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Devolution will strengthen and uphold democracy and national unity

Jul 23, 2010 8:59:08 PM- transcurrents.com

In Sri Lanka majoritarianism is divisive

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The object of this article is to explore viable means of uniting the ethnically divided Sri Lankan society and promoting democracy, real peace and development, neglected earlier and later damaged severely by the protracted internal conflict that is rooted in the inapt political system. The latter endows absolute power to the ethnic majority ignoring the diverse nature of the Sri Lankan society.

The marginalized ethnic minorities are at the mercy of the powerful ethnic majority. But this system failed because no real compassion was on offer for opportunistic reasons. The struggle for power within the Sinhala polity and the felt political need to please the Sinhala nationalists were the main hindrances to reform. The surge of Tamil nationalism that threatened the territorial integrity of the island nation is the result of the many undesirable developments that denied sovereignty, equality, dignity and security to the ethnic minorities. The lingering conflict is not between Sinhalese and Tamils but a dispute between majoritarian State and the politically marginalized minorities.

The above introductory remarks are relevant even now, when there is no immediate threat to the sovereignty and national integrity of Sri Lanka, since the root causes of the destructive war remain unaddressed. The vast majority of Tamils and Muslims want a dependable political settlement within undivided Sri Lanka to enable them to live with dignity and the means to exercise their sovereign rights for their welfare and to be real stakeholders in national development. The future of Sri Lanka depends on the well-being of all communities and not just the ethnic majority. In this regard, there are basic matters that need focusing by all concerned Sri Lankans. Sadly, this is not the thinking of the political leaders, despite the past national tragedies.

Peace, development and democracy

In a recent interview, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told ‘The Manila Times’: “Without peace there is no development. And without development there is no peace”. This is not the first time he said this tenet, which apparently is fundamental to his vision of robust united Sri Lanka without the nagging ‘majority-minority’ division. He also mentioned: “Only the military campaign was finished and the work to address the root cause of their 30-year problem was still ongoing”. It is with regard to the latter there is confusion and uncertainty. His retraction from his own earlier approaches to political settlement based on devolution of powers has compounded the confusion. The interdependent link between development and peace makes it imperative to start work on both fronts. Unfortunately, some believe peace has already been achieved with the government’s military victory. This is not the kind of peace that will create the right environment for accelerating the development process and promoting national integration.

The lack of interest in strengthening democracy and the rule of law is also another cause for concern. Apparently peace and development are being sought with the fraudulent democracy which lacks many basic principles. In a plural society, unrestrained majoritarianism is undemocratic. The real peace and unity to be durable and beneficial to all in present and future generations must be achieved by embracing democracy, human rights, equality and justice for all citizens. Emergency regulations and special legislations such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act PTA) should not become part of the established set of laws of the land. There is a significant difference between the imposed peace and superficial unity prevailing in authoritarian regimes and the genuine peace and unity in democratic countries, where all citizens are free to exercise their legitimate rights, including the freedom to express publicly their views on government policies and actions. The sovereignty of the people and not of the government that is supreme.

Some may argue democracy is a luxury that countries in need of speedy and widespread development cannot afford. In Sri Lanka’s case this stance is arguable, because of the bitter experiences in the past mainly due to selfish leaders. The striking instance is the creation of the exceptionally powerful Executive Presidency in 1978 and the parochial and arbitrary ways many Presidents exercised their supreme powers. National development suffered because of not only self-interest but also lack of political will to settle the pressing issues that hindered development. This has also been a tragic loss incurred by Sri Lanka since independence. Who can firmly say the political leaders in the Republic of Sri Lanka sought power for promoting national development? In fact, ‘national interest’ was not at all in the decision-making domain. Now the joint move of the government and the main opposition party to replace the Executive Presidency with an Executive Premiership is a case in point. At present no one can be Executive President for more than two terms, a restriction that upset past Executive Presidents.

On the disruptions to development, the recent observations of ‘The Economist’ in The Sunday Times column (18 July 2010) are very relevant.

(i) “Sri Lanka continues to be distracted from its priority task of economic development.

(ii) “The impact of the ethnic and language conflict was an important factor in slowing down the momentum of growth at crucial stages of the country’s economic history.

(iii) “Instead of the country buckling down to the reconstruction of the economy, settlement of the grievances of the minorities, reconstruction of the North and East, the focus was once again distracted by two elections that engaged the nation for several months. The elections over there was the imprisoning of the army general on a number of charges, victory parades, diplomatic disputes and the drama of a cabinet minister’s fast unto death to tame the Secretary General of the UN. These are hardly the actions of a country eager to develop rapidly”.

(iv) “A serious concern for economic development requires a quick resolution of the minority problem through acceptable constitutional reforms”.

