By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The morning after Geneva, no more Mr. Nice Guy. The devolution of power, framed for ‘separatism’, is on a death-list for disappearance and elimination. Here’s the (triangulated) evidence.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has finally articulated a stand on devolution of power that places him on a collision course with his giant neighbour.
“He stressed the sovereignty of Sri Lanka will not be betrayed by allowing these countries to achieve their geopolitical needs by introducing separatism under the guise of power devolution. The President made these observations addressing the ‘Gama Samanga Pilisandara’ programme held at Pitabeddara earlier today (March 27).”
“…He noted that the sovereignty of Sri Lanka would not be betrayed by allowing other countries to achieve their geopolitical needs by introducing separatism under the guise of power devolution.”
The President’s Media Division’s release reads:
“…We are not ready to bring back separatism in the name of devolution of power and betray our sovereignty to fulfill their political needs. The people of this country gave power to us to bring these basic things back on track.”
The Sri Lankan polity and the international community must be most grateful to the President. These being his first public remarks on the Geneva vote, he ended any confusion as to whether he would respond realistically, by moderating his discourse and centering his course– or by doubling down. He doubled down, interpreting his mandate as including the rollback of devolution (“The people of this country gave power to us to bring these basic things back on track”). He’s going to the bitter end with his hardcore base, just like Trump.
The President’s remarks left little doubt as to whose ‘geopolitical needs’ he thought were to be served under the guise of devolution. He accused them of seeking to ‘bring back separatism’.
He overlooked the salient fact that separatism was not ‘brought’ in under the name or through the ‘guise’ of the devolution of power, but displaced federalism as a slogan in the 1970s, when devolution/autonomy had been thwarted for decades, since the coerced tearing-up of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957.
He left no doubt at all that he was hostile to the idea of devolution, which has bulked large in the UNHRC resolution as well as the official statements of India, made in Delhi, Colombo and Geneva.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa obviously doesn’t share the broadly held view the world over, that the devolution of power to ethnic minority areas, making for a measure of autonomy, is the best vaccine against separatism. Instead, he holds the opposite view that devolution of power is on a continuum with, and actually makes for, separatism. A reform which for Realists is the alternative to secessionism and thus the solution (or part of one), is for President GR, the stepping stone to secessionism and thus the problem (or part of it).
President GR perceives devolution and sovereignty as antinomian choices in a zero-sum game. He certainly didn’t inherit this opinion from his elder brother Mahinda, or his father, the right-hand man of SWRD Bandaranaike. The first attempt at the devolution of power was the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, and DA Rajapaksa was very much with Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike when the defeated UNP as well as the Buddhist clergy linked to ‘Sinhala Only’, took to the streets against it.
Paradoxically, President Gotabaya and his fellow ex-military brass seem to have got their views on devolution and the 13th amendment from Lalith Athulathmudali, the Oxford-educated, hawkish, pro-Israeli, Minister of National Security of the UNP government of President JR Jayewardene, at the time they served in the military.
The implications of the President’s hardened stand on devolution are three-fold:
1. So long as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in office there will be no implementation of the 13th amendment and the devolution of power envisaged in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. The Provincial Councils will be reduced to a mere facade: Viyathmaga’s Ven. Dr. Medagoda Abeytissa urged their abolition while Sinhala ultranationalist SLPP MP Gevindu Cumaratunga exhorted in Parliament that the system of PCs remain only as a developmental agency devoid of legislative power.
2. So long as the Tamils of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka are denied devolved power, the Tamils of Southern India will be disaffected, potentially generating domestic geopolitical dissonance in India; extremism and restiveness in its Southern cone when it is facing a buildup by an axis of its rivals on its Northern tier.
3. So long as devolution is unimplemented while Sri Lanka permits projects on its northernmost islands bordering India, which can be perceived as violation of the annexures of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and creates potentially dual-use (electronic intelligence) artificial islands thrusting into the Indian Ocean/Indo-Pacific, Delhi’s strategic ‘buffering’ gains of the Indo-Lanka Accord will be disintegrated.
The President may think he’s imitating India on Article 370, but India has a secular Constitution and federal system of linguistic states. Given the glaring asymmetries of size, space and strength, President GR’s stand may turn out much more like the fatal abolition by the parliament of former Yugoslavia, of the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo.