Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance


This columnist has been associated for the past several years with that much-maligned minority that can be broadly labelled ‘liberal federalists’ on the question of peace and constitutional reform in Sri Lanka. Allowing for individual nuances of emphasis and premise, Sri Lankan liberal federalists are those who have advocated (a) a negotiated resolution to the ethnic conflict (b) along the lines of a federal-type constitutional settlement that accommodates the secessionist ethno-territorial Tamil minority in the North and East (c) within a united Sri Lanka through regional autonomy and power-sharing at the centre. The key assumptions of this worldview are that a politically liberal conception of a unified Sri Lankan citizenship is both possible and desirable, that this notion of citizenship involves recognition of multiple identities, and that this can be institutionally expressed through federal-type constitutional arrangements reflecting some appropriate configuration of the shared-rule – self-rule ideal. That the constitutional prescriptions of liberal federalists retain enduring relevance in respect of peace in Sri Lanka is beyond reproach, for the federal idea as the fundamental organising principle of a constitutional order embraces a range of options from devolution to confederation. For reasons canvassed below, however, liberal federalists’ political premises about democratic citizenship and the ethno-political foundations of the Sri Lankan State would require to be fundamentally revisited, if the objective is a viable and united Sri Lanka.

Even though the federal idea in Sri Lankan political debates is older than the post-colonial State itself, it only enjoyed a brief moment of mainstream respectability in the aftermath of the Oslo Declaration of 5th December 2003, when the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE stated that their future explorations of a substantive settlement would be guided by the federal idea. The LTTE’s commitment to federalism understood in a conventional sense was less than unequivocal from the start. Its subsequent ISGA proposals (which made no reference to Oslo) revealed that to the extent the LTTE felt constrained by the normative parameters of federalism at all, its understanding of federalism was highly unorthodox, asymmetrical and concerned only with the maximisation of autonomy for the Northeast.

In the South, the federal idea has been comprehensively defeated in the general elections of April 2004 and the presidential elections of November 2005. These two elections have seen a significant realignment of the Southern polity with the ascendancy of majoritarian nationalism, not only in the belief in a military solution to what is perceived as an essentially terrorist problem, but also in the rejection of any notion of political power-sharing apart from the most minimalist administrative decentralisation. Accordingly, we have seen the robust pursuit of counter-insurgency measures against the LTTE, with the government claiming victory in the East. The government vows similar commitment of purpose and conviction that the LTTE will be defeated in the North as well. Many believe that the Northern campaign is the litmus test for the hawks, in that while capturing the East is not unprecedented (although holding it would be), regaining and controlling the more ethnically homogenous North is another matter altogether. In a sense, this gravely misses the point, because conflict resolution is more about how the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others may coexist within a viable constitutional State, than about whether the LTTE or the government prevails in the battlefield. As the late Kethesh Loganathan used to frequently remind this writer, federalism in the Northeast is about a people and a region, not an organisation.

Nevertheless, this is the current context that confronts any attempt at envisioning post-conflict possibilities for Sri Lanka. It is a context in which two nationalisms are pitted against each other, their differences sharpened and entrenched by armed conflict, and further complicated by factors such as the position of the Muslims, and Karuna’s assertion of Eastern Tamil distinctiveness. The ideological reversal of the federalists in Southern electoral politics and dismissal by the LTTE is made worse by what appears to be a distasteful reassertion of pre-modern ethno-nationalism in which many of the liberals’ most cherished values are defiled and destroyed. It is clear in this context that what Sri Lankan liberal federalists face is not only a strategic challenge of popular persuasion; it is also a fundamentally theoretical challenge of how democratic politics and constitutionalism is conceptualised. It can be contended that the very idealism that characterises the liberal federalist project is also a failure to understand the real dynamics of ethno-nationalist politics, which has led to that project being totally sidelined.

