The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) resolution calling for a Federal Constitution for Sri Lanka has triggered a spontaneous reaction from Southern quarters. Not only hardliners such as the JHU, NFF and the Gammanpila faction criticised the move but also the moderate SLFP and UNP were quick to disassociate from the proposals and declare that federalism was a far-fetched solution in the on-going new constitution-making process. Highways and Investment Promotion Minister Kabir Hashim said the Government will not be troubled over minor resolutions passed in Provincial Councils, while Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was more elaborate in his statement that the SLFP will not endorse a federal constitution.
It was not clear as to what the architects of the resolution, the TNA team in the Council led by Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran aspired but certainly it seems to have put the government in a fix, taking the on-going reconciliation process into turbulent waters. The Sunday Observer spoke to the Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray, ITAK (TNA) Parliamentarian M.A.Sumanthiran, legal luminary Gomin Dayasri and Senior Lecturer Colombo Law Faculty A. Sarvesvaran on the hot topic.
Key features of the Resolution
Two broad linguistic states – the Northern and Eastern Province (Majority Tamil speaking states) other seven Provinces (Majority Sinhala speaking state)
Tamil speaking Muslims as a separate group of people unit in the North and East, Tamil speaking Upcountry Tamils as a unit within the rest of the country
The greater Colombo area which is cosmopolitan must be the chief metropolitan unit of the country having a separate administration.
* The federal system of Government is adopted in preference to a unitary system of Government.
* Muslim autonomous Regional Council in Northern and Eastern Provinces
* North Eastern State Parliament
* Official and National languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil and English shall be the link languages.
* Adequate self- rule must be provided to these State Government and Regional Councils
* State agencies such as the Mahaweli Authority that undermine decisions of peripheral administrations must be done away with.
* No concurrent jurisdiction should hereafter be formulated, only State and Federal.
* The flag of the Republic must do away with sectarian depictions. National Anthem should be sung in Sinhala or Tamil or in both languages.
* Land within State limits must come under the control and purview of the State Government.
* Full Police powers must be given to State Government.
* Facilitate Tamil people to hold a referendum in their areas to decide on their political status.
* Occupying Military Force in the North and East should be made redundant
Q: The Northern Provincial Council(NPC) passed a resolution last Friday calling for a federal form of a constitution. This resolution has the blessings of the TNA?
A: The NPC has TNA, UPFA and SLMC members. That is a suggestion of the parties represented in the NPC, not only that of the TNA.
Q: But the two Sinhalese Councillors opposed the resolution?
A: They did not oppose the resolution. They left the proceedings early because there was no Sinhala translation available. I must say that what the Council had done was wrong.
They should have made the Sinhala translation available before they discussed it. The resolution was in Tamil and there was only an English translation available. (However, the two Sinhala Councillors walked out in protest over the suggestion to merge the North and the East and the demand for a federal solution. The Muslim councillor had proposed amendments before giving his consent to vote for the resolution.)
Q: The majority Sinhalese fear the word federalism and the Tamils despise the word unitary. To overcome this stumbling block independent experts have proposed a solution which refers to no federal or unitary words in it. What is the TNA’s stand on this?
A: The word federal was introduced to this country not by the Tamil people or Tamil leaders. It was introduced to this country in 1926 by SWRD Bandaranaike. He wrote five letters to the Morning Leader newspaper.
Then he conducted a public lecture in Jaffna where he propagated the federal model for this island. Then in 1931, Kandyan Chiefs went before the Donoughmore Commission and asked for a federal structure consisting of three units, with the same boundaries as the three kingdoms that existed before the Portuguese arrival.
Then in 1946, when the Soulbury commission sat, the Kandyan League again made a recommendation for a federal solution consisting of three units. So why are the Sinhala people scared of the word ‘federal’, when it was the Sinhala people and their chiefs and leaders who actually introduced federalism to Sri Lanka and wanted it. The Tamils did not want it at that time.
