Conundrum: Sinhala Nationalists Against Federalism But Unintentionally Promoting Separatism
By S. Narapalasingam –
Recent comments on federalism in the light of the forthcoming new constitution for the discordant Sri Lanka, highlight the preconceived mindset that denied peace and development to the nation after independence. The living conditions of the people, particularly those in the low and middle income groups were constrained by this neglect. Mothers had to seek employment in the Middle East as domestic helpers to supplement their family incomes. Some had young children who were left with close relatives. Even educated men sought employment in foreign countries. The economy did not grow fast enough to meet the needs of the citizens because of the muddled situation linked to internal disturbances.
The abnormal situation also contributed to mismanagement of public funds and excessive borrowings. Public debt is a burden on the people unless the benefits are more than the settlement obligations. There was a time when public sector projects were implemented only if positive results obtained from fair feasibility studies.
The failure of some projects to function as intended casts some doubt about the approach used, as to whether it was just emotive as in the case of some political decisions or based on proper feasibility studies. Hopefully, these introductory remarks give the implications of hasty decisions taken from narrow perspectives, ignoring the long-term effects on the living conditions of the people and the balanced development of the entire nation, which is vital for the well-being of present and future generations. The environment to progress steadfastly will not emerge, if the country is in a turbulent state as has been the case in Sri Lanka since the emergence of divisive politics, ignoring the need to maintain unity and confidence of all citizens in the governing system.
The process of pushing for separation
The process of focusing on emotive issues, neglecting the real ones that relate to the needs of the people for improving their living conditions, ensuring equal rights and justice for all started in 1956 with the enactment of the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language Act for narrow political gain. This process has continued inflicting enormous losses to the nation, intensifying the ethnic division and neglecting national development. The issues raised by major political parties were for winning the votes of the Sinhalese which also heightened the feeling of alienation of the ethnic Tamils and loss of confidence in the unitary system, which in effect is governance by the ethnic majority Sinhalese.
Opportunities to settle the ethnic problem were lost because of competitive party politics that induced the main opposition party to oppose the moves by the main governing party to take remedial action as in a negotiated settlement with the Tamil leaders. The following events illustrate how the process of pushing for separation intensified by the narrow political interests of the two main rival parties.Sinhala nationalists too played the obstructive role in seeking a political solution.
The push to engage in violent struggle for liberation from the discriminatory rule intensified after the 1983 anti-Tamil riotsthat destroyed many Tamil lives and property. The attacks took place without any hindrance as the Police did not interfere. This violent approach of suppressing the minority Tamils existed earlier too but not to the 1983 level. For instance, the peaceful protest staged by Tamils in Gall Face (Colombo), days before the enactment of the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language Act was disrupted by thugs who violently attacked the Tamil protesters. The police did nothing to protect them. In short, the shift from peaceful protests of seniors to violent struggle by the frustrated Tamil youth arose from the irresponsible approach of past government leaders to please the Sinhalese voters at the expense of denying equal rights and opportunities to Tamils. The media-wise standardisation of marks making it difficult for Tamil students to seek admission to the University of Ceylon also increased the frustration of Tamil youth. Some joined the militant groups and took arms to fight for the liberation of the oppressed Tamils.
In short, the push for separation gained momentum following the successful efforts of Sinhala nationalists in sustaining the Sinhala majority rule throughout the island, ignoring the fact that the majority of residents in the Northern and Eastern provinces are not Sinhalese. Tamil is also the mother tongue of the Muslims living in the two provinces.
The fact that the Sinhala nationalists were responsible directly or indirectly for obstructing several attempts to settle the ethnic problem by some amendments to the constitution is evident from the abandonment of the agreements reached by the Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam with the past Prime Ministers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake.
1957 Bandaranaike–Chelvanayagam Pact
The 1957 Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact was abandoned because of the opposition of Buddhist priests. Many have the preconceived Mahavamsa mindset. The non-violent protests (satyagrahas) of Tamils against the discriminatory policies that began in 1956 with the enactment of the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language Act later turned violent as a result of the government backed violent methods deployed routinely to end the non-violent protests of dismayed Tamils.
