By Ratna Bala –
“Let us remember as we struggle, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against we struggle” ~ Martin Luther King
Our leaders are reluctantly recruiting open mindset and empathy to promote a common wavelength of courage to share political power. We all wish they could persuade each other to propel a caring constitution.
Several scholars have published many books and articles on devolution of powers in Sri Lanka. We have marvelled on many models of devolution in the world. We have endured ourselves to produce several proposals. In our deliberations and debates we had ebb and flow on quotas of powers to Tamil speaking people. In spite of all these swirling exercises we haven’t given up the hope of devolving powers to ensure equality among all communities.
If we accept to build decent democratic nation then politics of recognition with devolution of powers to different communities become paramount to guarantee their existence, growth and wellbeing. Devolution of powers is an evolving subject even in many developed countries. It doesn’t matter what form of devolution one wish for, even in a country with reasonable responsive democracy, you can only move in any direction depending on your negotiating and persuasive abilities with your resources. One can not overlook the fact that collective consciousness of responsibility to upheld genuine democracy is also a necessary prerequisite for devolution of powers.
I hope you all agree that when one ask a tamil speaking person “themalatha?” that have a dignity devaluing tone in our country. From that moment fear of discrimination engulf that person. If our moral and ethical consciousness willing to abdicate this tone and determined to live by human decency then a new constitution to guarantee justice, equality and freedom to all its citizens could be the correct beginning. We all could enthusiastically participate in this effort with hope and optimism.
Ancient history has been quoted against devolution of political powers in Sri Lanka. Our colonial history since 1505 to 1948 and their manipulation of native population to exploit this nation have twisted our relationship and memories. Our past history can also be interpreted as we had devolution of governance in our island for many centuries.
British were expecting a peaceful transfer of powers. But in the backdrop of rising communism, emergence of powerful Malayan communist party and left labour movement in Ceylon have made our colonial masters to heighten the ethnic tension and promote ethnic rivalry to destroy the hope of communist ascendency in their strategic hot spot in South Asia. Removal of citizenship and voting rights to upcountry Tamils were part of this agenda. Interplay of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism deluded our morality, rational thinking and unity. Our elite class continued their ethnic discriminatory politics to hold on to power and minimise mass protest against exploitation.
During cold war period in early 70s with establishment of naval base in Diego Garcia and changing dynamics in Indian Ocean culminated in explosion of ethnic war in Srilanka with Indian assistance and USSR endorsement. End of cold war and signing of nuclear disarmament treaties between USA and USSR brought dividends to Sri Lanka as Indo-Lanka agreement. Nevertheless Internationalisation of ethnic conflict combined with our Ignorance and arrogance made it an easy process for interested parties to promote continuation of the war. After 9/11, global security deterioration and improved relationship between US and India gave a peace another chance in our country. But LTTE’s reluctance for a peaceful settlement with international negotiation, war with LTTE was brought to an end.
Today our geographic location, culture and terrain could be viewed as valuable resources for security measures in the region. Any instability could be an excuse for foreign powers to intervene. Our history highlights the imminent danger looming over our nation. World largest military hardwires could land on our shores and soil in near future. As a country upholds Buddhist principles of rejecting violence and living with compassion, if we could strive to live by those principles, we can preserve peace and tranquillity.
“We must not permit ourselves lapse into pessimism.
Pessimism is a chronic disease that dries up the
red corpuscles of hope and slows down the powerful
heartbeat of positive action.” ~ Martin Luther King
Tamil speaking people are concerned about their security, minority rights and equality. They have been seeking a federal solution to alleviate their grievances for long time. Even after thirty years of war they still believe that would give them reasonable control over their own future and make them feel as equal citizens. They believe only in the federal system the devolved powers won’t be taken away. Furthermore they are confident it will stop confrontation and encourage cooperation.
Majority Sinhalese people claim federal devolution could undermine their majority rights, would promote separation and fear losing foremost place for Buddhist religion. They strongly believe that unitary constitution provide better safety against separation.
Are there any genuine reasons to our fear? If so how can we overcome those fears? Isn’t that possible to find ways for features of both type of constitution to be incorporated into our new constitution? Couldn’t this bimodal nature resolve both communities’ concerns, fears and satisfy their interests. Couldn’t it this be further strengthened by additional guarantees if necessary? Could this be the compromised way for a caring compassionate constitution for our difficulties to find peace and equality? Do we have the courage for this change?
Anti federalist fear that federal proposition in power devolution as giving in to separatist agenda of dividing the country. As we have seen in the world sentiments for separation have emerged in countries with both unitary and Federal constitutions based on their historical sensitivities and discriminatory experiences. Overall in general, federal devolution of powers have been proven to provide more stability, diffused tension, avoided conflict and strengthen coexistence between communities. All tamil political parties have categorically affirmed they are not for separation and want to resolve national problem in indivisible Sri Lanaka. Demonstrable trust in our people will unite them and eliminate any scope for separation. We need vision and leadership.