Q: Politics has changed. The Tamils are yearning for something that they did not want at the time?
A: Yes, this fact has to be brought to the notice of the Sinhalese and explain to them that there is nothing to fear.
Look at most of the stable countries in the world today, they have federal structures. For instance the US, Canada, Australia, Germany and most of the EU countries. India and UK don’t use the word federal but they have power sharing arrangements very similar to a federal structure.
The world over, countries that have remained united and strong have federal forms of government.
Q: Another stumbling block would be the opposition by the Muslims to the proposal that the North and East should be considered a single state with a Tamil-speaking administrative unit. Minister Rishad Bathiudeen has openly opposed this proposal. Your comments ?
A: That is not the general perception of the Muslims. Muslims, through the SLMC, have for a long time articulated the position that they will not stand in the way, if the merger is the fundamental political aspiration of the Tamil people.
If the North and the East must remain together, if it is the genuine desire of the people, then they will not stand in the way.
However, if such a merger comes about, they also need a special arrangement for them in the East. Therefore, that is a matter we need to discuss and come to an arrangement, so that the Muslims will protect their interests while the Tamils achieve their aspirations. We want to remain as one without splitting. Even under the 13th Amendment, there has been a provision for a merger that has existed for 18 years. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government on several occasions gave pledges to implement the 13th Amendment in full and go beyond that to achieve meaningful devolution. In the 13th Amendment itself the merger exists.
We did not act on it because we are not fully satisfied with what is offered in the amendment. This proposal is not a thing that should excite or frighten anybody. In a state of openness we should discuss it and come to some kind of satisfactory arrangement.
Q: You said Minister Bathiudeen’s viewpoint is not shared by the majority of Muslims. Have there been any discussions between the Tamil and Muslim leaders to this effect?
A: We had discussions a long time ago, when SLMC leader A.H.M. Ashraff was living. All these splinter groups originated from the SLMC. There are no firm commitments or firm arrangements but it is possible to come to an understanding through dialogue.
Q: Does the NPC resolution have a binding effect on the Central Government?
A: It has no binding effect on the government or anyone else. It is just a resolution. It is like anybody saying this is what we like.
Q: What was the objective of passing this resolution at the Council?
A: It is a reflection of the views of the Council. That is all. The Government has sought the opinion and views of the public on a new constitution. There has been a public representation committee, going around the country seeking public views and there is a steering committee as well.
Q: There are concerns that at a time when the Government is making serious efforts to find a power-sharing mechanism acceptable to all, such actions will only put the government in a difficult situation?
A: Yes that concern is there. I accept that we should not unnecessarily drive fear into the minds of the people. But at the same time, these are issues that have to be confronted at some point or another. We must discuss this and inform the public that to say federalism will break up the country is a myth but on the contrary it is a tool to keep the country united.
Q: The TNA is of the belief that a federal structure would be the only solution to address the remaining power- sharing issues?
A: We are not interested in labels but when we say federal, what we mean is the features of a federal arrangement.
All the past proposals of former governments had been going in that direction. Greater devolution ensures that powers once given to the provincial councils cannot be taken back unilaterally.
Those are the features of a federal form of government. So long as those safeguards are there, any solution is acceptable.
Q: Do you believe this government can give the Tamil people a reasonable solution ?
A: Yes. We can see genuine intent on the part of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and their respective parties. This is a golden opportunity, when the two main parties are together in government.
The issue can be settled once and for all, so that the country can march towards prosperity.
The human voice is stronger than the sound of guns now. This is a democratic country and in a democracy people can express their feelings freely. But everything that is said will not be implemented. The government is considering proposals for constitutional reforms these days. Until such time the proposals are considered and passed in Parliament they will remain documents and ideas. There were so many suggestions on federal structures even earlier. Even Sinhala leaders have spoken of federal forms of power-sharing structures.