The B-C Pact did not concede fully all the demands of the Federal Party led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. These were: 1. Federal Constitution; 2. Parity of Status for Sinhala and Tamil languages; 3. Repeal of citizenship laws which had discriminated against Tamils of Indian descent; 4.Immediate halt to the colonisation of the Tamil homeland. The agreement reached in 1957 did not concede these demands but gave some concessions. It was agreed that “the the proposed legislation should contain recognition of Tamil as the language of a national minority of Ceylon, and that the four points mentioned by the Prime Minister should include provision that, without infringing on the position of the Official language as such, the language of the administration of the Northern and Eastern Provinces be Tamil, and that any necessary provision be made for the non-Tamil speaking minorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces”.
The pattern of obstructing agreements to settle the national problem started in April 1958 when the B-C Pact was repudiated by the then Prime Minister Bandaranaike following a campaign led by the Buddhist clergy and politicians. Prominent Sinhalese leader was J.R. Jayewardene, who was then leader of the opposition in Parliament and who on “4 October 1957 led a march to Kandy to invoke the blessings of the gods for his campaign”.
1965 Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayagam Pact
According to the 1965 Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayakam Agreement, the then UNP government was to take action on the following lines:
1. Action will be taken early under the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act to make provision for the Tamil language to be the language of administration and of record in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
2. A Tamil speaking person should be entitled to transact business in Tamil throughout the Island. In this regard, the Language of the Courts Act to be amended to provide for legal proceedings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be conducted and recorded in Tamil.
3. Action to be taken to establish District Councils vested with mutually agreed powers. It was also agreed that the government should have the power under the law to give directions to the District Councils in the national interest.
4. The Land Development Ordinance to be amended to provide all citizens the right to the allotment of land under the Ordinance. The Prime Minister also agreed that in the granting of land under the colonisation schemes, the following priorities will be observed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
(i) Land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the District;
(ii) Secondly – to Tamil speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern Provinces; and
(iii) Thirdly – to other citizens in Ceylon. Here the preference to be given to Tamil citizens resident in the rest of the Island.
On the basis of this Agreement, the Federal Party extended support to the United Natioanl Party to form the Government and the Federal Party nominee, Mr.M.Thiruchelvam was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Local Government. Since the Agreement was not given effect to by the then UNP government, the Federal Party nominee quit the cabinet in 1968.
1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution
The relevant parts of the Declaration calling for sovereign Tamil Eelam, as a result of allowing the ethnic problem to aggravate and the Tamils losing confidence in the unitary system which supports the Sinhala majority rule throughout the country are reproduced below:
“The first National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) meeting at Pannakam (Vaddukoddai Constituency) on the 14th day of May, 1976, hereby declares that the Tamils of Ceylon by virtue of their great language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history of independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries till they were conquered by the armed might of the European invaders and above all by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from Sinhalese and this Convention announces to the world that the Republican Constitution of 1972 has made the Tamils a slave nation ruled by the new colonial masters, the Sinhalese ,who are using the power they have wrongly usurped to deprive the Tamil Nation of its territory, language, citizenship, economic life, opportunities of employment and education, thereby destroying all the attributes of nationhood of the Tamil people.
And, while taking note of the reservations in relation to its commitment to the setting up of a separated state of Tamil Eelam expressed by the Ceylon Workers Congress as a Trade Union of the Plantation Workers, the majority of whom live and work outside the Northern and Eastern areas,
This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam, based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation, has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country.
This Convention further declares: That the State of Tamil Eelam shall consist of the people of the Northern and Eastern provinces and shall also ensure full and equal rights of citizenship of the State of Tamil Eelam to all Tamil speaking people living in any part of Ceylon and to Tamils of Eelam origin living in any part of the world who may opt for citizenship of Tamil Eelam.
That the constitution of Tamil Eelam shall be based on the principle of democratic decentralization so as to ensure the non-domination of any religious or territorial community of Tamil Eelam by any other section.
That in the state of Tamil Eelam caste shall be abolished and the observance of the pernicious practice of untouchability or inequality of any type based on birth shall be totally eradicated and its observance in any form punished by law.
That Tamil Eelam shall be a secular state giving equal protection and assistance to all religions to which the people of the state may belong.
That Tamil shall be the language of the State, but the rights of Sinhalese speaking minorities in Tamil Eelam to education and transaction of business in their language shall be protected on a reciprocal basis with the Tamil speaking minorities in the Sinhala State.
