Unitary constitution for ensuring Sinhala supremacy?

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The set of SLFP proposals for resolving the prolonged ethnic conflict through constitutional reform announced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on April 30 has been amended subsequently to make the unitary feature unambiguous. The amendment followed the criticism by the ultra Sinhala nationalist parties, especially the JVP and JHU that the proposals contradicted the promise given to the voters at the November 2005 Presidential election via the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ manifesto. After 50 years of troubles with the unitary structure, the belief unitary system is crucial for the survival of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation has not changed.

To some ultra nationalists the proposals implied a federal structure, while another group complained these would lead to the emergence of an independent Tamil state in the North-East! This phobia is nothing new. It has been displayed instantly, whenever any devolution of powers beneficial to the ethnic minority is mooted. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution enabled the setting up of Provincial Councils with very limited powers. The PC system was opposed violently by the JVP at the beginning for the same reason. Had there been no Tamil majority province, no group would have opposed it. The SLFP too opposed the setting up of Provincial Councils for nationalistic and political reasons. Later both the JVP and SLFP changed their stances and accepted the PC system. Some Provincial Councils are now under their control.

Emphasis on unitary

The SLFP Executive Committee on May 14 unanimously endorsed the revised version of the party’s proposals which states, “Sri Lanka is a free, sovereign, independent, unitary State.” The word ‘unitary’ has taken precedence over ‘united’ and all reasonable persons know unity has not been achieved through the adoption of the unitary system. Only destruction, division, deprivation of human rights and prosperity and desolation ensued. UNP Reformists’ Group leader, Karu Jayasuriya while submitting the group’s devolution proposals rightly said – “since 1948 Sri Lanka had been stagnating politically, economically, culturally and socially. Paying lip service to national issues, the then rulers had driven the country backward”. Well said; the dilemma here lies in taking boldly the remedial moves against the forces hindering change.

The proposals also restate that Buddhism would be given the “foremost” place and its interests advanced and the Buddha Sasana would be protected. A pertinent question that one may justly ask is: From where the threat to the Buddha Sasana is coming or expected? The Jathika Hela Urumaya in a statement signed by the party’s General Secretary Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera thanked the President for amending the SLFP proposals to uphold country’s unitary status and pride of place to Buddhism in keeping with the mandate he received in November 2005. The statement said that this amenability proved that he is a true leader, who honoured the people’s mandate. This, no doubt, is what President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to boost up his popularity amongst the Sinhala nationalists.

But, the Patriotic National Movement’s (PNM) Co-president, Wimal Weerawansa who is also the JVP parliamentary group leader told a media conference May 17 that the SLFP proposal was “akin to an egg with nothing inside”. Another PNM Co-president Gunadasa Amarasekara said Mahinda Rajapakse’s Government was beginning to toe the line of the foreign powers. He said: the to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) Chairman, “Tissa Vithrana’s proposals will conform to an international agenda to divide the country. This is a dangerous situation. We must vehemently oppose that move.” PNM leaders were also upset the President had told a delegation of Tamil leaders committed to democracy, pluralism, unity and one unified Country that SLFP would agree with the APRC’s decision. This approach appeasing all sides while hoping somehow the present structure will remain basically unchanged is to say the least dodgy. The country may end in a bigger mess than she is now, because of the tardiness of the leadership. Circumstances under which the B-C pact was torn up five decades ago are well known and the same forces are now openly and more forcefully ready to kill any sensible move to start building a politically stable and economically strong multi-ethnic nation.

Undivided Sinhala-Buddhist nation

The view that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation and it has to be protected against a potential threat seems to have influenced the minds of the authors as well as the backers of the SLFP proposals. In their view, the Tamils need to be kept powerless and under control for safeguarding Sinhala supremacy. The proposals have no relevance to the ethnic problem or stated more aptly the ethnic majority-minority division in politics that has deprived peace and prosperity to the majority of the citizens. It was also said to be a ‘national problem’ and if this refers to the Sinhala Nation, then the approach implied in the SLFP proposals is logical. Peace too seems to be viewed from this ‘national’ perspective; that is on the terms set by the nationalists. The LTTE too continue to state they are for peace and not war. Like the Sinhala nationalists, the peace they are seeking is on their terms. During the brief respite immediately after the 2002 truce, many believed both sides were negotiating for permanent peace. But the fact is they were seeking peace by other means, not through permanent cessation of hostilities followed by constitutional settlement and importantly truth and reconciliation.

