Federalism Is Good For The North, But Better For The South!

Veluppillai Thangavelu

On April 26, 2017 Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine delivered the keynote address at the SJV Chelvanayakam’s 40th death anniversary commemoration held at Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya. The function was organized by the llankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) the party founded by Chelvanayagam on December 18, 1949 after he broke off from the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). TNA Jaffna District Member of Parliament M. A. Sumanthiran presided. R. Sampanthan, MP and Leader of the Opposition and the TNA leader also addressed the meeting.

In his keynote address Minister Rajitha Senaratne has posed the question FEDERALISM: WHY ONLY FOR TAMILS?  Naturally the Minister’s query has evoked much discussion by way of pros and cons in political circles. Dayan Jayatilleka, an ultra-Sinhala Buddhist nationalist and reputed to be the political advisor to Mahinda Rajapaksa has written an article in response titled “Sinhala Federal Party.”

Very few Sinhalese politicians come forward to support federalism; if they dare it will be considered as sacrilege and condemned roundly. Therefore, we must congratulate Minister Senaratne for speaking his mind on a controversial, but a burning topic. It is the first time someone like Minister Senaratne has posed the question FEDERALISM: WHY ONLY FOR TAMILS? and then answers: A Federal Union of Ceylon would have allowed the Sinhala South to take their destiny into their own hands, in their own regions.”

Minister Senaratne’s explanation on the need for Federalism was simple. It allows people in different regions to take care of their day to day responsibilities including their cultural life, while politically acting together as a single Nation State.

Let me quote extracts from his speech somewhat extensively for the benefit of the readers. 

(1) We must ask, why Federalism to Tamils? Why not to the Sinhalese in the South? We need Federalism for South because centralised powers from 1947 Parliament to 2017, for 70 years, have failed to develop the rural Sinhala society.

(2) If Federalism leads to “separation”, Velupillai Prabhakaran would have first negotiated for a Federal System. He would have been the hard line campaigner to have the “Oslo Declaration” signed in December, 2002 to be enforced without delay. The Norwegian facilitated peace deal was declared as signed between the GOSL and the LTTE on 05 December with Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator for the LTTE announcing” that is what we decided, that we will opt for a Federal model. This Federal model will be within united Sri Lanka which will be appreciated by the Sinhalese people I suppose.”

(3) If Prabhakaran was as convinced as the Sinhala extremists that Federalism leads to a “separate” State, he would have been the first to demand a Federal System.

(4) But why Chelvanayagam wanted a Federal State was for simple reasons? That was to take care of their day to day responsibilities including their cultural life in the North-east, while acting together as a single Nation State.

(5) As the first National Convention of the ITAK in 1951 resolved, “…..It is their (Sinhala and Tamil) common motherland and with a view to promoting and maintaining national goodwill and close co-operation with the Sinhalese people.” The “common motherland” that “Thanthai” Chelva stood for and believed would be best served as a “Federal Union of Ceylon”, would not have allowed Prabhakaran his dream of an “Eelam” State. A “Federal Union of Ceylon” instead would have allowed the Sinhala South to take their destiny into their own hands, in their own regions.

(6) Centralised power in Colombo even before this free market economy left the Southern districts too poor and lacking in socioeconomic development. In just 20 years since independence, the Sinhala youth in rural South decided to rebel against the State, for a better future. The JVP began organising their armed insurrection from 1968. It was the marginalised rural poor that served as recruits for the 1971 insurgency. After the economy was completely liberalised in 1978, majority Sinhala Districts outside the Western Province could only supply cheap labour to heavily exploiting export manufacturing sector and soldiers to a war that was not theirs. War brought sealed coffins to villages and robbed youth in their prime as “missing in action”.

(7) First is the fact that out of the present 95 MPS in the SLFP led UPFA, 52 MPS don’t abide by the SLFP leadership of President Sirisena. It is therefore no “unity” between the two main Southern parties. It is just a “one and a half” party alliance. Second is the fact, this “Unity” has not brought about any consensus on the ethnic issue and power sharing. They are toeing the same “Rajapaksa line” cementing further the Sinhala racist sentiments with daily trips to the Chief Prelates, promising “war heroes” with every State patronage possible and making statements they feel would provide them with a larger Sinhala Buddhist vote bank, than what Rajapaksa could command. South therefore needs a Sinhala “Thanthai Chelva” to campaign for a “Federal Union of Sri Lanka” that can for sure lift the rural poor into a decent and democratic life, with political power closer home.

