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Power sharing & postwar paths for Sri Lanka

by Dayan Jayatilleka

(An extended version of remarks delivered ex tempore at the launch of Power-Sharing in Sri Lanka: Constitutional and Political Documents, 1926-2008, edited by Rohan Edrisinha, Mario Gomez, VT Thamilmaran and Asanga Welikala, published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives)

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) volume on power sharing is an indispensable work not only for the researcher but also for thinking Sri Lankans and non-Lankans thinking about Sri Lanka. Choose whichever metaphor: it maps the landmarks along one of three axial routes of the Lankan crisis; it catches the contours of one of the three pillars between which Lankan political development takes place and the crisis continues. I refer to three thematic problems or issue clusters, namely that of the North-South axis, the ethno-national question, of power sharing between centre and periphery or the constituent communities of the island; the rich-poor axis, the socioeconomic question, that between the haves and have-nots, the elites and the mass; and the country-world axis, that of the island and its relationships with the world. The first and third issues are to do with various dimensions of identity, internal and external.

It is my settled conviction that none of these three problems can be successfully addressed without addressing the other two. An attempt to resolve the ethno-national without sensitivity to mass deprivation and nationalist or patriotic sentiment only makes that attempt vulnerable to a populist or plebian backlash. This is also why I am of the view that neither the elitist neoliberal cosmopolitanism that informs the editors/publishers of this work nor the neoconservative populism that is currently the dominant ideology, will be able to resolve the problem of reconciling Sri Lanka’s collective identities. That will require a centrist, social democratic or progressive liberal perspective rather like that of India’s Congress party or the US Democrats.

This volume has a magnificent collection of essential texts which mark the attempt at a solution from 1926 onwards. They are the footprints of a journey. The introductions attempt to track the search for a settlement. The volume itself is somewhat flawed and uneven, which do not and must not take away from the value of the volume and worth of the editorial-institutional exercise. The volumes flaws, its omissions and absences, are symptomatic of the crisis of cosmopolitan neo-liberalism and the failure of the negotiations option of conflict resolution.

The general introduction of almost ten pages has but two references to the LTTE, the longer of which is all of a single sentence! The sectional introductions vary in quality, ranging from some excellent ones which cover the early segments, the colonial and post-colonial periods. The introductions decline in objectivity as the volume moves on in time, becoming increasingly subjective, tendentious, and even rather dodgy in the period covering the 1990s to date.

The crux of the issue which the texts in the volume address was most pithily stated by young SWRD Bandaranaike in 1926, when he warns prophetically of impending crisis, pointing out that a centralized form of state presupposes a homogenous society while no society anywhere in the world as “communally” heterogeneous as that of Ceylon has, to his knowledge, successfully sustained a centralized state form. In sum, the young Bandaranaike pointed out the dysfunctional asymmetry between the “base” or “substructure”, the underlying social formation of the island with its poly-ethnic mosaic, and a centralized political “superstructure”.

This contradiction remains unresolved eight decades after its embryonic articulation by him, but it does not remain unaltered. Inasmuch as the recently concluded Thirty Years War arose out of this contradiction and insofar as that war ended in the decisive victory of one side, the state, and defeat and destruction of the other, the underlying contradiction itself cannot but be drastically altered by the new politico-military balance of forces in which the strategic military hegemony of the state is in all probability, unassailable. However, the decisive, and to my mind, wholly welcome, military defeat of the LTTE can alter the contradiction but cannot abolish it. Sri Lankan society seems divided between those who assert that the underlying problem remains despite the outcome of the war and those who claim that the problem itself has been resolved or effaced. Too few seem to transcend these dual dogmatisms to comprehend that there is a complex mix of continuity and change, the ratio of which is difficult to determine: the problem remains, but has changed; the problem has changed, but remains.

The Communist party texts of the mid 1940s (a line that extended at least until 1952, though the volume fails to note it) demonstrate a sharpness of perspective that confirms my long held belief in the theoretical and intellectual superiority at the time, of the Communist movement over the older and larger LSSP or Samasamajist tradition. It bears discussion as to whether the comparatively more multiethnic composition of the top leadership of the CP in relation to the LSSP, contributed to the dominance of the latter in Sinhala society and the former in Jaffna.