The challenge before liberals therefore is how to rationalise political conditions of competing nationalisms in a way that can promote conflict transformation. They are ill equipped to do so with their traditional theoretical tools such as individual autonomy and freedom of choice because this discursive language clearly has no traction in the popular imagination of Sri Lankans of whichever ethnicity. This is why teleological liberal arguments about the need to conceptualise an overarching and inclusive Sri Lankan political identity based on liberal principles of justice such as equality, fairness and respect for diversity have failed. Of course, liberals have been concerned to recognise diversity and institutionally guarantee respect for it through federal autonomy of regions. But the flaw in this approach is that it elevates a politically deracinated conception of liberal democratic citizenship as the identity of the State, and relegates the more resonant sources of popular identity such as ethnicity to be dealt with regionally within federal structures. In this sense, liberal citizenship is actually a unitary ideology that conceives of a single, modern, values-based nation that must constitute the State. This reveals the liberal disdain for pre-modern notions of collective identity such as ethnicity, the persistence of which is an inconvenience that must be addressed through regional autonomy (suitably attenuated with human rights guarantees etc), in the wider interests of conflict management and peace, and not least in the hope that nationalism will one day wither away. It is not only in conflict-affected plural societies such as Sri Lanka that liberals become irrelevant because of this approach to identity; in prosperous and peaceful liberal democracies elsewhere, the experiences of Scotland, Quebec and Catalonia demonstrate that liberalism has had to make fundamental theoretical adaptations in order to rationalise powerful dynamics of sub-State nationalism.

In Sri Lanka, what is clear is that armed conflict among nationalisms has consolidated a historically fragmented and plural society into two distinct polities. Any possibilities that were there for the constitutional accommodation of political space in the traditional liberal mould are now no longer available. The current military phase of the conflict will result in the consolidation of that separation, not unification of the polity, regardless of whether the LTTE (or indeed the State for that matter) is left standing at the end of it. The existence of multiple nationalisms therefore has to be taken at face value. Short of successful secession, the challenge before liberals then is about how to conceptualise Statehood that guarantees liberal values yet addresses the ground reality of plural nationalisms. It is essentially a challenge of transformation of hard and intolerant ethno-nationalisms into nationalisms that are collective identities which can coexist within a multinational State.

Substantively, the departure from liberal orthodoxy is in abandoning Sri Lankan nation-State building, i.e., the constitutional construction of a Sri Lankan political identity, as the principal purpose of post-conflict constitution-making. Likewise, the acrimony and division that has been generated by the current cycle of military conflict, especially in the manner it is conducted, has rendered conventional federal forms inadequate for the construction of a future Sri Lankan State.

In this context, the future Sri Lankan identity can only be a minimalist legal personality. The political legitimacy of the State will need to be derived from the full and equal recognition of multiple nationalisms. Liberal individual autonomy can be guaranteed, but in the relationship between citizen and State, its exercise would be institutionally mediated through the self-determination of the sub-State nationalism to which the citizen belongs. Thus, federal-type arrangements in the architecture of State are not entirely rejected, but they would look more like a confederation than liberal federalists have so far been willing to countenance. It is only by overturning the unitary presumptions of liberal citizenship that underpin federal constitutionalism that liberals can hope to make any relevant intervention in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka. The danger of complete exclusion from the political process is that only liberals have the intellectual wherewithal to salvage democracy and human rights in a future constitutional settlement, which would otherwise be concluded by ethno-nationalists or conservatives. Needless to say, the ideas expressed here would be anathema to majoritarian nationalists in the South. However, the fact is that it is precisely their intolerance and myopia that has brought Sri Lanka to the present pass, and if that leads to secession, it is their problem. But for liberals, the challenge put simply is whether we are prepared to contemplate a multinational confederation, once the guns fall silent.

  • cyberviews

    An interesting and realsitic analysis of a possible future scenario. Are there precedents for this eventuality in modern history? Serbia-Montenegro and the Union of Russian and Belarus are labeled as confederations, but their creation is not the result of a clash of ethno nationalisms but more personal unions. Examples that one could cite of circumstances similar to the Sri Lankan nation forming scenario are East Timor and Aceh, may be Kosovo and the ongoing struggle of the Karen in Burma. In East Timor the moral leadership of Gusmao and the midwifery role of the UN and Australia was necessary for the establishment of an independent East Timor. In Sril Lanka, Prabahakharan has lost the moral ground and the geopolitics being different, such a midwifery role may not be forthcoming. Is there space for moderate forces on both sides to bring the federalist option back again to the table, when the this cycle of war ends and the resulting mutual destruction opens a window for peace as happened in 2002? Northern Irealnd is also case in point.

  • suntzu

    +32 New Countries Created Since 1990

    Since 1990, thirty-two new countries have been created. The dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s caused the creation of most of the newly independent states.

    You probably know about many of these changes but a few of these new countries seemed to slip by almost unnoticed. This comprehensive listing will update you about the countries which have formed since 1990.

