By Izeth Hussain –
In my article “The Solution to the Ethnic Problem” I argued that the implementation of 13A minus land and police powers together with a fully functioning democracy will lead to a solution of the ethnic problem. I expressed a conviction about that outcome, which could seem to be foolhardiness on my part. That article published in the Colombo Telegraph, where up to now it has provoked 175 responses, which is a very exceptionally high number. That seems to attest to a very widespread interest and concern over the question of a solution to the ethnic problem. Some of the responses, particularly from Tamil readers, indicate that my article can be seriously misunderstood. I am therefore setting out here a brief rationale for 13A minus plus, brief because I am focusing only on what seem to me to be the essentials.
I hold that the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic problem is in reality an Indian problem. If not for the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what happens to the Tamils here, which can evoke the deepest concerns in Delhi, the Tamil ethnic problem would not have the kind of international resonance that it has at present. The Tamils would be treated as a conquered people – that is to say like dirt – about which some concerns would be expressed by some Western countries where the Tamil diaspora can wield some influence. Those concerns would have been irritants to the SL Government but not a danger to Sri Lanka. The West has also been concerned about the fate of the Tamils but I believe that India is the main external factor in our ethnic problem, and India is concerned not with human rights but with putting an end to the ethnic problem. That is why shortly after the present Government came to power, holding out the prospect of a solution, the presentation of the war crimes report in Geneva was postponed by six months. To see the ethnic problem as more an Indian than a Sri Lanka Tamil one is crucially important for working out a solution.
The crux of the Tamil ethnic problem is that the Tamils hold that they are not just another minority but a national minority with a valid claim to a homeland, an area of traditional Tamil habitation which lasted down the ages, where furthermore the Tamils had a kingdom which lasted for five centuries or more. Consequently they claim that in terms of the sacrosanct principle of self-determination they have a right to set up a separate state, Eelam. If that is not possible, they claim on the sacrosanct principle of internal self-determination the right to a very wide measure of devolution, amounting at least to federalism. It is that claim to a very wide measure of devolution that the Sinhalese side has not been able to accommodate. The result has been a quarter century of war which left around a hundred thousand dead.
Will the Sinhalese side be able to accommodate the Tamil demand for a very wide measure of devolution in the foreseeable future? I doubt it very much. I am afraid that the Sinhalese objections to a very wide measure of devolution have not been articulated too well. They fear that devolution beyond a point will lead to Eelam in an ineluctable linear progression. The analogy they seem to have in mind is that of Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia. But in that case the imperial centre of London was far away whereas here a Perumal of the future will be instantly jailed together with his separatist cronies – without objection from the international community – unless of course UDI is part of an Indian plan to break up Sri Lanka. The real objection to too wide a measure of devolution – an objection that does not figure in Sinhalese discourse as far as I am aware – is that it could make the task of forging a sense of national unity much more difficult. Another Sinhalese objection is that devolution makes sense in a huge country such as India but not in tiny Sri Lanka – which of course is to forget the Swiss model. I can think of a much more fundamental objection to devolution in anything but small units. In India there has been no antagonism between the States nor serious antagonism between the States and the Center. Here we are expected to have a Province or two Provinces linked together in which the Tamils will be dominant after having fought a quarter-century war and with close links with 60-million-strong Tamil Nadu. That arguably points to a continuing fateful polarization between our two major communities. That kind of polarization as a consequence of devolution is not to be found anywhere in India. It too will stand in the way of forging a sense of national unity.
I will not expand on those arguments because my purpose here is to focus on the essentials. Compromise on police and land powers might be possible, corrections and improvements amounting to an extension of 13A are conceivable, but wider devolution going in the direction of federalism does not belong to the realm of practical politics in Sri Lanka of the present-day. Let the Tamils continue their struggle for wider and wider devolution, and let them and the Sinhalese continue to bicker over Constitutional and other matters. But let us, while all that is going on, thoroughly implement 13A minus land and police powers, plus a fully functioning democracy, a mix that should lead to a solution of the ethnic problem.
What I am really advocating is a grass roots approach to the ethnic problem. Certainly an ethnic problem can be solved through devolution, and the setting up of certain institutions, backed by Constitutional provisions. But that approach has failed dismally in Sri Lanka over many decades. I have set out above the underlying structural reasons for that failure. The Tamils conceive of themselves as a nation which is entitled to a separate state or a very wide measure of devolution, and they can be expected to be very reluctant to give up that claim as long as they feel that Tamil numerical preponderance – taking into account the sixty million in Tamil Nadu – will count some day in establishing Eelam. Many Sinhalese have feared devolution for the identical reason. They have always held that the Tamils will never be satisfied with a modest measure of devolution but will ask for more and more until they get Eelam or something close to it. By way of substantiation they can point to the present situation: after the Presidential elections there seemed to be a good prospect of a final political solution on the basis of 13A, but now the Tamils want 13A plus, apparently with the backing of India.
I have set out above hard and inescapable facts that will continue to militate against any solution based on a very wide measure of devolution. The present situation cries out for a paradigm shift in our approach to the ethnic problem. I have proposed 13A minus plus. I will now make some points that constitute part of the rationale for 13A minus plus. It will help if both sides begin by acknowledging that both have contributed mightily to our ethnic tragedy. A) The Sinhalese must acknowledge that the main cause for the civil war was State terrorism from 1977 to 1983. B) The Tamils must acknowledge that because of LTTE intransigence they missed opportunities for a political solution from 1994 to 2000. C) The Sinhalese must acknowledge that the conditions were very propitious for a political solution after the military victory of 2009, but that became impossible because of the racist neo-Fascism of President Rajapaksa. D) I suppose it is too much to expect the Tamils to acknowledge that the conditions again became propitious for a solution after the recent Presidential elections, but they are being negated by Wigneswaran’s advocacy of 13A plus to the extent of federalism, for which he claims the backing of India.
In this situation the thorough implementation of 13A minus police and land powers, plus a fully functioning democracy will lead to a grass roots solution of the ethnic problem. Devanesan Nesiah in his brilliant article “Are the Sri Lankan Tamils prone to collective political suicide?” (Island of April 8) referred to the “horrible depths” to which the lives of vast sections of the Tamil population of the Vanni and elsewhere have descended – as attested by the meticulous research of Dr. Rajan Hoole Let the Government alleviate the misery of those Tamils, and my guess is that they won’t give a dam about devolution. Remember that the Jaffna farmers voted heavily for Hector Kobbekaduwa without bothering about devolution because they were grateful for what he did for them. People want a better life and my guess is that if they can get that devolution will become of secondary or no importance.
I suspect that our Tamils have illusions about what India can do for them. It is true that India can try to break up Sri Lanka under certain circumstances, but we can be sure that it will try nothing of the sort unless it has heavy international backing, and for that we have to be guilty of horrendous ill-treatment of the Tamils. India can of course harm us in various ways, particularly by getting together with some of the Western countries, but there will be no warrant for that if we are seen to have a reasonably clean record on human rights, and are also seen as trying to give fair and equal treatment to the minorities. That can be done without any devolution at all.