That Tamil Eelam shall be a Socialist State wherein the exploitation of man by man shall be forbidden, the dignity of labor shall be recognized, the means of production and distribution shall be subject to public ownership and control while permitting private enterprise in these branches within limit prescribed by law, economic development shall be on the basis of socialist planning and there shall be a 1ceiling on the total wealth that any individual or family may acquire.
This Convention directs the Action Committee of the Tamil United Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation;
And this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam is reached”.
This appeal to the Tamil youth led to the belief in the need for armed struggle for independence from Sinhalese rule. Thus the need for separate Tamil Eelam arose from the push for it given by the Sinhala nationalists.
The enactment of the sixth Amendment to the Constitution in August 1983 was the response of the Government to the call for separate Tamil Eelam, which intensified after the Vaddukoddai Resolution. This prohibited violation of territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Article 157A states:
(1) No person shall, directly or indirectly, in or outside Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promote, finance, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.
(2) No political party or other association or organisation shall have as one of its aims or objects the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.
Other sub-sections deal with the way and kind of punishment that will be given to those violating the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The real fact is no democratic country can expect to protect national unity and territorial integrity by divisive actions of its government expecting constitutional protection!
Thimpu principles or Declaration
The Thimpu principles or Declaration were set of four demands put forward by the Sri Lankan Tamil delegation at the peace talks held with respect to the civil war in the island. In July-August 1985, the Indian government organised peace talks in Thimpu, Bhutan aimed at bringing an end to the civil war between Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups and the government of Sri Lanka. The declaration made by the Tamil delegation at Thimpu in response to a government proposal is known as Thimpu Declaration or Thimpu principles.
The Tamil delegation consisted of representatives from the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).
The draft legislation proposed by the Sri Lankan government delegation for devolution of power was rejected by the Tamil delegation. On 13 July 1985, the Tamil delegation responded issuing the Thimpu Declaration with four key demands (the cardinal principles). The four cardinal principles became known as the Thimpu principles.
The declaration stated: It is our considered view that any meaningful solution to the Tamil national question must be based on the following four cardinal principles:
- recognition of the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation
- recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils of Ceylon
- recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation
- recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental rights of all Tamils in Sri Lanka
Different countries have fashioned different systems of governance to ensure these principles. We have demanded and struggled for an independent Tamil state as the answer to this problem arising out of the denial of these basic rights of our people. The proposals put forward by the Sri Lankan government delegation as their solution to this problem is totally unacceptable. Therefore we have rejected them as stated by us in our statement of the 12th of July 1985. However, in view of our earnest desire for peace, we are prepared to give consideration to any set of proposals, in keeping with the above mentioned principles, that the Sri Lankan Government may place before us.
The Sri Lankan government rejected all but the last principle as they violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The peace talks collapsed on 18 August 1985 due to the intransigence of both delegations. (Source: Wikipedia)
Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
On 29 July 1987, Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene which stated the devolution of powers to the provinces. On 14 November 1987, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 to establish provincial councils. The amendment aims at creating provincial councils in Sri Lanka.
This amendment to the present Constitution also recognised Tamil also as an official language. This was possible because of India’s intervention without the usual obstruction by Sinhala nationalists. The extent of devolution of powers under the Provincial Council Act was more than in the Regional Council system proposed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike but not implemented because of the abandonment of the B-C Pact. But the current PC system is not functioning the way as expected, since the crucial land, police and financial powers are still with the central government. The real objective of devolution has been lost by this restraint.
Other Missed Opportunities
After the official language issue intensified following the failures by the Government and Tamil leaders to settle it through bilateral agreements into the ethnic conflict, which later turned into civil war following violent moves to suppress the Tamil protests, there were several attempts by the governments to seek a political settlement based on the recommendations of advisory committees, whose members were knowledgeable farsighted persons. These too failed to get the support of the main opposition party. The LTTE too missed several opportunities to seek a negotiated settlement because the leadership wanted nothing short of independent Tamil Eelam. The efforts by Norway during the period the peace treaty was observed strictly by both parties to seek a mutually agreed settlement failed. Many analysts have written about the extra-ordinary way the internal conflict in Sri Lanka remained unresolved for decades inflicting huge losses. The incomparable way the conflict remained unresolved was highlighted in their analyses.