    Fifteen new countries became independent with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Most of these countries declared independence a few months preceding the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

    1. Armenia
    2. Azerbaijan
    3. Belarus
    4. Estonia
    5. Georgia
    6. Kazakhstan
    7. Kyrgyzstan
    8. Latvia
    9. Lithuania
    10. Moldova
    11. Russia
    12. Tajikistan
    13. Turkmenistan
    14. Ukraine
    15. Uzbekistan

    Former Yugoslavia
    Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s into five independent countries.
    1. Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 29, 1992
    2. Croatia, June 25, 1991
    3. Macedonia (officially The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) declared independence on September 8, 1991 but wasn’t recognized by the United Nations until 1993 and the United States and Russia in February of 1994
    4. Serbia and Montenegro, (also known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), April 17, 1992 (see below for separate Serbia and Montenegro entries)
    5. Slovenia, June 25, 1991

    Other New Countries
    Nine other countries became independent through a variety of causes.
    • March 21, 1990 – Namibia became independent of South Africa.
    • May 22, 1990 – North and South Yemen merged to form a unified Yemen.
    • October 3, 1990 – East Germany and West Germany merged to form a unified Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
    • September 17, 1991 – The Marshall Islands was part of the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands (administered by the United States) and gained independence as a former colony.
    • September 17, 1991 – Micronesia, previously known as the Caroline Islands, became independent from the United States.
    • January 1, 1993 – The Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent nations when Czechoslovakia dissolved.
    • May 25, 1993 – Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia but seceded and gained independence.
    • October 1, 1994 – Palau was part of the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands (administered by the United States) and gained independence as a former colony.
    • May 20, 2002 – East Timor declared independence from Portugal in 1975 but became independent of Indonesia in 2002.
    • June 3, 2006 – Montenegro was part of Serbia and Montenegro (also known as Yugoslavia) but gained independence after a referendum.
    • June 5, 2006 – Serbia became its own entity after Montenegro split. Kosovo may also gain independence from Serbia in the coming months.

    ps: Nothing is permanent except change…throught history the number of new countries formed in the world has increased…not decreased! If the majority in Sri Lanka do not agree to devolve power to the Tamils the next obvious thing would be a seperate country being formed in the north and east for the tamil speaking people! Only time will tell.

  • cyberviews

    Thanks Suntzu for the very comprehensive list of newly formed countries. How many of these were formed out of a secessionist struggle, similar to what is happening in Sri Lanka? Is the moral factor (respect for human rights, humanitarianism, issues of child sodiers, terroristic acts in the targetting of civilian populations) important in the success of these struggles or do the forces of history override these considerations when reviewed in the larger context of the evolution of nations analogous to geological formations in the evolution of worlds! But I cannot but agree with you that a separate country being formed in the North and East is an obvious hsitorical trajectory for Sri Lanka if meaningful devolution does not take place. It is interesting however to predict the historical process that this would take with examples of other countries if there are similar circumstances or coming up with an hypothesis that can be rationally defended.

  • Singam

    Beyond Federalism appears to be written by a political scientist, but not the Dayan Jeyatilleka kind. He is political but not a scientist. This is a thought provoking article that needs serious consideration by the the parties to the conflict – both combatants and civilians. “Publis” want us to create a unique political system to solve the problem. It is in tune with what Gunasekere expressed in Sivaram’s Memorial lecture. It asks us to think beyond the box. Beyond the West’s ideas of conflict resolution and characteristics of States. With respect to identities I think that identities are not created. Identities evolve in the mind of individuals and groups. I am a Tamil. That is my identity. I hold a Sri Lanka passport and have a Sri Lanka Identity card. Does that make me a Sri Lankan? Passports give certain priveleges to those who hold it. It is a civil document. What is a Sri Lankan identity? There is no such thing as a Sri Lankan identity. No State can legislate identity nor take away identities. identity is a cultural term not a political one.

