The Devolution Package - A Recipe for Destruction of Sri Lanka

Introduction

The Devolution Proposals In A Nutshell

Why The Proposals Ring Alarm Bells

The Context

Will Devolution Bring Peace

Will The Proposals Induce The LTTE To Abandon Its Campaign To Set Up A Separate State?

The Constitutional Safeguards Against Secession

The Indian Factor

Alternatives To Devolution

The Opposition Is Rational And Responsible

 

INTRODUCTION

The Government's devolution proposals, which will replace the existing Constitution by a new Constitution and radically transform the political structure of Sri Lanka, have roused great interest both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Within Sri Lanka, many people support the proposals blindly hoping this would bring peace to the country.

The case for the proposals has been amply publicised, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Extraordinary efforts have been made to convince foreign governments and international agencies that the proposals are the panacea for Sri Lanka's problems.

The case against has been publicised mainly in a section of the media in Sri Lanka, and by groups of concerned citizens. It has not received the same prominence and attention as the case for. However, for both Sri Lankans and others, it is essential to appreciate the arguments for and against in order to arrive at a sensible assessment of the proposals.

Opponents of the proposals are often described, even by foreign governments and agencies, and respected media abroad, as "chauvinists", "extremists", "dinosaurs", and other derogatory terms. Such simplistic labelling is not conducive to an appreciation of the concerns of millions of Sri Lankans about the proposals.

 

THE DEVOLUTION PROPOSALS IN A NUTSHELL

Under the devolution proposals a new Constitution will replace the existing 1978 Constitution.
The key features are -
the deletion from the proposed Constitution of

Consequent to the deletion of the clause referred to at (a) above, the existing unitary state will be replaced by a federation termed The Republic of Sri Lanka, described as an "indissoluble Union of Regions".

Consequent to the deletion of the clause referred to at (b) above, Sri Lanka will be divided into an unspecified number of Regions (believed to be 8 or 9) to which Parliament will abdicate major legislative powers, plus executive and judicial powers. It is known that two of these Regions, the Northern and Eastern, are to be merged;

What distinguishes the devolution involved in this process is its extraordinary and unprecedented extent, which would effectively emasculate Parliament, and provide Regions with powers sufficient to successfully secede.

The proclaimed object of the proposals is to bring to an end the attacks by the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the government, security forces and civilians.

The assumption is that since the proposals will assign such extensive powers to Regions, the LTTE will abandon its terrorist campaign for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka's Northern and Eastern Provinces, and that peace will prevail.

We show in the following pages why, in Sri Lanka's context, these proposals cannot be expected to produce the results hoped for by the Government.

 

WHY THE PROPOSALS RING ALARM BELLS

Hardly anyone in Sri Lanka opposes devolution per se. In fact Sri Lanka already has an advanced system of devolution, with a considerable delegation of power to Provinces.

What alarms critics of the current proposals, which go very much further than the already significant devolution, is that the proposals allocate so much power to Regions that they amount not merely to devolution of power but virtually to abdication of power to Regions.

The Regions are vested with exclusive power in specified devolved functions. Among these are law and order, police, land allocation, and the administration of justice. In addition, state land, presently the property of the central government, is to be vested in Regions. There is even an astounding provision for Regional laws to override central laws in certain circumstances.

In short, the powers devolved are so extensive that it would be easy for any dissident group to defy the centre, to claim that their Region is already a state, and announce a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

There is such a group in two of the proposed Regions - the terrorist LTTE - whose aim is to carve out a separate state in the North-Eastern area of Sri Lanka. Most Tamil political parties in Colombo also stand for Eelam, as their names indicate. The pressure to use devolution as a stepping-stone for UDI would therefore be irresistible.

