Another Critique of the SLFP Devolution Proposal

Tisaranee Gunasekara (TG) begins her analysis of the SLFP devolution proposal (below) with a quotation from David Green who sang in reference to the US "One day you are gonna wake up in a hostile world where your country no longer has any friends." While this may be the fate of the US it seems to be a reality for Sri Lanka. It is certainly difficult to name any country that can be said to be SL's undisputed friend. Many of those who assist it do so with an ulterior interest. Thus Pakistan supplies arms because of its hostility to India. India of course is SL's enemy being the originator of the LTTE menace. The European countries are being alienated with Germany and Britain cutting off aid. America is a dubious ally in the anti-Terror war and is trying to force devolution or federalism on SL. It would certainly be opportune to ask the "patriots" whom they consider to be SL's unambiguous friends.

TG adds to the scathing criticisms of the SLFP devolution proposal made by many commentators. All these critics, barring ACSLU, have criticized the proposal for not giving enough devolution. ACSLU alone has condemned the whole concept of racial devolution as inappropriate for SL (see ACSLU Blog ID 7.35). In the first paragraph TG seems to think that the concessions given in the Indo-Lanka Accord should be exceeded because the Tamils were not satisfied with them. Why should this Accord be of any relevance now? That Accord is an imposition on SL by the regional bully India. Giving into it was the first Great Betrayal of Sri Lanka. President Jayawardene and his successors have bowed down to India but there is no reason for them to have done so SL should boldly say that it is totally opposed to racial devolution as there are almost no country where this system prevails. Those countries where it had been instituted, as in Yugoslavia, have disintegrated. It is the lack of courage of SL leaders to state this principle publicly, and stick to it, that is the cause of the whole malaise. Giving into racial devolution in whatever form is the first step to national disintegration. This will be hastened in SL where there is already a racist separatist army operating in the land, sea and now in the air.

The main reason that TG adduces against the district devolution in the proposal is that it is less than the devolution proposed in the 13th amendment. This amendment recognized Provinces as the unit of devolution, and even went to the extent of merging the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form the so-called "homeland" of the Tamils. This merger was dissolved by the Supreme Court but still the Province is considered by devolutionists as the ideal unit of devolution. But all Tamils, both LTTE and non-LTTE want the merger of the two provinces as this allows the Tamil majority in the Northern Province to outvote the non-Tamil majority in the Eastern Province. In the article there is no clear case make for reunification of the two provinces, but taking the 13th amendment as the minimum level of devolution makes it an inevitability.

Whatever the level of devolution it may not be possible to appease the the non-LTTE Tamils whose interests TG has been consistently advocating. The non-LTTE Tamils have little power of their own compared to the LTTE either internally or abroad. In the general breakdown of law and order in SL it is only the terrorist with the gun who can make his voice heard. Even though many Tamils may not openly acknowledge the LTTE leader most of them are sympathetic to LTTE terrorism as this is what they see as checkmating what they call "Sinhala Chauvinism". The myth of "Sinhala Chauvinism" has been a powerful myth created by Tamil propaganda.  This myth sould be debunked.

TG too promotes this myth and says that the SLFP proposal is "an integral component of the regime's Sinhala supremacist agenda". The question could be asked: who are these "Sinhala supremacists"? It is well known that the Sinhalas are divided politically three ways between a right (UNP), centre (SLFP-JHU) and left (JVP). The Mahinda regime originally in the centre has moved considerably to the right with the absorption of an influx from the UNP..  The  JHU has no real independent political clout. On the basis of religion the Sinhelas are divided between the Jeushelas and the Boduhelas. The Mahinda regime has been more pro-Jesuhela as shown in its Concordat with the Catholic bishops, it opposition to the JHU Unethical Conversion Bill, and the recent pilgrimage to the Vatican. So while the militant Sinhalas may think they have a hold on the Mahinda regime it is in fact a prisoner of the right-wing and the Jesuhelas. It has moved half-way to the Ranil Wickremesinghe position. But pro-Tamil journalists like TG like to create the myth of a "Sinhala supremacist agenda" when none exists in reality. This "supremacist" bogey is only represented by the so-called Patriotic Lobby who talk about the country being called Sinhaleh or Helabima, about the whole island being the homeland of the Helas, about Buddhism being made the State Religion, and about Sinhala Only being restored (with place names in the North-East reverting to their original Sinhala names). But these are merely rhetorical positions made by empty windbags with no real political power behind them, certainly not from the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Their rhetoric only gives credence to the myth of Sinhala chauvinism.

TG brings out the obvious defects in the SLFP proposal such as the attempt to make the District Councils the unit of devolution, the attempt to revive the Senate which was a disaster when it existed, and other facile solutions like ombudsmen with undefined powers, etc. These have been dealt with in many of the criticisms of the SLFP proposal, including that made by ACSLU. So there is no need to go into them here. The SLFP seems to be already backtracking from its own proposal, and is awaiting the final verdict from the APRC. But the proposed solution should be a matter for GOSL, not for the APRC. The Mahinda regime is tied up in the conundrum of its own making -- the Mahinda Chintanaya promise of "maximum devolution within a unitary state".

