Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Delusions of (power) devolution: Searching post–Prapa possibilities

The elite based political debate in Sri Lanka once again appears to gravitate around the primordial issue of deciding the best mode of power-sharing between the centre and the periphery, primarily between the dominant majoritarian Sinhalas and the battle shamed minority Thamils. In a rather apolitical interventionist manner CPA has released an 800 page volume, a collection of related documents on the theme since 1926.  As a student of Political Science I look forward to having such a valuable collection in my library, irrespective of the possible biasness in justifying the selection as much as omitting process of any document, notwithstanding the order of chapter zing or the editorial preferences.  I have not seen the book yet. (My order inquiry has no reply yet) So this short essay is not about the book but on the paramount issue that precipitate around it: The need and the mode of Power Sharing.

Why should States share power?
The contemporary literature and the realpolitik in modern IR shows that the dialectical debate between the realists and liberals has come to one common agreeing point regarding power politics: that is, some twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the world order is moving towards a post-state condition aptly fuelled by the globalized capital mobilization. Today there is no bi-polar cold war style power division. Instead we have multi polar and pluri centres. While the US is trying to dominate the order, EU is forming alternative and parallel positions. So as Russia, China and India at time collectively (the New East) often individually according to their interests and political profits. This universal power fragmentation trend is inevitably influencing the intra-power positions within almost all states in the world (Political Rights of the women in states like Saudi Arabia is hotly debated now)  After the third wave of Democratization (Huntington 1992) the demands for greater self polity is asserted by many otherwise marginalized identities under a majoritarian hegemonic state order.  Peripheral political dynamics are either vigorously negotiating or formidably challenging the centres for greater autonomy and self rule. Religion, ethnicity, territorial identity and cultural difference have become basis for these bargains. The classic regional example comes from India where over 15 new autonomous linguistic states (provinces) were carved out since 1956 (Agrawal 1995) some of them are as recent as 2001. And the process promises to continue. Currently there are about 200 sovereign states in the world but nearly 5000 different groups who identify themselves as distinct and unique. Whether all these identities are nations thus have the right to statehood is a different question. But the current agreement among scholars is that all 5000 identities cannot claim state sovereignty. (Taylor    the Fourth World debate) Thus the amicable alternative is to seek context specific creative ways of common ground between Separatists and (political) Unitarians. Power sharing therefore is a political evolutionary process and a historical condition forced on the unitary states particularly those who are still stuck in the dominant nation state paradigm like the leading ideology in current Sri Lankan polity. Sri Lanka will have to urgently engage in power sharing for number of ground realities.

  1. She is not a mono identity state – never has been. Even if  one dismiss the Eelath Thamilar, Muslims, Malayaha Thamilar and other identities as recent colonial constructs ( as some ultra nationalists from the south argue) there are undeniable evidence that even amongst the Sinhalas, a territorial/cultural  difference led to the formation of Kanda –Uadarata and Seethawaka kingdoms and they even fought against each other. (Devaraja 1977, De Silva 1997)
  2. Prior to the arrival of the European colonial powers SL was ruled from multiple territorial bases. (Mendis 1998, De Silva 1997) the unitary idea was a pure British administrative institute established in 1817 after the total surrender of Kandyan Kingdom in 1815.
  3. SL unlike any of her South Asian states has suffered due to the failure of the such power sharing in 1971, 1988 and a protracted bloody war from 1983-2009.  The collective result of these internal wars is that the extremely centralized post independent state has failed to fulfil her social contract. Further the economic opportunity cost that has robbed Sri Lanka her position among other multi ethnic states like India and Malaysia. Economic depravity has generated dissolution between the citizenry and the polity of the state.

To arrest this  haemorrhage , and to return to a path of democratic stability and economic development, Sri Lanka has no other alternatives but to engage in the process of power sharing with those who believe they are outside of the current power structures, unable to be what they wish to be and have decided to challenge the state. May this process be ‘home grown’, ‘acceptable by all’ and ‘peace with dignity’’ or any other form, the end day reality is for a democratic (united) Sri Lanka power sharing is an unconditional prerequisite.

Devolution, Decentralization or Federalism
If we manage to convince the cynics on the need to share power with the multiple identities in Sri Lanka, then we may enter the political debate on the form or shape of the power sharing that is suitable, acceptable and able to reverse the current abysmal failed conditions. Unfortunately for us given to the thankless enterprise of free education introduced by the British Colonial power, we are a literate crowd – at least in the sense of the ability to read and write. So, many of us write and almost all of us read. Anderson (1983) argued that print media (capitalism) was responsible for narrow nationalism.  I disagree with his ‘nationalism big-bang’ theory. Because for us nationalism was there well before Gutenberg found the printing machine. (Read any of our Vamsa literature, especially the Mahavamsa, starting from 6th BCE. Nationalism oozes out of every page) but print media helped form a kind of nationalism that we suffer from. One example is the very loose use and misuse of politically distinctive terms such as devolution, decentralization and federalism in our mainstream media and debates without the actual meaning attaching to them. Due to the word limits imposed, without elaboration,