The protagonists' response is that the Government has powers under the proposals to intervene if there is "a clear and present danger" of insurgency. This grandiose phrase, far from providing a safeguard, in fact precludes action until the situation is virtually uncontrollable. Instead of empowering the centre to nip trouble in the bud, it ensures the locking of the stable door after the horse has bolted. Furthermore, even if the "safeguard" clause had been more sensibly worded, it would not be in the realm of reality to successfully intervene against a Region armed to the teeth, owning all its land, and equipped with virtually all the attributes of statehood.

This is why many Sri Lankans oppose the massive devolution envisaged in the proposals. They are convinced that the disintegration of the country would inevitably follow.

 

THE CONTEXT

Any proposal, particularly a major one, should be evaluated in the prevailing context. Many people look at the devolution proposals in isolation, ignoring the context. They are often discussed and debated in a vacuum, as a purely intellectual exercise.

In isolation, the proposals are sometimes assessed as a bold exercise in constitutional reform. Or simplistically as a question of unitary v. federal state; centralisation v. democracy; war v. peace.

Let us examine the all-important context.

In 1949 a leading Tamil Party of the time, the Tamil Arasu Kachchi (the Tamil State Party), declared its aim of setting up a separate Tamil state. In 1976 the TULF formalised the call through the Vaddukoddai Resolution. This objective remains the aim of all Tamil political parties and the LTTE to this day. The goal was pursued by political means until the late 1970s, after which there were threats of resort to violence. By the early 1980s violence had become common, and since the mid-1980s terrorism grew rapidly, with one terrorist group - the LTTE, eliminating all its rivals. The LTTE controls large extents of the Northern and Eastern Provinces - the territory claimed for Tamil Eelam - and is committed to wresting a separate state of Eelam out of one-third of Sri Lanka's territory.

In an attempt to bring about peace, successive governments have conceded demands of the LTTE and the Tamil parties. In the process, elements of the latter's negotiating strategy have become apparent. They -

  1. press for specific concessions
  2. obtain them
  3. ask for more concessions
  4. obtain them
  5. ask for still more - and so on, without end.

In short, each concession is treated purely as a springboard for further concessions. Since the 1980s, this strategy has enabled the Tamil parties to progress from district councils to provincial councils to a temporarily merged North-East province to the permanently merged Northern and Eastern Regions plus the massive transfer of powers from Centre to Regions offered through the devolution proposals.

This pattern is perfectly illustrated by the Tamil parties' reaction to the current proposals, under which the Regions would have such vast powers that Sri Lanka's very sovereignty would be jeopardised. The Tamil parties reject this bonanza as inadequate. They want an autonomous North-East Regional Council to be treated as a special Region with powers exceeding those of other Regions because it is "psychologically important" for the Tamils "to feel they are masters of their own destiny"; they want the Regional Council of the merged Region to be called a Regional Government; they want a Regional anthem; a Regional flag; the power to unilaterally change the name of the Region; and other powers normally associated with a state.

On a parallel track, the LTTE has also floated the proposal of a confederation consisting of two states of Sri Lanka and Eelam, with two Parliaments, two Prime Ministers, two Cabinets, and a common President.

It seems clear that the LTTE and the Tamil parties are using negotiations in order to obtain statutorily a legal basis for their objective of setting up a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

In the meantime, the LTTE pursues the objective of Eelam by terrorism.

Opponents of the devolution proposals fear that the proposals, which have already overstepped the bounds of prudence, will be subject to still more pressure. Leaders of the Tamil parties are on record as saying that the proposals are "a useful basis" or "a useful starting point" for further negotiations. Opponents of the devolution proposals are convinced that in this context the proposals would provide legal powers that would be decisive in establishing a separate state of Eelam.

That is not all. The leader of a powerful Tamil party has declared that if the boundaries of the existing Northern and Eastern Provinces are altered in the discussions on the devolution proposals, he will insist on a separate Regional Council for the plantation Tamils in the Central and Uva Provinces. A powerful Muslim leader has floated the concept of a Muslim homeland.

So we have several facts of life to reckon with - the looming threat of a separate state, a two-pronged strategy of terror and negotiations to achieve it, and the clear indication of further divisive demands.

