By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a resolution in April 2016 calling for the introduction of a federal structure in Sri Lanka to accommodate political demands of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. The genesis of the resolution was the proposals called the Report of the Sub-Committee on Finding a Political Solution to the National Question, presented by a group appointed by Chief Minister Wigneswaran. The group, which represented the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), handed over its report to Wigneswaran in February 2016. The TPC was a creation of Wigneswaran, the committee was appointed by him, and the radical views expressed in the report reflected Wigneswaran’s current ideological leanings. Therefore, Wigneswaran could have been the architect of the report.
Based on some of the suggestions made in the report, this author considered it arrogant and dangerous. In an article entitled Is TPC Proposals a Re-radicalization Scheme, this author argued that the TPC report has the potential to re-radicalize Tamil politics. The fact that it was Wigneswaran who moved the recent resolution created the impression that TPC proposal was presented and adopted by the NPC. I was eager to compare the two documents.
Report and the Resolution
Surprisingly, a closer look at both documents revealed that many of the radical (and unrealistic) elements of the TPC proposals have been dropped from the NPC resolution. For example, the TPC report wanted a pre-constitutional pact like the Dayton and Good Friday Agreements. We have already pointed out that both of these agreements were signed when the parties still retained their military capacity. The Tamils have no military power now and they also lack the capacity to pressurize the government. Hence, these agreements were wrong examples and perhaps the TPC Committee was blind to the prevailing realities. The Resolution avoided reference to Dayton and Good Friday deals and only proposed an “initial agreement,” which recognizes the rights of the Tamil people in the North-East.
A striking difference could be found in relation to the demand for the right of self-determination. The TPC report, in fact, was built on the notion that the Tamil people must have the right to self-determination and it must be recognized by the new constitution. The overemphasis of the idea was evident from the fact that the report used the term “self-determination” at least 11 times. This, obviously had Wigneswaran’s blessings. The NPC resolution on the other hand used the term only twice. First, when it referred to the Oslo Principles of 2002. It was however, not framed as a demand, but reminded the government of the agreement reached in 2002. The second time the term was used to say every federal unit within the Sri Lankan state should have the right to “internal self-determination.” The TPC’s self-determination was only for the Tamil people. This shift, in my opinion, is significant and should be noted by the government.
The resolution also dropped the notion that “no other part of the country makes claim to maximum self-government.” The TPC Committee suggested that only the Tamils could claim “maximum” self-rule. It was not clear why the TPC Committee thought that the Tamils should decide what the other communities should or should not get. Therefore, dropping this clause was a reasonable move made by the NPC.
The Resolution also discarded some of the impracticable ideas presented in the TPC report. For example, the notion that the North-East should have a separate unit within the Sri Lankan embassies abroad to promote Tamil interest, was not included. The powers the TPC Committee proposed on such subjects as police, land and higher education have been watered down drastically.
The resolution, essentially proposes a federal solution with a merged North-East Province. If the government is willing to engage the Tamils in search of a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, the Resolution could very well serve as a point of reference. It offer a basis for discussion. The Resolution emphasized that the government, when preparing the new constitution, should take the NPC “policy proposals” into consideration. It resolved “that the new constitution or proposal for political solution prepared by the Government must take into consideration” the policy proposals adopted by the NPC. Therefore, it seems, this resolution has been passed as a discussion paper rather than a set of demands.
Hence, it is clear that the NPC Resolution was a greatly watered down version of the TPC proposals. A significant question would be, why did Wigneswaran move a diluted draft for adoption by the NPC? Was he under pressure to compromise? Or did the TNA intervene tacitly? Answers to these questions would shed light on the current political trends and power dynamics within the Tamil polity. What is clear is that the NPC has adopted a moderate stance with regard to constitutional reform and devolution of power, compared to Wigneswaran’s outfit.
Constitution making is a serious business. The Tamils need to understand the meaning and long term implications of what they do with regard to this issue. Their actions and proposals could have very long term consequences. Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan’s refusal to accept the Muslims as a distinct community and his assertion that Muslims are religiously different Tamils are still being used against the Tamils. What Tamils are proposing now could be used against them in the future.
The NPC Resolution raises a number of questions in this regard. For example, the Resolution proposed autonomous regions or units for Muslims in the North-East and the Up Country Tamils. According to the Resolution, these councils would have “full powers of devolution to attend to their own affairs.” The question is, what right do the Tamils have to offer solutions to other communities? Did Wigneswaran or the NPC discuss these proposals with the communities in question before making the recommendations? Why do they think that they should speak on behalf of the Muslim and Indian Tamil communities? Do, they think that Indian Tamils could not act to pursue their own interest? This clause, obviously demonstrates a lack of respect for other minority communities. The Tamils have a tendency to include token slogans for Indian Tamils in important documents. For example, the Thimpu Declaration, a statement made by a number of Tamil rebel movements in 1985, demanded “right to citizenship.” I am not sure that the present Tamil leadership understands why these symbolic gestures are made. What is required is dialogue and partnership; not unilateral assumptions.
Nevertheless, the NPC proclamation that autonomous units should be established for the Muslims and Up Country Tamils has already been criticized. A number of Indian Tamil leaders and Muslim writers have condemned the resolution. The NPC’s approach and attitude have the potential to create further divisions between or among communities. The proposal could ignite tension between not only the two Tamil communities, but also between the Sinhalese and Up Country Tamils. Solutions for Up Country Tamil problems should emerge from within the community and dialogue between the community leadership and the government.
In fact, the Indian Tamils have proved that they are far more effective in resolving their issues politically than the Sri Lankan Tamils. They effectively used parliamentary politics for their advantage. The Sri Lankan Tamils could learn a thing or two from the Up Country Tamil Community. The NPC, should have known better and have some explanations to do on this issue.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.