23 April, 2024


Ethnic Issue In Sri Lanka: Power Dividing Is The Solution

By Dinesh Dodamgoda

Dinesh Dodamgoda

Dinesh Dodamgoda

When I published my previous article arguing that power sharing is counterproductive and would not solve the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, many (including commentators, civil society members and some members of the Steering Committee drafting the new constitution) asked me then ‘what is the solution you propose?’ The solution is Power Dividing or the Multiple-Majorities Approach that was proposed by Philip G. Roeder and Donald Rothchild.

Philosophical Foundations

Power diving is a ‘prudential strategy’ of institution building. Yet, the approach’s philosophical foundations are principles of liberalism and pluralism.

The power dividing strategy proposes to remove ‘the most divisive issues’, in SL’s case the ethnicity and religion, from the government and reserve the decision making power to individuals and civil society. Therefore, the strategy is based on principles of liberalism. On the other hand, the power dividing strategy promotes multiple identities, cultural as well as non-cultural identities, and therefore, the strategy is rooted in principles of pluralist democracy.

Liberalism in Practice

The power dividing strategy proposes to bring legislations, such as bill of rights in USA to impose restrictions on government to protect individuals and society from the state. Those legislations are to remove issues that are likely to ignite political conflicts, such as in SL’s case, ethnicity and religion from the government and make institutional arrangements to reserve decision making powers to individual and civil society. In addition to the decision making rights, the approach proposes to guarantee freedoms of associations as well. Hence likeminded individuals can form civil society organisations that can meet their cultural needs.

Therefore, power dividing strategy divides decision-making rights between society and the government and guarantees institutions for individuals and civil society to uphold their cultural needs. Since the approach proposes legislations, such as bill of rights in USA to impose restrictions on government to protect individuals and society from the state, it makes the government incapable of taking the given rights and freedoms back from individuals and society. Any such attempt can be challenged in courts.

Pluralism in Practice

After reserving decision making rights on the most divisive issues, such as ethnicity and religion to individuals and society, power dividing strategy seeks to disperse governmental decision making rights horizontally and vertically to multiple, functionally specific organs. This avoids centralisation of governmental decision making powers into a supreme authority, such as parliament or the cabinet. Therefore, power dividing strategy, by empowering multiple actors, proposes a pluralistic approach in making governmental decisions.

In its approach the power dividing strategy proposes to limit actors’ definitive decision making powers only to a narrow realm, such as setting up traffic regulations, devising public health policies, setting up standards for school education, deciding state tax policies, etc. Furthermore, the strategy in giving jurisdiction to local levels as well devolves decision making rights to different layers of the government. Perhaps these decision making power jurisdictions can be cross-cutting. For example, boundaries of police districts may not be identical to the boundaries of school districts or administrative districts. As such, in a given location different authoritative districts can have cross-cutting and non-subordinate jurisdictions. This will stand against any overarching territorial or non-territorial jurisdictions and hence will discourage ethnofederalism and ethnocorporatism, concepts that would further divide the society on cultural lines.

Furthermore, in such realms decisions will be made on the basis of Westminster principle, namely the majority will decide policy. However, by adopting different representative criteria for different realms, the power dividing strategy will create different majorities for different realms. Hence the approach is called the multiple-majorities approach. The multiple-majorities approach therefore, lowers the likelihood that the same majority will dominate all the organs and make all decisions. This enhances the likelihood that losers would not lose everywhere.

Power Dividing and the Ethnic Issue

In terms of solving the ethnic issue in SL, the power dividing strategy will first, remove the most divisive issues, ethnicity and religion, from the government and reserve decision making rights to individuals and civil society. Hence the strategy will take the burden that comes from those issues away from the government and, as such the government does not have to bother deciding issues such as whether to include any super status to a religion in the constitution. This is to encourage pluralism as a principle that would enhance co-existence and make any pressure on government that would be built on ethno-religious line futile as the government does not have the decision making capacity to solve those issues. Therefore, challenging the government is not necessary to find solutions to ethno-religious problems and this will mitigate any ethno-religious political conflicts as the ethnicity or religion are not anymore politically important subjects of the government.