It is in this context that the devolution proposals have been made. It is in this context that they have to be evaluated. It is in this context that opponents of the devolution proposals fear that they will destroy Sri Lanka..

 

WILL DEVOLUTION BRING PEACE?

The proponents of the devolution proposals assure the populace that they will bring peace. Naturally, this is the most powerful attraction of the proposals, particularly to families of soldiers, sailors, airmen and police.

This claim assumes that the LTTE and the Tamil parties, which are dedicated to carving out a state of Eelam from Sri Lanka's North-East, will be so satisfied with the enormous powers devolved to the merged North and the East that they will abandon Eelam, renounce violence, and settle for peace.

Let us examine this assumption in the light of actual experience with devolution since the early 1980s.

Devolution to districts was statutorily recognised by the District Development Councils Act Of 1980. The Act did not bring peace. The LTTE continued its terrorism.

Under pressure by the TULF and India, the Government signed the Delhi Accord of August 1985, which enlarged the unit of devolution from district to province. But the LTTE rejected this major concession, and the TULF withdrew support.

A draft of a Provincial Councils Bill of September 1986 only resulted in the TULF and the terrorist groups shifting their ground and demanding the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces into a single unit. The September 1986 proposals, modified in the Tamils' favour by India, were canvassed by the Indians themselves as a workable basis for peace. Again, the LTTE rejected the proposals.

Under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord forced on Sri Lanka in July 1987, the Government conceded the temporary linkage of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, to be finally determined later by a referendum in the Eastern Province. Delivering a lecture at Harvard University on October 9, 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said of the Accord, "..every single demand that every single group of the Tamils have raised has been fulfilled and we have gone much beyond that." The Accord did not bring peace.

In November 1987 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for the establishment of Provincial Councils. In September 1988 the President temporarily merged the Northern and Eastern Provinces into a single North-Eastern Province. Even this did not bring peace. The Tamil parties now pressed for the merger (to be temporary under the Accord) to be made permanent without a referendum. They argued that their homeland had been established by the Accord, and that the "Sinhala Buddhist state" had no right to hold a referendum in territory that belonged to the Tamils. In between, there was an abortive UDI of the North-Eastern Province.

The current package offers, through Regional Councils, not only the combined Northern and Eastern Provinces on a platter, but a devolution so massive that Sri Lanka will cease to be a unitary state, and the powers of the centre will be emasculated. This is devolution to the point of abdication. But the Tamil parties demand still more - an autonomous North-Eastern Regional Council with special powers exceeding those of other Regions, because it is "psychologically important" for the Tamils "to feel they are masters of their own destiny"; a change of terminology from Regional Councils to Regional Governments; a North-East flag; a Regional anthem; power to every Regional Council to change its name unilaterally; plus other powers. Concurrently, they have also proposed a confederation of two states.

The lessons of the devolution process during the past 15 years are that:

  1. Each concession has been used purely as a springboard for further demands. None have resulted in peace.
  2. The objective of the LTTE and the Tamil political parties remains a separate state of Eelam in North-East Sri Lanka.
  3. The objective of negotiations is patently to acquire, through political pressure and terrorism, as many legal attributes of statehood as possible, so that a UDI of Eelam can be substantiated by the claim that the extent of devolution implicitly recognises the statehood of the North-East.

If the proposals go through, the probable scenario is that the North-East Region will eventually announce that the devolution amounts to recognition of its sovereignty, and that the Sri Lankan government has no further role. An UDI would then establish Eelam.

The Government of Sri Lanka would then be faced with a disaster situation. If it resists Eelam, it would have to embark on a war of far greater magnitude than the present conflict. If it accepts Eelam, the south, who have been assured that there would be peace and an abandonment of the call for Eelam, may revolt. One must also reckon with the possibility that an emboldened Eelam would expand beyond the boundaries of the Northern and Eastern Regions.

