From a Tragedy to a Farce: Comments on the SLFP Proposals

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Professor Wiswa Warnapala, the Minister of Higher Education, is one of the leading political scientists in Sri Lanka. He has produced, even after entering the busy life of politics, many books in a wide variety of subjects, the most recent being about Sri Lanka-Russia Relations. When the media reported that Prof. Warnapala would be the main architect of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s proposals to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), we all became optimistic assuming that the proposals would adequately address complex issues of restructuring the postcolonial state in Sri Lanka. However, the SLFP proposals submitted to the people on May Day 2007, have demonstrated clearly and conclusively that the SLFP have not traveled forward in time but far back. Its “fresh approach” to a “complex problem,” that has grown to gigantic magnitudes over the years, is in essence nothing more than the proposals of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958, almost five decades ago! History sometimes, in Sri Lanka oftentimes, repeats itself, but as Marx aptly puts it, the first time as a tragedy and second as a farce. The SLFP proposals are totally disproportionate to the questions at hand. Not only are they a retreat from the earlier positions of the SLFP, they cannot be a basis for a long-lasting solution to the ethno-political conflict in the country. The drafting of the proposal, which took so much time, reminded me of an old Sinhala saying: “kandak vili la meeyek veduwa vage”.

The SLFP proposal includes inter alia (1) devolution of power with district as a unit of devolution; (2) a second chamber; (3) making chief ministers ex-officio members of the 75 member second chamber; (4) national water and land commission; and (5) district ethnic ombudsman. The powers of the second chamber have not yet been specified. Since Prof. Warnapala was a strong unicameralist in the past (he quoted from Dr N. M. Perera’s PhD dissertation in support of this position), the SLFP’s proposed second chamber would not be more than a replica of the lower house. Since I have discussed the issue of the second chamber in relation to Sri Lanka’s Ethno-political conflict in my earlier article in the Daily Mirror (republished in A Glimmer of Hope: A new Phase of Constitutional Reforms In Sri Lanka. Colombo: South Asia Peace Institute, 2007), I will not delve into the subject here. The innovative proposal to establish an ethnic ombudsman is promising, but the appointment procedure specified in the proposals may not produce results. The section on the language in the SLFP proposals shows that the authors are even ignorant of the present constitutional provision on language. However, in this article my focus on the SLFP’s proposals will be limited to its proposals on devolution of power.

The Current Discourse

Whatever its limits, the Report of Sub-Committee B (RSCB) contain positive features. It accepts that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society. It proposes that power should be devolved, with the existing provinces being the unit of devolution. The sub-committee has no objections toward a second chamber if it can effectively address the issue of power-sharing. On the other hand, RSCA has proposed changes that would produce far-reaching results and would make the Sri Lankan state more accommodative. It is no secret that the RSCA proposals have a close affinity to the 2000 constitutional draft bill that was presented to the Parliament by the Peoples’ Alliance government, of which Mahinda Rajapakse and the members of the current SLFP sub-committee on constitutional proposals were key members. Both the RSCA and the Constitutional Draft Bill 2000 accept that the minimum unit of devolution would be the existing province. Both documents have left space to accommodate specific Tamil and Muslim demands especially in relation to the Eastern Province. The Chairperson of the APRC, Minister Tissa Vitharana have also suggested that the unit of devolution should not be lower that the existing province. What is the status quo? The 13th Amendment introduced devolution of power on the basis of the existing provinces with the qualified merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces. A recent Supreme Court decision delivered a verdict that on legal grounds the merger was no longer constitutionally valid. Of course, the constitutional issues transcend legal boundaries since constitutional issues in a pluri-national society are more political in nature. What I am trying to stress here is that the Sri Lankan constitutional discourse has reached some consensus that the unit of devolution should not be smaller than the existing provinces.

Is there a justifiable ground for the SLFP to now change this consensus and to suggest afresh that the district instead of the province be the unit of devolution in future constitutional arrangement? I would say no. The chauvinists of the current SLFP leadership are here trying to find a justification for the choice of district as a unit of devolution based almost in a farcical manner on the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of “grama rajya”. The two concepts are of great importance in a pluri-national society not as substitutes for the protection of group rights but as complementary to it. Let me explain. The setting up of constitutionally separate two-tiers of government can be justified on multiple grounds. The notion of subsidiarity has increasingly been invoked to legitimize the setting up of a lower level of government. It has multiple meaning, but what is most common and relevant here is that it refers to organizational and territorial principles requiring that decision-making and implementation be carried out in a space that is as close as possible to the citizen. This idea also goes with the notion of deliberative democracy where all the affected should be given an equal opportunity to participate in decision-making as equals in a non-coercive context. The principle of subsidiarity in this sense addresses the issues of effectiveness, and good and inclusive governance. However, it does not and could not directly address the rights of self-determination of different peoples living in the same territorial space.