(8) Power devolution is anathema to the South. When you say Federal, it is not to their liking. However, the people of Jaffna favour power devolution. Although Federalism is not a novel concept, people do not fathom what it really means. It is terminology. We talk about power-sharing now. Power should be shared between the centre and the periphery. We suggest that power should be shared within the centre itself, by creating a second chamber and senate. The Parliament can pass legislation, but the second chamber can resist it. They can defer it. Then, it has to be referred back to Parliament. Parliament should provide valid reasons as to why it is passed. The actual reason is that people in the North and East have not felt that there is a government looking into them.  Actually, the same structure of governance has been in the South. Why should there be a special situation in the North and the East?

(9) The issue is people here consider power-sharing as Federalism. Fearing that this might lead to separatism, they insist on unitary status. However, TNA leader R. Sampanthan, even recently, said maximum power-sharing should prevail under an undivided country. Today, it has come to a diluted situation. Had the Banda-Chelvanayagam Pact been implemented at that time, this problem would not have cropped up. Some leaders, in order to gain political mileage, expressed many things such as making Sinhala language official within 48 hours. Those things were wrong. Now, the politicians have to realise that such ideas are not acceptable. That is why the President was overwhelmingly supported by the Tamils and Muslims.

(10) “Power devolution is anathema to the South. When you say Federal, it is not to their liking. However, the people of Jaffna favour power devolution. Although Federalism is not a novel concept, people do not fathom what it really means”.

None of the assertions by the Minister is anything new. Federalism in brief is sharing of power between the centre and the peripheral. The Sub Committee on Centre – Peripheral Relations has submitted its report to the Steering Committee making recommendations to decentralise power. For example, currently the executive power is vested in the unelected Governor of the Provincial Council and not the elected Cabinet of Ministers. This is an anomaly and an assault on democracy and democratic principles. Incidentally the Chief Ministers of all the 9 provinces at their conference have demanded more devolution of power.

Minister Senaratne says Power devolution is anathema to the South.  This is because Sinhalese politicians mislead the Sinhalese people by claiming devolution leads to separation. That is the reason why the word “federal” has become a dirty word. Some even describe it as F-word. President Maithripala Sirisena also says the word “federal” is not acceptable to the people in the South; likewise the word “unitary” is spurned by the people of the North. This need not be so, if we understand that federalism is a system of government well suited to a country which is multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi religious and multi-cultural.  Canada, which fits into this definition, the federal government has jurisdiction over the entire country while each provincial government has jurisdiction over provinces.   

In a unitary government, the power is held by one central authority but in a federal government, the power is divided between national (federal) government and local (state) governments.

In recent years there has been a strong global trend toward federal governments. Unitary systems have been sharply curtailed in a number of countries and scrapped together in others. A good example is Nepal which has adopted a federal constitution to satisfy the aspirations of various ethnic/minority groups.

Out of 193 countries in the UNO, a total of   27 are federations as of October 2013. Foremost countries like India (29 states and 7 Union Territories), USA (50 states), Canada (10 Provinces and 3 Territories), Nigeria (36 states and 1 Federal Capital Territory), Russia (22 Republics and 46 Provinces), Argentina (23 Provinces and 1 Autonomous City) and Brazil (26 states and 1 federal district). Nearer home Malaysia has 13 states and 3 federal territories.  

Special mention must be made of Switzerland, which is a Confederation with a population of 7.3 million and land area of 41,285, has 23 cantons. It was founded in 1291. 

Overall, 40% of the world population and 2/3rd of the land mass live under federal or quasi-federal states.

The Republic of China has a federal form of government with Chinese characteristics. It has 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao.

Apart from federal and quasi – federal states there are countries enjoying devolved power to peripheral units with federal features. The best example is UK which though unitary in form had devolved extensive powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with their own Parliament/Assemblies.

Italy is divided into 20 regions, which roughly correspond to the historical regions of the country. The regions are further divided into 110 provinces. They have special powers granted under the constitution and regional assemblies (similar to parliaments) with a wide range of administrative and economic powers.

Ukraine has 24 oblasts, 2 metropolitan areas. Netherlands has 11 provinces and one associated state. Japan has 47 prefectures. 

A democratic state should assure all its citizens justice, equality, liberty and endeavours to promote fraternity among them. Though, India is 85% Hindu, it has a secular constitution. Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims form the rest of the population.

Although one swallow does not make a summer, not only Minister Senaratne, there are others who now openly advocate   federalism as solution to the national question.  Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Jayampathy Wickramaratne are in favour of federalism. 

Chandrika Kumaratunga who delivered the keynote address at a similar commemoration meeting organized by the ITAK (Colombo Branch) on April 26, 2015 made a forceful speech which, inter alia, included efforts to build a democratic and pluralist state. She said:

“It has also agreed to undertake actions to ensure accountability with regard to violations of fundamental freedoms that may have occurred on both sides of the divide during the war. Firstly we must engage in the difficult but most essential exercise of arriving at a political solution acceptable to all. Then, and only then, would we have won a durable peace. The Government has also rebuilt very quickly confidence in itself and good relations with the International community. I am confident that we will receive the support of the majority of our peoples, as well as that of the International community for our enterprise to transform a divided and violent Nation into a united, free and prosperous Lanka with a strong and stable Government, and for our efforts to build a democratic, pluralist State which is the only magic potion I know, that can bind together diverse peoples of our multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and cultural country and transform it into one undivided and strong Nation.”