The focus on issues unrelated to national development, unity, good governance, rule of law and real democracy and peace even after the end of the nationally destructive war reflect the gravity of the national problem. Moreover without genuine reconciliation, piecemeal development will be ineffective from the long-term national perspective.

Ingrained majoritarianism

Since 1956 the embedded majoritarian feature of the unitary structure has obstructed important national policy decisions and actions beneficial for fostering unity and national development. No concerted efforts were made towards ‘nation building’. Majoritarianism is sacrosanct to many Sinhala nationalists. They have considerable influence in the Sinhala polity. The two main political parties have also failed to take a joint stand on broad national issues. The difficulty the post-war government has in launching vigorously the vital reconciliation process can be attributed to the reluctance to upset the majoritarians. There is no doubt rehabilitation, reconstruction of the damaged infrastructures and development of the war-torn areas are helpful for reconciliation. But without convincing moves towards a principled and fair settlement of the political problem of the minorities, reconciliation will not be far-reaching.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP in his weblog has analysed the past failed attempts at devolution under majoritarianism (Chapter 5 Part IV July 7, 2010). In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he established on quitting the UNP. “Though initially he (SWRD) had presented himself as the champion of the common man against the elite which had dominated Sri Lankan politics, due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism. Practically his first measure was a bill that made Sinhala the official language of the country”.

Realising the unfairness of the Sinhala only Act, Prime Minister S. W. R. D Bandaranaike negotiated a pact with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, who was the undisputed leader of the Tamils following the rise of his Federal Party as the principal political party of the Tamil speaking people in the Northern and Eastern provinces. This upsurge was the reaction to the agonizing discrimination of the State against the minorities. “The substance of their agreement was the establishment of Regional Councils, which would exercise executive authority in many of the areas of government in provincial areas. Crucial to the agreement was the recognition that, with Sinhala the language of administration of the central government, the people of the north and east who functioned in Tamil needed an administration which functioned in their language with regard to the day to day business of government.”

The then opposition party, “UNP under J R Jayewardene vehemently opposed the pact, and tried to whip up feeling in the country against it. This strengthened the hand of the nationalists in Bandaranaike’s party. Bandaranaike weakly tore up the pact in a welter of communal violence ……. Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk”. Since then the two main political parties competing for power opposed each other’s move to address the grievances of Tamil speaking people. The inviolability of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act was seen from the non-implementation of the agreement the main Tamil party (FP) reached later with Prime Minister Mrs.Bandaranaike who won the July 1960 election. This agreement was on “the reasonable use of Tamil in the provinces where it was the language of the majority”.

Subsequently, the UNP under Dudley Senanayake having failed to win a majority in the next general election formed a coalition government (1965-1970) with the support of the minority Tamil parties, the FP and TC. “Crucial to their support was the agreement to devolve power through District Councils, smaller units than the Regional Councils originally agreed on by Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam. … Mrs Bandaranaike campaigned against the proposals and so did the General Secretary of the UNP, Cyril Mathew, who had been Jayewardene’s right hand man in his rebuilding of the UNP during the fifties. Senanayake was uncertain about Jayewardene’s attitude, with mutual suspicions developing between the two at this stage. More graciously than Bandaranaike, but equally pusillanimously, he abandoned the agreement (with the FP leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam) in 1968”. Nevertheless, the Federal party continued to support the government that enabled it to serve the five year term. Thus in short, devolution through District Councils did not succeed.

Mrs Bandaranaike and her Marxist allies won an overwhelming majority in the 1970 parliamentary election, as a United Socialist Alliance and proceeded to adopt a new Constitution as pledged in their election manifesto. They set up a Constitutional Assembly for this purpose, but unfortunately did not take into serious consideration the views of other parties. They also ignored Tamil aspirations and concerns, and abolished Article 29 in the Soulbury Constitution (1947-1972), meant to prevent the enactment of legislations that discriminated against persons of any particular community or religion or confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religion.

The 1972 Republican Constitution asserted that Buddhism would have the foremost place in Sri Lanka and Section 7 declared Sinhalese to be the official language. Further, Section 9(1) made it obligatory for all laws to be enacted in Sinhalese, and Section 11(1) stated that the language of the courts and other related institutions should be Sinhalese throughout the island. The new Constitution reinforced forcefully majoritarianism. It was during this period, the media wise standardization of marks for admission to universities was introduced. This restricted severely the number of Tamil students admitted to the universities. The ethnic tension worsened instigating the disgruntled youth to join the armed conflict against the State.

The contribution of the traditional leftist parties in structuring the first Republican Constitution was a great shock to many liberal Sri Lankans. Ironically, these parties lost whatever support they had not only in the North but also in the South for different reasons. The JVP, before the breakup became the third political force in the Republic, because of its advocacy of their version of socialism under centralized system, which could also be described as anti-capitalist majoritarian.

