get the support of the Indian government to help regain peace in the country. Thus began the discussions for the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which was signed on July 29. 1987, between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and J R, enabling the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

The Amendment included the devolution of power to the provinces, a withdrawal of troops and the LTTE to surrender arms. India sent in a Peace Keeping Force to help literally, with keeping the peace. However, the LTTE had not been involved in the talks and before long, the uneasy truce flared into active confrontation. In retaliation, Rajiv Gandhi would eventually be assassinated by a female LTTE suicide bomber, four years after the signing of that accord.

In fact, J R handed me the 13,h Amendment and asked me to read it prior to it being passed. This Amendment was a result of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord which was brokered by Rajiv Gandhi, with the diktat for full devolution of power to north and east. J R decided to expand the devolution of power to all nine provinces, creating the provincial councils in Sri Lanka. As a result, parliamentarians’ work was reduced drastically, which meant that the number of MPs could easily be reduced to no more than 100.

When I pointed out this fact to him, he replied, “I agree, but I have to keep everybody happy.” Also the provincial council structure introduced a whole new type of politician and with each successive government, “keeping everyone happy,” became the norm. The trend of large cabinets of useless people crept in. We now have a 225-member Parliament.

Gamini, who played a pivotal role in the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord had become very powerful, with the Indians holding him in high esteem due to the role he played. One of the perks of this recognition was being given the full ‘red carpet’ treatment to see Indian guru Satya Sai Baba, who had built up an impressive following of millions around the world. These followers would throng his residence in Puttaparthi in Andra Pradesh in the hope of getting an audience with the great teacher. So when Gamini was invited to see Baba, we joined him on that trip and when we sat in the same room as Baba, it was quite otherworldly.

Baba’s ‘acts of divinity’ are argued by some to be a sleight of hand, but nevertheless they were impressive. He would magically bring out gifts, presenting various items to those he deemed special. Susil was summoned as well and given a photograph. Tiny, Wickrama’s son was asked to join Baba in another room and came out a few minutes later, smiling. But he refused to tell us anything at the time. Many years later, Tiny divulged that Baba said, “Your future wife is in this room with you!” Now I’m not sure if Tiny concocted that story —that’s what he says Baba told him. Nevertheless as a result of this trip, Gamini’s family and ours are intertwined for life. Rohini, who is Gamini’s eldest sister is Tiny’s mother.

During this period, Susil was Chief Minister of the Western Province and Sri Lanka was battling a war on two fronts —the LTTE and the JVP — Tamil Tiger rebels in the north and the Marxist student rebels in the south. At the height of the JVP insurrection in 1988, parliamentary elections were announced and Susil began campaigning from the Colombo District for the Avissawella seat. Our home was filled with party supporters and security detail because the violence in the country was unrelenting. Not a day went by without an innocent person being senselessly and viciously killed by the JVP, or a bomb or assassination by the LTTE. The JVP’s quest was to kill Government officials or those who were supportive of the Government in order to bring the Government to its knees. But none deserved to die. These were all people who were simply doing their job.

As a result, Susil’s life was also under threat which meant we had security details — men walking around with guns — in our house 24×7. I hated it. This exacerbated the fact that we were living in fear and that is when we decided to move the girls to Singapore as they were missing out on school as well. Schools in Colombo had been shut down due to the continuing violence.

With Susil campaigning with gusto, our house once again turned into Grand Central Station, with endless cups of tea, lunches and dinners being served to hundreds of supporters and party activists. I was juggling multiple roles as my business too was at its peak; thank goodness for my domestic staff who kept the wheels turning in my home very efficiently.

Just as Susil had given me unstinted support in building up my business, I reciprocated when it came to his political work. I dived straight into his campaign, accompanying him to his rallies, helping with his speeches and giving him as much support as I could. I walked around the villages he went to, chatting with the people, finding out about their lives and families.

On one occasion, I struck up a conversation with a rubber tapper, a woman whose work day began at dawn. This meant her daughter had to wait at home for her return later in the day for a meal. “How can your daughter stay hungry until you get back home?” I asked. Having no inkling of who I was, she said, “I buy Anchor milk. When I give her that, the child is not hungry and doesn’t cry until I return. I have tried other types of milk powder but they don’t work the same way.”

On hearing this, when I got back to office I telephoned NZDB and shared the information I heard from the rubber tapper. “How can Anchor milk keep her daughter from hunger, when other milks don’t?” Their reply was, “Most milk powder in your market has 26% fat. But Anchor has 28.5% fat. So when the fat content is higher, it is richer and more filling.” Realising the power of our differentiation, I called my Anchor A team and gave them this titbit of information. The result was this slogan: “All we do is remove the water. All you do is add the water.”

