By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“…This Constitution is going to be framed one with the framework of a united, undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka…We do not want this country to be divided. But the people want power to be devolved within the regions. The power that is required to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the country, Defence, the Army, Navy and the Air Force will be under the control of the Central Government. Foreign Affairs Currency and Finance, Immigration and Emigration to be under the central government. These powers need to be kept at the Centre to ensure the unity and the indivisibility of the country.
Other powers will be devolved…The Southern Province will have their Provincial Council with enhanced powers. The Sabaragamuwa, Central Province will have their Provincial regions with extraneous enhanced powers. Similarly the North, East and Central Provinces will have their own areas with enhanced powers.”
Now not only does Mr. Sampanthan entirely avoid the use of the term unitary, what he does lay out is a perfect description of a federal constitution.
In the first place in a unitary system there is no “Central government”; there is one Government which devolved power to the peripheral units. When Chief Minister Vardarajaperumal took out advertisements in the newspaper bearing the line “North Eastern Provincial Government’, President Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne made clear, with no small degree of vehemence, that while there may be provincial administrations, there are no provincial governments and a central government.
In the second place though Mr. Sampanthan uses the term in his speech, there are no “regions” in Sri Lanka.
In the third place, the equation set out by Mr. Sampanthan, in which the “center’ is limited to keeping the country together by wielding powers which relate to the country’s interaction with the rest of the world, while all other powers are devolved, is a definition of a federal, or more correctly, quasi-federal system.
Now the problem with all this is twofold. Firstly, the Tamil people already have an arrangement of this sort. That is in Tamil Nadu. There is no logic by which an ethnic community should enjoy the same degree of autonomy on a small island that it does on a vast subcontinent. There is also no logic by which an ethnic community which is one and half million strong in two border regions of a small island should enjoy the same quasi-federal powers that eighty million Tamils enjoy in Tamil Nadu.
Secondly, the island of Sri Lanka has only one neighbor and that’s to its north. The North of Sri Lanka with a million Tamils is only 18 miles away from Tamil Nadu which has 80 million ethnic Tamils. The Southern two thirds of Sri Lanka has no neighbors, no co-ethnics, no adjacent co-religionists, and no speakers of the same language.
Thus it is geopolitically unaffordable, and actually dangerous for the Tamils of Sri Lanka to have the same political power as the Tamils of India. What Mr. Sampanthan proposes is a second Tamil nadu on the soil of the small island of Sri Lanka. This is not merely unacceptable, it poses a deadly existential danger.
None of this means that there should be no devolution of power or that such devolution should be to small units such as districts. That may be the stance of Sinhala chauvinists or ultranationalists but I am not one of them. I am a Realist.
As such, I would maintain two basic points: (a) that the Tamils of Sri Lanka having a distinct collective identity, should have a quantum of devolved power that is significantly lower than that possessed by the Tamils of India i.e. in Tamil Nadu next door and that (b) the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka being a unique collective located on a small island with only a single enormous neighbor on the southern tip of which are coethnics of those on this island’s northern tip, require state and political guarantees against being swallowed up by irredentism and osmosis.
Thus the Tamils of Sri Lanka should not enjoy quasi-federal powers while the Sinhalese and the integrity of the island as a whole require a frankly unitary state system in form and content.
Consequently the Tamils of Sri Lanka should be devolved such power that yields provincial autonomy within an explicitly unitary state. Concretely this translates into negotiations for Constitutional reform on the basis of the existing 13th amendment and building upon, but not going beyond it.
The bottom line is that the geopolitical realities faced by the Sinhalese, including their exceptional collective situation and consequently exceptional vulnerability, require a strong state with a strong center i.e. precisely a unitary state. At the heart of Mr. Sampanthan’s perspective is a weak state with a weak center. The TNA, the Tamil diaspora and the UNP are striving to weaken the very heart of the Sri Lankan state.
This means there is a fundamental, antagonistic contradiction (to use Mao’s terminology) between the project of Tamil nationalism and the strategic and existential needs of the Sri Lankan state and the unique majority on this island (or the majority uniquely located on this island). There is a fundamental, antagonistic contradiction between the Constitutional agenda of Tamil nationalism and that of its internal and external political supporters on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan national interest and its core strategic and security interests, on the other.
Most concretely this means that if the new, covertly federal constitution is along the lines that Mr. Sampanthan laid out in Matara, a sustained campaign must be launched to block it in the Supreme Court and push it to a referendum and defeat it soundly.
The lesson of political history is that if we wait for the new covertly federal constitution to be unveiled it will already be too late to prepare to defeat it. The Joint Opposition must immediately launch a new powerful new movement to which all communities and political persuasions including UNPers can subscribe; a movement which can generate a protest vote as did the brexit campaign, a National Movement for the Defense of the Unitary State – Ekeeya Rajjya Surakeemey Jathika (or “Mahajana” or “Puravesi”) Vyaparaya.