“The state thought we were terrorists, the LTTE thought we were traitors.”- A middle-aged single mother near Batticaloa

By Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

The state thought we were terrorists, the LTTE thought we were traitors.”- A middle-aged single mother near Batticaloa (Eastern Sri Lanka)[i]

By militarily defeating the LTTE, Sri Lanka eliminated a violent advocate for separate Tamil state in the North. Yet, that elimination of the most violent element expression of Tamils’ struggle for autonomy and self-determinationhas not in any way led to a permanent solution for the issue. Today, with the emerging space of democracy created through a hard fought change of an ultra-nationalist regime, we need to give serious thoughts to this pressing issue for if we fail, another generation of people will be forced to fight in vain again, defending an abstract sovereignty. In our understanding, the continuing issue of Tamils’ quest for autonomy in the North is closely linked to ‘state sovereignty’ and ‘integrity of the territory’. This is defined so by the elitist nationalist leadership in the Southern region. However, unless a revolution occurs in the way Sri Lanka perceives sovereignty, the process of nation building will never be complete and an inclusive nation, with all ethnicities will integrated, would remain a pipe dream.

We need to perhaps rethink the meaning of ‘sovereignty’ for small states like Sri Lanka in the context of increasing deterioration of the effectiveness of territorial state globally. In Sri Lanka, the existing borders have not been invincible to international interventions (think IPKF) in the face of the issue of Tamils’ struggle for autonomy. Therefore die-hard elitist Sinhalese perceptions towards Tamils’ way of perceiving state sovereignty has amply demonstrated the hollowness of ‘Sri Lankan’s idea of sovereignty’ without material power to guard it from external interventions. Today, the future of the survival of Sri Lankan state needs to be re-strategized with a mechanism for peaceful co-existence with Tamils and that kind of thinking requires a revolution in the way historically Sri Lanka has perceived sovereignty by excluding Tamils’ ideas on sovereignty. The supposedly contradictory Sri Lankan and Tamil ideas on sovereignty need to be pooled together and a prerequisite for this would be a fundamental change in the idea of sovereignty and the openness to accept the historical reality that Tamils had a sovereignty of their own in this country.

All Sri Lankan leaders, from JR Jayewardene to Mahinda Rajapaksa saw the belligerent Tamils’ struggle as the major obstacle for a possible solution for the ethnic conflict and they strove to defeat the Tamil militants by means of arms and blood-shed. But, it is clear today that Tamils’ struggle for a genuine power sharing agreement within existing borders continues despite the absence of militancy. The fact that Tamil speaking people in the North and the East require a credible amount of autonomy for conducting their own ways of life and existence needs to be humanely realized and their place in the central government too needs to be assured with equal political rights. It is thus necessary to go beyond the traditional concept of ‘unitary sovereignty’ and perhaps create a ‘united sovereignty’. The writer is aware that the issue is not a simple one as we are burdened with painful historical emotions, some true, some incentivized by politicians.

Modi Wigneswaran 2015 March JaffnaYet, it is time to move beyond our painful history while learning lessons from it. One major premise of peace that we all need to realize is the ability to coexist while sharing the same geography and respecting each other’s ways of life. Yet, our two communities need to take serious care of each other’s autonomy and right to self-determination. The Tamils perceive their history, like the Sinhalese, through their own narratives. It is true that there was autonomous existence of a Tamil region; however much the mainstream Sinhalese historical narratives attempt to counter them. The historical animosity between the two communities was buttressed during the colonial administration through its policy of ‘divide and rule’ and the post-independent leadership too failed to envisage the need for coexistence with Tamils by assuring them through constitutional means the guaranteed political rights.

The Sinhala-Buddhist elite ignored Tamils’ perception of the nature of the Sri Lankan State who continued to be dissatisfied with the state structure and the perceivable imbalance against them. The centralized state structure did not encourage the governments occupying the corridors of power with regular shifts in tenures to restructure the State in order that the Tamils in the North and East would get a certain amount of regional autonomy. We need to accept that the Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 could be easily interpreted as sign of the rise of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy to its pinnacle. The contradictions among the ethnic communities regarding the status of religions and languages etc., reveal how much these Constitutions, imposed on the State by ultra-nationalist elites, paved way for prejudiced interpretations from all sides on the understanding of statehood, sovereignty and freedom by ignoring the people.

Jaffna-300x225The Problem of Devolution

While the issue of sovereignty exists in the realm of theory and perception, the practical solutions to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, namely the Provincial Councils, (PC) have not quite achieved their objectives. Recently, the Chief Minister of the Northern region, Mr. Wigneswaran stated in the wake of Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka that the 13th Amendment has not satisfied the aspirations of Tamils and has just become a mechanism subject to the final arbitration of a centralized state under an omnipotent Presidency. Where does Wigneswaran’s dissatisfaction with devolution arise from? Simply, it is from the ethno-nationalist basis through which all ethnic communities approach such an issue. Therefore, it is not possible to ignore Tamils’ claims for more autonomy as long as the South continues to perceive sovereignty as the sole right of the Sinhalese, for that means that the minority cannot contribute to expand the meaning of sovereignty as a united and practical expression of all people of this island.