Of all Sri Lanka’s leaders I’ve engaged with, it was President Ranasinghe Premadasa who was my hero. He never forgot what it was like to be poor and would always judge a person on the depth of that knowledge. If any consultant came to him with a theory, the first questions he would ask were, “Have you walked barefoot? Have you ever slept on the ground? Have you ever gone without a meal? If you haven’t done any of those things, you can’t work for me.” His method of management was to let the bureaucracy run the country while he envisioned the future. “Ministers should not be involved in day-to-day operations,” was his wise counsel. He was a man of action and a son of the soil.

One of the projects on which I worked closely with him was his Gam Udawa (village reawakening) housing development project, which he launched in 1983 when the United Nations declared 1987 as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. He gave himself four years – from 1983 to 1987 –to meet his target of constructing 100,000 houses for the poor. This was an ambitious undertaking but Premadasa was never deterred by the expanse of his vision.

This vision for giving shelter to the poor went beyond simply giving houses. He added a participatory approach, increasing dynamism and vigour to village development with the people deciding on the size and shape of their abodes and contributing material and labour when feasible, with the government providing land and financial assistance. He believed strongly in the Maslow theory of the hierarchy of needs, and felt that fundamental needs had to be met for human beings to get to the next rung. His switched to a state-aided housing development philosophy – ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’ – which was an instant success.

His beginnings were in poverty and he understood the poor man and the way their minds worked. And he was a problem solver. When he first made his declaration of constructing the 100,000 houses, his fellow ministers scoffed at the idea and were reluctant to give him support. In fact, Ronnie de Mel, who was Finance Minister at the time, didn’t allocate money from the budget for the housing programme. Undeterred, Premadasa launched the Sevana Lottery – his solution to giving poor people a roof over their heads. The income from the lottery would fund his project.

Susil and I were very supportive of President Premadasa’s projects because these appealed to our ‘giving’ conscience, strengthening the belief that the giving had to be sustainable and have the buy-in of the recipient. We worked very closely with him, never missing his Gam Udawa launches and even taking J R with us in some instances.

On April 30, 1993 having attended a meeting, Susil and President Premadasa were driving back in the same car. Premadasa turned to Susil and asked, “Susil, are you afraid to die right now?” Susil said, “No,” although he thought it was a rather strange question. It almost seemed as if the President had a premonition of what was to come. That was the last conversation Susil had with him.

The next morning – May Day 1993 – my astrologer, who was in Melbourne, made a desperate telephone call to me asking me to not allow Susil to leave the house. I knew Susil was joining President Premadasa at the May Day Rally and while not telling him about what the astrologer said, I tried my best to make excuses and finally pleaded with him not to leave home.

I kept delaying his departure but he wasn’t listening to my pleas. To placate me he said, “I’ll go to the meeting and be back soon.” He left the house around 12.45 pm and was near the Eye Hospital in Borella when he was informed about the blast which killed President Premadasa. A suicide bomber, who was later identified as an LTTE suicide cadre named Babu had detonated the bomb, killing the President, 17 others and himself. It was that call from my astrologer that saved Susil’s life that day.

Sometime earlier, Premadasa had made D B Wijetunge his Prime Minister. This was quite shocking as it was very apparent that he was side-lining the party strongmen Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Hence, when Premadasa was killed, it was D B Wijetunge who was sworn in as President. Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister.

The wheels of politics continued to turn in this country despite bombs and assassinations. When Gamini became the presidential candidate for the UNP in the 1994 election, I predicted he wouldn’t win. The country had gone through 17 years of UNP rule and was ripe for change. Nevertheless, both Susil and I put our heart and soul into Gamini’s campaign. Susil was at every single one of Gamini’s campaign rallies.

One day, I wanted Susil to return early from one of those rallies as I had a function to attend. He acquiesced, went to the meeting, delivered his speech and returned home, a little before Gamini arrived at the meeting. Normally, Susil would greet Gamini and stay on with him until Gamini left the meeting.

Just as Gamini got to the rally at Thotalanga, he telephoned our home and asked me where Susil was. I explained that Susil had delivered his speech and since I had to go out, he was on his way home.

A short while later, the phone rang again. I don’t remember who was on the other end but I remember going limp. “A bomb has gone off and Gamini is in hospital.” A suicide bomber had detonated herself at the meeting in retaliation for Gamini’s involvement in the bombing of the Jaffna Library. Susil had just returned and we rushed to the hospital. Not long after, Gamini was pronounced dead.