The distressing developments in the early 1970s led to the formation of the Tamil United Front for gaining the deprived rights of the Tamil speaking people. The ethnic Tamils hoped for a favourable change when the UNP leader J.R. Jayewardene promised in his 1977 election campaign that the Tamil grievances would be addressed by the next government under his leadership. The election manifesto of the UNP too acknowledged explicitly that the Tamils have genuine grievances which need remedial actions. He also promised to summon an all-party conference to resolve these consensually. However, with the unprecedented five-sixth majority his party gained in the 1977 poll, he too got carried away by the overwhelming authority he enjoyed. Some of the horrible violent actions against the Tamils intended to intimidate them happened during the early 1980s.

The District Development Councils (DDC) set up after the joint talks with TULF leaders had even fewer powers than the District Councils agreed earlier with the coalition government led by Dudley Senanayake. Under the new scheme, the Chief Executive of the District was to be a Minister appointed by the President from amongst members of Parliament. President Jayewardene affirmed a principle of not appointing individuals from the District they were supposed to preside over, so that the District Minister for Jaffna for instance came from the Northwestern Province.

To quote directly: “The TULF negotiators had produced a dissenting report, but the party nevertheless decided to participate in the DDC election, that was held in 1981. The SLFP boycotted that election, though it was contested by the JVP, which had joined the political mainstream after Jayewardene released its leaders who had been jailed after the 1971 insurrection”. The reluctance to loosen the centralized power of the ethnic majority is evident from the following observation: “The District Development Councils might have helped to resolve some of the grievances of the Tamils, but they ran into administrative roadblocks since they were almost wholly dependent on the central administration for funds as well as implementing authority in several respects”.

The circumstances that compelled President J. R. Jayewardene to sign the Accord with India in 1987 according to which Provincial Councils with substantial powers were to be established are well known. Sri Lankan government’s foreign policy was in conflict with India’s regional interest. “This was a period when Cold War rivalries badly affected the Indian subcontinent, and some of Jayewardene’s activities had roused Indian suspicions”. The inference that India had not much interest in the details of the devolution package, especially after Sri Lanka amended her pro-American foreign policy is debatable. The then powerful militant group, the LTTE and its proxy party TULF rejected the package. The LTTE was not willing to accept any formula short of separate Tamil Eelam State, a goal rejected not only by India but also by the entire international community. India’s offer as a guarantor of the 1987 agreement was also not taken seriously.

It is not unreasonable to state, like the Sinhala majoritarians, the Tamil separatists discarded pluralism and democracy. In the former case, democracy was at any rate superficial with minorities having the right to vote but not the right to safeguard their interests, promote their welfare and shape their future. In contrast, the LTTE was firmly attached to totalitarianism. The Tamil people have paid a high price for the LTTE leader’s fantasy. This kind of delusion should not recur from any section.

The reluctance to implement in good faith the entire 13th Amendment and in particular the Provincial Council Act No. 42 of 1987 became evident from the time the first Provincial Council elections were held and the Provincial Administration started functioning. Since then the Councils functioned even without the limited powers granted legally. The Provincial Governor appointed by the Executive President had controlling powers which interfered with the implementation of important decisions of the Councils. Despite the strong opposition of the LTTE and the boycott of the elections by the TULF, the elected North-East Provincial Council soon realized the hollowness of the Provincial Council system established under the 13th Amendment, which itself was the outcome of the now defunct 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

The Status Report compiled by the N-E Provincial Council Chief Minister Varatharajaperumal and his team of provincial administrators observed:

“The inadequacy of the Thirteenth Amendment became very apparent over the past seven months, during which period the elected North-East Provincial Government made all attempts to implement it in practice. The experience of the North-East Provincial Government has been that even the meagre powers devolved by the Thirteenth Amendment were systematically denied by the Administration of the (central) Sri Lankan Government. The Thirteenth Amendment itself was being interpreted by the Sri Lankan side to the disadvantage of Tamils. Some of the glaring features of the Amendment are that Appendices to the Provincial List take away from the Province what had been devolved in the main text. In like manner, entries in the Concurrent List take away powers devolved by the Provincial List. The Sri Lankan Government treats the Concurrent List as its own preserve like the Reserved List.” (Quote from the late Ketheshwaran Loganathan’s book: 'Sri Lanka: Lost Opportunities, Past Attempts at Resolving Ethnic Conflict' – December 1996)

After the demerger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the current Eastern Provincial Council Chief Minister has been complaining about the inability to exercise freely even the limited devolved powers. The reluctance to loosen the majoritarian grip for whatever reason is obvious. It is this factor that is critical in the search for a permanent political solution to the national problem. The ingrained majoritarianism cannot be loosened without the desired change in the mind-set of the majority of Sinhalese. So far there is no concerted effort to bring about this crucial change. On the contrary attempts are being made to persuade the non-Sinhalese to accept majoritarianism as fait accompli, perhaps from the perspective it will be compassionate and not oppressive as in the past. Unfortunately, as several observers, including the National Peace Council have pointed out the current moves are unhelpful even to promote a genuine reconciliation process. Some are seen to be aimed at consolidating the Sinhala majority rule in the ethnic minority areas.