The historical insensitivity of the South towards North’s struggle has remained the major obstacle for any genuine power sharing arrangement with the Tamils. A culture of distrust between the two communities has contributed to this. Sinhalese fear a separate Tamil state and its possible consequence of perpetual border wars etc. Theoretically, this highlights the fundamental error of understanding and constructing the unity of a state through only the maxims of ‘political realism’. Realism itself is not the problem, but how the theoreticians, mainly nationalist Realists, have applied a mistaken idea of Realism that state sovereignty is something which should remain static for ages and not negotiable even for humane reasons. In fact a modern realist interpretation would simply disregard the idea, particularly for small states and argue that traditional conception of sovereignty is just ‘hypocrisy’ that serves only powerful states’ right to pursue their national interests over that of weak states. On the other hand, it is better if small states like Sri Lanka realize their potential by creating unity through diversity; and they should seriously rethink what sovereignty for them in an increasingly globalised world today where their own budgets are imposed on them by global financial institutions etc.

Sinhalese leaders like President Jayewardene, even under enormous pressure from Mrs. Gandhi and later Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, attempted to project Tamils’ struggle only as a problem of terrorism or an international conspiracy to divide Sri Lanka. It was just an issue of protecting the borders of the state. All elitist nationalist leaders, including Jayewardene, regarded borders to be sacrosanct and gave second place to human beings trapped within them. Therefore, it was always only external pressure which could force the nationalist elites to think of political solutions for the issue. And till date, in no way the thinking of ultra-nationalist elites has undergone any paradigmatic shift and still for them the problem lies with Tamils and not with the inability of the state to accommodate the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country.

The 13th Amendment was a result of sustained diplomatic efforts of India and Sinhala nationalists in all political parties in the South had opposed it. It was no secret that President Jayewardene had to implement the 13th Amendment under enormous pressure from his domestic political constituency and the members of his own party. President Jayewardene agreed to implement the Provincial Councils with the assertion that it would not affect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Also India convinced Sri Lanka that despites its interventions after 1983, it is bound to respect the territorial integrity of its small neighbor. The Southern constituency, except for some leftist elements like Vijaya Kumaratunga etc who supported devolution, interpreted the 13th Amendment as a foundation for creating a separate state within Sri Lanka. However, such emotional interpretations of the early stages of devolution have proven incorrect and utterly stupid. Today, more than the North, the South has embraced the system of Provincial Councils, though the state has to incur a huge expenditure to maintain them.

As Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran has suggested, today, we can rethink of the Provincial Councils and the effectiveness of that system in a centrally governed political system with an omnipotent Executive President. We also feel that the utility of the existence of Provincial Councils in the Southern areas has been only to serve the major political parties to train their next generation of political leadership. This might not be very bad because one can argue that they have just helped broaden the idea of representative democracy and provided opportunity for many sections to enjoy the experience of government at local a level even without real authority.

However, the real impact of provincial councils is yet to be scientifically studied, but hypothetically we feel in the South that the Central Government and its administrative system is quite sufficient for the purpose of distribution of Government resources and to handle administrative functions. Because, we have several layers of administration, politically and administratively controlled – Provincial Councils, Local Governments, and administrative services directly under the central Government etc., we may not feel the existence of Provincial Councils, perhaps except during the election of office-bearers to them. In some subjects like, education or health where Provinces have some power over them we may experience the PCs, but still the central Government seems to overpower all mechanisms of governance in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, more than in the South we need to give priority to the North and East where there had been a distinctively different historical system of power relations and a way of autonomous life. The idea of Tamil’s homeland signifies that they are used to experience a different system of government for centuries, but at present we need to find ways and means to democratically award the North its historical autonomy within a truly federal Sri Lankan state. Quebec model in Canada is one example of a successful implementation of such a system. By allowing their region to function as a somewhat autonomous system within the Tamil dominated areas, we do not necessarily accept their claims for a separate state within Sri Lanka. Quebec is no separate state. It should be realized that even India is not advocating for a separate state for Tamil because it complicates regional security in South Asia and also might fuel separatism in South India. That is why India helped us to defeat the LTTE. However, as was clear from recent statements from the Indian PM, India is not opposed to devolution of powers to the North. However, continuing the problematic status quo, this has to be said, makes it almost certain that LTTE like or even worse groups will emerge in the North sooner or later. Only genuine devolution can make us secure the peace after a hard fought war.

Today, it is clear that our system of nine Provinces adds not much meaning to the existing centralized system of governance; mainly, the problem exists not for the Sinhalese but for the Tamil speaking community. Sri Lanka has taken thirty years to defeat the separatist Tamil militants, but had it seriously given thoughts on moderate Tamil claims for homeland and autonomy, it could have perhaps designed a system of devolution which would have satisfied the vast majority of moderate Tamils.

Sri Lanka thus needs to sincerely look at granting as much autonomy possible for Tamils with a novel system of devolution, which in fact would address the weaknesses of the PCs and other administrative apparatuses. It is obvious to any neutral, dispassionate observer that our present system has not worked, no one would consider decades of Civil war and ethnic conflicts as a success story. It is time we accepted that worked for a positive change by marginalizing ultra-nationalist forces among both Tamils and Sinhalese. The idea of state sovereignty has historically survived many revolutions as Daniel Philpott would call it a ‘revolutions of ideas’, particularly; and therefore Sri Lanka as an old and mature democracy needs to face the next stage of the evolution of its state structure by designing a system that allows more autonomy for the indigenous Tamil community and all Tamil speaking people in the country.


[i] See, Meera Srinivasan, “Running from pillar to post, looking for their loved ones”, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/running-from-pillar-to-post-looking-for-their-loved-ones/article6979158.ece?ref=sliderNews