The segment dealing with the 1980s has several interesting omissions. The broadest domestic consensus in favor of provincial-level devolution in Sri Lankan politics, a detailed set of documents issuing as a small volume from the Political Parties Conference (PPC) of mid 1986, convened by President Jayewardene at the written suggestion of Vijaya Kumaratunga, leader of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) and signed off on by the UNP, SLMP, LSSP and CPSL, is absent from the collection. Nowhere is the possibility discussed that, especially given the verified success of the North Western Provincial Council under Chief Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, the 13th amendment and the North East Provincial Council failed not so much because of insufficiency of devolved powers but because of a full scale war by the LTTE and Chief Minister Vardarajaperumal’s adventurist attempt to outflank the latter on the Tamil nationalist front by leveraging (and entrenching) the presence of the IPKF.

In the section dealing with the 1990s there is a text representing a “civil society initiative” from a Movement for Constitutional Reform, which bears no signatures. However the volume omits the far more significant civil society initiative of 1984, that of the United Nations University (UNU) South Asia Perspectives Project and the Lanka Guardian Publishing Co, which produced a platform for devolution bearing the signatures of all Sri Lanka’s intellectual heavyweights of that time.

The selection from the 1990s makes a passing reference to but omits any documents of the All Parties Conference convened by President Premadasa, of which the Mangala Moonesinghe Parliamentary Subcommittee was an outgrowth. The post 2000 selections strangely fails to include the most significant critique of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), that of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), presented in Parliament in September 2002 if memory serves, and authored by Lakshman Kadirgamar. It is a critique which bears no references to antiquity or claims of the intrinsic cultural and civilizational superiority of the Sinhalese; it was based on law and international law in particular, and central to the critique was that of Lines of Control and implications for sovereignty. This text is dropped and instead the critique of the CFA that finds representation in the volume is the more extreme one of Wimal Weerawansa and Co. as referred to by the Supreme Court in its judgment on the PTOMS (2005).

Matters become mildly hilarious when the introductions get to the mid 1990s and beyond. The 1995 and ‘97 “union of regions” packages of the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga administration are applauded, and we are informed that for a ‘variety of reasons’ (which remain unspecified) the conflict ‘resumed’ and the brave reformist enterprise designed by her progressive advisors was reprehensibly abandoned. What we are not informed of is the truth: the conflict ‘resumed’ because the LTTE resumed it by blowing up two Navy boats in Trincomalee harbor in April 1995, just as it ‘resumed’ in 1990 when the Tigers re-launched the war despite the 14 months of face to face talks that President Premadasa held with them, and it had ‘resumed’ in 1987 when, after the Indo-Lanka accord of July, and while the Sri Lankan state and the pluralist Left fought a civil war against the anti-devolution JVP, the Tigers went to war against the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in October. The conflict ‘resumed’ – hopefully for the final time -- in 2006, when the LTTE, dominant in an internecine war against the Karuna rebellion, used the opportunity as casus belli to lash out against the Sri Lankan armed forces and State, which it had grossly underestimated, as it had Mahinda Rajapakse, Southern public opinion and the determination of the Sinhalese.

Most telling is the gushy definition of the CFA-ISGA-PTOMS paradigm and period (2005-6) as “Near Agreement”. This is especially ironic at the current moment when humanity commemorates the 70th anniversary of the commencement of World War 2, and there is a global consensus that the abandonment of the Spanish republic, the appeasement of the Nazis by the western democracies at Munich and the (reactive) pact between the USSR and the Nazis, were the colossal failures of morality and nerve, opening the way for Nazi aggression and the War. The CFA-ISGA-PTOMS phase was our Munich, which was roundly rejected by the incoming political leadership, its apt choice of military leadership and above all the overwhelming bulk of public opinion located primarily in the South (as tracked by every opinion poll). Thus the section of the volume breathlessly billed as “Near Agreement” is more happily understood as “Nearing Nandikadal”.

