India’s traditional stance on the national question took a different turn if one was to go by statements made by the Foreign Secretary of India during his recent tour to Sri Lanka. How are local politicians representing the interests of Tamils to interpret the rather contentious comments made and what positions should they take in this regard?
Elsewhere, the Local Government election is akin to Waiting for Godot. Regardless of questions pertaining to the lack of political will on the part of the Government to hold the election, the matter has become further complicated following opposition to the new electoral system from minor political parties with scattered vote bases and those representing ethnic or religious minorities.
Meanwhile, the constitutional reforms process is engulfed in chaos owing to Government constituents being split on the question of a referendum. Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, Mano Ganesan spoke to the Nation in an attempt to shed light on these matters including also on a project near and dear to his heart, making the learning of Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all MPs.
Below are a few excerpts from the discussion-cum interview:
Q: Indian Foreign Secretary J. Jaishankar had urged the TNA to move away from the North and East merger and go easy on its demands. What do you make of India’s departure of sorts from its traditional stance with regard to the national question?
I don’t think it’s reasonable to corner India. Jaishankar did not bring such a proposal straight from his own Delhi cupboard or cabinet. I trust Delhi has studied the local conditions. Tell me, is it only Indian departure from any position?
North-East merger and considering merged northeast as the unit for devolution is one position. And considering district as the unit for devolution is another position. The middle-path position between the two opposing positions is the province. Some time before, parties and organizations in the south were not willing to go beyond “district”. So are the TNA and company on the “merger”.
Such are not departures but “grown-ups”.
Q: You have proposed to make it mandatory for MPs to learn Sinhala and Tamil. Why and how do you seek to bring this change about?
No. Not mandatory. It is too early to be mandatory. It will need serious legal provisions. Sinhala and Tamil are official languages and English is our link language in the current constitution.
Before advising the citizens, let the lawmakers learn the official language other than his or her mother tongue and be an example to the nation. If I can speak, write, read all three languages, why can’t my colleagues? I don’t believe in pushing the language down somebody’s throat. Unless and until you have a motivation you can’t learn a language. Sri Lankan citizens, generally do not have the right motivation to learn each other’s language of Sri Lanka but have the motivation to learn Korean, Chinese, French, German, Hindi. I did not list English here, because, it is no more an alien language. English today is our own language as per the constitution. Therefore, I wish citizens shall first learn English with their respective mother tongue but the lawmakers shall learn, at least to speak all three languages.
That doesn’t mean that I am not encouraging citizens to learn both the official languages, Sinhala and Tamil. I am for a trilingual Sri Lanka. But here I am talking on the priorities.
The members of Parliament and Provincial Councils even local government members can go out into the country and their respective electorates to explain their respective policies, if any, discuss, maintain personal dialogues, listen and understand the citizens. To make law you need to know the minds of the people. Besides, you can increase your vote bank. These are the motivations to the prospective and current elected members to learn the languages. End of the day legislators are accused of bringing divisions, hatred into the community. But when you learn languages of the others, the chances for hatred are less and end of the day you start understanding and loving the other. Nobody told me this. This is my own experience. This is how I as a Tamil Sri Lankan and love my Sinhala and Muslim brethren.
When you speak to somebody in his or her mother tongue, you are reaching their hearts and minds. Mahinda Rajapaksa pronounced certain words in Tamil when he went to Tamil areas. He was ridiculed by the then Opposition. Some said he was using teleprompter and earphones. But I respected him for his efforts to reach out to the Tamils. He failed to reach the Tamil minds for different reasons but his efforts were admirable.
I am now reaching the Sinhala minds without any tele-prompters. When I am addressing Sinhala audiences directly or through the media, lately I have noted lots of smiling faces and plenty of enthusiasm amid the audience to listen me. Many learn Tamil and Muslim anxieties through me in their own language. Some enjoy my Sinhala pronunciations. They have been fed by the Sinhala only politicians on the Tamil issues. Now it’s from me directly. And I am also taking the Sinhala mind to the Tamil speaking community too. Am I not the top-most Sri Lankan?