Second, the strategy in terms of individual level gives individuals to develop multiple, situation specific, and cross-cutting identities in cultural as well as non-cultural domains. For example, an individual can simultaneously be a Buddhist and a teacher and maintain both identities differently in a Buddhists’ association and a teachers’ club as well. The most important thing is neither of his/her identity will be supported by politics. Hence this will encourage a pluralistic society as no identity will be privileged or discriminated politically and further it will enhance freedom of association for individuals. Therefore, individuals will find many opportunities in such societies to uphold their cultural and non-cultural identities beyond the curse of politics and this will create a society that has no overarching cultural conflict. Hence the strategy will encourage and maintain peace and harmony.

In terms of the civil society level the strategy will not empower ethno-religious leaders politically and therefore, the power will not be concentrated only in their hands as the strategy would disperse resources. Hence ethno-religious leaders in a given society will not have more powers than non-cultural leaders to influence issues and this equation will encourage development of multiple associations along multiple dimension of social cleavage. Therefore, in terms of civil society level the multiple-majorities approach will enhance conditions for the development of a civil society of many NGOs.

The strategy in the state level is less likely to facilitate the escalation of ethno-religious political conflicts as it removes decision making powers on ethno-religious issues out from the government. Therefore, any actors who seek to resolve any ethno-religious issues should go to individuals or civil society associations that deal with such issues. The important point to note is that those individuals or civil society associations are not politically privileged or discriminated entities and therefore, their approaches also will be non-political approaches to ethno-religious issues. This will further reduce the likelihood of escalating ethno-religious political conflicts.

Power Dividing in Practice

Power dividing strategy in practice can be seen up to a point in Switzerland and in the ten West Coast and Rocky Mountain states (minus Utah) of the United States. In Switzerland, ethnolinguistic identity is less salient in political actions and even in the country’s bicameral legislature ethnolinguistic identity was not privileged. The Swiss government leaves many decision making rights to individuals and civil society especially, decision making rights related to ethnolinguistic issues. Hence ethnolinguistic identity has a seldom representation in country’s political life.

In the United States, the multiple-majorities approach has contributed to setting up multiple and cross-cutting special purpose governments such as school districts, natural resources districts or fire districts that exercise autonomous revenue raising, spending and regulatory powers led by their own elected leaders. Many of the states have plural executives and made it difficult for one party to dominate all executive organs. As such a pluralistic democracy that has multiple majorities is observed in those states.

Therefore, the power dividing strategy is not just a concept that has no practical validity. Instead, the strategy is a prudential strategy of institution building. However, it is recommended for the interested readers to read the following works of Philip G. Roeder and Donald Rothchild to gain further understanding on the subject.

*Roeder, P. G. (2012) ‘Power dividing: The multiple-majorities approach’ in Wolf, S. & Yakinthou, C. (ed.) Conflict Management in Divided Societies: Theories and Practice, Routledge: London, pp. 66-83

*Rothchild, D. and Roeder, P. G. (2005) ‘Power Sharing as an impediment to Peace and Democracy’ in Rothchild, D. and Roeder, P. G. (ed.) (2005) Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil Wars, Cornwell University Press: London

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Latest comments

  • 3

    power dividing could have worked in 1947,but to now think about it now to solve the ethnic problem is like taking a garden hose when you see your house on fire.

    dream on dodangoda,dream on.You have missed the bus and it is going towards federation whther you like it or not.All your cunning ideas won’t stop it.

    You can put your bill of rights right up your aryan arse.Too little too late.

    • 3


      “You have missed the bus and it is going towards federation whther you like it or not.All your cunning ideas won’t stop it.”

      Are you for or against federalism?

      • 12

        The solution to ethnic problem in Srilanka is simple. Tamils want to live in dignity and safety in lands of historic habitation ruling themselves without any interference from Sinhalese. You do not need any high flown theoretical formula to grant it. Because majority of Sinhalese do not want to grant justice to Tamils, they keep on talking about complicated things. The best solution is shared sovereignty and territory without division of the country, which the international community is accepting as fair. You need not call it unitary or federal like in UK, where devolution to Scotland is on a federal basis despite unitary type of governance without a constitution. Territory can be re-demarcated in a fair manner taking into consideration lands owned by Tamils prior to ethnic cleansing of Tamils and large scale settlement of Sinhalese that took place in eastern province after independence.

  • 0

    There is NO quick solution to the Tamil ethnicity problem in Sri Lanka primarily because majority of Tamils(Tamil speaking people) live scattered outside North and East.

    A solution confined to Hindu and Christian Tamils in the Northern province will lead to extreme discrimination of majority of Tamils by the Sinhalese.

