Peace and Conflict

Responding to Sumanasri Liyanage: On Mahinda bowing down to the ‘differing majority’ and On changing the terminology from ‘federal’ to ‘power sharing’

I started off this piece as a comment to Mr. Liyanage’s post which appeared on Groundviews yesterday (13 Septmber 2007) titled ‘Are we going to make the same mistake after 35 years’ but decided to post it in separate given its lengthiness.

Regarding Mr. Liyanage’s wishful thinking that Mahinda is not stead fast on maintaining the unitary character of the state.
While the interpretation given to the Mahinda Chinthanaya is fairly interesting unfortunately I don’t think we need to go into a finer details and employ tools of interpretation of what the Chinthanaya says in this regard – reading this part of the Mahinda Chinthanaya with that part of the Mahinda Chinthanaya and so on. It was quite clear what the populist and public stand of Mahinda was at the Presidential elections and why JHU and JVP decided to support him. The Presidential contest in terms of the issues that it was contested upon was quite clear – the President promised maintaining the unitary character of the state. I do not think the Mahinda Chinthanaya deserves to be read like a constitutional document. The interpretation that the maker gave to it (if it was really him or was it the JHU?) during the election is that he stands for unitary and that’s all it matters. As with regards to the reference that he would change his stance if the majority differs is I wish to submit is clearly linked to his confidence in our majoritarianist set up of political processes. He surely believed and asked the ‘majority’ people in this country to vote for him if they stood for unitary. And the interpretation of his victory would simply be ‘the majority agrees with me’.

It is very difficult for me to understand how the JVP and JHU, as Mr. Liyanage asserts would have implicitly agreed to go through a process to ascertain the views of the people in this regard and accordingly change their hardened positions. For example even a surface reading of the JHU proposals to the APRC would make it abundantly clear that they never will agree to change their hardened positions. (See for example the statement of JHU in page 2 of their proposals: “The JHU emphatically states that Sri Lanka forms one nation that is Sinhalese because Sri Lanka is the homeland of the Sinhalese civilization” and in page 4: “The unitary character is an essential ingredient of the Sri Lankan constitution considering a) its unique Sinhala civilization, b) small extent, and c) the emergence of secessionist trends in the recent past”).

How is the change in terminology – the switch to the ‘power sharing’ terminology going to be helpful? The issue is not the use of the words ‘unitary’ or ‘federal’ anymore but whether you agree that there needs to be a substantive scheme of devolution of powers to reform the state and resolve the ethnic conflict. Any substantive scheme of devolution, I believe, will have the federal spirit within its fold. I don’t see how substituting it with ‘power sharing’ is going to help. What really matters at the end of the day, however, is whether political parties at the end of the process decide whether a package for power sharing is whether ‘federal’ or ‘unitary’. To illustrate, if the JVP and the JHU decide to interpret a package of even a ‘power sharing’ deal to be too ‘forthcoming’ in nature then for them it deserves to be called ‘federal’ which is synonymous with secession.

I also feel that the ‘power sharing’ terminology can be easily used to water down any process towards meaningful devolution. To Mahinda & Co the SLFP proposals to APRC provide for a scheme of ‘power sharing’.

For me the Whearean definition of federalism lays down certain principles that differentiate a federal state from a unitary or a confederal state. (For example, the principle of shared sovereignty, providing that both the federal entities and the central government are coordinate bodies). A system that incorporates these principles for me is important in a devolution scheme for ‘honourable peace’. Even if you call this ‘power sharing’ it will not help. JHU, JVP and the other extremist political forces in the South are anyway inclined to interpret this as ‘federal’ and it in fact is ‘federal’. So what’s the point?

Whether we like it or not people are not going to decide to vote for or against a constitutional package based on a careful reading of the scheme of devolution or whether there is a federal label or not. They will listen to the most vocal proponents and opponents of the scheme’s interpretation and based on their party loyalties vote for or against the package. I don’t see Mahinda, Wimal or Champika campaigning for a substantive scheme of devolution of powers in the recent future unless Lord Buddha himself dawns upon them. Neither do I see Tissa Vitharana, DEW Gunasekera, Vasudeva, Ranil or Choksy campaigning with the same vigour as Mahinda, Wimal or Champika would on the subject and convincing the masses. Do you? Probably I am a bit too cynical to understand Mr. Liyanage’s optimism.