Political Settlement Based on the “Federal Idea” in a “New” Sri Lanka


The new year has dawned on a note of hope and optimism for Sri Lanka! On January 9th 2016 President Maithripala Sirisena is scheduled to present a resolution in Parliament that proposes to convert Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly. The envisaged Constitutional Assembly is different to the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1972 Republican Constitution. The political vision of the Sirisena –Wickremesinghe Govt is to enact a new Constitution differently. A Consensual approach would be adopted.A steering committee comprising representatives of all political parties would help “guide” the Constitutional assembly in drafting a new Constitution. This would be approved by cabinet and thereafter presented in Parliament. It would be passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and by a majority at an Island wide referendum.

pic: pic via: facebook.com/maithripalas-in Sampur-Nov 2015

A key objective of the new Constitution would be that of ethnic amity and national reconciliation. A pre-requisite in this regard would be inter-racial justice and equality. In that context a suitable power sharing arrangement on pluralistic and egalitarian lines needs to be established. More importantly this power sharing arrangement has to be endorsed by the vast majority in the Country cutting across race,religion and region.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe emphasised the urgent need for a political solution to be found through the new Constitution when he delivered the 2015 Sita Jayawardena memorial oration. The Premier stated as follows –“ The Party Leaders in Parliament and a great majority of the members of Parliament have agreed on the need for national reconciliation and a political solution to the ethnic and religious issues – as long outstanding issues. We have agreed that a national government of the two main parties would provide the best possible mechanism for reconciliation”.

“Leader of the Opposition, Sampanthan and I – both of whom entered Parliament in 1977, are committed to an early political solution. President Maithripala Sirisena also campaigned on the promise of national reconciliation. We cannot and should not miss the opportunity this time. There will not be a next time.The emerging consensus is to work within the structure of the 13th Amendment to the 1977 Constitution – a unitary structure with further devolution of powers. There are those who also favour the inclusion of the devolution of power to the local authorities and even to grassroots levels through the proposed Grama Rajya Kendara. The impeding task is to identify the additional powers to be devolved to the Provincial Councils”.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not only the prime minister but also the leader of the United National Party(UNP) which is the chief constituent of the present “Good Governance” Govt. The PM opining that the emerging consensus is to work within a unitary structure with further devolution of powers could be seen therefore as the emerging Sinhala Consensus on power sharing. Though the Sinhala majority viewpoint is of crucial importance, it is not the solitary point of view in Sri Lanka. There are other viewpoints too. Contrary to the past where the majority thrust its opinion upon the minority ethnicities , it is necessary in the more enlightened present to forge a national consensus inclusive of other minority viewpoints too. The opinion of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who have campaigned relentlessly for an equitable power sharing arrangement is very important in this instance.

The evolving Tamil viewpoint on power sharing seems somewhat different to that of the political solution envisaged by the Prime minister. The Tamil people aspire for greater autonomy in their areas of historic habitation.Recent political developments within the Tamil polity indicate that strong efforts would be made by accredited Tamil political representatives to seek a new political arrangement based on federal lines. Even if the word Federalism is not used explicitly the emphasis would be on maximum devolution amounting to quasi-federalism.


Tamil National Alliance Manifesto

The premier political configuration of the Tamil National Alliance(TNA)manifesto for the August 2015 election outlined its position on a political solution thus – “The principles and specific constitutional provisions that the TNA considers to be paramount to the resolution of the national question relate mainly to the sharing of the powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the Peoples who inhabit this island. The following salient features of power sharing are fundamental to achieving genuine reconciliation, lasting peace and development for all the Peoples of Sri Lanka”.

The TNA Manifesto went on to state –“Power sharing arrangements must continue to be established as it existed earlier in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure. The Tamil speaking Muslim historical inhabitants shall be entitled to be beneficiaries of all power-sharing arrangements in the North-East. This will no way inflict any disability on any People”

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga

It could be seen therefore that there is a divergence of opinion between the Govt and the chief opposition TNA on the appropriate structure of power sharing. While the Govt is for power sharing through maximum devolution within a unitary structure the TNA is for power sharing arrangements based on a federal structure. This variance is illustrative of the unitary –federal divide that has impeded the progress of a viable political settlement in the past. The silver lining in the current scenario is the inclusive approach of the present government and the excellent personal relations between TNA leader Sampanthan and the Maithripala – Ranil – Kumaratunga triumvirate. Whatever the postures adopted at present there are very good chances of a flexible approach by both sides during discussions and negotiations. The tunnel may be dark but unlike in the past there is certainly light at the end.