When I receive a copy of the resolution it will be presented to President Maithripala Sirisena. But the President cannot take any unilateral decisions. This document will be submitted to the constitution-makers. The final structure of the future constitution will be devised by Parliament. They are yet to hand over a copy of the resolution to me. It needs to be translated into Sinhala and a copy is expected next week.
The TNA’s resolution in the NPC seeking to merge the North and East and call for a federal solution is ill- advised and ill-timed. The prime purpose is to make the South react with an angry response and to defeat the reconciliation and reconditioning purposes; which is the prime need of the hour. I believe S.W.R.D mentioned the word ‘federal’ in some context but to extend it to the Sinhalese of the past of having mooted the concept, is an exaggeration.
The Northern code is to create smoke bombs that can escalate in strength to reach nuclear heights unless kept in check. It is indeed comforting that the people are wise not to react to whatever stupidity the TNA maps out as they have prudently done after July ’83 where the South lost badly due the idiocy of a few.
It expresses the vision of a dissected TNA, vocal and visible, while the TNA’s Provincial Council has not serviced the genuine grievances of the Tamil people in the North. North’s telling need is social, economic and cultural ascendancy. Wigneswaran’s NPC’s performance is much less effective than when Governor Chandrasiri functioned.
It has failed to spend the funds allotted to the Northern Province. So what is the governance the TNA proposes to lead in the future? Has the Provincial Council worked for the betterment of the North and the East, than the Central governments of the two regimes under governorship? The answer is ‘NO’ in capitals. Yet the Centre has failed to communicate directly with the people of the North and the East to learn their problems and be understood.
Parties in the South have hardly any representation in the North because their policies are Southern-oriented. Ethnic issues can be overcome if the main political parties are truly representative islandwide. Ethnic issues will remain thorny, if the Ministers of minorities in the North are nominated rather than elected.
The Southern political parties must show a national outlook with their policies to find their feet in the North. That will be the true barometer to test public perception of the success of the reconciliation process. Ethnic parties must disappear fast from the North and the South.
A loose tongue can ignite a chain of events that can revive animosity which up to now is in the backburner. One singular event can lead to the undoing of much: fortunately it has not surfaced. The NPC is trying its best to agitate the south.
It is the people not the politicians that have maintained the equilibrium of communal harmony. Politicians have exploited situations to their advantage. People have learnt to live in harmony.
Tamils do not want a regime change – A. Sarvesvaran
When it comes to achieving our goals, we have to be realistic. In the South there is misunderstanding that federalism will lead to separatism. In reality, power sharing will not divide a country, it will unite the country but public perception is strong. There is mistrust and the government is in a difficult situation. Power-sharing cannot be done in one go, it is a step-by-step process. It will be achieved when there is no mistrust. Since the words ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ are words misunderstood by the two communities, it is better to go for a new term. We can even coin a term. The solution must be preceded by confidence-building.
The provincial council resolutions have no binding powers on the Centre. The resolution can be considered as a set of proposals to the constitutional committee. Under the 13th Amendment, the Councils cannot pass statutes, they have to be sanctioned by the central government. But on the subject of a merger, under Article 154 A (3) Parliament is already empowered to bring in laws to facilitate the merger of two or three adjoining provinces. It is already there in the present constitution.
Proposing a merger of provinces is not unconstitutional or illegal. It is a constitutional right of thesuch actions may create other issues. When extremism is evident from one community, it leads to a similar reaction from the other community. It is a two-way thing. The Tamils do not want a regime change, they have confidence in the present Government. They have more freedom now to engage in political activity and lands are being released. With regard to the release of political prisoners, the process is slow but the relatives have some hope.
Taking all these into consideration, we have to be realistic and not create situations that will lead to regime changes.
Federalism Back In The Limelight by Camelia Nathanielin/
The resolution seeking a federal solution to the Tamil minority issue and political independence for the minority Tamil community, calls for the government to include the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces into one ruling system, and establishing it under a federal system, into the new constitution.