A truly democratic governing system for a multi-ethnic country with some regions having a totally different mix of ethnic communities compared with the pattern of the whole country must not ignore this regional diversity in vocal language, religion and culture. The ethnic composition of residents in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is at variance with that of the whole country which does not reveal the regional differences in the ethnic composition of the regions. In the entire country, the Sinhalese constitute 75 per cent of the total population. This is not the case in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the Sinhalese are the minority ethnic community.
Consequences of the inapt system
The poor state of Sri Lanka’s economy and the sharp rise in the culture of corruption and fraud that has made life extremely difficult for the poor, while the rich are better off with the money earned unlawfully are also the result of the muddled state related to the failure to solve the national problem politically. Government debt has also skyrocketed with the Treasury taking over the debt of Sri Lankan Airways amounting to Rs. 461 billion. A comprehensive review of the public sector audit system is also needed.
Without a fair governing system consistent with true ‘democratic and socialist’ principles applicable to the multi-ethnic society in Sri Lanka with regional differences in the ethnic composition and the related needs of the local residents, the environment needed for uninterrupted development of the multi-regional nation with diverse regional needs will remain elusive.
It is a fact an incompatible system that emerged after independence based on the dominance of the Sinhala majority ignoring the basic regional differences denies the ethnic minorities any self-rule right for attending to their concerns and needs. The unitary system supports the majoritarian rule, ignoring the ethnic and regional diversities. The latter includes the traditional dwelling pattern of the ethnic communities. This diversity is well known to have existed since Portuguese invasion in 1505. The indigenous Tamils are not the descendants of the immigrants who entered the Sinhala Country. The existence of a Tamil kingdom in the island is a fact.
Unitary system of governance for a multi-ethnic country ignoring this diverse pattern of habitat that has existed for centuries with the Tamil speaking people as the major group residing in the Northern and Eastern provinces has failed to build a united prosperous nation since the emergence of the divisive politics under the unitary system. The system ignored the real diverse features with regard to the residents in different regions of the island nation.
National unity is essential for creating and sustaining the favourable environment needed for steady social and economic development. The environment that emerged from the failure to have the appropriate governing structure with powers resting with the citizens and the elected representatives functioning on their behalf for the well-being of the people and the entire nation helped the self-centred politicians. The flawed system also helped the corrupt persons to amass wealth at the expense of denying public funds for the well-being of the poor. The weaknesses in the present system have been overlooked at enormous cost to the nation. The knowledgeable members of the civil society in Sri Lanka too failed to enlighten the people on the misuse of powers for personal or some narrow gains at the expense of the common people. Recent revelations on the misuse of public funds intensify the need for an efficient system to monitor the utilisation of public funds. The indifference of the people to the misuse of public funds and excessive foreign borrowings is also a national disaster. New constitution is definitely needed but this alone will not liberate the people from the deceptive system that is not fully beneficial to their welfare.
According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the country cannot grow with short term fiscal and monetary push. Formidable challenges lie ahead to pull the country out of the trap and put it on the correct path to steady progress without any interruption in this much needed effort. The long standing national problem should not continue further to deter this effort to strengthen the economy and reduce dependence on foreign debt.
Public debt has increased in recent years due to financial mismanagement and high level of corruption facilitated by the muddled state. National unity is vital for lasting peace and the advancement of the multi-ethnic country in the modern world. Any useful governing system must recognise the realities concerning the differences in the traditional homelands of the ethnic communities and the different cultures prevailing in the regions inhabited largely by the ethnic minorities.
Even democratic countries having citizens speaking the same language but different traditions as for instance in the UK do not have the centralised system embedded in Sri Lanka’s constitution. The word ‘federal’ is abhorrent to many Sinhala nationalists and politicians afraid of losing their support. The fact is all decentralised governing systems are not federal. The way the push for separatism came in Sri Lanka is not under a federal but the unitary system. The latter has proved to be unsuitable to sustain national unity, which is vital for the wellbeing of all citizens.
The future of all Sri Lankans will remain uncertain, if national unity remains elusive and there is no significant improvement in the political and economic conditions. The new constitution must be drafted bearing in mind the real needs to make the country united and promising for all citizens in all parts of the island to live peacefully with high hope. Thi is the challenge facing those who want a united country with no prospect for separation.
*The writer: Retd. Addl. Deputy Secretary to the Treasury; UN Advisor Development Economics/Planning.