It is against this backdrop that this column wishes to focus attention to the concept of federalism within both a national and international context. It is well-known that the words Federalism or Federal became dirty words in the Sri Lankan political milieu in the past. Sinhala hardline opinion viewed federalism as an euphemism for secessionism or a stepping stone to a Separate State . On the other hand, hawkish Tamil opinion favouring “Tamil Eelam” rejected federalism as a betrayal or sell –out of the Tamil political struggle.Thus Federalism became the “F-word” in Sri Lankan politics. It is indeed a tragedy that the concept of federalism or the federal idea was so crudely and cruelly dismissed without any consideration of its merits or plus points.

President Bill Clinton

Federal Idea Isn’t Such a Bad Idea

It was perhaps the merit in what is called the federal idea which prompted former US president Bill Clinton to observe ” maybe the federal idea isn’t such a bad idea after all” . This was in 1999 when he was the most powerful man on earth.It was at the end of the conference on federalism at Mont Tremblant in Quebec that Clinton made this remark. Incidently former cabinet minister Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris also addressed this path – breaking conclave organized by the Forum of Federations based in Ottawa.

What then is this “federal idea” ? It is in one sense a concept that embodies various related things like federalism, federal systems , federations and federalist etc. This is a world where the word “federal” has become almost the “F – word” in politics. Different countries and different entities for different reasons frown on this “F – word”. Therefore “federal idea” has become an indirect reference to this F – word. If a ” rose by any other name could smell as sweet” then the “federalism ” word too can be sanitised and discussed as the “federal idea”.

Bob Rae

Let me quote Canada’s Bob Rae, former Ontario premier, MP and ex – president of the forum of federations on this. In his foreword to the “handbook of Federal Countries” published by the forum, Rae has this to say – “There has been a profound resurgence in interest in the federal idea in the last decade. I choose the phrase “federal idea” because the “ism” in federalism has a way of limiting debate and understanding”.

“In Spain the central government doesn’t like to use the “federal” word as it seems to indicate erosion of sovereign authority. Ironically Catalonians in Spain also frown on this because in their perception “federalism is not enough to articulate the unique Catalonian identity and right of self – government. In South Africa the earlier “apartheid” regime set up some federal structures to contain and diffuse pan – african yearning for freedom. So Federalism became a dirty word to the blacks. When the African national congress attained power with its vision of “one South Africa” the ANC did not want to describe the new Constitution as “federalist”.

Sri Lankans are well aware of what Rae meant. In Lanka’s deeply polarised society federalism is certainly the “F – word” and worse. There is marked reluctance and trepidation on the part of many to espouse federalism openly. This is sad but quite understandable in a situation where “federalism” is seen as betrayal by both sides. One sees it as a conspiracy to break up the nation while the other views it as a ruse to stymie the quest for total independence.While Sri Lankans on both sides of the ethnic divide look on federalism with suspicion the rest of the world is in ferment over the federal idea. There was a time when federalism was seen as the ideal remedy for many of the world’s political maladies. It was perceived as the universal device to achieve unity in diversity. Experience has shown that this is not necessarily true in all situations. At the same time federal arrangements have certainly helped wield cohesiveness in many cases.

40% Of World Humanity In 25 Federal Countries

Twenty – Five Countries today have federal and / or quasi – federal structures. These range from the sole superpower USA to tiny St. Kitts and Nevis; from Canada in the north to Micronesia in the south; from India in the east to Switzerland in the west. The population in these countries together amounts to more than 40% of the world’s total humanity. In addition there are some countries that are not federal but have special administrative arrangements amounting to de – facto quasi – federalism.

Let us proceed alphabetically . Argentina, Australia,Austria,Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Comoros, Ethiopia,Germany,India,Malaysia,Mexico, The federated states of Micronesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, St. Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates,United States of America, Venezeula are the Federal countries. While most are explicitly federal a few like Spain are not, but in actuality are federal in all but name. Incidently Ranil Wickremesinghe in his Sita Jayawardena oration spoke of Austria as a potential model for Sri Lankan power sharing.

Though federal none of these countries share the exactly same system.Each country has different administrative arrangements and internal structures.They also vary greatly in size. Russia has republics and many types of regions within: India has states and union territories; Switzerland has cantons while Germany and Austria have landers. Belgium has three regions and three cultural communities while Spain has autonomous regions; the USA has states , federacies , local home rule territories ,unincorporated territories and native american domestic dependent nations:Canada has provinces , territories and aboriginal organizations. Venezeula has states,territories,federal dependencies,federal district and many Islands.