Meanwhile, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had ousted the UNP in the Provincial Council Elections and become Chief Minister of the Western Province. From then on, her stars were lined up and she became unstoppable. She would eventually become Prime Minister and then the first female President of Sri Lanka, just as Mr. Arulpragasam had predicted two decades ago.

Our dear friends – Lalith Athulathmudali in April 1993, Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993 and Gamini Dissanayake in October 1994 – were all dead, just one-and-a-half years of each other. We had by now lost all those leaders who were capable of taking the country forward – either the JVP or the LTTE had killed them. When Gamini died, I felt like life couldn’t get any worse. But then, I told myself that the cycle of life must go on. We who survive do so for some purpose.



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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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Marked stress on Asia in US foreign policy

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US President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One as he arrives at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea May 20, 2022

US President Joe Biden’s recent tour of some Asian powers is indicative of a renewed and enhanced interest the US is beginning to take in the Indo-Pacific region. In this his first Asian tour the President chose to visit Japan and South Korea besides helming a Quad meeting in Tokyo and there is good reason for the choice of these venues and engagements.

The first phase of these bridge-strengthening efforts by the US began in late August last year when US Vice President Kamala Harris visited South-east Asia in the wake of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Besides being driven by strong economic compulsions, the US intention was also to ensure that too much of a power vacuum did not open up in the region, following its pull-out from Afghanistan, since China’s perceived expansionist designs are a prime foreign policy concern of the US.

However, the US President’s recent wide-ranging tour of East Asia seems to have been also prompted by some currently intensifying trends and tensions in the wider stage of international politics though the seeming power vacuum just referred to has a significant bearing on it. The immediate purpose of the US President’s tour seems to have been to bolster his country’s backing for Japan and South Korea, two of the US’ closest allies in East Asia. This is necessitated by the ‘China threat’, which, if neglected, could render the US allies vulnerable to China’s military attacks on the one hand and blunt US power and influence in the region on the other.

While Taiwan’s airspace has reportedly been frequently violated by China, sections in Japan have reasons to be wary of perceived Chinese expansionist moves in Japan’s adjacent seas. Moreover, many of China’s neighbours have been having territorial disputes with China, which have tended to intensify the perception over the decades that in the Asian theatre in particular China is a number one ‘bogey’. For historical reasons, South Korea too has been finding the increasing rise of China as a major world power considerably discomforting.

Accordingly, the US considers it opportune to reassure South-east Asia in general and its allies in the region in particular of its continuous military, economic and political support. Though these are among the more immediate reasons for Biden’s tour of the region, there are also the convulsions triggered in international politics by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to consider.

Whereas sections of international opinion have been complacent in the belief that military invasions of one country by another are things of the distant past, the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year proved them shockingly wrong. We have the proof here that not all authoritarian rulers are prepared to adhere to the international rule book and for some of China’s neighbours the possibility is great of their being attacked or invaded by China over the numerous rankling problems that have separated them from their economic super power neighbour over the decades. After all, China is yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is increasingly proving an ‘all weather friend’ of Russia. Right now, they are the strongest of allies.

The ‘China threat’ then is prime among the reasons for the US President’s visit to East Asia, though economic considerations play a substantive role in these fence-strengthening initiatives as well. While South-east Asia is the ‘economic power house’ of the world, and the US would need to be doubly mindful of this fact, it would need to reassure its allies in the region of its military and defense assistance at a time of need. This too is of paramount importance.

President Biden did just that while in Tokyo a couple of days back. For instance, he said that the US is ‘fully committed to Japan’s defense’. Biden went on to say that the ‘US is willing to use force to defend Taiwan.’ The latter comment was prompted by the perceived increasing Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air space. After all, considering that Russia has invaded Ukraine with impunity, there is apparently nothing that could prevent China from invading Taiwan and annexing it. Such are the possible repercussions of the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly carrying on with its development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. On this issue too, South Korea would need to have US assurances that the latter would come to its defense in case of a North Korean military strike. The US President’s visit to South Korea was aimed at reassuring the latter of the former’s support.

However, as mentioned, economic considerations too figured prominently in the US President’s South-east Asian tour. While being cognizant of the region’s security sensitivities, bolstering economic cooperation with the latter too was a foremost priority for the Biden administration. For example, the US is in the process of formalizing what has come to be referred to as the Indo-Pacific Trade Treaty. The US has reportedly already inducted Japan and South Korea as founding members of the Treaty while, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are mentioned as prospective members to the treaty.

