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Lessons from Scotland

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images, via Al Jazeera

Scotland has much to teach us. The democratic decision of the UK government to hold a Referendum in Scotland in response to persistent demands from a section of the Scottish people for an independent Scotland (to which the government and a large majority of the population were totally opposed) and the happy outcome (a decisive No vote in Scotland by a majority significantly greater than widely predicted) has many lessons for us. To consolidate the vote against secession, the UK Government needs to deliver on its promise of greater devolution. Moreover, to its credit, it is the Scottish National Party rather than the UK Government that mobilized water participation to a record 84.6%. Irrespective of how they voted, bringing out voters who had never voted before is a service to democracy.

I am not suggesting that there is a need for a similar Referendum in the North or in the Northeast. Neither the Tamil people nor their leaders have ever been seriously interested in secession or asked for such a Referendum. The Vaddukoddai Resolution and other statements made by Tamil leaders in the late 70s under severe pressure from young militant groups were effectively repudiated by every responsible Tamil leader; nor was this the issue on which they gained Tamil votes ever before or thereafter. Proof of this is the full participation of Tamil leaders in the 1881 District Development Council (DDC) Elections, even though those Councils did not have even a semblance of devolution, and comfortably secured all 11 seats in Jaffna district. This was despite extensive (but incompetent) attempts at vote rigging directed by Ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Mathew and  backed by some police and thugs who came in from outside with a DIG sent for the purpose of securing at least some seats for pro-government candidates. That initiative led to deadly violence including the destruction of the priceless Jaffna Public Library, but failed to gain a single seat in the Jaffna DDC. I should know because I was the District Secretary of that first (and only) Jaffna DDC (mid 1981- mid 83) and Government Agent (mid 1981 – mid 1984). I came in to close contact with virtually every political leader and senior public servant as well as very many senior service personnel serving in that district. As the District Secretary, I also had the privilege of working very closely with two admirable men, viz. my District Minister Hon. U.B. Wijekoon and my DDC Chairman “Poddar” Nadarajah (later killed by the LTTE).

The lessons to be learned from the Scottish Referendum include:

  1. Respond to political opposition nonviolently, in a democratic way, which has not been the way of successive governments, still less of the LTTE and other militant groups in Sri Lanka.
  2. Trust the people on all sides to take wise and correct decisions, provided that they have adequate information and are not bullied in to participating in or tolerating violence.
  3. Respect the views and rights of national and regional minorities, especially the right to dissent.
  4. Devolution is not a step towards but, rather, a formidable barrier to secession. This was understood by the UK government (which offered more devolution to Scotland) and the LTTE, which consistently opposed every proposal for devolution (e.g. the Constitutional proposals of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga) as well as the successful functioning of the devolved North East Provincial Council.
  5. National Reconciliation is of the highest priority. Holding the Northern Provincial Council election was a major advance towards that goal but has since been negated by the failure of the State to devolve power. Both in the North and in the East political power lies with the Governors (both military men) who work directly under the President and are not answerable to their Provincial Councils. Even the Chief Secretary works under the Governor and not under the Chief Minister. If a similar situation prevailed in Scotland, the Scots would surely have voted for secession.
  6. There have been some minor advances in recruiting Tamils to State institutions, but their numbers in the public services and, particularly, in the police and armed services are utterly inadequate. This is linked to the language issue on which there has been only very minimal progress. There is no effective alternative to the teaching of both Sinhala and Tamil, and English as well, in every school in the Island, and to adequate ethnic diversity in recruitment to the public, police and armed services.

In any multi ethnic democracy there should be appropriate ethnic diversity at every level of government, the administration and the military. We see this in many countries including the UK, the USA and India. In each of these three countries the current Head of Government is from a minority ethnic group. In fact in India the previous Head of Government was from another minority ethnic group, and the national anthem is sung in the language of yet another minority ethnic group. Such a situation would be unthinkable in Sri Lanka. Even five and a half years after the end of the civil war, progress in implementing the broadly accepted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report is minimal. We have lessons to learn from many multiethnic democracies around the globe and, most recently, from Scotland.