Apart from federal and quasi – federal states there are also Countries having de – centralized unions with federal features.The United Kingdom comprising England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and five self – governing islands is the best – known example of this kind. Italy with 15 ordinary and 5 autonomous regions is another; Netherlands has 11 provinces and one associated state;Japan has 47 prefectures; Fiji Islands is a consociation of two ethnic communities; Colombia has 23 departments,4 intendencies and 3 commissaries. Ukraine has 24 oblasts,2 metropolitan areas and the autonomous republic of Crimea; The people’s republic of China has 22 provinces,5 autonomous regions,4 municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao.

Another phenomenon is that of Countries with federacies and associative states. Bhutan is an associative state of India. Nine and Cook Islands are associative states of New Zealand. Netherlands Antilles, San Marino, Liechenstein, Monaco are associative states of Netherlands, Italy . Switzerland and France respectively. Puerto Rico and Northern Marianas are federacies of the USA. Madeira and Azores Islands are Portugese federacies.Likewise Greenland and Faroe Islands are Danish federacies.Britain has the federacies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Aaland Islands is a Federacy of Finland.

Each Country Has Its Own Unique Arrangement

It could be seen therefore that the federal idea is not restricted to categorical federal or quasi – federal states alone. The federal idea is a free spirit permeating the body politic of many states. There is no “mono – principle” here. Each country has fashioned its own unique arrangement to suit its needs. Apart from administrative convenience and the imperative to provide citizens with the best form of government these Countries have also taken into account diversity of peoples, regional variety and imbalances, historic and geographic necessity etc as criteria to evolve systems of governance. There has been no rigorous dogma stifling aspirations of constituent peoples.

The federal idea has assumed a new importance and related vigour in recent times.There are a number of reasons for this. Ronald Watts of Institute of Intergovernmental relations at the Queens university in Kingston, Canada is the author of “Comparing federal systems”. An excerpt from that explains this global trend-” Modern developments in transportation, social communications, technology, and industrial organization have produced pressures at one and the same time for larger political organizations and for smaller ones..The pressure for larger political units has been generated by the goals shared by most western and non – western societies today; a desire for progress,a rising standard of living,social justice and influence in the world arena, and by a growing awareness of world – wide inter- dependence in an era whose advanced technology makes both mass destruction and mass – construction possible”.

“The desire for smaller self – governing political units has risen from the desire to make governments more responsive to the individual citizen and to give expression to primary group attachments – linguistic and cultural ties , religious connections, historical traditions and social practices – which provide the distinctive basis for a community’s sense of identity and yearning for self – determination. Given these dual pressures, more and more peoples have come to see some form of federalism, combining a shared government for specified common purposes with autonomous action by constituent units of government for purposes related to maintaining their regional distinctiveness as allowing the closest institutional approximation to the multi – national reality of the contemporary world”.

Ronald Watts sums up the essence of the federal idea. On the one hand there is the tendency to form larger entities including supra – national bodies like the European union. On the other there is the need to accommodate different intra – national aspirations of an ethnic nature. So Belgium reverts to federalism to satisfy the Flemish and the Walloons while Brussels is the seat of the EU parliament. The Union Jack flag may have the crosses of St. George, St. St.Andrew,St. David and St.Patrick but merry England cannot hold the United Kingdom together without devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Modern Ceylon is a British Creation

The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict has its genesis in colonialism. Modern Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then is a British creation. The Island was unified administratively but the people were divided politically through representation on communal lines. What was “united” to exploit was “divided” to govern. In the absence of adequate and equitable forms of power – sharing the Island is wracked with post – Independence conflict within pre – Independence boundaries.

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism has been primarily reactive in nature. The Tamils thought of themselves as being on par with the Sinhala people as co – founders of the modern nation of Ceylon. Universal franchise and territorial representation reduced them to a principal minority. The Tamils still thought of themselves as belonging to the Island in its entirety. So they wanted balanced representation and then adopted responsive cooperation as political strategies. When these failed came the Federal demand. Tamil self – perception now confined itself as a regional minority. Even here the political leaders were prepared to compromise far short of federalism and opted for alternatives like regional councils, district councils etc. Finally came the desperate cry for separation and resultant armed struggle. Federalism if adopted at the appropriate time may have prevented the bloodshed and carnage that ensued after the ethnic conflict escalated.

Federalism was proposed even in 2002 as a possible solution. The greatest achievement of the Norway brokered peace process was the agreement in Oslo to explore federalism.Whatever its merits or deficiencies federalism cannot be imposed on any people. The element of consent and mutual cooperation is essential for any system to work. If Sri Lanka is to become federal or quasi – federal or even have devolved powers within appropriate units in a unitary system the various segments of this nation have to work and live together as one country. For this a better understanding of the federal idea is required.