Secession Justified

In RSCB as well as in Tissa Vitharana proposals, these two principles –the principle of subsidiarity and the notion of “grama rajya”- are incorporated by introducing a third-tier of government. That was the principle enshrined in the Indian Constitution. However, the SLFP’s so-called “indigenous model based on the idea of Grama Rajaya” is based on complete ignorance/ negligence of the Indian model and the complex nature of the Sri Lankan problem. The SLFP leadership seems to reject the national or ethno-political question in Sri Lanka by arguing for devolved smaller unit. One of the key demands of the minorities in Sri Lanka is that they should be allowed to take decisions that affect them and their destiny. What is good for the numerically big nation may not be necessarily good for the numerically small nations living in the same territory. The best examples were the Citizenship Acts, Official Language Act of 1956, and the language-based standardization policy in the early 1970s. The whole question of constitutional change arose because of the failure of the two autochthonous constitutions because they were prepared according to the needs and requirements of the numerically large nation, the Sinhalese. SLFP proposes attempt the same once again without taking into account the proposals by the TULF (Anandasangree), EPDP, EPRLK (Pathmanabha) and the Muslim political parties for more comprehensive power-sharing arrangements.

The SLFP proposes to set up 30 district councils as the second-tier of government. In a way, the current proposals are even short of Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958. Because the B-C Pact (if I remember correctly) accepted that the Northern Province should be kept as one unit and that units could be merged with the consent of the Parliament. The principle behind this is that the numerically small peoples should be given space, not only to participate in governance, but also to govern themselves with the control of reasonable resources. Can a district council protect, preserve, and advance the culture of the Tamil people? Village committees are territorial units, not politico-cultural units. Majoritarianism in a pluri-national society can be contained only if numerically small nations can constitutionally mobilize their strength effectively against the unreasonable and hegemonic decisions of the numerically large nation/s. District committees are designed to divide them more and more, and as a result to weaken them and their identity.

The SLFP proposals give justification to the demands of the LTTE for a separate state. As Mr Sambanthan, TNA MP once remarked, the LTTE is in fact a baby of Sinhala chauvinism. This chauvinism is once again expressed by the SLFP in its 2007 proposals. So the SLFP by presenting these proposals continues to feed the baby, the LTTE, to keep it alive.

Sumanasiri Liyanage teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.

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  1. The proposal by SLFP is not even halfhearted proposal. Simply, a time passing proposal for Foreign aid while executing the military option (Rajapakse Inc. know well that only way to make money is by continuing the war agenda.) MAY BE ADVISED BY THE USA AND INDIA.

    Even the moderate Tamils who oppose to the LTTE tyranny are bound to line up with LTTE and will tell the Sinhala government “We will settle scores with you first and we can settle score with LTTE latter.”


  2. Once again Sri Lankan Sinhala government had made Vellupillai Pirabaharan a visionary. He asserted that only way to solve this ethnic problem is to divorce from Sri Lanka. Still not a single country has accepted this, but it won’t be long for other nations to realise this tragedy, and then, even India can’t stop the separation.

    ‘Thanthai’ Selva already had this vision way back in seventies. Some of his followers (i.e. A. Sangaree), and some other paramilitaries who relies on SL government for living, still think it’s possible to live together. Good Luck!!!.

  3. I know you will not publish my comment because I do not agree with Liyanage’s views.

    I am surprised a person like Liyanage has fallen into the trap of ignoring history, ignoring fact and resorting to emotive language to analyse the problem. B-C pact had a lot of foresight to see that a place like Batticaloa cannot be treated as one region because of the composition of the ethnic groups.

    What do you mean Tamils need more space because Jaffna is sparesely populated? What is the logic behind it?

  4. I cannot but resist recalling JFK’s penetrating thoughts “Those who make peaceful reform impossible make violent revolution inevitable”..Liyanage is one of those political analysts in the local scene with the learning and courage to look beyond the ethnic divide in search of a solution fair to both communities.

    President Rajapakse’s procrastinative tactics evidently have not been to canvass opposing views within his ranks, but merely to play for time.