    You mention ISGA. It is an articulation of the Thimbu Principles and is negotiable. The GOSL did not like either of the documents. You know the CPA surveys. My analysis is that approximately 35% of the Sinhala voters want LTTE defeated in war. Another 30% don’t want to negotiate with them. About 60 percent don’t want North East Merger or Federalism. Tamils would settle for what you are proposing. I would not be surprised if LTTE agrees to negotiate an agreement in the lines you have suggested under a CFA. Can the liberals impress on the APRC to make a proposal in line with your and Gunasekara’s suggestions? If the last 30 years of war is an indicator we can be sure that, until the majority Sinhala voters see your wisdom, the war will continue for generations to come. My wise old brother, who used to be a police officer who did not want to take the Sinhala test – though he can speak and write Sinhala as well as a Sinhalese, laughs at me when in the Eighties I used to tell him Federalism will solve the problem. He said the moment it is proposed, all the Buddhist priests will be marching on the streets with millions of Sinhalese forcing the government to resign. You know that what you are proposing will result in such a march and outcome. It is sad that Sri Lanka’s future is so predictable. We are in a Gridlock. As old Samaranayke’s “Book of Idioms” would say, the Gordian Knot. Civil society has failed to untie it. It does not matter who cuts it, the end result is two pieces. May be three!

  • wijayapala

    Intellectual Deconstruction of the Liberal Federalist

    I would agree with the author that the “liberal federalists” have failed to understand the dynamics of ethnonationalist politics, as this reflects the liberals’ general ignorance of the histories, languages, and cultures of Sri Lanka. The general stereotype of the aforementioned liberal federalist is that of a Colombo-dweller who views conflict resolution largely in terms of Western-contrived theory and prescriptions, which would probably help explain why precious few in the country bother to listen to what they have to say. It is quite interesting to note that the author understands that his “discursive language clearly has no traction in the popular imagination of Sri Lankans of whichever ethnicity,” yet he continues to employ such language as demonstrated by the word “teleological” in the following sentence!

    The author’s basic point appears to be that ethnonationalism cannot be ignored or overlooked by the liberal federalist given that it is a “ground reality,” and that it must be “rationalized.” What does “rationalized” mean? Does it refer to an attempt to find a compromise, or perhaps a third way between Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, as if this could be accomplished under a zero-sum game? Or does the author hope to express, if not explicitly, that he has compromised his liberal ideals to embrace one nationalism, and to declare his opposition to the other? The author has, perhaps unwittingly opted for the latter as amply demonstrated by his prescription, all in the name of “liberal federalism.”

    Anyone with an understanding of ethnonationalism in Sri Lanka knows how both the Sinhalese and Tamil variants employ the use of “homelands” to buttress their political claims. Both nationalisms accept and acknowledge “Sinhala” and “Tamil” homelands, but they both insist on exclusively defining the other’s “homeland” and denying the other’s right to define its own. The Tamil nationalists claim that the Northern and Eastern Provinces, perhaps including the coastal areas of Northwestern Province comprise the Tamil homeland, with the rest of the island as the Sinhala homeland. The Sinhala nationalists argue that the island as a whole is their homeland, as the Tamil homeland is in southern India.

    The political expression of the Sinhala nationalists has been support for the unitary state, a phenomenon constructed not by them but by the British. The Tamil nationalists have often talked about secession, but the pragmatic political goal the LTTE has enunciated since 1990 has been *confederation,* the same political outcome endorsed by the author. Confederation, after all, is based on the aforementioned “two-nation” premise of the LTTE cause and of Tamil nationalism in general. It is intended by the LTTE as a transition state towards separation, but as the author himself states, “it is their [Sinhalese] problem.”

    Having essentially endorsed the Tamil nationalist position, the author stands at a dilemma: does he continue to wear the “liberal federalist” mantle, while the rest of the “Southern polity” sees him for what he is, the (Tamil nationalist) Emperor with No Clothes? Does he thus give justice to the Sinhala nationalist decree that anyone who endorses federalism is a closet separatist and Tamil chauvinist? Or does the author come to terms with the logical outcome of his premise and openly acknowledge what he is, thus sparing the more faithful and true liberal federalists the indignity of having their values thus hijacked?

    In contemplating his answer, the author would be advised to revisit his claim “only liberals have the intellectual wherewithal to salvage democracy and human rights in a future constitutional settlement,” as the loss of the “liberal” moniker may inadvertently imply the loss of the “intellectual wherewithal.” For the time being, a closer study of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, and their genocidal outcomes are in order. One starting point I would propose is Qadri Ismail’s book “Abiding By Sri Lanka.”