    Let us hope that unity talks between Islamist Tamils and Hindu/Christian Tamils initiated recently by Sambandan will be a success.


  • 1

    Dinesh Dodamgoda’s present thesis is beyond my comprehension.


    • 3


      It looks likely that you will still be endeavouring to comprehend the ground realities after a post federal constitution has benn enacted!

  • 4

    Burning Issues

    “It looks likely that you will still be endeavouring to comprehend the ground realities after a post federal constitution has benn enacted!”

    soma is the younger brother of sach and Nuisance.

    He too needs a Padikkama.

  • 6

    Thanks Dinesh Dodamgoda for your out of the box innovative approach to this vexed question.

    I as a long standing supporter of Federalism/Power sharing/ devolution is aware of the pitfalls of devolution

    But since there is no better viable alternative we continue to support the federal idea.

    We must always be receptive to alternate proposals

    If your proposal is a realistic one, We will have no hesitation in supporting and improving your proposal.

    Please respond to all genuine critical comments and let us have a healthy and active discussion on this novel idea and refine it further and formulate an all inclusive proposal.

  • 3

    power dividing?
    tell that to the men in robes?
    they will think its dividing the country.

  • 0

    nah, Sinhalese want a Final Solution to the Tamil problem.

  • 1

    Power dividing provisions, within a Federal constitution, will bring multiple decision making to reality.

    My question is how are resources both, financial and material shared by multiple groups? Will it not create conflicts?

    Bill of rights of the people and limitations imposed on the state could be the answer.

  • 1

    Whether Dinesh Dodamgoda likes it or not, power sharing is the ideal solution to resolve the festering ethnic conflict. Power sharing has worked in other countries/societies where there is more than one race/nationality/language. The idea is to take the government close to the people. Ceylon was never one country. When the Portuguese landed in Ceylon there were not two but three kingdoms. The Kotte and Kandyan kingdoms for the Sinhalese and Jaffna kingdom for the Tamils. The demarcation between the two has been well documented. No Sinhalese king invaded the Jaffna kingdom in its existence from 1216 AD to 1619AD. The only exception is Sappumal Kumaraya (Sembagapperumal) adopted son of Parakramabahu V! who invaded Jaffna and ruled for 14 years from 1450 AD to 1454 AD. He was a Tamil prince who later ascended the Kotte throne under the name of Bhuvenakabahu VI (1469-1477).
    It is the British which amalgamated the Northeast with the rest of the country in 1833 for administrative convenience. 13A was the first step towards decentralisation of power. Had the government implemented 13A honestly and sincerely we would have avoided Eelam War. Tens of Thousands lives would have been saved on both sides North/South. The Tamils perceive the Colombo government as an abusive husband who ill treats his wife. That is the reason Tamils are demanding a friendly divorce which will allow both the Sinhalese and the Tamils live peacefully. There is no other way or choice. Ceylon got independence only on condition that its minorities will be treated equally and fairly. There will be no discrimination based on race, religion, language etc. D.S. Senanayake gave the solemn assurance when he appealed on the eve independence to the Tamils and Muslims, especially Tamils that ‘Do you want to be governed by London, or do you want as Ceylonese, to help govern Ceylon….I give the minority communities the sincere assurance that no harm need you fear at our hands in a free Lanka.’ Unfortunately, Senanayake never meant to implement what he promised. In the year of independence itself he brought the Citizenship Act to deprive 10 lakhs of their citizenship rights. Next year he brought a simple amendment to the Parliamentary elections Ordinance stating that only citizens can vote at elections. And in 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike brought the infamous Sinhala Only Act to implement Sinhalese as the only official language in 24 hours. Six decades later the country as a whole continued to suffer because of the myopic and petty politicking by Sinhalese leaders. My appeal to the likes of Dinesh Dodamgoda is not to scuttle or throw spokes into the wheels.
    I will ask Dinesh Dodamgoda to take a flight to the city state of Singapore to see for himself how a fishing village 100 years ago has blossomed into a mini-super power now. The Tamil and Malay population are a minority in multi-racial Singapore, but since the country’s independence from Malaysia the government introduced pro-active policies to ensure racial diversity and integration and encouraged a strong ‘Singaporean’ identity for people of all races. At the airport Changi there is a banner welcoming visitors displayed in all 4 official languages, including Tamil. And in Singapore the Tamils count only 5.2 % out of a total population of 6.69 million.

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