    As we learn, he assured India he will come out with workable proposals by February, then March and finally May 01. That the Tamil side will reject these desultory proposals forthwith is a foregone conclusion. Worse, his own truculent racial twins -the JVP and JHU – also will be at arms with the absence of mention of the term “unitary” In the latter the Govt is trying, somewhat reluctantly it would seem, to please the Donor/International community/India by hinting at Federalism.

    The Tamil struggle of half a century and more has been for adequate Provincial governance in a merged North_East albeit within a united Sri Lanka. Shades of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution incorporated in the SLFP proposals is a non-starter. The ambiguity in the abolishing of the Executive Presidency and reference to the interim period will fool very few outside SLFP ranks. In brief, the much-awaited SLFP Proposals is nothing but a recipe for disaster.

  5. I wish the SLFP which is the governing party had not put forward these proposals. These proposals cannot be taken seriously as a solution to the serious problems facing Sri Lanka. It will make even the modarate Tamils frustrated and angry. I think these proposals are a real properganda coup for the LTTE. They will go round the world showing these proposals as proof that this government is insensitive to the concerns of the Tamil people.

  6. The proposal ignores ignores the national crisis in the North and so it is not worth the paper on which it is written. Like the 13 th Amendment, it will only result in creating a meaningless devolution for the South and a 75-member second chamber of another set of parliamentary jokers with massive perks and privileges. Mahinda Rajapakse is taking the country backwards into darkness. He has no vision;no clue. Time is running out and Sri Lanka cannot afford the time for misrule like this

  7. J.R.Jayawardane had the best time with 4/5 majority in the Parliament to solve the Tamils problem. He fooled the whole nation by giving Distrct Councils without power and authority. Prabakaran had less than 20 boys at that time with no weapons. But the moderate Tamils (including TULF) didn’t accept that proposal on that occasion.

    Today, proudly Tamils have all three forces equvalent to attacking strength (not the size and weapons of the force) of the Sri Lankan forces. SLFP led by Rajapakse & Bros knows that not a single tamil party would accept this proposal. But they are trying to fool the international community to buy more time to accelarate the war.

    Sri Lankan successive Govt.s and leaders are not realising that the Sri Lanka is gradually loosing its competitveness and standards compared to other South Asian countries. They are distroying the beautiful country by failing to solve the tamils problem.

    What happened in Malaysia? Malaysia asked Singapore to go separate on a short notice (Singapore story). Today both are leading economies in Asia (due to that decision). Both are competing each other for Ports, Airports, Tourism, manufaturing and others.

    Can any Sri Lanka leader has the guts to follow Malaysia?

  8. It is clear that SL citizens will pay for this redicules actions and thinking of SLFP which was chosen by same ‘Citizens’.
    Once again the world came to know, how SL governments treat the tamils.
    SL shows the path to the world that there can not be a united Sri Lanka any more.

  9. I like to thank Rajapakse & Bros to bring this kind of proposals at this juncture. It will make the Tamils be more united than before. Also they reveal the true face of the Sinhala mass. Thanks again MR & Bros. You are the Sinhala’s leader and you made your point. We will do what we can as Tamils.

  10. I look at this in a different perspective. Yes, everyone commented above have expressed their displeasure about these proposals. However, these are just another set of proposals among many other already in front of the APC. If I remember correct, MR has told that all the proposals will be discussed in the APC and a consensus reached. Then, the agreed proposals will be put forward to the people to decide in a referendum. Isn’t that what is required in a democracy? Why you guys are jumping around like ‘jack in the box’. Have patience!

  11. The proposal submitted by SLFP two days ago brings nothing to solve the problems and greievences encountered by Tamil speaking people in the country. We have even to gone back to 50s and 60s when we look at their proposals. It also clearly demonstrates the fact that only the majority of sinhelese involved in drafting the proposal without taking congnicance of the fact that this is multiethnic and multireligious country and intellectuals from other communities should take part to share their views to correct the past mistakes.

    Eventually, this proposals will make no contribution to put an end to this diaboligical war that has ravaged this country for the past of 2 decades

  12. Avathar you are right ,

    In talking of Sri Lanka, this is what Lee Kuan Yew says: – Srilanka country will never be put together again.

    `We have got to live with the consequences of our actions and we are responsible for our own people and we take the right decisions for them. You look at the old Philippines. The old Ceylon. The old East Pakistan and several others. I have been to these countries and places. When 1 went to Colombo for the first time in 1956 it was a better city than Singapore because Singapore had three and a half years of Japanese occupation and Colombo was the centre or HQ of Mountbatten`s Southeast Asia command.

    And they had sterling reserves. They had two Universities. Before the war, a thick layer of educated talent So if you believe what American liberals or British liberals used to say, then it ought to have flourished. But it didn`t.