The perceived threat posed to Western interests in South-east Asia by China needs to be factored in while trying to unravel the reasons for this region-wide endeavour in economic cooperation. It needs to be considered a Western response to China’s Belt and Road initiative which is seen as having a wide appeal for the global South in particular.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having a divisive political and economic impact on the world, international politics will increasingly revolve around the US-China stand-off on a multiplicity of fronts in time to come. Both sides are likely to try out both soft and hard power to an exceptional degree to exercise foremost influence and power in the world. As is already happening, this would trigger increasing international tensions.

There was a distinct and sharp note of firmness in the voice of the US President when he pledged defense and military support for his allies in Asia this week. Considering the very high stakes for the US in a prospering South-east Asia, the US’ competitors would be naive to dismiss his pronouncements as placatory rhetoric meant for believing allies.

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A Majoritarian Constitution

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1972 Constitution in Retrospect – II

By (Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

In this the second part of a three-part article on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a republic, the writer submits that the 1972 Constitution paved the way for constitutionalising majoritarianism in multi-cultural Sri Lanka.

The unitary state

Although Tamil parties expressed their support for the Constituent Assembly process, they were to be disappointed by the substance of the new constitution.

Basic Resolution No. 2 proposed by the Government called for Sri Lanka to be a unitary state. The Federal Party (FP) proposed an amendment that ‘unitary’ be replaced by ‘federal’.

In a memorandum and the model constitution that it submitted to the Steering Committee of the Assembly, the FP proposed that the country be a federal republic consisting of five states made up as follows: (i) Southern and Western provinces, (ii) North Central and North Western provinces (iii) Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces (iv) Northern Province and the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa and (v) Ampara district. The city of Colombo and its suburbs were to be administered by the centre. A list of subjects and functions reserved for the centre, with all others going to the states, was included. Interestingly, law and order and Police were to be reserved subjects.

However, Assembly proceedings show that the Tamils were clearly for a compromise. Dharmalingam, who was a main speaker of the FP under Basic Resolution No. 2, stated that the existing constitution had failed as it was not designed for a multi-ethnic country. He pointed out that in ethnically heterogeneous countries where unitary constitutions had been in operation, concessions to the federal principle have been made to meet the demands and aspirations of the minorities. Where there has been a refusal to concede the federal principle, there have been movements for separation. The FP distanced itself from secessionists such as C. Sunderalingam and V. Navaratnam, referring to them by name, and stated that it was not asking for a division of the country but for a division of power.

Dharmalingam made it clear that the FP’s draft was only a basis for discussion. Stating that the party was only asking that the federal principle be accepted, he suggested that as an interim measure, the SLFP, LSSP and CP should implement what they had promised in the election manifesto, namely that they would abolish Kachcheris and replace them with elected bodies. He stated: “If this Government thinks that it does not have a mandate to establish a federal Constitution, it can at least implement the policies of its leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, by decentralising the administration, not in the manner it is being done now, but genuine decentralisation, by removing the Kachcheris and in their place establishing elected bodies to administer those regions.”

Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party, the first political party in the country to propose federalism, in 1944, followed Dharmalingam and stated that ‘federal’ had become a dirty word not because of the federal system of government but because of what the FP had advocated. He was clearly referring to the FP’s association with the UNP and the conservative policies it had followed, such as voting against nationalisations, the takeover of private schools and the Paddy Lands Bill. Seemingly oblivious to the offer that Dharmalingam had made, he asked why the FP had not used the phrase ‘regional autonomy.’ Speakers from the UF who followed Muttetuwegama made it clear that the UF was in no mood to consider the FP’s offer to settle for much less.

Consequently, Basic Resolution No.2 was passed, and the FP’s amendment was defeated in the Steering and Subjects Committee on 27 March 1971.

Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, under the UF Government, and played an important role in the constitutional reform process, has said that the first draft prepared under the direction of the Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not contain any reference to a ‘unitary state’. However, Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike proposed in the Ministerial Sub-Committee that the country be declared a ‘unitary state’. The Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not consider this to be necessary and argued that while the proposed constitution would have a unitary structure, unitary constitutions could vary a great deal in form. Nevertheless, the proposed phrase found its way to the final draft. ‘In course of time, this impetuous, ill-considered, wholly unnecessary embellishment has reached the proportions of a battle cry of individuals and groups who seek to achieve a homogenous Sinhalese state on this island’ Dr Jayawickrama observed. ‘Reflections on the Making and Content of the 1972 Constitution: An Insider’s Perspective’ in Asanga Welikala (ed), The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice vol 1 (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2012) 43.