Far from bringing peace, the proposals would result in more conflict than ever before.

 

WILL THE PROPOSALS INDUCE THE LTTE TO GIVE UP ITS CAMPAIGN TO SET UP A SEPARATE STATE?

The devolution protagonists' claim that the proposals will bring peace assumes that the LTTE will give up its claims for a separate state of Eelam.

Let us consider what the LTTE's demands and objectives are.

The LTTE's objective is to set up a separate independent state of Tamil Eelam, consisting of the existing Northern and Eastern Provinces. It has announced repeatedly that this goal is non-negotiable, and that whatever tactical deviations it makes, the goal remains Tamil Eelam.

Such occasional tactical overtures, usually made to stall government military successes, take the form of statements that they may settle for something less than Eelam.

On examination, however, the "something less", turns out to be Eelam in disguise. It consists of:

Proponents of devolution often quote the alleged willingness to accept "something less" without examining the substance of the offer. Such examination reveals the offer as the Eelam wolf in sheep's clothing.

 

THE CONSTITUTIONAL SAFEGUARDS AGAINST SECESSION

The proposed constitution prohibits secession and empowers the centre to intervene if there is "a clear and present danger" of secession.

Protagonists of devolution argue that these provisions are sufficient to meet any move towards secession.

In reality these safeguards are illusory.

Even with a unitary state, it is only with the greatest difficulty that the centre has prevented the LTTE from completely taking over the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The LTTE has had to be driven out of areas in these provinces with great loss of life to the Government's security forces and civilians, heavy damage to property and installations.

Under the proposals, the Regions will be vested with massive legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and the ownership of state land. The Region's powers over police matters, and the centre's constitutional inability to intervene unless there is a "clear and present danger to the unity and sovereignty of the Republic" would enable any preparations for building up an army under the guise of a police force, and the organisation of a powerful defense or attack capability, to proceed without any central intervention.

By the time "clear and present danger" manifests itself, it would be much too late for control to be restored. The only options for the centre would be to submit helplessly to secession,and face revolt in the south, or to fight a war against an enemy who would be fully prepared, armed to the teeth and immensely more powerful than the LTTE is today. In either case there would be large-scale unrest and/or unprecedented loss of life on all sides.

The "safeguard" is therefore purely cosmetic and of no practical effect.

lanka03.gif (43263 bytes)    ltte2.gif (51316 bytes)

LTTE, Already a formidable terrorist force under a unitary state. A military force created legally by North East region under the guise of a police force would be far more powerful.

THE INDIAN FACTOR

Looming ominously over the entire terrorist problem and the devolution proposals is the Indian factor.

This is ignored in most analyses of the devolution proposals.

It is well known that India, for its own purposes, armed, financed and trained LTTE terrorists in the 1980s; and that support from the state of Tamil Nadu provided the LTTE with a perfect offshore base.

Although India's links with the LTTE cooled after the LTTE assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Indo-Sri Lanka relations have improved vastly since the advent of the People's Alliance government in 1994, India is clearly keeping its options open, as flourishing LTTE activity in Tamil Nadu suggests.

The Indian agenda might welcome the disintegration of Sri Lanka, and India's possible consequential role as regional saviour, as outcomes entirely consonant with long-range Indian foreign and military policy. It is significant that India strongly supports the devolution proposals.

This is another reason for apprehension. The entry of India into the fray would have incalculable results, one of them being the gradual transformation of Sri Lanka, or whatever is left of it, into a vassal state of India.

 

ALTERNATIVES TO DEVOLUTION

The supporters of the devolution proposals often challenge its critics to provide an alternative solution.

The accepted approach to problem-solving is, first and foremost, to identify and define the problem; then, to explore alternative solutions; and finally, to decide on the best solution.

This procedure has been turned on its head by the formulators of the devolution proposals. They have devised a solution without having taken the indispensable basic step of identifying the problem. Their solution is in vacuo.