Devolution (Balaya Bedaharima-note not Balaya Bedaganeema in Sinhala and Athigahara Paraval in Thamil) means to hold the final and all ultimate powers in one centre but delegate some tasks to be performed on behalf of the centre. E.g. the property tax collected by the local authority in Sri Lanka but it has no rights to use it. If properly functioned they will be very close to democratic centralism like some former communist regimes used to be. UK, the Mecca of parliamentary democracy has repeatedly suffered with arrangement. The Home Rule Bills of 1886, 1893 and 1912 failed leading a bloody separatist war in the Northern Ireland. In SL many of these 3rd tire institutions have become structures with minimal functional validities; they are light years away from the changing needs of a multinational/pluricultural society. How many TC/UC and MC offer their services in all three languages? It is faster to go to Colombo DRP for your national ID than to work through the local agent. My friends tells me that they could do the driver’s test in Thamil in London but not in Nuwara Eliya- the majority Thamil district in outside of Northeast

Decentralization (Vimadyagatha or Athigahra Pirivu), on the other hand, is to effectively transfer some identified powers currently held by a centre. Here the centre and the sub unit agree on the area, amount and accountability of such powers E. g. As road developments and education ministries in Sri Lanka under the Provincial Councils supposed to be. Centre originally had the power yet voluntarily hands over to the periphery with accountability and the ability to take it back. The much talked about 13th amendment crafted in the shadow of the Indian model, in theory supposed to achieve this. Here while a uniformed set of functions are devolved, there is room for asymmetrical devolution meaning some provinces will negotiate for specific responsibilities to brought under them.

Federalising (Unfortunately there is still no technically correct Sinhala term. The word Visandi that is often used means Confederated which is a very advance form of Federations.  Samshti in Thamil)  is where the centre will constitutionally recognize the equal partnership of the peripheral identities and their polity,  except for few key areas (such as National Defence, Central Bank and Citizenship) will volunteer to hand over most of the powers to the identified ‘covenant’ units. By this, the centre become the real guardian of those powers yet let the units work it out as best suitable for them. Very much like parents guiding their children to grow. Be there but not interfere. It is a bilateral based on mutual trust and respect as opposed to fear and envy.  There are various types and degrees of Federalisms practised in the world from quasi to Confederal because the guiding principles of Federalism are universal thus adoptable even without any labelling  (Karmis and Wayne 2005, and Burgess 2006 & 2008) The central elements that causes ontological insecurities amongst the contemporary Sinhala analysts whether  they are like Professor Santha Hennayaka, Dr Dayan Jayathilaka, or  Malinda Seneviratne (there are more, but to me these three opponents of Federalism in SL belong to three different dominant idea groups in the south)  are

  1. For federalism, the fundamental nuances are equality of citizenship in a very liberal sense. While the canonical Theravada Buddhism would certainly support such social position, in reality, postcolonial Sinhala Buddhism is opposed to such consideration.
  2. Federal constitution, once given such powers, the centre cannot grab it back without proper negotiation and agreements. The Federal -Provincial (or State) negotiations in the USA and Canada are an empirical example for this. The sophistication of the Federal principles is that a collective responsibility runs through the federated unit as well. Even while they have the constitutional guarantees, their freedom should be claimed only after democratic negotiations. The Quebec demand for greater autonomy and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling is a case to study. A functioning federal constitution like in Switzerland that is smaller than SL, but with multiple national identities and linguistic territories, constantly engages in consultation. Of course, for this fundamental is a political culture of equality –Without any hegemonic position for any particular group. Until pulverized, the LTTE did not display the political maturity nor build confidence for such responsibilities. They claimed a near confederation as a minimalist demand through their ISGA, which of course was far beyond the maximalist consideration the Sinhalas were willing to go.  LTTE in all its dealing did not move from the position of a separate state as their ultimate goal and the willingness to seek such end through military means. This political gap between the minimum supply and maximum demand padded with the ethnocentric militarism advanced by the LTTE and reciprocated by GOSL, has created an iron paradigm in the minds of the Sinhalas generously nurtured by their political and cultural power seekers making Federalism the ‘F’ word even among those who knows an F about Federalism.

    Which Way Forward?
    Obviously the devolution structure that is in place from the Gramasewaka, AGA, TC, UC MC often malfunctioning and invalid compared to the growing need and satisfaction level of the modern citizens. They have failed to deliver the socio-political and economic expectation even way back in 1971. Because resistance, be it JVP or LTTE cannot be inorganic.  First they grow in the minds of an unsatisfied people. The dead white elephant in the Provincial Councils system after 20 odd years of practice has not answered the central anxieties amongst many. Douglas Devananda and Pillayan, who have collaborated with the Sinhala governments for a long period and under unique conditions, have often ventilated their frustrations.  Then how do we go forward and reverse the present conditions before they devour our next generation?

    Federalism is demanded by the Thamils as a means of internal self determination even without the LTTE. But Sinhalas vigorously reject it fearing that as a step towards the separation. Between these end of the negotiation table is there is a common currency that would facilitate a culture of trust and respect that eventually will cultivate the wider political context where the gaps are reduced and reciprocal political accommodation is possible. I strongly believe in such possibilities.  Towards that end in the immediate run, the MR (or any southern) administration should

    1. Implement (vigorously implement not just talk of it) the language, cultural and social rights of the minorities as the present constitution guarantees.
    2. Minimize the dinosaurs size state corruption and implement a sustainable economic development in the North as well as in the deep South
    3. Strengthen the independence of core civic institutions such the judiciary and law enforcement
    4. Allow genuine multiparty politics and elections in the Northeast without the state imposed hegemony.
    5. Promote a nationwide education on multinational democracy  and HR

    Perhaps after a period of such honest political reforms one could re-enter the debate of Federalism vs. Unitary in a different environment with a different set of experiences and values. Insha Allah as my friends will say then the demands may be less while the willingness of the ruling Sinhalas will be abundant.