Daily Mirror - June 14th, 2003


A road map to peace in Sri Lanka? By Oliver Standing

"Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis: Towards a Resolution," By RB Herath, Trafford Publications. I recently spoke to author RB Herath about his most recent book 'Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis: Towards a Resolution'. 'This book shows a path to a peaceful and democratic solution to the bloody ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka', Herath claims. I asked him a few questions, and allowed him to draw out what he saw as the major points of the text.


1) What is your solution to the ongoing ethnic problem of this country?

The solution to the conflict is a peaceful, political solution. It is a new governing model for Sri Lanka that should have been put in place at the time of independence in 1948.

The model I am proposing has some unique features that have never been discussed at constitutional forums in this country. Firstly, it is a presidential, federal, republican model. It includes a presidential council, consisting of four persons from four different Districts in the country. At a presidential election each party and independent group would put forward four names and fight the election on a common platform. The four would take turns as President and all the four would constitute the Head of the State. Then, the legislature would be bicameral, with two elected bodies, one on the basis of population distribution and the other on the regional basis. For any piece of legislation to become law, a legislative Act would have to be passed by both bodies with identical wording. The model also proposes a unified election strategy that holds the government responsible for its programme of action not only at the times of elections but also during its term of office.

Further, I advocate that the government should be secular, and that it should not mix up power and politics with religion. People should have freedom to practice any religion. As far as language goes, the model recognizes the need to treat all the three main languages in the country, Sinhalese, Tamil and English, with equal status. My model does not recognize homelands for different ethnic groups in different parts of the country. Instead, it suggests that the entire Sri Lanka should be treated as the homeland of every Sri Lankan citizen, irrespective of race, language or religion. It gives a special recognition for the interests and rights of the aboriginals of this country, the Veddhas. As far as the stateless Indian Tamils go, I propose that they all should be accepted as Sri Lankan citizens.

The people can call for a referendum on any bill passed, with only 1% of the registered voters signing a petition asking for it. If 2% of the voters sign a petition, the government would be required to discuss any new issue in the legislature.

On the whole, it is a new governing model that would put a permanent end to ethnic conflicts in this country, and make Sri Lanka one of the best democracies in the modern world.


2) Has religion been divisive in this country?

By and large, all the people of this country were Buddhists in the past. But today there are many religions here. According to 1981 census (no complete census since), 69.30% of the total population of the country are Buddhists, 15.48% Hindus, 7.61% Christians, 7.56% Muslims and 0.05% others.

Equality of human beings, irrespective of race, language, religion or any other such distinction, is an integral part of Buddhist philosophy. Therefore, Buddhism has never been divisive in any manner. It is interesting to quote from the reforms and policies of Emperor Ashoka, the greatest ever Buddhist king.

These edicts say, "There should be growth in essentials of all religions…Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought 'Let me glorify my own religion,' only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others." (The Edicts of King Ashoka, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, DharmaNet Edition, 1994).

So, any divisive influence from any source anywhere is "unbuddhist". Despite this situation, the influence of some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka on its ethnic conflict has been negative. It's a well-known fact that the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, the 1965 Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayagam Pact, and the 2000 Indian modeled federal package proposed by President Kumaratunge had all failed primarily because of strong protests by some influential Buddhist monks. I look at this as an "unbuddhist" influence of some monks. But Buddhism as a religion has never been and would never be divisive. My understanding is that all the other religions too are not divisive. It is a collective responsibility and duty of all religious leaders to build mutual understanding and respect among all religious groups living in this country.


3) For a democratic change to occur a political party must offer the people what they want and need. Is this ever likely to happen, do you have any hopes about certain politicians?

Democracy means the rule of the people by the people for the people. Therefore, in a true democracy the will of the people must prevail. As a result, political parties and leaders generally try to gauge the needs and aspirations of the people and offer changes accordingly. There are four basic pre-requisites for meaningful realization of democratic goals: 1. Political freedom (including free thought, speech, and media) 2. Political equality 3. Political education and maturity 4. Respect for human life.

Democracy will not succeed in any country if any one of these pre-requisites is not present. In my view Sri Lanka needs to improve a lot. Today, both the government and the LTTE are looking for a federal model of governance as a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. In the past both the major political parties and their leaders had created a wrong opinion about federalism in the minds of the ordinary people of this country. These parties and leaders did this for their short-term political gains. It is essential that the people of this country are first given an opportunity to understand what federalism means, and what other political options are available. I have no hesitation in my mind that the people of this country will stand for federalism once they come to know what it really means. Then it would be the people's need to establish a federal system in this country. Thus, having the pre-requisites of democracy and having the politicians and political parties offering what the people need and want must go hand in hand.

It is unfortunate to see political parties and leaders divided on ethnic lines. I haven't seen any political party genuinely representing the interests of all the ethnic groups in this country at all levels. What you hear most is criticism of political opponents and electioneering strategies to win the next general election. At this stage, the country needs some statesmen who can stand above party politics and rally round all the ethnic groups in this country as one family.


4) What are the first steps the present government should take?

Firstly, the government must create a more meaningful participatory democratic environment in the country by adequately meeting the democratic pre-requisites. The people of the country should be made aware of pros and cons of federal and other governing systems, and failures and successes in handling ethnic conflicts both at home and abroad.

Secondly, the government should further democratize the ongoing peace talks and do whatever it takes to engage all the ethnic groups in a nationwide dialogue about the future of the country. The focus of should be on the following:

1. What kind of country do they think they now have in terms of its geography, demographic formation, constitution, system of governance, and the like?
2. What kind of country do they think they should have?
3. What kind of constitutional changes do they think should happen to build the kind of country they think they should have?


5) What must people do?

People must realize that the country belongs to them, and not to politicians. People should not permanently tie themselves to any particular political party. When an election comes, people should exercise their free will and secretly vote for the party that suits them best.

At the same time, people must voluntarily engage in discussions among themselves about the future of their country, and take an effort to understand and appreciate all the diverse views in the country. In the process people should be able to gauge the pros and cons of the different options available, and look for a common ground.

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