Going back to the article “Sinhala Federal Party” written by Dayan Jayatilleka. This person is carrying on a solo but highly toxic racist campaign against any form of devolution beyond 13A. The thrust of his argument is that no party in the south has advocated federalism as a solution for the national question. Unfortunately, either his memory is short or he is deliberately hiding facts to bolster his argument. In any case I must pay him left handed compliments for placing the subject of federalism on the front burner.

Federalism is a political concept no one can simply wish away. It is in the hearts and minds of the Tamil people since the formation of the ITAK in 1949. Before that Tamils refused to listen to SWRD Bandaranaike who wrote articles and went to Jaffna in 1926 to advocate federalism. The Tamils also refused to join the Kandyan National Assembly which wanted 3 federal units with the same boundaries as the three kingdoms that existed before the arrival of Portuguese in 1505. Again   in 1946, the Kandyans repeated the demand for federalism before the Soulbury Commission.  Had the dim-witted Tamils joined hands with the Kandyans to create a federal system of government, they could have lived peacefully and avoided state sponsored pogroms and Sinhalese colonization since independence. 

I want to join issue with Dayan Jayatilleka’s assertion that no political party whether of the Marxist left (LSSP/CP) or Liberal right supported federalism. Way back the Communist Party acknowledged the right of self-determination of the Tamil people. So was the JVP when Rohana Wijeweera was the leader. Above all the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted a federal structure.

The Oslo Declaration refers to the agreement reached at the third round of talks in December 2002 in Oslo between the LTTE and the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government. The agreement states: “Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties have agreed to explore a political solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a FEDERAL STRUCTURE within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.”

The Oslo Agreement was reached by delegations led by the LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham and the UNP government’s chief negotiator Prof. GL Peiris. At that time, Prof. Peiris hailed the agreement as a ‘paradigm shift’ on Sri Lanka’s vexed ethnic question. The two men were hailed for having established the ‘breakthrough’ which, both privately said, was facilitated by the personal rapport they had established. Of course, Prof. Peiris is now singing a different tune and knowing his notoriety for political opportunism that is no surprise. 

Federalism became entrenched in Sri Lanka’s political landscape in 2003 when it was endorsed at the Tokyo donor conference. The Tokyo Declaration, signed by 70 state and multilateral donors, “commends both parties for their commitment to a lasting and negotiated peace based on a FEDERAL STRUCTURE within a united Sri Lanka.”

Today, the process to enact a new constitution is facing road blocks.  Due to opposition from the Joint Opposition group, the draft constitution is undergoing revision.  According to informed sources President Sirisena had asked the Steering Committee to draft a simplified report that members of the Constitutional Assembly could understand. It is a known fact that the two main political parties and groups are deeply divided over the basic features of the new constitution.

While the TNA wants a “federal” form of government with an extensive devolution of powers within an undivided country, the parties of the majority Sinhalese want the present “unitary” structure to continue. While the TNA wants the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces to form a single Tamil-speaking province, the Sinhalese and the Muslims reject it. While the Tamils and Muslims want Sri Lanka to give equal status to all religions, the majority Sinhalese want Buddhism to be recognized as the “foremost” religion.

While the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the SLFP want the retention of the Presidential form of government with minor alterations, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe want a Westminster-style parliamentary form of government. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa SLFP factions want only a few amendments to the existing one. While the UNP is of the opinion that the constitution should go through a Referendum, the SLFP feels that the changes should not be so fundamental to require a referendum. In other words no 13A+.

A constitution contains the rules and principle by which a state is governed. It is the fundamental laws and principle that prescribes the nature, functions and   how power is shared among the arms of Government and the right and duties of citizens in the country.

The Constitution of the United States has endured for over two centuries. It remains the object of reverence for nearly all Americans and an object of admiration by peoples around the world. William Gladstone was right in 1878 when he described the U.S. Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Sri Lankan leaders have miserably failed to draw a constitution like that of the United States. Today, the leaders of the UNP and the SLFP have a choice, either they produce a constitution that will last at least 100 years or pave the way for continued political turmoil and economic instability.

Minister Rajitha Senaratne has made a strong case for federalism for the South. As suggested by the Kandyan National Assembly, one Tamil and two (or more) Sinhala federal units will be an ideal solution.

Federalism is good for the North, but better for the South!

About editor 3020 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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