The Sinhala nationalists do not want to admit that the country is already divided along ethnic lines as a result of the divisive policies of past governments. Destructive party politics which has also been the bane of the country continues to play a crucial role in winning strategic points to the rivals at the cost of depriving the country stability and progress in virtually all fields. Politics and religion should be kept apart otherwise there is always a danger to peace in a pluralistic society. A rational set of proposals for national unity and lasting peace should focus not on preserving Sinhala –Buddhist hegemony and preventing the ultimate division of the Nation but on building trust and shared identity which require fundamental changes to the system that brought the country to the current gloomy state of despair and uncertainty. This is more strikingly evident now than ever before.

The Asian Human Rights Commission in a statement issued on May 22 said: “Sri Lanka is facing lawlessness of epidemic proportions. Such lawlessness is manifested by the ongoing abductions and forced disappearances, the spate of crime in all areas of life”. Besides, the skyrocketed cost of living, the widespread fear psychosis and impending economic recession, evident from the high spending on defence, high debt servicing obligations, sharp drop in tourist arrivals and reduced foreign capital inflows (except private remittances) add to the dreariness. As JVP has been shouting, undeterred corruption in the public sector (one positive action of the radicals from a true national perspective) is also alarming. Government can go for printing the required Rupees and increase money supply but this will not help to increase domestic production or imports.

Recently, the Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen remarked – Sri Lanka successfully implemented a number of welfare programmes such as free education, free health etc., to its people which should have contributed to country-wide peace. But, by taking a position of upholding exclusive status to the Sinhalese majority and Buddhism, it isolated other sections of the society from having a sense of national identity. Prof. Sen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his work in welfare economics, delivered the Spring Lecture on Poverty, War and Peace, at the Nobel Institute, Oslo, on 21 May 2007. He has correctly identified the root cause of Sri Lanka’s economic stagnation and social unrest.

Sinhala political class

The Sinhala political class has emerged as a privilege group by manipulating the unitary constitution, while the ethnic minorities remain marginalized. The manipulations have enabled the politicians to cast their views as public opinion without wide discourse and ignoring the opinions of the few concerned citizens expressed in nongovernmental daily and weekly journals. Recent move to prevent the media expressing views on important matters or events critical of the government’s actions or inaction has been condemned by foreign governments and local and foreign organizations committed to media freedom. The Sinhala majority rule established under the masquerade of the unitary system has done more harm than good for the majority of the people and the country as a whole. The problem is not in the concept per se but its exploitation by the political parties to serve their narrow interests. They have also been seeking popular support from the Sinhala electorate in various ways and some negatively at the cost of denying equal rights to the minorities and neglecting their concerns and aspirations.

What Sri Lanka has been experiencing as a result of the unitary system is political crisis with many facets; the ethnic conflict is just one of them. Any manipulation of the unitary constitution without equitable power- sharing arrangement among the different ethnic communities will not lead to the resolution of the ‘National Question’ on which depend unity, political stability, durable peace and sustained economic growth and development. Besides the perks and enrichment opportunities, the cost of providing security to present and past members is now a sizeable drain on the public finances. It is the very weakness in the present political system that has also led to the formation of the oversize Council of ministers (some non-cabinet members) to administer the relatively very small country.

