Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s 1984 warning rings true in 2007

Sri Lanka’s continuing crisis:
Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s 1984 warning rings true in 2007

(Excerpts presented by Rajan Philips)

[The tireless chroniclers of Sri Lankan Left history, Wesley Muttiah and Sydney Wanasinghe, have brought out as a new publication the Selected Speeches and Writings of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva. The book includes twenty seven of Colvin’s speeches and writings spanning the fifty three years (1935 to 1988) of his political life, and a wide range of topics from India’s independence to the nationalization of Sri Lanka’s plantations. Chapter 25 of the book reproduces what Colvin wrote in 1984 and was published as a pamphlet, entitled “The UNP Government and the Crisis of the Nation.” Although written against the UNP Government of the day, Dr. de Silva’s castigation, diagnosis and prescriptions ring just as true and relevant to the Government of today. Excerpts from the 1984 writing are presented here with new subtitles.]

Tracing the roots of the crisis

The purpose of this pamphlet is to point out to halting the current slide to national disaster for which we hold the present (UNP) Government principally responsible – to halt and reverse it.

Regarded in historical perspective, it is the trend of a whole period that we are called upon to arrest and reverse. That period goes back to the fifty-fifty demand of Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam and the federal demand of Mr. Chelvanayakam. It advanced through the decitizenising of the Indian Tamils by Mr. D.S. Senanayake and the Official Lanaguage Act which is popularly known as the Sinhala Only Act, and comes right down to the Eelam demand by the TULF, led by Mr. Amirthalingam. The TULF coming to Parliament under that slogan and the emergence of the armed Tiger movement mark the last phase of that period.

The basic feature of the trend that has to be arrested and reversed is the drawing apart politically of the Sri Lankan Tamils from especially the Sinhala community, which of course, is the majority community in Sri Lanka – their drawing apart and their organizing themselves as a separate entity politically in the parliamentary arena.

Mr. Ponnambalam was the first major political figure in Sri Lanka who saw his way to parliament and power through an appeal to the Tamils as Tamils. Manifestly, the Tamil Congress (that Ponnambalam founded), with the Tamils only as their mass base, could never come to power on its own. One fateful reaction to Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam’s political line was the opposing line of the Sinhala Maha Sabha launched by Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranike. The vital difference in Mr. Bandaranaike’s effort lay in the fact that the Sinhalese community could by itself, command the overwhelming majority of voters at General Elections to the legislature on the basis of universal adult franchise. No other community in Sri Lanka could have that opportunity or perspective.

It was of course the selfsame Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who, leading the SLFP-dominated MEP, came to power in 1956 with the battle cry of “Sinhala Only” as the Official Language in Sri Lanka’s state, to be effected moreover in twenty-four hours. The contribution of the resulting situation to the ultimate emergence of the Eelam demand requires no demonstration today. What we have to say is that the Sri Lankan Tamils cannot be held within a single Sri Lanka without this trend in Sri Lankan politics being arrested and reversed.

May we remind the majority community that we (the Left) pointed out in the days of the Sinhala Only Act that we could have one language and two nations, or two languages and one nation. The integration of the diverse groups in Sri Lanka into an organic unity which does not straitjacket the minority is in the interest of the majority community itself and of national independence.

Terrorism, not the real cause

The (UNP) Government is shrieking from the housetops that our country is in the gravest crisis of its history since independence. That contention is true. But the crisis of which the Government is shouting is not the true crisis.

The crisis, to meet which the Government is summoning the Nation to rally round it, is a military crisis. The cause of that crisis is presented as Tamil Terrorism. The task before the country is formulated as the task of defeating, destroying and rooting out that terrorism.

That terrorism is a major element in the present crisis is true. But terrorism neither constitutes that crisis nor is its prime cause.

The crisis we are facing today is a crisis of the nation. The roots of that crisis lie in what history may characterize as our failure in the post-independence period to build a Sri Lankan nation. We apparently have not achieved the degree of unity in diversity, which is essential to the survival of the single Sri Lankan state. The point that has to be made at this juncture with regard to this situation is that the major responsibility for the extent of the failure rests on (this) Government … What is more, the faith placed by the Tamils themselves in the (UNP) Government to lead the country into a new unity of the diverse racial and linguistic groups has been weakened, probably to the point of destruction.

One fateful consequence of this development has been to place the (UNP) Government more and more openly in the position of a negotiator representing the majority community in the Sri Lankan state’s relations with the Tamil minority. The state itself tends to gain the appearance of being primarily a state of the majority community rather than the state of all communities in the country.