  • Suren Raghavan

    Publius (why is that pseudonym is often considered as a manifestation of intellectualism?) obliviously attempting to do the role of a James Madison in SL politics, is well positioning his/her ironic syllogism between liberalism and nationalism. As observed, the unfortunate conclusion among the political theorists in SL is that when one is a liberal he/she by virtue opposes nationalism or vis-à-vis. This is two decade after Yael Tamir argued for a liberal nationalism. ‘Who am I, if you take my language and culture away from me?’ she questioned. Many liberals in SL have intransigently refused to go beyond Anderson’s claim of an imagine community and very arrogantly dismiss the realities of the inveterate nationalism of both sides of the divide. The so labelled liberals in Colombo make sure that the normative justice for nationalism (majoritarian as well as minority) is not mainstream, and in fact is ostracized. For this reason a future Multinational Federal state is a new dream the civil elites of Colombo could cogitate between the sips of their workshop white wines. (Because whether and when SL becomes a Multinational Federal State is not decided by those who gather at star hotels for democracy workshops)

    However, one of the most disregarded aspects in this debate is that the possibility of a Plurinational Democracy, Multinational Federation or a Bi-National Confederation in SL cannot exist without the context of the post Berlin global realpolitick and the regional geopolitical considerations. The long list of newly independent states (NIS) of respondent Suntzu should remind us that none of them were without the direct/indirect embroilment of the regional and global super powers that had undertaken and delivered a robust and muscular political reassurance to the parties to the conflict specially to the majoritarians.
    If the present enigma is a result of the ‘minority mindset’ of the post colonial Sinhalese politics, how could one demand them to concede for a recasting of an ultra modern democratic foundation leading towards a plurinational state, without the satisfying military and political supremacy? Of course this goes for the Tamil Eelam pedagogues in Mullai’ thivu and in many global metro cities as well.

    The pragmatic question to ask is who could then proliferate and compose the needed safety network for both nations (and groups within) as so they could assert their nationalism to the fullest and yet consider to co-exist in SL ( or whatever it may be named as ) and what socio-political setting locally, regionally and internationally will ignite such a process?

  • wijayapala

    Hi suntzu

    Interesting to note that the vast majority of successful separatism since 1990 which you mentioned in your excellent cut-and-paste job occurred in *federations.* You appear to be arguing on behalf of the Sinhala nationalists who claim that federalism will only be one step closer to separatism. Please explain. Thank you.

  • wegener

    The list of new countries is an eye opener. As Cyberviews says, it would be interesting to find out how manyof these emerged after secessionist struggles. It would also be interesting to know how many of them have natural resources of interest for military/industrial usage. Also, any connections between natural resources and secessionism?

  • Suren Raghavan

    Suntzu and Wije (may I)

    In the political history of human civilization state formation is not static or dogmatic. Last 500 years more states have evolved (and devolved) as we see today. There was no USA or Canada mere 200 years ago. There was no Pakistan 60 years ago and there was no Bangladesh 40 years ago. (Similarly, there were east and west Germany mere 15 years ago and 26 different currencies and markets but have more/less become one in the EU)
    So why is that, some us of are so paranoiac about a new state. I am sure you will say no one in proper mind will desire a state created and led by a megalomaniac who believe in terrorism as a way of salvation. Then the issues should be separated:

    1. One opposes because it is a state of terror or
    2. One opposes because it is a state of the Tamils (, Muslims and Singhalese) or
    3. One opposes because he/she believes that the NE (where no meaningful development has taken place for the last 60 years neither 50 percent of the Sinhalese have stepped on, and is the destination to which Colombo often packs away the Tamils) like the rest of that land is owned and therefore should be ruled only by Sinhalese.

    An examination of the responses to these questions will reveal our inner rationales however eloquent liberal one may appear to be.

    If so, there will be an ironic reminder to every narrow nationalist in SL, when they gladly welcome the cricket teams of Pakistan or Bangladesh, these are the neo-national representative of the bloodiest separations that occurred in the land with 5000 years of history and gave the greatest gift to the SL nationalist: the Sinhala language and Buddhist (Non-violent?) religious philosophy.

    True, there are instances where federalism has led to separation. (That is I am afraid not due to any weakness in federalism itself). But fortunately, federal application has brought more ethnic conflicts to an end and kept separatist and opposes together. (1) India is such a living example. Whether it is a coming together federalism, holding together federalisms or going away federalism:(2) the outcome is in the hands of the protagonists not in the theory.