Prof. Vitharana’s challenging task

The APRC was set up by the President to evolve a consensus-based devolution system for Sri Lanka. The Chairman of the APRC and cabinet minister, Prof Tissa Vitharana, announced earlier that his set of proposals fusing the recommendations in the majority and minority reports of the Experts Panel (also set up by the President) would be the basic document for discussion. He said on May 18 that this document could be subjected to amendments and alterations during the deliberations of the Committee. Apparently, this was to avoid wasting time by discussing the diverse sets of proposals of each and every party in minute detail and this had been agreed earlier by the Committee. However with fundamentally contradictory proposals submitted by SLFP, it remains to be seen how a ‘consensus-based’ set of proposals acceptable to both the realists and zealous patriots of the Sinhala nation could emerge through Prof. Vitharana’s sensible approach.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia, Richard Boucher who visited Sri Lanka May 8-10 is also reported to have told the Government that “the US believes the ‘talks’ should be based on the proposals submitted by the APRC chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana”. At the end of his 3-day visit, he said – “it is important the Tamil minority got a place in Sri Lanka where they could run their own affairs”. It should be noted that he did not say this has to be via a separate state or under the authoritarian rule of the LTTE. He also reiterated that the US still regards the LTTE as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. It is unfortunate at this critical time this ‘label’ hangs on.

Any difficult suggestion or punitive action that hurts the interests of the ruling party and its leader is dismissed by the ‘patriots’ as unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of sovereign Sri Lanka. Recently the Head of State responded defiantly to the curtailment of promised aid relief by the UK government. He announced at a meeting with Editors and senior editorial staff of the print and electronic media May 16 that the Government will finance the post-Tsunami rehabilitation programmes with own resources. Germany and the US had also shown their discontent by curtailing some aid. He told the gathering that “his Administration could do without foreign aid. If we are offered ‘genuine aid’ we will take it; if not we will forget about aid and do our job. We will not be dependent on aid.” He added: “We will use our own money. We cannot wait for assistance from any sources to carry out our responsibilities.” Such impulsive reactions ignoring the ground realities could have far-reaching consequences detrimental to the welfare of the people and the country. The relevance of this rhetoric to the present analysis is in the short-sighted views taken on the country’s complex problems. The continued attachment to the unitary structure also ignores realities and the wide and long-term perspectives.

Attitude before and after independence

Sarath de Alwis in the May 16 ‘Morning Leader’ has given an illuminating account of the feelings of the erstwhile Ceylon National Congress leaders on the citizenry. His observations are based on the Documents of The Ceylon National Congress and National Politics in Ceylon 1929-1950 published in four volumes by the Department of National Archives. The following excerpts from the relevant motions of the Ceylon National congress reflect the noble aim of establishing united sovereign Nation on the basis of “equality of all nationalities and of common interest, goodwill and trust”.

Pieter Keuneman’s draft motion (November 1944) regarding a federal constitution, inter alia, stated: “The Congress recognises that a free Ceylon can only be built on the secure basis of independence from foreign rule, of equality of nationalities and of common interest, goodwill and trust. As the most economically developed areas in Ceylon are in the main located in the traditional homelands of only one nationality — the Sinhalese people — and as the entire people of Ceylon have contributed and will continue to contribute towards the development of the country, the Congress decrees that it is in the interests of all nationalities and minorities that a free Ceylon should be a united Ceylon.

At the same time, the congress recognises the democratic principle that the people of any nationality — for instance the Tamil people — who have a contiguous territory to which it is attached by historical tradition, its own language, culture, psychological make — up and common economic life, should have in a free and united Ceylon the right to unfettered self determination on its own territory, including the right to political secession. The Congress further declares that, in the common and separate interests of the people, the future free Ceylon will have a united Democratic Republic of autonomous national regions, such autonomous national regions will not, of course, correspond to the present provinces but should be delimited so that a predominant majority of people of any particular nationality are included in a contiguous territory”.

Furthermore, the motion stated: “ …in such a free, united and democratic Ceylon: (a) the rights of interspersed minorities in the autonomous national regions regarding their language, culture, education, schools, and freedom of religious freedom of religious worship will be guaranteed by statute. Similarly, all privileges and discrimination based on caste, race or community will be abolished by statute and any infringement of the above will be made a penal offence. (b) those Indians now in Ceylon, who are prepared to adopt Ceylon as their permanent home will be given full citizenship rights. Ceylon will, of course, have the right to control further immigration according to her own national interests” One of his close associates at that time was Mr.A.Vaidialingam.

