TNA Demand for Federalism is Reasonable

by Laksiri Fernando

( January 31, 2016, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The demand for federalism coming from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is reasonable. The question is how best to accommodate it within the existing realities. In my view, it could best be accommodated within the rubric of devolution.

It is not only from the Tamil community that the demand has come from. The first to demand federalism was the Kandyan Association in 1927. The founder of the SLFP, SWRD Bandaranaike was a firm advocate of federalism in the 1930s. There were more specific reasons for the founder of the Federal Party (FP), SJV Chelvanayakam, to demand federalism in 1949.

Some Reasons

With the deprivation of citizenship and franchise of the plantation Tamil community in 1949, a threat was perceived to the Tamil community in general. That was the genesis of the federal demand today, and the perception was not incorrect judging by the experiences of the 1950s and thereafter.

The demand for a separate state is a different one although the ‘federalists’ capitulated to that extremist demand under the heat of the events or circumstances. Otherwise, the demand for federalism cannot be considered an extremist demand. As separatism is now defeated, it is reasonable to consider the demand for federalism in an amicable manner.

Can there be risks? There can be risks but those can be minimized or shielded. This is where compromises are necessary.

There are ‘thousands’ of reasons why separation should be avoided in Sri Lanka. It is purely unnecessary. It will be a disaster for all communities. As human beings, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims should be able to live amicably. But it should not be under the rule or hegemony of the majority Sinhalese. The fact that the Sinhalese are the majority in the country is a reality. That should not be misused. With that majority status, the Sinhalese have more responsibilities. The rights of the minorities should be safeguarded.

The Sinhalese should not have a ‘minority fear’ just because there are more Tamils in South India or elsewhere. Terrorism undoubtedly was a threat. This is something that the Tamils also should understand. If not for terrorism, reconciliation could have been easier.

Human rights awareness in the country appears to be quite low. That is one reason for the hostile and antagonistic situation. Human rights awareness allows people to shed their narrow tribal or ethnic feelings. Awareness of human rights motivates people to respect others equally without discrimination or distinction.

Federalism is not a monster or a ‘Gona Billa.’ It is basically a constitutional system. There is no single form of federalism. There are many forms. It is not about the name, it is about the structure and the system of governance. It is akin to our ancient system of ‘Manda-la,’ – within an overall system with a centre (‘Manda’), the existence of different units (‘La’).

Overseas Experiences

Apart from Sri Lanka, I have lived in three main countries; two years in Canada (1974-1976), seven years in Switzerland (1984-1991), and now twelve years altogether in Australia (1991-1997 and 2011-2016). All happened to be well-designed federal systems. Even for one year in Japan (2005-2006), I was living in the Kyoto Prefecture. It was a decentralized/devolved unit.

When I was in Canada, I recollect not only the debates about Quebec separatism but also the incidents of terrorism. But all died down. There were fears that if more powers were given to Quebec, they would separate. But when a referendum was held, separatism was defeated. One key measure for reconciliation was effective bilingualism and adopting what they called ‘cooperate federalism.’ The place where I lived (and studied) was completely bilingual of English and French. After that period, Canada also went for multiculturalism and recognized the rights and status of the indigenous ‘first nation.’

Switzerland was more beautiful as a federal system. We were living in ‘Quartier du Charmilles’ in Geneva. Urban Cantons were divided into Quarters, like Communes in village Cantons. All basic amenities were available within that area – the school, the police station, the council office etc. It was devolution within devolution. When you travel from one Canton to another, you see a difference even in an aesthetic sense. Local arts, crafts and traditions were cultivated not in a competitive manner, but a harmonious way. It might be the same today.

There were many democratic practices along with the federal system in Switzerland. I have seen a commune meeting, in an open area, all citizens participating. They were not fighting! Almost every last Saturday of the month, there was a referendum or two in our area, seeking people’s opinion on important matters.

There was a difference between a ‘federal’ and a ‘unitary’ country in Europe. When you go to France, everything is concentrated in Paris. But it was not the case in, for example, Switzerland or Germany. In Germany, there were many cities equally or more developed like the capital, Bonn, or now Berlin.

Federalism in Australia may be a different story. Given the vastness of the country it is an unavoidable necessity. However, the Commonwealth and the States function harmoniously within their given spheres. If not for federalism, development or public administration could have been a nightmare.

Current Devolution  

Of course Sri Lanka is a small country, of the size of Tasmania in Australia. However, the population is nearly the same. Do we need a structure to cater to the land or the people? People should take priority. In this sense, the attempt to do everything from Colombo or one centre is insane.

Of course in the constitution, we do have devolution after the 13th Amendment. However in practice, devolution does not work as it ought to be. There are various reasons for this situation. As we all know, the Northern or the Eastern provincial councils did not or could not operate during the war. The LTTE was opposed to devolution. Even thereafter, until the end of 2012, the Northern Provincial Council was not constituted. The latter was a clear example for the reluctance of the central authorities to devolve power, particularly under the past regime.

It may be true that in other provinces, the provincial powers were abused than used. This should be changed. Those who held power in those provinces were very clearly worked along with the central authorities. This also should change. The development activities were neglected while the privileges and the perks were used. A parasitic layer of provincial political leaders emerged. The end result was the stagnation of development in many provinces, compared to the Western or certain areas of the Southern province. The vast disparities of per capita income between the Western (almost double) and other provinces are one indicator.

Fundamental Flaws

There are fundamental flaws within the present devolution arrangements. It is not merely a question of some devolved powers being taken back, or not given, by the central government. It is about the centralized and ‘rigid unitary’ political ideology ingrained in the constitution and prevailing in the political culture. This is what can be termed as parochial unitary thinking.

If the southern areas do not want devolution, then at least the Northern and the Eastern provinces should be given proper devolution. Otherwise, it is not reasonable. This is why the TNA demand for federalism is reasonable.

Of course all the provinces could and should benefit from devolution. With devolution of power, there are opportunities. These opportunities are also responsibilities. At present, the Ninth Schedule lists the devolved powers to the provincial councils. However, there are considerable ambiguities. The ambiguities in the provisions and the Articles in the Chapter on devolution (Chapter XVIIA) have allowed the central government to take back some of the powers and control others.

Under a federal principle or arrangement, this cannot happen. There should be clearly defined powers to the provinces. This is another reason why the TNA demand for federalism is reasonable.


Does this mean that Sri Lanka should go for a federal constitution? No, not necessarily.

These federal principles could be accommodated within the rubric of devolution of power. Also the federal demand should not be put forward within an ideological framework i.e. ‘the right to self-determination’ or ‘homeland’ concept. It should be a pragmatic and a practical demand.

The devolution of power or federalism has merits for particularly two main objectives. One is the resolution of the ethnic conflict. The other is the economic and social development of the outer provinces. Both objectives are interconnected. However, this does not mean that merely by devolution of power or having a New Constitution either of these problems could be resolved instantaneously.

In resolving the ethnic conflict, while the recognition of ethnic identities is of paramount importance, all attempts also should be made to transcend them at least gradually by all parties and all communities. Humanity is more important than ethnic identity. While power sharing is important, there should be unity for justice going beyond power sharing. Power, should not be our ultimate criteria.

There should be political commitment on the part of the leaders to take Sri Lanka in a new non-antagonistic direction. People have suffered enough. There should be measures and efforts for public awareness and education, both in the South and in the North on these and related matters. After all, the demand for federalism on the part of the TNA or any other is not a monster or ‘Gona Billa.’