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

A response to Dayan Jayatilleka’s “Mindless emotionalism and absence of thinking in Tamil politics”

I have been following Mr. Jayatilleka’s articles both on Groundviews and Tamil Week. While I do agree with some of his ideas such as a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka where citizenship is not defined by ethnicity, I disagree with his argument that mostly puts the onus on the Tamil minority to tread the line based on his definition of what constitutes a reasonable approach in their struggle to gain equal citizenship in Sri Lanka.

In his latest article essentially he claims that the 13th amendment is the best the Tamils can expect and they should not push for more because it was offered at a time (1987) when things were more favorable towards the Tamil cause. He also rightly points out that it was more external pressure (India) than internal political maturity on the part of the Sinhalese political class that lead to the 13th amendment. It must be noted that the 13thamendment was not considered as the end all/be all by even the Tamil groups that accepted the Indo-Sri Lankan accord and laid down their weapons and took part in the political process.

From my perspective, the concerns raised by the Tamil political parties including the TULF were legitimate and practical. The concerns were broadly based on the fact that this amendment did not address devolution of power between the central government and the provincial council. All power still was vested with the President and his unelected representative (Governor) had more power than the elected Chief Minister. The Governor who essentially is the agent of the President has more control over public service and distribution of funds than the Chief Minister. Furthermore the Chief Minister is forced to be subservient to the central government due to both the ability of the central authority and it’s agent (Governor) to withhold funds and dismiss the local elected body. In the end the 13th amendment neither addressed the legitimate grievance of the Tamils or clearly defined the devolution of power between the central authority (represented by Sinhalese dominated parties) and provincial authorities represented by local Tamil parties. This is clearly playing out in the Eastern Province right now. The Chief Minister Pillayan has complained repeatedly that he has no real power to perform basic government tasks. Furthermore, he has to content with a central government minister Karuna who continuously is playing the spoiler role. The central government of Mahinda Rajapaksa is playing these two against each other and ignoring both the sprit and letter of the 13th amendment.

Mr. Jayatilleka also tends to over look the fact that for most part Tamil nationalism was a reaction to the actions of the Sri Lankan State. Tamils by nature were conservative and this was reflected in their politics from post independence through 1983. During this period despite repeated provocations, the LTTE and other militant movements did not attract numbers over hundreds for their cause. It was the repeated failure of the Sri Lankan State to address legitimate grievances raised by the Tamil minority and uphold the accords signed by the Tamil Federal party with both SLFP (SWRD Bandaranaka) and the UNP (Dudley Senenayaka) that delegitimized the constitutional approach among the Tamils. Add to this the repeated anti Tamil pogroms from 1956 onwards where the state institutions did not intervene to safeguard the human and property rights of it’s minority citizens lead to the Tamils towards the path of separatist politics.

Furthermore, the Sri Lankan State has not acted on the current laws on the book whether it be fair use of the Tamil language for official purposes, protection of fundamental rights of the Tamils (from abductions, extortions, illegal detentions, executions and rape) and the rule of law (hold state and non state actors accountable when they carry out illegal actions).

I would also point out to Mr. Jayatilleka that there was a fundamental difference between the situation faced by the Indian Tamils in the central part of the country (they were a minority) and the Tamils in the North and East (they were a majority). Mr. Thondaman was astute enough to understand the pressure faced by the central government in the North and the East to negotiate basic citizenship rights for his constituents. However, his constituents still live as third class citizens within Sri Lanka and their integration will depend upon over all political reform that emphasizes the multi-ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State and addresses the economic disparity faced by the estate workers.

If Sri Lanka is to be a viable democratic state then political reforms need to be enacted to address the root causes of the conflict. This could be done based on a two track process. The first track is to enact constitutional reforms that address issues regarding equal citizenship for all communities from the perspective of Religion, Language, Fundamental Human Rights, and Property Rights extra. The ultimate goal here is to establish both in letter and sprit that the Sri Lankan State is neutral from the perspective of ethnicity, religion and language. There should be an emphasis on individual rights while providing equal status for all major communities/ethnicities. It is also important that there be a truth and reconciliation committee such as South Africa’s where there can be an open unbiased evaluation of the actions of the state and non state actors during the conflict. Unless there is an honest examination of the past violations of human rights and political failures there will not be impetus on the part of both the political class and the public to enact real reforms.

The second track needs to address devolution of power for the North and the eastern provinces. The rationale for devolution of power as put forth by the Tamil parties was based on the fact that the Sri Lankan State monopolized resources and power for the Sinhalese while discriminating against minorities. If track number one addresses some of these issues then track two can focus more on regional autonomy that emphasizes economic development over ethic/cultural issues. However, even within this framework there needs to be more devolution than the 13th amendment offers so as to address concerns in regard to the provincial government having more independence to make decisions on economic development, law and order, taxation, education, social services, Infrastructure development and International trade.

While I do believe the Tamil political class will need to re-examine their approach based on global, regional and local realities by no way should they accept a subservient role for the Tamil community as the basis of a permanent solution. This would spell long term doom for both the Tamils and Sinhalese because it does not address the reasons for the ethnic conflict and the failure of the Sri Lankan State to create a common Sri Lankan identity. The thirteenth amendment can be a starting point but it cannot be the framework for a permanent solution.

Finally Mr. Jayatilleka draws some broad comparisons between the Palestinian and the Northern Irish conflict with what he describes as an unrealistic approach by the Tamil political parties. Firstly the Palestinian’s did receive an interim state/entity that was the Palestinian National Authority (Based on the Oslo accord) which was envisioned as one of the steps towards a final settlement that included a separate state for the Palestinians. Hence Mr. Arafat was able to negotiate with Israel understanding that the interim agreement was a stepping stone for a separate state. This is not the case in Sri Lanka. As for the Northern Irish conflict, the British were willing to negotiate with the political arm (Sinn Fein) of the IRA and did not insist on immediate disarmament. Again due to regional developments (European Union) and political developments in UK and the Irish Republic, there was a very different political/economic climate than what existed/exits in Sri Lanka or in the South Asian region.

Both Tamils and Sinhalese nationalist will have to make compromises on their maximalist views concerning the political process. The onus must be on the leaders of both communities to reach a compromise that lays the groundwork for a viable united Sri Lanka where the next fifty years will be defined by economic/social aspirations vs. the ethnic conflict that has been the dominant theme for the last 50 years.