This motion was withdrawn by Peter Keuneman on 2nd December 1944, when the All Ceylon National Congress Committee adopted an amended resolution. The following are excerpts from the approved resolution.

– the Congress cannot think in terms of winning freedom without dispelling from the minds of the minorities the fear that the Sinhala people will use their predominant majority against the democratic rights and national existence of the minorities.

– the Congress recognises that a free Ceylon can only be built on the secure basis of independence from foreign rule, of equality of nationalities, and of common interest, good will and trust.

– the Congress further declares that in such a free, united and democratic Ceylon

(a) the right of minorities regarding culture, education, schools and freedom of religious worship will be guaranteed by statute. Similarly, all privileges and discriminations based on caste, race or community will be abolished by statute and any infringement of the above will be made a penal offence.

(b) Those Indians and Nationals of other countries in Ceylon who are prepared to adopt Ceylon as their permanent home and give proof of such intention will be given full citizenship rights.

As stated by Sarath de Alwis, the above expressions “reflect the degree of understanding of the majority community leaders of the concerns of all minorities” whose prime concern then was gaining independence from the British colonial government. They declared, the creed of Congress was ‘free Ceylon’. The impression, once the powers are transferred to the natives, they will amicably sort out all problems relating to governance was given to the members of the Soulbury Commission. The first blow soon after independence was on the Up-country Tamils or as commonly called then ‘Indian Tamils’. The Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948, the same year Ceylon gained independence deprived many in this minority community their citizenship and voting rights. By 1964 there were nearly a million ‘stateless’ persons. Out of the total 95 seats in the first Parliament, there were 7 Ceylon Indian Congress MPs and in the second (1952) Parliament there was none representing the Up-country Tamils. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam foresaw the blows to come on the indigenous Tamil speaking minority and left the Tamil Congress led by G. G. Ponnambalam, who was a government minister then and formed the Federal Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi). The Tamil people rejected federalism (self-rule) and remained loyal to the unitary constitution, until they received the next blow by way of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. There have been other punches not through the enactment of special legislations but by administrative means. Thus, the ‘Tamil Eelam’ concept was thrust on the Tamils by the Sinhala polity. Equally, the LTTE too is their baby.

Reverting to the pre-independence era, the undertaking to give due consideration to the concerns, interests, rights and aspirations of the minorities in exercising the self-ruling powers was brashly dumped after independence. Having experienced deception, utter disappointment and anguish because of the discriminatory ways the minorities were treated contrary to the hopes given earlier, the options available now are: “Assimilation, integration, separation., or as some suggest total destruction of the enemy.” If integration is the preferred or rather feasible option, it is “possible if, an honest effort is made by all parties concerned and the issues are addressed avoiding manipulative politics and the irresistible instinct for spin”. One way to integration is through a federal constitution or adequate devolution of powers. The SLFP proposals have dodged the very issues that should be addressed directly to rectify the acts of omission and commission that have driven the country to be at war with itself. The proposals do not even come close to the system of Provincial Councils introduced under the 13th Amendment. The moderate Tamils are now seeking integration via the principles and proposals contained in Pieter Keuneman’s November 1944 original draft resolution.

Devolution and decentralization

The distinction between devolution and decentralization lies principally on the extent and kind of control the central authority has over the regional and local authorities after the transfer of some powers. Decentralization is essentially dispersion or distribution of certain specified functions and powers to subsidiary bodies. These generally relate to administrative matters and by-laws to regulate their affairs. For example, the Municipal Councils perform certain functions for the good of the residents with restricted powers. The State controls the subsidiaries in various ways – legally, administratively and financially. If there are many units at the second tier or level to perform the functions locally, then it is decentralization and not devolution of powers in the sense of home-rule or self-government. In general, devolution is applicable when locally elected quasi-autonomous bodies under the overall governing structure of the State raise their own revenues for current spending including education, health, transport and other public services and the maintenance of related infrastructures as well as have the authority to make investment decisions independently. Some will have legislative and judicial powers. Fiscal devolution is also vital for effective self-rule. All these need not necessarily be under a typical federal system. The independence of sub-national governments under federal systems is guaranteed in their national constitutions.