    Finally, in politics, like in many parts of life, don’t we create philosophies out of what we desire and cherish. ‘What we desire to own will make our sorrow or happiness’: Gauthama Buddha [Samaññaphala Sutta]

    (1) Nancy Bermeo “The Import of Institutions” in Journal of Democracy Vol. 13, Number 2, pp 96-100
    (2 )Stepan, Alfred C. Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model Journal of Democracy – Volume 10, Number 4, October 1999, pp. 19-34

  • suntzu

    Suren Raghavan…well done mate…I couldn’t have said it better! Hope your answer satisfies Wijayapala and Wegener.

    ps. Gauthama Buddha also said “Anichaa watha sankara” (Nothing is permanent)
    Hey Suren…haven’t seen you since you left Grant’s…what are you upto now?

  • wijayapala

    Hi Suren Raghavan,

    “So why is that, some us of are so paranoiac about a new state.”

    Perhaps when we consider that the creation of the US and Canada also involved the destruction of the people who were living there previously, the paranoia would be somewhat easier to understand. But I’m game for separating the issue. (sorry, you just gave some bad examples…)

    “If so, there will be an ironic reminder to every narrow nationalist in SL, when they gladly welcome the cricket teams of Pakistan or Bangladesh, these are the neo-national representative of the bloodiest separations that occurred in the land with 5000 years of history and gave the greatest gift to the SL nationalist: the Sinhala language and Buddhist (Non-violent?) religious philosophy.”

    I have no idea what you’re trying to say. What do Pakistan & Bangladesh have to do with Sinhala language & Buddhism??

    “True, there are instances where federalism has led to separation. (That is I am afraid not due to any weakness in federalism itself). But fortunately, federal application has brought more ethnic conflicts to an end and kept separatist and opposes together.”

    What the example shows is that federalism is no sure solution, and more importantly that virtually all successful cases of separation happened in federations. Now you are correct that federalism itself cannot be entirely blamed for this outcome- there are issues such as greed, grievance, and probably some other things involved that I missed. But it seems that federalism or at least a kind of federalism does give the institutional facility for separation. Secession has probably failed in unitary states because the separatists would have to create their institutions from scratch.

    Speaking of the unitary state, perhaps you can tell us how many unitary states have converted to federations? India sure isn’t one of them. Is there a website for us to cut-and-paste?

  • suntzu

    “Ten advantages of a federal constitution” By Geoffrey Walker

    wijayapala check this site out when your free.

  • wijayapala

    Hi suntzu

    Thank you for the article. However it does not answer my question how to turn a unitary state into federal state. It seems more like a self-congratulatory note about Australia, a rather wealthy federation which was never a unitary state. Actually some of his arguments are quite hollow:

    1. “Vote with your feet” – Living conditions in countries, whether federal or unitary are not always a result of mere governance. Some regions have resources and some don’t; some places are more dangerous or more safe. Bihar in India is a very poor state but the people there cannot move en masse to southern India where their language is not spoken. It is a common argument of the Sinhala nationalists that the Tamils have “voted with their feet” by leaving North & East en masse for Colombo, all within a unitary state.

    2. “Experimentation” – it would’ve been nice for the author to have given a concrete example of a successful experiment at the Australian state level which changed the federation. His argument seems to be based on speculation.

    3. “Yet federalism plainly works best when sociocultural differences are not too great or too territorially delineated. Multi-ethnic federations are among the hardest to sustain. Australia’s relative sociocultural homogeneity is therefore an argument for, not against, a federal structure.”

    ???????? It seems like the author would argue against federation for Sri Lanka, a diverse country!!!!

    4. “The federal division of powers protects liberty” – not true in the US, where the federal government prevented the southern states from discriminating against blacks. When the states misuse powers, only the central government has the capacity to check them.

    5. “Federations are exceptionally stable” – not the ones you mentioned above: USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia etc. Federations comprise the vast majority of state breakup.

    The rest of the article appears to show how federalism has worked for Australia. However, it does not demonstrate at all how it is suited for other countries, particularly unitary states which are considering devolution.

  • John Rogers

    As a newcomer to this site and this conversation, I would like to make an observation from the recent experience of a country called Britain, which I hesitate to do in this context, given the negative colonial legacy of my country in your country. However, it is of interest as an example of political evolution rather than revolution.

