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Democracy, Pluralism, and Constitutionalism in Southern Asia

The Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) and the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) successfully co-hosted a seminar on Democracy, Pluralism, and Constitutionalism in Southern Asia on 21st November 2017, in the Neil MacCormick Room, David Hume Tower.

The seminar, which was chaired by Navraj Singh Ghaleigh (Law) featured two major papers: Harshan Kumarasingham (SSPS) on A Royal Coup – The Forced Dissolution of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly using the Royal Prerogative and the Misrule of Law and by Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne (Griffith University) and Asanga Welikala (Law) on In Search of the Ancient Constitution? The Galactic Polity and the Constitutional Challenge of National Pluralism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The discussants for the papers were Jonathan Spencer (SSPS) and Wilfried Swenden (SSPS). The seminar was attended by student and staff participants from Law, SSPS, IASH, and the School of Geosciences.

Wijeyeratne and Welikala’s paper discussed the southern Asian states of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which are both currently undergoing constitutional transitions in which the accommodation of ethnonational pluralism is a central and controversial issue. Aside from their geographic proximity at either end of the Bay of Bengal, the two countries share deep historical and cultural affinities as societies which are predominantly Theravada Buddhist. While Theravada Buddhism has been the basis of attempts at ethnocratic post-colonial state-building by the demographic majorities represented by the Sinhalese and the Burman ethnicities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, their societies are also characterised by rich ethnic and religious pluralism, including national pluralism. That is, other groups have mounted their sub-state challenge to Buddhist majoritarianism not merely as ethnic and religious minorities, but with assertions of their own distinctive claims to nationhood. Three political facts make Sri Lanka and Myanmar similar cases of Theravada Buddhist-dominated multination polities in Asia ripe for comparative investigation. These are: (a) hegemonic Theravada Buddhist majorities with self-serving post-colonial constitutional projects, (b) the assertion of nationality claims in response to this by excluded minority groups, and (c) the fundamental antinomy created by these competing visions of the state at the heart of their constitutional unsettlement. 

Kumarasingham’s paper discussed new states that arose from colonial rule in the post-war era that sought to build New Westminster constitutions across first Asia and then Africa. The Westminster model was the transnational trend after 1945 in constitution-making for much of the world emerging from colonial rule and was promoted by the Colonial Office, Indigenous leaders and constitutional advisers such as the ubiquitous Sir Ivor Jennings. However, this flexible and ambiguous regime type caused many political and constitutional crises that questioned the wisdom of applying Westminster to these states. Jennings worked across Africa and Asia including Ceylon, Nepal, Malaya, Singapore, the Maldives, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It is Pakistan, however, that sticks out as Jennings’ most controversial role where he effectively, legally and politically, contentiously defended a “constitutional coup” by the Governor-General against the Constituent Assembly in 1954. The case also serves to demonstrate how the manipulation and divisive interpretations of Westminster conventions and institutions in the first decade of Pakistan led to the breakdown of democracy and laid conspicuous precedents for dictatorship and military rule, which have explanatory value in understanding the country’s prevalent fragility in embedding accountability and democracy.

Posted on 19 Dec 2017 1:48pm

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