Adopting the rational method of identifying the problem, consider the basic claim that the problem is that there are serious Tamil grievances. Two questions arise
what are these grievances;
does the redressing of these grievances require extensive restructuring of the body politic?

The Tamils have steadfastly refused to specify their alleged grievances, with one exception. Mr. T. Somasekeram, an eminent Tamil, a former Surveyor-General, detailed the Tamil grievances in an article in the centre page of the Daily News of 29th August 1995. He specified just five grievances:

  1. First and most important, according to him, was that most Sinhalese are ignorant of the problems of the Tamils. (This may be true, because many Sinhalese consider the Tamils to be a privileged community, and the Tamils themselves, when invited to enumerate their grievances, have studiously avoided doing so - except for Mr. Somasekeram.)
  2. Next, he wrote that 5% to 10% of the Sinhalese are prejudiced against and hate the Tamils. (Even if true, a small percentage. But consider the remarks of the eminent Tamil, Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamer, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Parliament in 1994, repeated in the UN: "Let it never be said, if it could ever have been said, that the Sinhala people are racists. They are not.. They are absolutely not, and I think..that particular argument can be laid to rest for ever.")
  3. He went on to identify power sharing, saying the Tamils do not belong. (This allegation is difficult to understand, when the Government is risking a constitutional upheaval to placate the Tamils; and when Tamils have reached the highest levels in politics, the judiciary, the professions, the Universities, the diplomatic service, and business).
  4. The problem of life and death, meaning the riots of 1983. (There is no doubt that the riots of 1983 were a blot on the Sinhalese community. The only redeeming feature was that many Sinhalese sheltered and protected their Tamil friends at this time. There has been no recurrence since 1983, so, 12 years later, life and death is not a problem for the Tamils. The best comment to this charge has been by the northern and eastern Tamils themselves. Around half a million continue to reside and prosper outside the north and the east and among the Sinhalese; Tamils fleeing from LTTE terror in the north seek refuge in the south among the Sinhalese; and Tamils who go abroad for education and employment flock home, mostly to the south, to enjoy their vacations.)
  5. Employment of Sri Lankan Tamils in the state sector is less than proportionate to the percentage of such Tamils in the total population. (This complaint merits investigation and necessary remedial action.)

Another eminent Tamil, Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress party, challenged during a TV discussion to identify Tamil grievances, could only come up with the complaint that the Department of Inland Revenue addressed letters to him in Sinhala, a language he did not understand.

With all respect to Mr. Somasekeram and Mr. Ponnambalam, the grievances listed by them are either exaggerated or are remediable by administrative action.

It has therefore not been established that there are Tamil grievances that warrant drastic political changes which would endanger national sovereignty.

The approach to national unity should surely be to identify the Tamils' problems; re-assure them that irritants will be removed; remind them that they have every right that every other citizen of Sri Lanka has; that they play a major role in government; that Tamils have held the highest levels of office in the judiciary, the universities, and the professions; that they are prominent in the business world and dominant in some sectors; and that nearly half the Tamils live peacefully in the south and thrive and prosper among the Sinhalese. Whatever more needs to be done can easily be done within the present political framework.

 

THE OPPOSITION IS RATIONAL AND RESPONSIBLE

Enough has been said in the preceding pages to show why the opposition to the proposals in the context of experience is perfectly rational and responsible.

The opposition to the devolution proposals is based on the extraordinary extent of devolution, and the conviction that the proposals will be used purely as a stepping stone to secession, followed by expansion of the breakaway state beyond its borders, leading to a war for the survival of Sri Lanka, and possible Indian intervention, with all the complications which regional superpower intervention would bring.

We invite you to think on these things. Here is an instance where the remedy is much worse than the disease. Where the operation may be successful, but the patient will die.

One of the best kept secrets about this package is who drafted it. It is rumored that TULF, from whose youth movement the LTTE originated, had a significant role to play.


Article from Lanka Academic Network.

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