Most surrealistic is the yawning discrepancy between the volume’s editor-publishers’ perception of the CFA and that of the LTTE itself as expressed in the Tigers’ statement of 2007 (contained in the volume), on the 5th anniversary of the CFA:

“ …Unprecedented in peace efforts in the island, the CFA was formulated with the full support of the international community…It recognized Tamil Eelam’s de facto existence, with its unique characteristics: a distinct population; a government comprising a defense force, a police force, a judiciary, a civil administration and other institutions for effective governance of a people, and capability of entering into agreements with other governments with a line of control reflecting the ground reality of the existence of the Tamil homeland demarcated with recognized borders”. (p766)

This sense of the CFA was the one thing that the Sinhala people and the Tigers agreed upon, and still do! It’s the reason why any opposition leadership tainted by association with the CFA will be unable to restore the basic competiveness of the main democratic Opposition party in the electoral marketplace and reverse the ongoing meltdown of its mass base. Without a UNP leadership that re-locates to the centre and re-identifies itself with mainstream mass opinion, without a UNP that re-brands and re-launches under leadership that is not suffused in the radioactive dust of the CFA-ISGA-PTOMS, there will be no viable alternative government. Without one, there will be no checks and balances on the Government, nor course corrections by its leadership.

Those who, like me, are dismayed by the grip of fundamentalist, fanatical and neoconservative ideologies and pressure groups would do well to track their upward trajectory. The large number of seats for the JVP was not conceded by Mahinda Rajapakse but by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and her negotiators such as Mangala Samaraweera, who felt they had to accommodate a political force that had grown exponentially during the phase of and in reaction to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s CFA. Overall, the JVP and JHU grew rapidly in reaction to the decade of politically hyper-inflationary, Utopian proposals, beginning with the 1995 union of regions package and culminating with the PTOMS which conceded predominance (5:3) to the LTTE, the armed terrorist militia, over the legitimate Government of Sri Lanka in its crucial regional or middle tier.

One cannot help but wonder why President Kumaratunga did not commence in 1994-5 with the already existing 13th amendment (perhaps upgrading it by building back the residual matters left over from the Indo-Lanka Accord), or the Mangala Moonesinghe proposals which bore her mother’s signature, rather than attempt an overly ambitious opening venture such as the union of regions. A possible explanation is that she fell for her ideologues’ account of a handsome peace mandate, forgetting the glaringly obvious: she contested against a UNP that had been decapitated by serial LTTE assassinations, not to mention an opponent who was a novice to politics and not even a party member. Another explanation is that she had a vested interest in a brand new constitution because only that would have enabled her to transcend the two term limit.

My basic point is that the lamentable influence of the Sinhala hard-line pressure groups is a backlash against the at best vacillating (CBK) and at worst supine ( RW) nature of the more pluralist cosmopolitan SLFP and UNP leaderships, which failed to rise to the challenge posed by current history and defeat the Tigers.

Thus one of the fundamental aspects of the Sri Lankan crisis today is a Government that is alienated from the minorities and an Opposition that is alienated from the majority. A majoritarian approach cannot sustain, while a minoritarian approach cannot succeed.

The most serious issue I have with the editors/publishers of the volume is their assumption that it is inherently contradictory to wage a war and push for devolution. These same intellectuals do not perceive the contradiction between an elected government inevitably having to respond to a terrorist militia that has launched a massive surprise attack on the state and simultaneously waging a unilateral mass campaign for peace (Sama Thavalama, the Peace Caravan), thus undermining its own recruitment drive. That absurdity apart, the notion that waging a necessary war against terrorism and the implementation of reforms are inherently contradictory, posits a dangerously dogmatic dichotomy shared by the neoliberal pacifists and the neoconservative populists. Realists (Russia’s Putin) know that a successful strategy against separatist terrorism organically links devolution—power sharing with the local community or local allies-- with a military campaign, whether devolution precedes, parallels or follows military victory.

