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From a Tragedy to a Farce

Comments on the SLFP Proposals

by Sumanasiri Liyanage, Groundviews.org, May 1, 2007

Its “fresh approach” to a “complex problem,” that has grown to gigantic magnitudes over the years, is in essence nothing more than the proposals of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958, almost five decades ago! History sometimes - in Sri Lanka oftentimes - repeats itself, but as Marx aptly puts it, the first time as a tragedy and second as a farce...

Majoritarianism in a pluri-national society can be contained only if numerically small nations can constitutionally mobilize their strength effectively against the unreasonable and hegemonic decisions of the numerically large nation/s. District committees are designed to divide them more and more, and as a result to weaken them and their identity.

Professor Wiswa Warnapala, the Minister of Higher Education, is one of the leading political scientists in Sri Lanka. He has produced, even after entering the busy life of politics, many books in a wide variety of subjects, the most recent being about Sri Lanka-Russia Relations. When the media reported that Prof. Warnapala would be the main architect of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s proposals to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), we all became optimistic assuming that the proposals would adequately address complex issues of restructuring the postcolonial state in Sri Lanka. However, the SLFP proposals submitted to the people on May Day 2007, have demonstrated clearly and conclusively that the SLFP have not traveled forward in time but far back. Its “fresh approach” to a “complex problem,” that has grown to gigantic magnitudes over the years, is in essence nothing more than the proposals of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958, almost five decades ago! History sometimes - in Sri Lanka oftentimes - repeats itself, but as Marx aptly puts it, the first time as a tragedy and second as a farce. The SLFP proposals are totally disproportionate to the questions at hand. Not only are they a retreat from the earlier positions of the SLFP, they cannot be a basis for a long-lasting solution to the ethno-political conflict in the country. The drafting of the proposal, which took so much time, reminded me of an old Sinhala saying: “kandak vili la meeyek veduwa vage”.

The SLFP proposal includes inter alia (1) devolution of power with district as a unit of devolution; (2) a second chamber; (3) making chief ministers ex-officio members of the 75 member second chamber; (4) national water and land commission; and (5) district ethnic ombudsman. The powers of the second chamber have not yet been specified. Since Prof. Warnapala was a strong unicameralist in the past (he quoted from Dr N. M. Perera’s PhD dissertation in support of this position), the SLFP’s proposed second chamber would not be more than a replica of the lower house. Since I have discussed the issue of the second chamber in relation to Sri Lanka’s Ethno-political conflict in my earlier article in the Daily Mirror (republished in A Glimmer of Hope: A New Phase of Constitutional Reforms in Sri Lanka, Colombo: South Asia Peace Institute, 2007), I will not delve into the subject here. The innovative proposal to establish an ethnic ombudsman is promising, but the appointment procedure specified in the proposals may not produce results. The section on the language in the SLFP proposals shows that the authors are even ignorant of the present constitutional provision on language. However, in this article my focus on the SLFP’s proposals will be limited to its proposals on devolution of power.

The Current Discourse
Whatever its limits, the Report of Sub-Committee B (RSCB) contain positive features. It accepts that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society. It proposes that power should be devolved, with the existing provinces being the unit of devolution. The sub-committee has no objections toward a second chamber if it can effectively address the issue of power-sharing. On the other hand, RSCA has proposed changes that would produce far-reaching results and would make the Sri Lankan state more accommodative. It is no secret that the RSCA proposals have a close affinity to the 2000 constitutional draft bill that was presented to the Parliament by the Peoples’ Alliance government, of which Mahinda Rajapakse and the members of the current SLFP sub-committee on constitutional proposals were key members. Both the RSCA and the Constitutional Draft Bill 2000 accept that the minimum unit of devolution would be the existing province. Both documents have left space to accommodate specific Tamil and Muslim demands especially in relation to the Eastern Province. The Chairperson of the APRC, Minister Tissa Vitharana have also suggested that the unit of devolution should not be lower that the existing province. What is the status quo? The 13th Amendment introduced devolution of power on the basis of the existing provinces with the qualified merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A recent Supreme Court decision delivered a verdict that on legal grounds the merger was no longer constitutionally valid. Of course, the constitutional issues transcend legal boundaries since constitutional issues in a pluri-national society are more political in nature. What I am trying to stress here is that the Sri Lankan constitutional discourse has reached some consensus that the unit of devolution should not be smaller than the existing provinces.