    One-man one-vote led to the domination of the Sinhalese majority over the minority Tamils who were the active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalised. And English was out. They were educated in English. Sinhalese was in. They got quotas in two universities and now they have become fanatical Tigers. And the country will never be put together again.

    Somebody should have told them – change the system, loosen up, or break off. And looking back, I think the Tunku was wise. (The reference is to Tunku Abdul Rahman the Malaysian Prime Minister under whose rule Singapore separated from Malaysia).

    I offered a loosening up of the system. He said: `Clean cut, go your way`. Had we stayed in, and I look at Colombo and Ceylon, I mean changing names, sometimes maybe you deceive the gods, but I don`t think you are deceiving the people who live in them. It makes no great difference to the tragedy that is being enacted.

    They failed because they had weak or wrong leaders `.

  13. This has again proved to the world that Colombo is only interested in a military solution. International community that has so much hoped for a federal structure in Sri Lanka, now has to look for other options.

    Even those members who are with EPDP, other “mederate” Tamil political parties and paramilitaries have now realised that “it is a waste of time and energy to hope for a devolution of power.”

  14. Agree with Gemunu. These are positional papers. Srilanka will not go back on the 2000 constitutional reforms as developed by Dr. Neelan, who was murdered by fellow Tamils.

    Whether Srilanka or the International community like MR or not, the LTTE got him elected. Imagine what 10 pct of the Srilankan population can do, they can either elect or de-elect a president, by the ballott.

    There have been many a missed oppurtunities, don’t let this be another.

  15. Gimunu says

    Isn’t that what is required in a democracy? Why you guys are jumping around like ‘jack in the box’. Have patience!

    But srilanka is a DemoCrazy

    how about a million sinhalese homeless and Close Galle Road,Hambatoda Road, and shoot down all sinhala fishermans at sea . and put fishing ban to all sinhalese.
    and restrict all imports.( no fertiliser, no mass for chicken farms,No raw materials) and bomb few sinhala hospitals and schools.

    then we tell sinhalese ” be patience” what is the rush??
    its democracy we let all party discuss the issue for good couple of years and put forward a proposal and then we do a Referendam on the issue.
    if that is rejected then we go back to drawing board and take another good couple of years and come back with another one.

    if you agree to what i sugested then we can be patience.
    from 1956 we have been patience good 50 years gone by) and you still want us to be patience.

  16. Hats off to Dr. Liyanage for a inclusive and incisive analysis of the SLFP proposals. While I do not agree with his concept of nationhood (small nations against large nations in terms of the sinhala -tamil dichotomy) and the use of the term “autochthonous” to describe the 1971 and the 1978 constitutions (now much amended), I agree with Dr. Liyanage that Prof. Warnapala’s proposals fall far short of a workable and amenable resolution to the national crisis. The “Grama Rajya” concept, on which the SLFP proposal rests, promoted in the present context mostly by CIMOGG, falls short in terms of practicality, while being in line with the principles of subsidiarity. For instance, a village or even a district level unit can and will fail in terms of resources accessbility and applicability. While this can be resolved through a system of resources sharing with neighboring units, the need to do so can be alleviated in the first place through a regional demarcation. I do not agree that such regional demarcations should extend across existing regions (i.e, the north-eastern merger) but what of a constitutional panel of inclusive experts sitting down to agree on re-demarcating existing regions in terms of resources equality and rights of the autochthonistic peoples. The CIMOGG proposals rests on the principles of subsidiarity, but also needs in parallel an understanding of real politics, where the ground situation is different to the context where the Grama Rajya concepts were first introduced in India and worked well for decades after that.

  17. I wonder if Gemunu knows this is the reality in the NorthEast?

    How long the Sinhala politicians and media are going to hide these things? They were thinking that their army is winning the war.
    When each and every Sinhalese know what is going on in the NE, the solution will be reached. May be, it will be too late for them.

  18. When the Ethnic problem created by the Sinhala Buddhist supremist degenerate into Tamil Tiger terrorism, the new generation of Sinhalese and Old generation of Media have one thing in mind. CRUSH THE LTTE AND THE WHOLE PROBLEM IS OVER.

  19. I thing we are giving too much to minority, how about town council or village council for minorities.

    So Mr Prabagaran will achieve Eelam then we think and our arms dealers will be richer

    Can someone tell me where we heading?

  20. Sri Lankan government doesn’t like to spend money for
    NE provinces but willing spent billions to buy weapons.
    Still majority people didn’t understand the reality of the war.

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