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya readily agreed when I made my proposal at the party leaders meeting to start language classes for MPs. Today educating the second language to adults has seen many new techniques and I propose to use them here. It is to begin Tamil and Sinhala spoken language classes for willing MPs within the parliamentary premises. I saw lots of enthusiasm amid the SG of Parliament and his staff in supporting my proposal at the meeting. I am not surprised since I know that Karu Jayasuriya out of his private funds is already conducting Tamil language classes to the needy in his Gampaha district. Let’s wait and see if all’s well will end well!
Q: Minority parties are opposing the proposed new electoral system and want the election held under the old system. Where do you stand with regard to this? What is the will of the Government? Do you have any criticisms of the gazetted Delimitation Committee report?
The new system is a mixed system with 70 percent FPP direct election from wards and 30 percent proportional representation membership. Generally proportional representation is more favourable to the minor parties.
On the first general note the increase of total membership of the local government bodies have increased heavily from some 6000 to near 11,000. It would be unbearable.
Membership seating arrangements need to be increased and related logistics at local government bodies. The second concern is that though the total membership seems to be increasing, the stakes of the minority parties look hopeless.
Naturally when the total membership goes up, we too need to go up. When the law was passed during the last parliament, minority parties were given an assurance by the then subject minister. There was an assurance that the ratio between FPP and PR will be changed from current 70:30 to 60:40. But alas, now after the Delimitation it has turned into 77:27. The proportional representation component has further gone down to the disadvantage of minor parties.
We of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) of three parties representing the Tamil community outside the Northern and Eastern provinces are together with SLMC, ACMC and EPDP in opposing the proposed system. The TNA too had agreed to our position in principle though the new system does not damage their constituencies very much. The JVP on a clear stand has already rejected the new proposals. It is more than 40 MPs in the parliament. Besides a large number of UNP and SLFP MPs are in agreement with us. Parties outside Parliament, USP and NSSP too have expressed their agreement with our common position.
I have no issue with the members of the Delimitation Committee. They as officers have done their job to the best of their abilities within the mandate given to them. Anyway on a thought, I agree on a point that the members of local bodies like Municipal Councils, Urban councils and Pradeshiya Sabas need to represent identified wards or constituencies. This will make their obligations towards voters very professional. But we have to look at other issues as stated above. We can open dialogue if there is agreement to change the ratio between the FPP and PR to 60:40 from current 77:23.
Conducting elections alone cannot save democracy. It is only a right fair system that can save democracy. I have this message to the local election monitoring organizations which express more concern on conducting elections but fail to address the concerns of the minor parties on the system. It appears that they want elections even under unfair systems but that they function. It looks ugly.
Q: There is confusion with regard to the constitutional reforms process. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party states that there should not be a referendum and that the Executive Presidency should not be abolished in toto. They also shun any changes to sovereignty, the unitary character of the State and territorial integrity. The United National Party is in favour of going for a referendum. The TNA is for Federalism. What exactly is the position of the Government?
We are for the referendum. That is the mandate we received on January 8, 2015. Those who reject the referendum were not part of the team that received the mandate. They were on the other side. Today, they have come in and taken seats. That’s fine and no issue over it. But they can’t change the mandate. That is beyond limits.
Look at the UNHRC sessions, today. We will be given a two-year conditional time period. I already said in my tweet early this week. It is “WAY-FORWARD breaking roadblocks targeting four Goals; 1)#New Constitution 2)#Reparations 3)#Truth-Seeking 4)#Democratisation.” It is going to be a time table. Within which we have to produce a new constitution. That will need a referendum. Besides, why should we do something behind the backs of the people, especially the Sinhala people? Let them study and decide.
National question is the top priority for us, the Tamil, Muslim parties, progressive national parties and the international community. We supported and helped to establish the national government for this noble endeavour. It is not established for the sole purposes of some politicians to get ministerial portfolios and perks. We have seen both major parties playing politics by the national ethnic question since the 1950s. Hence we established the national government today with both UNP and SLFP. It should be understood very firmly by all parties. Those who reject the referendum are undermining the noble motive behind the establishment of national government.