It is significant that the FP continued to participate in the Constituent Assembly even after its amendment was rejected. Records show that its leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, regularly attended the meetings of the Steering and Subjects Committee.

With the advantage of hindsight, it could be said that acceptance of the FP’s proposed compromise for a division of power would have proved to be a far-reaching confidence-building measure on which more could perhaps have been built later. Moreover, such an acceptance would have ensured the continued participation of the FP in the Constituent Assembly. Even had the FP, as the UNP eventually did, voted against the adoption of the new constitution, their participation in the entire constitution-making process would have resulted in greater acceptance of the 1972 Constitution by the Tamil people.

Although they discontinued participation at a later stage, Federal Party MPs nevertheless took oaths under the new Constitution. Tamil parties soon united under the banner of the Tamil United Front (TUF), which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At the famous Vaddukoddai conference of 1976, the TULF embraced separatism and adopted a resolution calling for a separate state called ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces. At the 1977 elections, the TULF contested on a separatist platform and swept the Tamil areas.

The place of Buddhism

According to Dr Jayawickrama, Dr. de Silva’s original proposal called for the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen. However, the Prime Minister requested that this proposal be added with a provision for the protection of institutions and traditional places of worship of Buddhists.

Basic Resolution No. 3 approved by the Constituent Assembly was for Buddhism to be given its ‘rightful place’: ‘In the Republic of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution 5 (iv).’

Basic Resolution 5 (iv) referred to read: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have and adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

But by the time the final draft was approved, the proposal had undergone a further change. Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution is as follows: ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18 (1) (d).’ Section 18 (1) (d), in the chapter on fundamental rights, assures to all citizens the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

To the question of whether constitutionally guaranteeing special status to Buddhism not available to other religions of the land might adversely affect the non-Buddhists, Dr de Silva retrospectively responded in the following manner: “The section in respect of Buddhism is subject to section 18 (1) (d) and I wish to say, I believe in a secular state. But you know when Constitutions are made by Constituent Assemblies they are not made by the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. I myself would have preferred (section 18(1) (d)). But there is nothing…And I repeat, NOTHING, in section 6 which in any manner infringes upon the rights of any religion in this country. (Safeguards for the Minorities in the 1972 Constitution (Young Socialist 1987) 10.)

Dr Jayawickrama has been more critical. ‘If Buddhism had survived in the hearts and minds of the people through nearly five centuries of foreign occupation, a constitutional edict was hardly necessary to protect it now’, he opined. (‘Colvin and Constitution-Making – A Postscript’ Sunday Island, 15 July 2007).

Language provisions

Basic Resolution No.11 stated that all laws shall be enacted in Sinhala and that there shall be a Tamil translation of every law so enacted.

Basic Resolution No.12 read as follows: “(1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official Language Act No. 32 of 1956. (2) The use of the Tamil Language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958.”

Efforts by the FP to get the Government to improve upon Basic Resolutions Nos. 11 and 12 failed. On 28 June 1971, both resolutions were passed, amendments proposed by the FP having been defeated. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam informed the Constituent Assembly that they had met with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and while the meetings had been cordial, the Government had refused to make any alteration to the Basic Resolutions. He stated that the FP would therefore not attend future meetings. “We have come to the painful conclusion that as our language rights are not satisfactorily provided in the proposed Constitution, no useful purpose will be served in our continuing in the deliberations of this Assembly. By taking this step, we mean no offence to anybody. We only want to safeguard the dignity of our people.” There was not even a dramatic walk out. ‘We do not wish to stage a demonstration by walking out’, he added.

That Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who prophetically stated in 1955, ‘one language, two countries; two languages, one country’, should go so far as to upgrade the then-existing language provisions to constitutional status has baffled many political observers. In fact, according to Dr Jayawickrama, the Prime Minister had stated that it would be unwise to re-open the language debate and that the better course would be to let the ordinary laws on the subject operate in the form in which they were. By this time, the Privy Council had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court in A.G. v Kodeswaranthat a public servant could not sue the Crown for breach of contract of employment and sent the case back for a determination on other issues, including the main issue as to whether the Official Language Act violated section 29 (2), as the District Court had held. Dr. de Silva did not wish the Supreme Court to re-visit the issue. ‘If the courts do declare this law invalid and unconstitutional, heavens alive, the chief work done from 1956 onwards will be undone. You will have to restore the egg from the omelette into which it was beaten and cooked.’ He had, however, resisted a proposal made by Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike that Sinhala be declared the ‘one’ official language of Sri Lanka.

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