Some fear the genuine devolution of powers could undermine the Buddhist values in this country and would prefer to maintain the foremost place to Buddhist religion in the constitution. Devolution has nothing to do with this clause. But we have seen how government patronage could cultivate an abusive from of Buddhist clergy who were hindrance to promotion of Buddhism. If we prefer to give foremost place, as Sinhala Buddhism is unique in the world, state should have clear regulatory principles over their political involvement. It is worth remembering that we send nearly one million of our daughters to Middle East to work as housemaids to make a living and many more millions at home are struggling for their ends meet. Buddhist religious leaders should show their compassionate commitment to alleviate their sufferings.
It’s been said that Sinhalese are majority with minority mindset. They have been portrayed as people living with some form of fear. They have been told that Tamils have India and they have nobody. Existence of Tamil Nadu was projected to infuse fear in their mind for electoral gains. Here elections were never contested on real issues affecting ordinary people. Ethnic polarisation roused to create fear and anger to get votes and eventual violence. If our national problem is resolved then our politicians have to talk about the real issues and people also can vote responsibly to elect a good leader who can promote a prosperous nation without prejudices.
Existence of India with its state of Tamil Nadu at our neighbourhood have been projected as threat to Srilanka, to Sinhalese in particular and entertained as a reason for not devolving power. If one can overcome their entrapped ethnic mindset they can see that India than being a threat is actually providing more security and stability to Srilanka from western military and cultural intervention. Tamilnadu never forced a threat to Srilanka. They have never helped LTTE. Few politicians used them for their local political advantage and financial gains. India not only gave Buddhism to Sri Lanka their own presence as our neighbour also a blessing for protection and prosperity of our nation. Our better future can be guaranteed if we can nurture our relationship with India responsibly. Tamil adu and their relationship with Sri Lankan Tamils could play a much greater role as a bridge and a pillar to protect our nation. If we fear India then could have a treaty to guarantee its unconditional support against any separation of Sri Lanka
Few claim that if power genuinely devolved people who become minorities within a province, especially in north and east, vulnerable to discrimination. By this claim they unknowingly reaffirm the fact that Tamils as minorities discriminated in Sri Lanka. As Tamils still remain as minorities in rest of the country all other provinces and central government have much more leverage to avoid discrimination. This opportunity and challenge give glimpse of hope to avoid discrimination in entire country. Contrary to the general believe, all provinces will remain as multi ethnic political entity and can be nurtured to promote unity and diversity to remain as colourful nation.
“There is limit to the development of intellect
but none to that of heart” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
If we strive for a decent democracy treating all nationalities equally, then our constitution should guarantees them their rights to look after their own future and promote them to engage equally in political life of the entire nation. We should address the genuine fears of all communities and devolve powers to achieve that goal. It is my humble hope our political and religious leaders would use this opportunity to draft a new constitution bimodal in nature, unitary by being one indivisible and inseparable country and being federal by genuine devolution of powers as they remain devolved. Proclaiming Srilanka as multinational state and acknowledgement of all nationalities and their historical contribution to build this nation would encourage trust and unity.
If we still could not overcome our fear we could agree to this as a temporary constitution after 15-20 years. I am sure this would enable us with experience of cooperative coexistence to rewrite it with more friendship and trust devoid of suspicion and mistrust. All you need is courage, compassion, caring attitude and willingness to live as one nation in words and deeds. Federal form of devolution of powers empower the people belong to different historical, cultural and religious identities to have control over their own future to achieve their full potential to enrich the nation and participate fully and equally in political and social life of entire nation. We should be fearless in embracing it, at least partially, for posterity.
TNA have much more to do in this Noble endeavour. They have responsibility to explain to all Sri Lankan people this endeavour is not only about Tamil speaking people but also about decent democratisation and devolution, to bring political power and resources close to people, for the benefit of entire nation. TNA have to make apologies for their failures to resolve this national problem in previous opportunities. Having faith in people is a formidable force for change. TNA have done bare minimum to have dialogue with other groups representing Tamil speaking people to minimise their differences and for their corporation. Without these crucial steps, to put the horse in front of the cart, collective effort may come down to zero.
It is difficult to please everybody. We need national leaders with vision and courage to implement whatever necessary. I am confident our people have the heart for this bold measure. Leaders should address the nation with more conviction and belief in their message. If the intention is genuine and the message is clear it will transcend all barriers to reach people. .
Acknowledging the apprehensions and genuine grievances of all communities and adapting a constitution to accommodate them need confidence. There should be commitment for compromise from all sides. If we empathised with the tragedy unfolded in our country we can be compassionate and courageous enough to provide a caring constitution. I strongly believe our beautiful Sri Lankan people’s sensibilities and sensitivities would accept these measures to make a new journey together for the prosperity of their nation. Way forward is possible by fearless appeal made by committed leaders with honesty and humility.