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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2708

Peaceful Existence , Political and Social Contracts: Latest Proposals for Political Reform in Sri Lanka

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

Societies are held together to provide a peaceful means of existence for the citizens of a given country not only by the State and the forces it controls. While State is an important and even a central institution, there are a range of other institutions and processes that contribute to a peaceful existence. Among these is education, religion, marriage and family, community and locale, law, culture or way of life characterized by a set of values and norms.

Historical memories and understandings as well as symbols and texts also play a part in this process. Common readings, understandings and acceptance of the national values and norms, what it is to be a good citizen ultimately contribute to the creation and sustenance of a 'social contract' between competing individuals and groups in a society.

A social contract is not something that can be legislated. Because it is a broader 'framework of thought and action' that goes beyond a constitution of a country or the legal system or the political system. Very often the latter reflect the social contract existing in a society but there can be many divergences between them as well.

By the same token, a society cannot be held together by the state merely by force, especially in a pluralistic set up such as in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore or India. A dictatorship - democratic or non democratic- may be able to do so for a short period of time against the will of the people. But in the last analysis these rulers fade into the limelight of history as we have seen from many examples around the world.

A society and its people need a well developed social contract as well as a well thought out political contract as part of the former if they are to enjoy the fruits of a peaceful existence as in many countries of Europe, Asia, and America. Peaceful existence is not only an ideal but also a reality upon which nations in peace can embark upon to engage in many other arenas with potency, e.g. trade, teaching-learning, sports.

In the recent decade or more there have been considerable scholarly writings showing how the 'political contract' in Sri Lanka has been not right, especially viewed in terms of majority-minority relations. The latest in the series of scholarly work is Quadri Ismail's book Abiding by Sri Lanka. What these writers indicate is that the democracy or democratic system of governance structure and processes in Sri Lanka need an overhaul because it has not satisfied the Tamil minority (I can add that it has not satisfied other minorities such as certain caste, occupational, generational and regional groups as well).

In fact many political leaders and parties also have recognized this dire fact. The emergence and promotion of an Eelam by the LTTE has been characterized as a consequence of this imbalance in the political contract. To some extent, the same can be told about the emergence and promotion of the JVP also. Sri Lankan state has been seen as characterizing a mixture of colonial and pre-colonial baggage but slanted towards the interests of the majority Sinhalese after the independence (I would rather say the majority elite ruling class consisting of all ethnic groups). However, the reforming of this political contract or the blueprint for a modern or postmodern Lanka has been considered as a heavily complicated task requiring 2/3rd majority in the parliament. Due to the politics of competition and enmity that existed in the country after independence, and in the aftermath of the Presidential system of governance introduced since 1978, the task of political reformation went through several iterations when the circumstances demanded but never brought to its completion citing a range of reasons some of which are trivial.

The majority proposals presented by the expert committee appointed by the President of Sri Lanka have to be viewed as a significant set of carefully thought out ideas for a new 'political contract' for Lanka that addresses the criticisms and concerns of the majority and the ethnic minorities. They contain substantial proposals for provincial governance linked to a central government yet the provincial representation is assured at the centre by way of a second chamber and two deputies to the President. While it is only preliminary proposals and more details are to come in specific areas, enough ideas are included in the preliminary proposals for an intelligent and considered discussion by the All Party Conference as well as others concerned with the future of Sri Lanka. Most importantly, these proposals have the potential to take the current debate in Sri Lanka about 'who is right and who is wrong' to a serious level of discussion about the 'political contract' required for a peaceful life and coexistence.

What is necessary at this stage is more substance rather than rhetoric. Enough rhetoric exists already on all sides of the political divide. Together with the minority reports to come, the proposals would provide a sound basis upon which to engage the collective intelligence of all Sri Lankans to fine tune and accept the framework within which all citizens in the country can aspire to a peaceful existence in their daily lives.

The government has to be congratulated in facilitating this process with bipartisan and multi partisan support while facing up to the military and diplomatic challenges before it. The expert panel ought to be congratulated in preparing a well-articulated set of draft proposals for reforming the governance structure in Sri Lanka that has the potential to win the confidence of its people and the international community.

Dr. Siri Gamage a Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia. And also Member of the Centre for Research on Education in Context; Affiliate Fellow, UNE Asia Centre; and Member, Australian Migration Research network.

- Asian Tribune -

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