Is there a justifiable ground for the SLFP to now change this consensus and to suggest afresh that the district instead of the province be the unit of devolution in future constitutional arrangement? I would say no. The chauvinists of the current SLFP leadership are here trying to find a justification for the choice of district as a unit of devolution based almost in a farcical manner on the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of “grama rajya”. The two concepts are of great importance in a pluri-national society, not as substitutes for the protection of group rights, but as complementary to it. Let me explain. The setting up of constitutionally separate two-tiers of government can be justified on multiple grounds. The notion of subsidiarity has increasingly been invoked to legitimize the setting up of a lower level of government. It has multiple meaning, but what is most common and relevant here is that it refers to organizational and territorial principles requiring that decision-making and implementation be carried out in a space that is as close as possible to the citizen. This idea also goes with the notion of deliberative democracy where all the affected should be given an equal opportunity to participate in decision-making as equals in a non-coercive context. The principle of subsidiarity in this sense addresses the issues of effectiveness, and good and inclusive governance. However, it does not and could not directly address the rights of self-determination of different peoples living in the same territorial space.

Secession Justified
In RSCB as well as in the Tissa Vitharana proposals, these two principles – the principle of subsidiarity and the notion of “grama rajya”– are incorporated by introducing a third-tier of government. That was the principle enshrined in the Indian Constitution. However, the SLFP’s so-called “indigenous model based on the idea of Grama Rajaya” is based on complete ignorance/ negligence of the Indian model and the complex nature of the Sri Lankan problem. The SLFP leadership seems to reject the national or ethno-political question in Sri Lanka by arguing for devolved smaller unit. One of the key demands of the minorities in Sri Lanka is that they should be allowed to take decisions that affect them and their destiny. What is good for the numerically big nation may not be necessarily good for the numerically small nations living in the same territory. The best examples were the Citizenship Acts, Official Language Act of 1956, and the language-based standardization policy in the early 1970s. The whole question of constitutional change arose because of the failure of the two autochthonous constitutions because they were prepared according to the needs and requirements of the numerically large nation, the Sinhalese. SLFP proposals attempt the same once again without taking into account the proposals by the TULF (Anandasangree), EPDP, EPRLK (Pathmanabha) and the Muslim political parties for more comprehensive power-sharing arrangements.

The SLFP proposes to set up 30 district councils as the second-tier of government. In a way, the current proposals are even short of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958. Because the B-C Pact (if I remember correctly) accepted that the Northern Province should be kept as one unit and that units could be merged with the consent of the Parliament. The principle behind this is that the numerically small peoples should be given space, not only to participate in governance, but also to govern themselves with the control of reasonable resources. Can a district council protect, preserve, and advance the culture of the Tamil people? Village committees are territorial units, not politico-cultural units. Majoritarianism in a pluri-national society can be contained only if numerically small nations can constitutionally mobilize their strength effectively against the unreasonable and hegemonic decisions of the numerically large nation/s. District committees are designed to divide them more and more, and as a result to weaken them and their identity.

The SLFP proposals give justification to the demands of the LTTE for a separate state. As Mr Sambanthan, TNA MP once remarked, the LTTE is in fact a baby of Sinhala chauvinism. This chauvinism is once again expressed by the SLFP in its 2007 proposals. So the SLFP by presenting these proposals continues to feed the baby, the LTTE, to keep it alive.

Sumanasiri Liyanage teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.
E-mail address: sumane_l [at] yahoo.com