I don’t know if TNA still sticks to Federalism. Unitary and Federalism are terminologies. We had a 30 year old bloody war practically over these terminologies. The world considered us as sick jokers. The terminologies do not matter. Nobody is meddling with the sovereignty. It is a debateless subject. Both TNA and TPA who represent the total Tamil populace in this country are for one single Sri Lanka. So, let us not make issues out of nothing.
SLMC, TPA, ACMC, EPDP who collectively represent 19 MPs in Parliament have jointly submitted proposals to the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. On the Executive Presidency subject, we have proposed for the continuation of the Presidency that is elected directly by the people. The executive powers shall be brought to the minimum where the President elected directly by the people at Presidential elections shall only hold the defence portfolio. It is one of our major proposals amid others. We have taken this position in view of the unscrupulous demands of both the UNP and the SLFP at the electoral reforms subject. They claim that abolishment of the Presidency will weaken the stability of the country. Hence, demand additional bonus seats in Parliament as stability bonuses at the cost of minor parties. Therefore, we, of the minor parties have now decided to keep both the Presidency and our Parliamentary stakes intact. Those who campaign for the abolishment of the Presidency shall understand the plights of the minor parties.
My proposal is this. Let us finish the new constitution by May. Go for a referendum. All those forces rallied together in January 2015 will be together again. We can defeat the JO or anybody who oppose the new constitution. People who are more intelligent and patriotic than some politicians will support us. I trust we can obtain more than 6.2million what we received in 2015 on this one straight issue of the Constitution. Upon our victory it will be the end of the JO. Let any election, LG or PC come later after this.
Q: What are the efforts taken by you with regard to promoting co existence?
Coexistence is the future of Sri Lanka. Let us understand why coexistence is important to Sri Lanka in today’s context. When my ministry was established it was called ‘Ministry of Dialogue’. Later I spoke to the President, he agreed with me and amended the title as I wanted. I prefer the term coexistence over integration. Tamils are skeptical over the terms and meanings of integration and unity. They fear assimilation of Tamil heredity. We have seen many talking loud about unity and integration in this country. End of the day we face extinction in the name of integration and unity.
The term Coexistence represents the idea of more than one language, religion and ethnicity. More than one segment living together sid e by side, understanding, recognizing each other and bilaterally in Sri Lankan context where there are four religions, three languages and nineteen ethnicities.
I am establishing large number of coexistence societies in the country. These societies are registered in my ministry. They act as nucleuses of the national coexistence movement of Sri Lanka. We are encouraging dialogue sessions. Dialogiung is not only talking but also engagement between each other by various means. They are through discussions, sports, religious activities, cultural activities and learning each other’s languages and English.
My national coexistence slogan is ‘Sri Lankan is our identity: Diversity is our strength.” We prefer giving equal status to both Sri Lankan identity and diversity nature. The Sri Lankan nation is not complete without the Tamil and Muslim inputs with the Sinhala element. The language policy implementation which is one of my ministerial mandate subjects is an inalienable element within the national coexistence journey.
I am faced with a severe fund allocation problem. I had an issue with the Finance Minister during the budgets. Ravi is my friend. I understand him. He as the Finance Minister faces the responsibility of collecting funds to run the general journey of the nation. I have got the possible from him. Now I am looking towards my international friends who are Sri Lankans and have the subject of coexistence as the top priority.
Q: What are you going to say on UNHRC as the Minister of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages?
The session is going on now. We have asked for the two-year time frame. It is going to be conditional with a time table. My ministry has two mandates. I am going to set both national coexistence dialogue campaign and official language policy implementation in parallel with the UNHRC time frame. My time line will be in line with UNHRC resolutions. Let us see how it’s going to come. Language policy implementations shall be the prelude to the political solution. Coexistence dialogue campaign shall bring the Sri Lankan identity with the committed consideration for the diverse nature of the nation.