Constitutional Politics and Crisis in Sri Lanka

“Constitutional Politics and Crisis in Sri Lanka” in J. Bertrand & A. Laliberté, eds., Multination States in Asia: Accommodation or Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 103-135.

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In a multinational polity, questions of constitutional substance go to the issue of whether multiple nations share a common state, and if so, on what terms—in other words, federalism, multiple official languages, power sharing at the center, symbolic recognition, and so on. Questions of constitutional process concern the procedures creates by the constitution within which debates over constitutional substance occur and pursuant to which substantive changes are made. This distinction helps to illuminate both the causes of, and potential solutions for, the Sri Lankan civil war, which arose from a breakdown of the Sri Lankan constitutional order. One dimension of this breakdown concerned a fundamental difference over the substance of the constitutional arrangements to frame the relationship between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. But another dimension was a fundamental disagreement over the constitutional procedures that should govern that debate over constitutional substance—that is, the rules governing constitutional amendment. Tamil nationalists deplore that those rules presuppose an understanding of the Sri Lankan polity as a single nation in which the constituent actor is the Sri Lankan people as a whole. In opposition to this vision, Tamil nationalists have conceived of Sri Lanka as a multinational polity, where the ultimate power of constitutional change vests with its constituent nations—the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Since the choice between these two versions of the Sri Lankan polity was at the very heart of the civil war, rules governing constitutional amendment that are based on one of these conceptions of Sri Lanka has been viewed as partial and cannot serve as a neutral framework for constitutional change. Constitutional procedures allow the constitutional politics of substance to occur. Without a shared understanding of the process of reform, the constitutional politics of substance may be impossible.