The proponents of federalism argue that adopting it will strengthen unity and territorial integrity. Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany, Spain etc are cited as examples. But it cannot be denied that federalism has failed to prevent secession too. The disintegration of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are well – known examples. The Malaysia – Singapore and Pakistan – Bangladesh splits of the past as well as modern break – ups of Czech – Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro are also lessons. In Canada, separatism flourished in Quebec despite federalism. Britain devolved power to Scotland and Wales but secessionism seems to have gained ground there. Nigerian federalism did not prevent the Biafran civil war.

There are however many nuances to take into account when analysing the countries in question. At one end of the spectrum is Belgium and Spain willingly opting for federalism as a solution to curb separatist tendencies. Yet Belgium and Spain continue to have issues. In Canada the equation is changing with the new leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois announcing that no referendum to facilitate secessionist “sovereignty” will be held in the near future. The main Quebec parties are now for greater autonomy and powers within a united Canada. Recent amendments in Germany have strengthened federalism. India through its co- operative federalism model is becoming more and more federal in practice. The reverse is visible in Australia and USA where increasing “centralised” authority is slowly eroding the concept pure federalism.

No “One Size Fits All” Type Of Solution

Federalism therefore provides no “one size fits all” type of solution. Each Country has to examine and adopt arrangements conducive and suitable for individual needs. Sri Lanka too needs to explore the federal idea intensively and fully before deciding whether to accept or reject it or adopt it with appropriate innovation. The federal idea is dynamic and constantly evolving. What we in Sri Lanka need to do is to explore the federal idea and have an informed debate about its pros and cons and also on deciding whether we adopt or reject it.

In spite of the heat generated in Sri Lanka by this “F – word” there is no denying that the Federal idea is catching on in a world of ferment. The Federal idea is impacting greatly on a world changing fast. In the words of Bob Rae –” The resurgence of the federal idea has at its core many different causes. The vitality of the values of democracy, the revolutions in the politics of identity and human rights, the twin collapse of apartheid and bureaucratic communism, the impact of the technological revolution, the economic changes we associate with the word globalisation, all these have made their contributions”.

“This renewal is not at all confined to countries that have a federalist tradition. Countries have long had to struggle with the simple truth that geography is rarely synonymous with automatic homogeneity. Ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious conflicts have become the dominant issue facing the world order today. Wars after 1945 have been as much within countries as between them, with disastrous consequences for peace and security. It is no longer soldiers dying in the millions but civilians. From Rwanda to Cambodia, from the Balkans to East Timor the battleground was within countries that are unable to resolve the conflicts of what Michael Ignatieff has called ‘ blood and belonging’.

“It is in this context that the federal idea is re-emerging.Indeed, issues of federal governence are at the centre of active political and legal discussions in every part of the globe, particularly in areas where conflict resolution is a critical necessity. National sovereignty is not dead and the age of the nation – state is not over. But the notion that these are exclusive or all defining is clearly outmoded. Governance practices within countries are inevitably subject to the scrunity of world political and economic opinion, and most important, to the rule of law itself”.

“The collapse of the one party state, the demands of identity, the urge to local empowerment, the insistence on greater openness and transparency in government, and the recognition that in a smaller and much more inter-dependent world sovereignty is no longer an absolute, has brought the federal idea to the fore again”.

This then is what the federal idea is all about! Whatever the misgivings about the Federal Idea in Sri Lankan politics, dilly – dallying over a political accceptable settlement is a luxury we cannot afford. The important point is to note that the military defeat of the LTTE has not and will not result in the Tamil national question being resolved automatically. The LTTE was only a virulent symptom of the malady. Getting rid of the LTTE is no durable remedy.

« Kolombata Kiri,Gamata Kekiri »

What is required now is the creation of a just, egalitarian and plural society. There must be equitable power-sharing based on principles of devolution relating to the federal idea.Power must not be confined to Colombo alone but shared with the periphery. The saying “Kolombata kiri, Gamata Kekiri” should lose its potency and validity.

Sri Lanka has to be re-invented as a country where all her children can live together in amity and fraternity. A new vision must be re-imagined in which no one will claim superior rights on the basis of belonging to the majority race/religion or claim exclusive rights to their historic habitat. Sri Lanka belongs to all its people from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara and Mannar to Mullaitheevu. All people regardless of race, religion, caste or creed must have their say and a role to play in the brave new Lanka/Ilankai that beckons us all.

This article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appears in the “Daily Mirror” of January 2, 2016, it can be reached via this link:


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