By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
As proposed, the ruling party has taken steps to reform the constitution. The government presented a proposal in Parliament to transform the national legislature into a constitutional assembly. In addition, the government has appointed a group called the Public Representation Committee, which is going around the country collecting proposals and ideas. These steps, despite the problems the government might encounter in garnering a two-thirds majority necessary for meaningful reform, have imparted the impression that reform is feasible. Consequently, some individuals and groups have formulated and presented their ideas for constitutional reform.
The Tamil People’s Council (TPC) headed by Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran appointed an Expert Committee to prepare a draft proposal, which was handed over to Wigneswaran in February. Reports indicate that the draft has been translated into Tamil and being circulated. It is not clear if Wigneswaran would accept the proposal and present it to the government or would introduce his own changes. However, one cannot assume that the Exerts Committee operated independently without input from Wigneswaran and his allies. Given the recent ideological evolution of the Chief Minister and the company he keeps, one should not be surprised, if Wigneswaran is indeed the real architect of the proposals. The draft is problematic for several reasons.
Before turning to these issues, it would be useful to understand what the Committee has proposed to their leader. A quick look indicated that the Committee is proposing a federal state in Sri Lanka. Under system of governance (p.4), the Committee suggests that “Sri Lanka shall be a Federal Republic.” A second chamber (Senate) has also been suggested. So, it is federalism that the Committee is talking about. The question however is, if it is federalism that the TPC is proposing, why should it prepare a proposal in the first place, because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has already adopted federalism as its political slogan. Therefore, there should be something else. This is where a closer look was needed.
A careful reading revealed that the TPC’s Expert Committee has in fact, been proposing a loose confederal system. First, the proposal repeatedly insists that the Tamil people’s “right to self-determination” should be recognized. For example, it states “…this would mean recognizing the Tamil People’s uniqueness and their right to self-determination (p.1)… Tamils constitute a distinct people with the inalienable right to self-determination. The Tamil People pledge their commitment to a united and undivided Sri Lanka which respects and affirms the right to self-determination of the Tamils (p.4).
Second, it demands an extreme form of devolution. For example, in page 6, it says that the Tamil people should have “maximum self-government.” Interestingly, the Committee claims that they “recognize that unlike the North-East no other part of the country makes claims to maximum self-government (emphasis mine).” Another example for the demand for extreme devolution could be found in relation to foreign policy. Clause 12.1 states that “Foreign policy shall be a subject on the Federal List. However, when a matter on the State List is the subject of a foreign policy decision the States shall participate in the preparation of decisions of foreign policy which concern their powers or their essential interests. The Federation shall inform the States in time and fully, and consult them. The position of the States shall have particular weight when their powers are concerned. In these cases, the States shall participate in international negotiations as appropriate.” The Committee also wants a separate unit with the embassies of Sri Lanka to “promote its economic, education and cultural interest (p. 11).” In essence, many provisions of the report, for example, land and police power, education, and public service, seem to propose what could be called one state-two administrations; one for the North-East and other for the rest of the country.
These proposals, in my view, represent four major problems: (1) they are mostly rejected ideas, (2) they have the capacity to undermine possible rapprochement among ethnic communities, (3) they may damage security of the people in the North, and (4) they are unrealistic.
The end of the war and the manner in which the war was ended proved that the Tamils can never have a separate state in Sri Lanka. This realization, forced the TNA, the main Tamil party to officially drop the demand for a separate state in its 2010 election manifesto. In addition, the TNA also denounced violence. The party declared that it will settle for a federal state. The Tamil people overwhelmingly voted for the TNA in 2010. In 2015, while the TNA reiterated its commitment to a federal solution, Wigneswaran supported parties that espoused self-determination. The Tamil people completely rejected the call Wigneswaran made and the parties ran on the platform of self-determination could not win a single seat. Therefore, Vigneswaran and the TPC have no authority to present the Experts Committee report as Tamil people’s proposals. One has to wait to see what Vigneswaran will do with these proposals.
Second, one of the preconditions for ethnic rapprochement in Sri Lanka is that the communities should be able to live in a united country. The perception that the Tamils are still operating on the ideals of a separate state would prevent the Sinhala community from approving any form of devolution of power and taking steps to promote ethnic reconciliation. Without a reasonable project for devolution of power, the Tamil people will not be able to reconcile their differences with the Sinhala people. The perceived or real demand for a separate state will only help to perpetuate the conflict. Also, radical nationalist Sinhala groups will certainly use the TPC proposals to justify discrimination and actual or political assaults on the Tamil community. The point is the TPC proposal has the potential to delay or hamper ethnic conciliation.
Three, even after the end of the war and decimation of the LTTE, the previous government retained tight military control over the people in the Northern Province. It is the new government that decided to relax some of the restrictions and allowed greater normalization, which was one of the major demands of the Tamil people until recently. Evidence to suggest that Tamils still are espousing separation would justify re-imposition of some of the restrictions including strict security measures by this government or a future one. This would only help undermine the freedom and security of the people, especially the Tamils in the Northern Province. A government might even delay such measures as releasing land acquired to create high security zones during the war.
Pre- May 2009 World
Finally, the report and the proposed measures demonstrate lack of understanding of the prevailing politico-military realities within the country. Sri Lankan government is currently under no pressure to devolve powers to the Northern Province. It is doubtful whether a reasonable scheme of devolution could be introduced in the new constitution given the resistance which would stem from the joint opposition and other Sinhala nationalist groups that are a part of the government. Therefore, the extreme devolution proposed by the TPC has no chance of being implemented. The question then is what the group proposes to do if the government says no? Would it undertake a campaign to apply pressure on the government? Or would it stir the pot and move on? As far as this author knows, Vigneswaran has no history of protesting.
An extremely interesting component of the report says that the government needs to sign what it calls “a pre-constitutional agreement,” like the Dayton Agreement and/or the Good Friday Agreement, with the Tamil leadership, probably Wigneswaran. Both of these agreements were signed to end violence, while major belligerents still had the capacity to use military power.
In Sri Lanka, the LTTE is gone and the Tamils have no military capacity. So, the government does not have the need to sign agreements with Tamil groups and I don’t think it will. Therefore, Dayton and Good Friday agreements are wrong examples to use in the present context. One may argue that Sri Lankan governments have signed agreements (Banda-Chelva and Dudley-Chelva agreements) with Tamil leadership when they did not have military power. However, Chelvanayakam was leading a non-violent protest campaign, which disrupted governance in the North-East. These governments were under pressure to come to an agreement with Chelvanayakam.
Therefore, the TPC demand for a pre-constitutional agreement is unrealistic and it demonstrates lack of understanding of the international and domestic realities. The group perhaps is living in a pre-May 2009 reality.
This also raises the question whether these proposals are prepared to win political powers or formulated only for the consumption of the Tamil people and to win their sympathy and electoral support. If this is the case, then the report has been prepared with the next election in mind. Nevertheless, Wigneswaran, wittingly or unwittingly is giving leadership to a project that would potentially re-radicalize the Tamil community. The demand for a separate state and the radical or violent tendencies within the Tamil community, as proved in the last 30 years, would only bring destruction to the Tamil community. People who did not personally experience the war may not understand the horror.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.