There is another aspect to the matter, which adds to the acuteness of the national crisis. What should have been an entirely domestic question of the relations of the Sri Lankan Tamil community with the Sri Lankan state has been decisively internationalized in the handling of the question by the (UNP) Government. The outcome has been a serious deterioration of Sri Lanka’s relations with India … The friendship of India is vital to the peaceful settlement of our island’s problem.

The real cause: Government not making up its mind

If we look at the present situation in the above context it will be clear that what is being presented by the Government as an all-embracing political crisis which should preoccupy all sections of opinion and bring about a universal rallying to the support of the Government, is really a crisis resulting in a major way from its own policies. It is idle to hide behind a barrage of hysterical propaganda the palpable truth that we have got to where we have got to principally because the (UNP) Government has long been engaged in trying to solve an essentially domestic and wholly political problem of majority-minority relations by predominantly military means.

Despite much talk and sheer dilly-dallying in action about the need for a “political solution”, … what we have seen under the (UNP) Government is a steady, systematic and ever sharper stepping up of military (and police) action in the North and East, and now, in the rest of the country, not only against the elusive armed Tamil “Tiger” organizations, but also, sadly and repressively against the general mass of the Tamil people. From a political point of view, there has never been a bigger failure in a search for a military solution of a problem which required and continues to require primarily a political settlement or handling. We seem only to have got to insensate mutual killing on an ever widening scale. The most vivid commentary on the whole process is what is happening in the North (and East) today, with its “prohibited zones” and “security zones” and a Jaffna cut off from the rest of the country like an occupied city in enemy territory.

Is there a way out of this disastrous logjam in the national political process? In our view, the first need is actively and openly to renew the negotiation process which was the true purpose for which the All Party Conference was originally called … No more putting off of decision by the Government, which putting off has been the only real cause of the delays that have made deliberations drag on in an atmosphere of pointlessness. It is necessary to say that the delay has not been due so much to the need to reconcile intransigent rival positions of participants as to the inability of Government to make up its own mind as to what it will undertake to do. And thereby hangs a tale.

The immediate task: Government must put forward its own proposals

In the field of Tamil relations with the Sri Lankan State, the scene is littered with broken pledges in respect of negotiated settlements … It is not entirely to be wondered, therefore, that both the militant Tamil youth and the UNP Government have turned in a major way to other ways – violent military ways – for a “solution” of the problem of Tamil relations with the Sri Lankan State. But it must be recognized that the aggravation of open military clash … imperils the resumption and continuation to a satisfactory conclusion of the negotiating process. Fruitful negotiations demand the balm of peace! But let it be remembered that quietly negotiated settlements have ended many a war. There are many roads to peace by settlement than to victory in war and an imposed peace.

This no doubt is what lies behind the call to the Government from some quarters to call the Tigers to the (APC) table. It is a call for peace negotiations between clashing armies.

The immediate task, however, is not to decide with whom to talk. The immediate task is for the Government to come forward with its own positive proposals – and to speedily implement them, as the only means of finding out whether they are (a) practicable and (b) adequate, if not to solve the problem at least to set going a process that can lead to a solution.

It must be said openly that the Government can take such a step only if it can make up its own mind … What has also to be said clearly, firmly and actively, therefore, is that if the Government cannot even now, in this urgent situation, make up its mind about the proposals required in the situation, then, the Government must go; for it would itself have become the major obstacle in the way of the peaceful negotiated settlement of the problem.

What is to be done? Radical devolution, the only way out

The answer is first of all to carry through the devolution of power from the centre to the peripheries, through popularly elected institutions of a new state structure which is built on the basis of self-management. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Only the devolution of power from the centre to the peripheries on the basis of self-management of the people’s affairs can provide the framework for the solution of the majority-minority problem in Sri Lanka within a single state which runs the whole of Sri Lanka as one country.

It will be appreciated that the vital question in respect of the new state structure … is the nature and function of the power and functions devolved (to these bodies) at each level. There must be a genuine devolution that enables genuine self-government in the areas covered at each level; and genuine self government requires that the Central Government’s relation with those institutions is much more that of an adviser assisting them than that of an upper controller.

Incidentally, it is to be stressed that the devolution proposed is not in anyway intended to be confined to the North and East. The richness of the concept is seen from the ready relevance of the scheme to the problem that has arisen in the North and East.

It is only when a system such as this is actually established and set going, with the participation of all sections willing to participate, that it will be possible to find a way of negotiating an end to the acute military confrontation to which all attention has been directed. To take the position that no radical changes can be set going until the confrontation is overcome is really to say there will be no radical change; only radical changes such as those proposed … can bring those fresh forces of peace into the arena of war which is the crying need for getting out of the present murderous situation. Nothing less will do.

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