In the United States, devolution has been linked to ‘Home Rule’. Specific character of ‘home rule’ varies from state to state. 37 states provide for structural ‘home rule’, permitting communities to incorporate and create local governments, while 31 allow functional ‘home rule’, in which city or county governments may exercise power in such areas as public works, social services and economic development.

Asymmetric devolution which some consider as appropriate for Sri Lanka is also functioning in the UK, which is neither a federal nor a unitary State. Scotland has the most power followed by Northern Ireland, Wales and London. Devolution in the UK is regarded as the transfer of Whitehall powers in some definite areas but not all, for example, defence. Scotland even has own Parliament, currency and laws. In any ethnically and territorially diverse countries, extensive devolution enables the local communities in the different regions to make decisions according to their own needs and aspirations and seek suitable solutions to their problems independently.

There is definitely a case for asymmetric devolution in Sri Lanka, given the nature of the problems created by the leaders exploiting the unitary system of government for strengthening and sustaining Sinhala majority rule. The SLFP proposals seek to achieve the same. Without the devolution of adequate legislative, executive and judicial powers, the root causes of the ethnic problem that has escalated to a costly war for the division of the island cannot be removed. With district as the unit of devolution only very limited powers can be transferred and this will not be sufficiently effective to meet the need. The ability to function effectively depends among other factors, crucially on the availability of funds. At present the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils is responsible for the appropriation of funds allocated in the government budget for PCs. This arrangement also enables the government to maintain control over the PCs. It is inconceivable a small financially and economically dependent island such as Sri Lanka to have 30 ‘self-governing’ districts. If asymmetric devolution is not possible for whatever reason (some may consider this to be akin to confederation), then for symmetrical devolution the unit of devolution has to be even larger than the existing provinces. Actually, there is no vigorous demand for maximum devolution outside the North-East. The PC system was introduced nationwide to avoid dispensation exclusively to the North-East and the consequential anger and upheaval in the South.

Unit of devolution

The Sinhalese legal luminaries and political pundits wanting districts instead of provinces as agreed with India in 1987 for devolving powers are conveniently forgetting the violence, denial of equal rights and opportunities, non-implementation of legislative Acts and declared government policies meant to solve the problems faced by the Tamil speaking people and their feelings of insecurity, humiliation and hopelessness endured under the unitary system which entrenched firmly the Sinhala majority rule. They have put forward arguments which are sensible in theory, ignoring the ground realities.

The Swarajya Movement in the statement on the SLFP Proposals has welcomed the Grama Rajyas (Village Councils) “as a basic level of devolved power”. The reason given is that politicians cause divisions to the detriment of village peace and unity by demanding party affiliations. “People’s interests like Women, Youth, Food Production, Services and Heritage will be well served by Peoples Councils with representatives “elected without political party patronage to advance the respective interests agreed as priorities with the village people”. There is no doubt this will also serve to make democracy more meaningful. But the problem facing the people, particularly the ethnic minorities is not at the village level. The Grama Rajyas can be set up by reforming the existing system of local government. For these to be effective as desired, appropriate allocations of responsibilities, functions and finances are needed. The notion that power should emanate from the bottom to the top, instead of the other way, is also sound in theory on the presumption that the Society is one communion sharing common interests, concerns and aspirations. Unfortunately, this is not the case now for the reasons already stated.

Recently, many harsh decisions have been justified on the grounds of national security. Security is, no doubt, vital for the survival of a nation. The distressed Tamils and Muslims are also concerned about their collective security. It is here the North-East region, where the Tamil speaking people have lived for centuries observing their traditional values and customs becomes important to them. The concerns of the Muslims in the East are understandable in the light of the ghastly inhuman acts carried out in the name of ‘liberation of Tamils’. The long-term security and future of the Tamil speaking people depends on a new overall structure for the island-nation that enables them to manage their affairs independently in their traditional habitat. This also seems to be the considered view of the international community, which has received further justification as a result of the recent happenings on several fronts

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

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