In his remarks, one of the editors of the admirably useful compilation, Asanga Welikala, said that the two alternatives available in Sri Lanka seem to be those of “accommodation” or “assimilation”. For my part, I demur, and argue that there are not two but three alternatives out there. The first is accommodation on the basis of power sharing, or what I call the Chechen model (to the accompaniment of much shuddering among liberals). This involves a full on military offensive to destroy separatist terrorism, followed by a modest but very real local autonomy and rule of the liberated or re-taken area through partnership with the local leaders (or what a cynic might call local proxies). The second model is that of equal assimilation, assimilation which can be successful only on the basis of equality of citizenship and non-discrimination, in which the Sri Lankan Constitution changes in such a manner that no community, be it ethnic, linguistic or religious has a Constitutionally entrenched privilege. (Any doubters about the non-secularity of the Sri Lankan state should dip into the famous Robert D. Kaplan’s essay on Sri Lanka in The AtlanticMonthly).The third model is of Occupation; of unequal assimilation at the centre and internal colonialism at the periphery. I am not saying that the State is attempting this. What I am saying is that these are the ideological options out there in society. I for one do not consider the third option to be diplomatically viable or strategically sustainable.


Dayan seems to have detached himself from all the emotions attached to these three models which he sees as alternatives.For long term survival and successes equal assimilation with symmetrical devolution of powers to the provinces with administrative decentralization would be the most progressive move.Does SL as a nation has the political maturity and will to proceed with this model will be answered in the next few years.

Posted by: justice | September 12, 2009 05:16 PM

The last para dealing with the alternatives available is most probably based on the age-old existing system of governance where power to govern the country is given to a "selected" few who have been "selected democratically". In the Eastern part of this world there is no such system for "electing/selecting persons to represent the public" in a "truly democratic' method. I would call it the "bullying" method of the "powerful" persons to compel the people to "elect/Select" them.

So I come to a fourth alternative wherein the first "two" or the next "three" alternatives are set aside and the "fourth alternative" be considered in the interest of the "majority" of the "people" who are actually the "powerless" and the " silent poor".

The "fourth alternative" is the "true" form of democracy. A transparent and accountable system of governance of the country and its people which should be "by the people, for the people and of the people".

For this form to be effected,the powers of governance now enjoyed by "parliament" MUST be DIVIDED AND SEPARATED and different sets of "people's representatives" must be empowered with these different sets of powers to govern the country. Only through this method it would be possible to start eradicating "bribery, corruption, discrimination and injustice" the four evils that help to "destroy" mankind.

The above "fourth alternative" is given by nature/God. No living being is "fully" empowered. Trees cannot grow without the combined effort of the "leaves" and the "roots". They are empowered with two different functions essential for the growth of the tree. Likewise in all living beings including the "most superior" human race. Different functions for different parts of the "whole" with one part having no control over the other but they are "inter-dependant'

Posted by: Sie.kathieravealu | September 13, 2009 02:27 AM

I haven't had a chance to read the above article (most probably will not). Dr. Jayathilaka is a challenging person to argue with simply because of his indepth knowledge about world and SL history. Just when I think he has over come his bias towards socialism and communism he writes a sentence that is out of place to say, 'eventhough I say all these things that seem to be objective, I'm a subjective person who can't overcome political ideologies'. Yes it is important to know the political and sociao-economic history of the conflict, what is needed now is to understand the options that are available on the table.
As he points out there are several options on the table. Let me add another. That is 'not do anything fancy and let the intersted paries get what they want through the parlimentary process of bargaing with the party who wants to be get power'. This has worked somewhat for the hill-country tamils. Eventhough they are the most oppressed in the country. (I hope they will get a better deal from this trade union action). Idelogy aside, political reality is that Sinhalies are not going to give anything for free to anybody because we have a well establish opposition that will simply take the advantage of going against the governments possition to gain votes. 13th is on the books and lets implement it fully. The options what were introduces in the article should be considered not as 'or' options but as 'and' options. Thanks for taking time to read and write about Sri Lanka.

Posted by: billa | September 13, 2009 10:42 AM

Institutionalized racism determines the fate of minorities especially Tamils.

One other example, among many, is sufficed to sum up the attitudes of the Sri
Lankan army and judiciary which are overwhelmingly made of mono ethnic composition (Sinhalese Majority).

In Bindunuweewa detention camp 28 Tamil suspects were hacked to death by villagers in front of Sri Lankan army

When the case against the perpetrators of the murders and their accomplices went up to the court, a rare occurrence in itself, the judge dismissed the case due to insufficient evidence without any retrial or recourse to justice.

Posted by: Mawatha Silva | September 13, 2009 12:49 PM

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