Sri Lanka’s constitutional reform process is the linchpin of the island’s ongoing political transition. More than ten months into the process, however, awareness of constitutional reform among Sri Lankans varies considerably. A survey conducted in mid-2016 by Sri Lankan NGO the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) found that only 23% of Sri Lankans are well apprised of the constitutional reform process, whereas 25% are unaware that it is taking place.
It is against this backdrop that DRI and CPA have conducted a series of dialogues about the constitutional reform process at the local level, across all 25 districts of Sri Lanka. Under the banner of the Citizens Initiative for Constitutional Change, the ‘district dialogues’ series has brought together representatives of civil society and members of the general public to discuss the content of the constitutional reform process and what it means for Sri Lanka. The dialogues took place between August and November 2016 and reached over 1400 people in total.
Engaging the public in discussion about the constitutional reform process is essential to its success – especially given the likelihood of a national referendum to validate a new constitution. The dialogues responded to calls by many Sri Lankans for more public engagement, following the consultations by the Public Representations Committee for Constitutional Reform (PRC) in early 2016. The district dialogues built upon the PRC consultations and its final report, informing participants of recent developments in the process, such as the publication of the Constitutional Assembly’s six sub-committee reports, and obtaining their views and input on key issues such as fundamental rights and devolution.
Overall, the feedback from the sessions shows that a majority of respondents consider devolution and stronger fundamental rights the main priorities to be addressed by the Constitution. When disaggregated by ethnicity, the data show that a substantial proportion of Sinhalese as well as Tamil respondents consider devolution a priority – more so than a new electoral system or increased economic and social rights.
The district dialogues series has sparked the discussion at local level around constitutional reform and helped to improve citizens’ understanding of the process. 79.9% of respondents said they had a better understanding coming away from the dialogues, whereas 18.9% had a somewhat better understanding. However, given the varying levels of awareness across the island, further dialogues are needed to ensure that Sri Lankans are well-informed when they cast their ballot in the slated constitutional referendum. To this end, DRI is currently planning further rounds of dialogues and will continue to work with its partners to raise awareness, facilitate dialogue and engender discussion around the constitutional reform process.