Victor Gunasekara

The SLFP's Kamikaze Proposals

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune : 2007-05-06

"One day you are gonna wake up in a hostile world where your country no longer has any friends."David Michael Green (One Day You Are Gonna Wakeup America).

Is it a monumental failure of commonsense, reason and intelligence? Is it a ploy to undermine the APC and avoid any confrontation with Sinhala hardliners? Is it a step forward in a revanchist agenda to revoke some of the key concessions made to Tamils via the Indo-Lanka Accord? What made President Rajapakse think that the Tamils could be satisfied with less devolution than they were granted under the 13th Amendment? What kind of mindset would be capable of spawning a retrogressive formula like the SLFp proposal? What would be the fate of a pluralist country that is ruled by a regime with such a majoritarian supremacist outlook?

It should have been obvious, even to the most commonplace intelligence, that a political solution, in order to be a solution, has to offer a least a sliver of extra devolution to the Tamils. That this self-evident truth is not evident to President Rajapakse is clear from the fact that his political proposals offer Tamils substantially less devolution than they already have under the 13th Amendment. The President's curiously inapt and inept proposals become comprehendible when they are seen in their appropriate context – they belong to a man who does not believe that there is an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.

As the President reiterated during his Vatican visit, he does not believe that there is an ethnic problem and a terrorist problem; he believes that there is no ethnic problem; only a terrorist problem. Once the existence of an ethnic problem is denied, devolution becomes unnecessary; administrative decentralisation, yes; political devolution, no. The Rajapakse administration's proposals are premised on this belief of the non-existence of an ethnic problem, as is its military strategy. This belief precludes the need to win over the Tamil people with either political concessions or a greater observance of human rights. Since there is no ethnic problem, administrative decentralisation would suffice; since there is only a terrorist problem a purely military approach would be in order. Occasionally empty promises will be made about observing human rights and devolving power; but these are just for international consumption, to get the 'bleeding heart liberals' in the international community off our backs.

The APC process is just such a sop aimed at averting international criticism. Given the regime's politico-electoral dependence on its Sinhala hardline allies, proposing or supporting substantial devolution is impossible. This is evidenced by the fate of the Majority Report of the Experts Committee. When the JVP and the JHU objected to the Report, the President moved swiftly to dump it and to reprimand the government officials who backed the Report. A retrogressive proposal can save the regime from the wrath of its hardline allies. Given the vast gulf between the SLFP proposals and the expectation of the minorities (including moderate Tamils who detest the Tigers), the APC will either become embroiled in endless negotiations or collapse. Either way the regime will be able to sidestep the challenge of implementing a political solution to the ethnic problem.

Anti-Devolution; Anti-Democratic

President Rajapakse's political proposals begin with a commitment to "advance a Sri Lankan identity, recognizing the multilingual, religious and cultural character of Sri Lankan society". There is no mention of Sri Lanka being a multi-ethnic country. The omission is a telling one because it is sourced in the Rajapakse worldview. After all, if Sri Lanka is not a multi-ethnic country there cannot be an ethnic problem; and if there is no ethnic problem there is no need for a political solution based on power-sharing. In this context any political concessions made to Tamils would be not just unnecessary but also unpatriotic; devolution for Tamils then become synonymous with appeasing the Tigers.

The SLFP proposals can well be an integral component of the regime's Sinhala supremacist agenda. Retrogression is not sourced in simple-mindedness; it is a requirement of revanchism. Accordingly, the 13th Amendment is not a positive measure to be protected and built upon but an aberration to be negated. The judicial de-merger could be considered a case in point. The replacement of provincial councils with district councils might well be the next logical step in this Sinhala supremacist project to completely repossess the state. Incidentally the JVP and the JHU have already protested noisily about the non-inclusion of the word unitary and the President is said to have held back the proposals for this fatal error to be corrected. It is evident who the President is trying to please and what his priorities are.

The SLFP proposals not only entail less devolution than there already is; they also contain a clause which has the potential of nullifying even this limited devolution by making it contingent on Presidential grace. "There would be a Chief Minister for each district and he would be the Chief Executive for the said district and in the amalgamated district. Each District Council would have three Executive Committees in-charge of the affairs of the district. The Chief Minister shall head the Finance Committee. The District Chief Minister would be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the District Council;

The Chief Minister shall be a member of the District Council" (emphasis mine). This clause makes a mockery of not only devolution but also democracy since the President can appoint as the executive chief minister a member of a party which enjoys his confidence rather than the confidence of a majority of district electorate. For instance, if Party A obtains 90% of the votes and the Party B obtains 10%, there is nothing to prevent the President from appointing as the executive Chief Minister an elected representative from Party B. In any North Eastern district this clause itself can create an ethnic or a religious problem! In other parts of the country, it can cause political strife, as the President can appoint as executive Chief Minister a representative of his party, even if his party has lost the election.