However, there are others who oppose a federal solution and are against the merger of the North and East including some Muslim and Tamil communities. There are concerns that racism will resurface if a federal solution is brought in and both Tamil and Sinhala extremist groups will use this resolution to their advantage and ignite racism. The JVP believes that such an approach will not encourage reconciliation, but it stands to encourage separatism and disharmony.
TNA passes bill: The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) backed Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a bill recently and called for the new constitution to include provisions to allow merging the North and East into one federal, Tamil speaking unit. But a group of citizens from the North recently voiced their disapproval of the TNA and NPC resolution and said that they do not want a federal solution and they preferred a united Sri Lanka, where there was no more conflict over dividing the country. Calling themselves the voice of the Tamil people against separatism, they claim that during the war the ordinary people had to undergo grave difficulties and the northern people now want nothing but peace. Vijayaratnam Surenthar said this collective group represent the views of the people from Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya and they are all against the attempt by certain parties to instigate another war.
“People have suffered enough and they don’t need any more talk of a separate state. We want to unite with the rest of the country. There are many problems we are still facing such as housing livelihood etc and some TNA members are trying to start another war and they are trying to divide the country once again. We have lost our children to the war and we have suffered enough. Now we are living in harmony with the Sinhala people and that is what we want. Although there are many Tamil MP’s in parliament they are not talking of separating the North. However it is only the TNA parliamentarians who want to separate the country so they can have power. This is not what the people want and we will not stand for this,” he added.
Meanwhile Jeyasri Fernando from Mullaitivu said that the war that started in the 80’s claimed many young lives.
“During the LTTE they wanted the war to end and now that the war has ended they are coming up with other ideas so that they get the power into their hands. For about 16 years now the TNA has been hoodwinking the people and obtaining power but to date they have not been able to get together with the government and do something that is beneficial for the Tamil people. The moment they were given the post of leader of the opposition, they have now forgotten the grievances of the people. Now we have no security concerns but drugs and crime has increased in the North, but the TNA is not interested in doing something to stop these crimes. Now they are trying to get some federal system and get power to their hands to rule.
“Even in Wigneswaran’s case he is trying to separate the Tamils from the Sinhalese and other communities, but his daughter is married to a Sinhalese. They are maintaining good ties with the majority Sinhalese but they are trying to separate the normal people and create trouble and take advantage to hold onto their power. We have had enough and that is why we have now decided to speak for ourselves and tell the rest of the country that we want to live in unity with the other communities in this country. These politicians have done nothing for the betterment of the Tamil people but they are just trying to use them as pawns and hold onto their power,” said Jeyasiri.
Meanwhile, according to Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha, in the 80s Federalism was seen as a means of uniting a country through giving its parts greater authority. “The familiar examples then were India and the United States. But then federalism became a means of splitting up a country as is the case with Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.
It would therefore be dangerous for Sri Lanka to adopt federalism now, especially in the context of the renewed call for a North and East merger based on a homeland theory. Sadly, when the TNA was ready for a more nationally beneficial compromise, based on the principle of subsidiarity, in 2012, Sajin Vass Gunawardena sabotaged my efforts by calling me the TNA member on the government delegation then negotiating with the TNA. Sadly President Rajapaksa swallowed that line, and did not mind when I was not informed of meetings.
Now, sensing that this government is more vulnerable to pressure, the TNA has reverted to its old agenda. Indulging this would open the way to more extreme elements as has happened in the past,” said Dr. Wijesinha.
The resolution passed last week, sought the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single Tamil-speaking “State” with an autonomous sub-unit in it for the Muslim minority and an autonomous sub-unit for the Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) in Nuwara Eliya district in the Central Province.
Meanwhile expressing his views leader of the National United Front (NUF) Azath Salley said that instead of the politicians deciding, it would be better to have a referendum so that the people could decide if they wanted to merge the North and East. Also commenting on the TNA and NPC call for a federal solution to the ethnic issue he said that what they had thought was that after 30 years of war, the Tamil people have not got anything.