India’s role

India’s support to the Sri Lankan government in the decisive war against the LTTE ‘terrorists’ which ended in May 2009 with the annihilation of the self-proclaimed sole representatives and liberators of the Tamils subjugated by the Sinhala majoritarian State is no more a secret, although New Delhi has not disclosed the details. Apparently, the support was not unconditional. Political settlement of the conflict based on adequate devolution of powers as agreed in 1987 that resulted in the 13th Amendment was a key condition. It is in this domain of winning strategic friendship President Mahinda Rajapaksa has emerged as a shrewd leader. His vacillating stand on the political resolution of the conflict, from the time the All Party Representative Committee was set up, direct talks with Indian leaders soon after the war ended giving them the impression that 13A+ was on the cards and now his silence on the earlier proposals, except giving vague hope to those still seeking it, is baffling.

Unlike on earlier occasions, the close link with China cultivated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not only helped in obtaining vital assistance during the war and later for infrastructural development but also restraining India from pressurizing Sri Lanka. Unlike India, China is a permanent member with veto powers in the UN Security Council. At the same time President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not allow his cordial relationship with Indian leaders to shrink. His statement that he does not take international opinion seriously, except India’s produced a very favourable result. While declaring the need for a reasonable political settlement of the conflict in Sri Lanka, New Delhi is not at all keen on any direct involvement as in 1987.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh advised the visiting Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians to accept the current realities in Sri Lanka, to be pragmatic, to move on, and work sincerely with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to find an enduring political solution to the ethnic problem. According to ‘The Island’ Special Correspondent S. Venkat Narayan: "The Indians advised them to get real and drop the rhetoric and the mindset of the 1970s and 1980s. The Sri Lanka of today is very different from what it was three decades ago. Instead of fighting amongst themselves, the island’s Tamils should now unite and negotiate a pragmatic deal with President Rajapaksa. They should work with this President because he appears to be making a sincere effort to solve the ethnic problem for good."

The recent exchange of letters between Dr. Manmohan Singh and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi indicates their immediate concern now is the swift settlement of the internally displaced Tamils in their habitats in the North-East. At the same time, New Delhi is anxious to be seen as having a keen interest in the political resolution of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Dr. Singh in his letter to Mr. Karunanidhi is reported to have said: "My government will certainly do all that it can to enable Tamils in Sri Lanka to live a life of dignity and self-respect," and sought the Chief Minister’s advice on ways to resolve Sri Lanka's ethnic issue ‘once and for all’ through political agreement.

As stated at the outset, there is no clear indication about the kind of solution the Sri Lankan President has in mind given his current stand against weakening the centralized majority rule. The well-known columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara in her comments on “Governance by Delusion” has said:”The Rajapakses’ plan was to defeat the Tigers militarily, without making any political concessions to the Tamils, thereby winning the gratitude of the Sinhalese and, as a mark of that gratitude, their freely given consent for long term Familial Rule”. Only time will tell the accuracy of her assessment.


There is no real peace without equality and justice and no lasting unity and useful development without real peace. A State can be unitary without being majoritarian as in the APRC report, which was submitted by the chairman Minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana to President Mahinda Rajapaksa several months ago. Appropriately, it means “an undivided and integrated State structure, where the State power shall be shared between the Centre and the Provinces (agreed compromise)”. This obviously entails sizeable devolution of powers to the Provinces. The report has not been released by the President and the move on July 20 by the UNP National List MP R. Yogarajan to table it in Parliament was opposed by the government. He was an active member of the APRC. The withholding act too is another bafflement considering the enormous interest taken earlier by the President and the considerable work done by the APRC and the affiliated expert committee.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has aptly described the current uncertain situation as follows:

"Sri Lanka is today at crossroads. One road leads to reconciliation and a fresh start which enables us to integrate with Asia’s march to modernity. The other leads to a new and prolonged cycle of conflict." One thing certain about the latter is that it will not be openly destructive as the bloody war that lasted for nearly three decades. The disharmony and unrest will retard progress and prosperity. What is urgently needed now is a holistic approach from both sides of the ethnic divide to secure a promising future for Sri Lanka. Sinhala majoritarianism is not at all the correct path even for securing a promising future for the ethnic Sinhalese. The approach taken by the APRC, though the TNA did not participate in the deliberations, in formulating the set of proposals for constitutional reform is holistic as seen from the available reports.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]