True the President needs the concurrence of the District Council in the appointment of a Chief Minister. What will happen if a majority of the council opposes the President's choice? Would such a disagreement constitute a 'failure in the administration of the district'? In all probability, since the district cannot be administrated without the Chief Minister who is the Chief Executive and the head of the Finance Committee. In such an eventuality Presidential rule may become inevitable: "The President, may if he is satisfied that there is a failure in the administration of the District, assume control over the functioning of the administration of the District and Parliament may confer on the President the power to make statutes for the District until normally is restored". Chaos followed by presidential rule may become a regular occurrence.

Why does the SLFP proposal grant the President the power to appoint the executive chief minister of a district? Is the real aim of the proposal the strengthening of Presidential power? Though the proposals advocate the replacement of the executive president with an executive prime minister, they also state that in the absence of a national consensus "the Executive Presidential system would continue with appropriate Amendments". Apart from the right to appoint the executive chief ministers, the President will also have the right to appoint a majority of the senate. The senate is to consist of 75 members. Of this 25 will be appointed by political parties; 30 district chief ministers will be ex-officio members of the senate; the other 20 will be appointed by the President. Since the President appoints the chief ministers, altogether 50 members of the senate – i.e. an absolute majority – will be presidential nominees. The central government – i.e. the President – will appoint members to the Land and Water Commissions. The District Ethnic Ombudsmen will be appointed by the Minister of Justice in consultation with the President, which means they too will be Presidential nominees. The end result would be a thoroughly lopsided system with a President who effectively controls both the district councils and the second chamber. Given the possible existence of a dynastic agenda on the part of the First Family, this enhancing of presidential powers at the expense of every other institution can have worrying implications.

Undermining the Moderates; Helping the Tigers

Just as the 'Sinhala Only' told the Tamils that they are not quite the equal of the Sinhalese, Mr. Rajapakse's proposals intimate that a political solution to the ethnic problem is beyond the capacities of the dominant segment of the Sinhala polity. This would discredit and undermine moderate Tamils who oppose separation while immeasurably strengthening the Tigers and their Eelam project.

Internationally too Sri Lanka's already dented image will suffer further damage. A regime that is lackadaisical (to put it at its best) about protecting the basic rights of the Tamils and niggardly about devolution has little chance of winning international sympathy and support – without which it is impossible to prevail against the LTTE.

A second chamber filled with Presidential appointees will impose more financial burdens on the country without in anyway addressing minority concerns or enhancing devolution. The proposal to create five more districts will open another can of worms, if there are attempts to carve out new districts in the North-East; this can give rise to ethno-religious clashes. And the Tigers can traduce the SLFP proposals without seeming extremist. The Katunayake Air Port will be closed from 10.30 pm till 4.30 am – as a result of the Air Tiger attacks. The British have decided to suspend the second instalment of a US$ 5.9 million aid package to pay off Sri Lanka's debt to the World Bank. The SLFP's Kamikaze proposals are not only ill premised; they are also supremely ill timed.

Sri Lanka had one other war President who refused to devolve power – JR Jayewardene; his effort to impose a Victor's peace on the Tamils ended in a loss of sovereignty and ignominy. A similar fate may befall Mahinda Rajapakse if he fails to wake up in time, before his Sinhala supremacist dream becomes a Sri Lankan nightmare.

Warring against Untruth

"In the dark words weigh double" – Elias Canetti (The Human Province).

The news that Rajan Hoole and K Sritharan of the UTHR will share the 2007 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is a much needed silver lining in our Cimmerian darkness. In a country where nearly everything is distorted by ethnicity (and less ubiquitously, religion) the UTHR is almost unique in its relentless efforts to respond to events as a Sri Lankan entity. The UTHR is critical of all actors in the Lankan conflict – Lankan regimes, Tigers, anti-Tiger Tamil parties, Sinhala and Tamil extremists - who impose indignities on fellow humans and stand in the way of peace and civilisation.

Messers Hoole and Sritharan have been unsparing in their search to uncover realities which are constantly obfuscated by misplaced loyalties, extremism and intolerance. Their efforts to uncover the truth from a morass of patriotic lies and half truths have brought them not just danger (Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama, a co-founder of the UTHR, was murdered by the Tigers for this sin) but also infamy because societies driven insane by primordial identities do not relish mirrors being held up before them. If we – the majority of Sinhalese and Tamils – manage to wake up from our present chauvinist stupors before we are doomed by our own inanities and misdeeds, it will be because entities like the UTHR exist and endeavour, even in hopeless conditions.