“So when they ask for a solution, they want to include the ultimate of demands. Its not that the TNA expects the government to grant this demand, but they are just testing the waters and trying their luck to see if they can extract the best for the Tamils, making use of this opportune moment.
I feel that the government should come up with some good proposals. The other parties too are talking and they are also expected to submit their proposals, so let’s wait and see what the outcome is and then finally take it to the people and see what they want,” he added.
Muslims chased out of ther homes; He further stated that while the Muslims too were not only affected by the war but they were chased out of their homes by the LTTE and they are still in temporary shelters. He said that Muslims have always been left out and there has not been a proper leadership that will fight for the rights of the Muslims. “Although we have 21 MP’s we are a community that cannot get what we want. Hakeem’s party wants to do something against Rishath Bathiudeens congress and vice versa and in the end they are only interested in looking afterpower of just one elderly gentleman, Sampanthan is equal to 21 of our Muslim MP’s who are just sitting there. Sampanthan gets what he wants for his people. I will cite an example, when Maithripala Sirisena was the minister of health the Kalmunai hospital North was to be given a blood bank and the Kalmunai hospital south was to be given an accident service.
Now that the hospital project was given the green light, they came up with a false charge that the soil in that location was not suitable to put up a building. However, earlier there was a three storied building in that spot and we demolished it hoping to get the hospital. But when Sampanthan goes with a letter and says I want this, the government just gives it to him. This is the plight of the Muslims and we have never got what we wanted.
I have said earlier too don’t force our community to take up arms. I was arrested by the previous regime for just saying this, but this was a warning sign and I wanted the government to take precautions to prevent that from happening. The Muslim leaders give the parties loads of money during the elections campaigns and then when they win these Muslim leaders are well looked after and they are not in the least bit bothered about the Muslim community.
The issues of the Muslims is at a terrible state. We are deprived of everything. Except for peace in the country, every problem that we faced during the Rajapaksa regime, we are still facing. The only thing that the Good Governance regime has given the Muslim community is peace and nothing more,” said Salley.
Federalism practised in many countries
Expressing his views on the matter, TNA politician Suresh Premachandran said that Federalism is practiced in many countries successfully. He said that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka have been suppressed for a long time now and the Sri Lankan government has failed to resolve the Tamil National issue. “After that there was no other way but to fight for a separate state.
Now we say that we are prepared to live in a united Sri Lanka provided there should be a federal solution in this country. The people who were oppressed have given a proposal outlining the manner in which the federal solution should be like. On that basis we are willing to discuss with the government regarding a federal system in this country.
The NPC and the Tamil people’s council have both given two proposals not too different to each other with the proposals that the Tamils expect. Even the Muslims who are a minority group can discuss with the Tamil parties. They can then talk and discuss if this federal system is alright or we are willing to compromise in certain areas. “We have only given a draft and this is not the final document. We are willing to discuss matters and we are expecting a bilateral dialog between the government and the Tamil parties. If they can come to an agreement on certain matters such as the NE merger, federal system, the powers and functions of the provincial council, how they are going to transfer the powers to the province, whether it will take place through the governor or the board of ministers, and if they can come to an agreement on these matters, then these can be incorporated in the new constitution.
Hence I think on the part of the Tamils they have done a good job, because there are two drafts on the table and now its upto the government to talk to the Tamil parties and come to some compromise. There is no point shouting about the NE merger or the federal system, we can sit together and discuss and come to a compromise,” he said.
Several federal systems exist in Europe, such as in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union, and the US and a federal government is a system that divides up power between a strong national government and smaller local governments. However just having only one main government promotes a sense of unity among the people, and the citizens can all identify themselves and those of one country.
Furthermore, in the event of an emergency or disaster decisions can be taken swiftly without having to go through different levels of power.
But on the other hand, this can also create a dictatorial government that can manipulate any situation to their advantage and take decisions based on their political agendas and not for the benefit of the people.