    Publius said: “Short of successful secession, the challenge before liberals then is about how to conceptualise Statehood that guarantees liberal values yet addresses the ground reality of plural nationalisms. It is essentially a challenge of transformation of hard and intolerant ethno-nationalisms into nationalisms that are collective identities which can coexist within a multinational State.”

    10 years ago the peoples of Scotland and Wales voted in separate referenda for some political devolution of power from London. Scotland won wider powers such as the potential power to raise taxes through its own parliament, whilst Wales is beginning to gain new powers of control over major areas of policy through its national Assembly. People in Scotland and Wales report that they feel their politicians to be more accessible and a majority seem happy with this evolving political settlement, which is indeed short of secession and is a nationalism of a collective identity within a multinational State. Far from perfect, and it gives people scope for expression of their national identity in new ways without bloodshed. Maybe Scotland and Wales may opt for complete secession in the future, who knows? The issue is whether the present settlement satisfies a majority of the people to achieve their aspirations.

    The only people who have a problem with it are some of my own countrymen – English people – but that’s their problem.

    John Rogers

  • wijayapala

    Hi John Rogers, welcome to groundviews.

    Your views are welcome regardless of where you come from, yet we (or I at the least) appreciate your sensitivities regarding Sri Lankan history.

    UK is one successful example of devolution within a unitary state; I’m glad that somebody here finally pointed one out. In this sense it has more lessons for Sri Lanka than countries which have always been federations, like India, Canada, or Australia. Yet there are some issues which make the British case difficult to apply to Sri Lanka.

    First is that there has never been any dispute regarding the unit of devolution in UK, whereas it is a very controversial issue in Sri Lanka. Your English countrymen might disagree with devolution for Scotland, but none of them would dispute the very borders and territory of Scotland or Wales for that matter. In Sri Lanka the constitutional reform process has bogged down over the unit of devolution; some say it should be the larger Province, others say it should be the smaller District. Yet some who call for the Province also demand that two provinces, the North and East be merged to acknowledge a Tamil homeland. The Northern Province has a clear Tamil majority, but the Eastern Province is nearly equally divided between Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, and the non-Tamil communities might not agree with this solution.

    Second major difference is that there isn’t a powerful insurgent force in Scotland or Wales which has a hobby of murdering dissidents or anyone who advocates compromise. Some British feel that given their experience with the IRA and N. Ireland, they have some special insights into how to solve the Sri Lankan conflict. The problem is that the LTTE is not the IRA.

    I am not trying to imply that your opinion is less valid simply because you’re a foreigner. Actually there are a lot of Sri Lankans who are quite clueless yet pass themselves as experts, using weird fuzzy language like “conflict transformation” and “plural nationalism” to show off. As long as you keep the conversation real and do not slip into NGO Conference lingo, you’ll be welcome in my book.

  • Thanks for the welcome, Wijayapala. I count myself a friend of Sri Lanka, having visited several times since 1994, with good Sri Lankan friends, and going through the horror of the tsunami with you on one of my visits during that terrible December.
    I certainly like to keep conversations ‘real’ and get impatient with abstract theory! You are absolutely right to point out the complexities of the Sri Lankan situation and I did not intend the UK situation to be somehow taken as any kind of ‘model’ to be slavishly imitated. It was simply a contribution to the conversation about political situations elsewhere and how they are evolving into new forms.
    I will only use one bit of ‘lingo’ to describe the possibility for profound transformation, sometimes very quickly, and that is ‘the opportunity space’.
    In his documentary movie about climate change ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Al Gore reminds us that history has several examples of this: the American and French Revolutions, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the civil rights movement in America etc. We could add to this the end of the British Empire in India and Sri Lanka because the people said they wanted something different. If you asked most Sri Lankans in 1940 to imagine what your country would be like without the British in control maybe only a few visionaries were able to imagine it and lead a movement for change. It starts with vision and belief and continues with the sheer hard work of organising mass movements for change. What do people believe is possible? To me, this site is a courageous attempt to bring together voices of sanity, moderation and vision to create that ‘opportunity space’ for positive change. If we learned anything here in Europe at all from our history it is that fascists from all shades of the political spectrum, who would deny the self-determination of others, must always be resisted and visions of new possibilities articulated and worked for.

  • suntzu

    Bring back the British! Maybe we can lease Sri Lanka over to Britain for 99 years like it was done in Hong Kong. As long as there is a majority in Sri Lanka dictating terms to the minorities…there is never going to be peace in this country!