Federalism Good for Tamils But Better for Sinhalese

Federalism Good for Tamils But Better for Sinhalese

Veluppillai Thangavelu

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

In his  keynote address  Minister Rajitha Senaratna 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 Jayatilleke, 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, it will be considered as sacrilege and condemned roundly. Therefore, we must congratulate Minister Senaratne for speaking his mind on a controversial subject. 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 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. Those interested in reading his full speech must refer to Daily Mirror dated May 2, 2017 (http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Federalism-Why-only-for-Tamils–127929.html).

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

(2) If Federalism leads to “separation”, Veluppillai 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 Balasingam, 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 Chelvanayakam 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 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 anamoly and an assault on democracy and democratic values.

The Minister says Power devolution is anathema to the South.  This is because Sinhalese politicians mislead  the people that  devolution leads to separation. Over the years the word “federal” has become a dirty word. Pressident 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 and each provincial government has jurisdiction over particular portions of the population.  

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 minority groups.

Out of 193 countries in the UNO a total of   27  are  federations as of October 2013. Major 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  7.3 million and 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  a federal  or quasi-federal states.

The Republic of China has a federal form of government with Chinese unique characteristics. It  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  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 of justice, equality, and liberty  and endeavours to promote fraternity among them. Though  India is   85%  Hindu, it  has  a secular  constitution. Buddhists, Sikhs, Chirstians and Muslims form the rest of the population.

Though one swallow does not make a summer, there are some others who now openly advocate   federalism as solution to the national question.  Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera,  former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Jayampathy Karunaratne favour a federal form of government.

Chandrika Kumaratunga who delivered the keynote address  at the meeting organized by the ITAK (Colombo Branch) made a forceful speech which, inter alia, included efforts to build a democratic and pluralist state.

“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.” (http://www.asiantribune.com/node/86850)

At the beginning I referred to the article “Sinhala Federal Party” written by Dayan Jayatilleke (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-sinhala-federal-party/) . This person is carrying on a solo  campaign against any form of devolution beyond 13A. The thrust of his argument is that no party in the south has advocated a federal solution for the national question. Unfortunately, either his memory is short or he is deliberately hiding facts to bolster his argument. In any case we must thank him for  bringing the subject of federalism to 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 the Tamils refused listen to SWRD Bandaranaike who went to Jaffna to advocate federalism.

The Tamils also refused to join the Kandyan League which wanted 3 federal units, one for the Kandyan Sinhalese, one for the Tamils and one for the for coastal Sinhalese. Had the Tamils joined hands with the Kandyans during the time Donoughmore and Soulbury Commissions to create a federal system of government, Ceylon now would be another Singapore. There is one matter I want to join issue with DJ. That no political party whether of the Marxist left (LSSP/CP) or Liberal right supported federalism. Way back the CP acknowldged the right of self-determination of the Tamils. So was the JVP when Rohana Wijeweera was the leader. Above all the UNP

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 to explore federalism was reached by delegations led by the LTTE chief negotiator, the late Anton Balasingham and the UNP government’s chief negotiator, Prof. G. L. Peiris.  At the 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. The fact that  Prof. Peiris, a turncoat poltics,  is singing a different tune  is a good example of  opportunistic politics.

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 constitution  is winding at snail’s space  through  the Sub Committees and Steering Committee. 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 known fact that  the 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, 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 minority 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 Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), want the retention of the Presidential form of government with minor alterations, the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister 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 feels that the constitution should go through a Referendum, the SLFP feels that the changes should not be so fundamental  to require  a referendum.

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 produce a constitution like that of  the United States. The UNP and the SLFP have a choice, either they produce a constitution that will satisfy all the three communities or pass it to the future generations to fight it out.

Minister Rajitha Seneviratne 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. It goes without saying that federalism is good for the Tamils, but better for the Sinhalese! (Colombo Telegraph)

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Tamil Nationalist Parties and a Power Sharing Arrangement

by DBS Jeyaraj, Daily FT,

Colombo, November 23, 2022

Based on the Federal Idea

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism has been primarily reactive in nature. The Tamils thought of themselves as being on par with the Sinhala people as co-founders of the modern nation of Ceylon. Universal franchise and territorial representation reduced them to a principal minority. The Tamils still thought of themselves as belonging to the island in its entirety. So they wanted balanced representation and then adopted responsive cooperation as political strategies. When these failed came the federal demand. Tamil self-perception now confined itself as a regional minority. Even here the political leaders were prepared to compromise far short of federalism and opted for alternatives like regional councils, district councils, etc. Finally came the desperate cry for separation and resultant armed struggle.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe while addressing Parliament on 10 November 2022 invited all Tamil MPs for a discussion on issues facing the Tamil people and about development plans for the North and East. Jaffna district MP and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson , M. A.Sumanthiran responded positively by telling a morning newspaper that the TNA would cooperate. “We will fully co-operate. The resolution of the Tamil national question will be our main focus”said Sumanthiran. Later Sumanthiran reiterated this viewpoint in the presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at a meeting held on November 19th on the occasion of the ceremonial opening of the Presidential Secretariat Northern Province Co-ordination Sub-Office in Vavuniya.

As is well known the Tamil National Alliance is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The TNA comprises the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk katchi (ITAK) , the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) and the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE). The TNA contesting under the ITAK symbol oh house won ten seats – including one national list MP – in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. The ten MPs are from the electoral districts of Jaffna(3), Wanni (3), Batticalo (2),Trincomalee (1)and Amparai(1). The party – wise breakdown is ITAK -6, TELO-3 and PLOTE -1.

In a bid to present a common Tamil position in potential discussions with President Wickremesinghe the TNA issued an invitation last week to like-minded Tamil nationalist parties to meet at TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan’s Colombo residence and formulate a common approach seeking a political solution “within a federal set up in the North-East”. The meeting did not take place as planned last week. Subsequently it has been re-scheduled for Friday 25th November at Sampanthan’s residence in Colombo.

Apart from the three constituents of the TNA namely the ITAK,TELO and PLOTE, invitations have been sent to the Tamil National Peoples Front(TNPF), the Thamil Makkal Theseeyak Koottani(TMTK), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation front(EPRLF) and “Thamil Theseeyak Katchi(TTK) . The TNPF has two MPs in Parliament while the TMTK has one MP.

Given the inter-party rivalry among Tamil parties in general and the intra-party friction within Tamil parties in particular, it is unclear at present as to whether all invited parties will attend the meeting or consensus would be arrived at. However regardless of inter and intra-party differences the bottom line is that all Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist parties are firmly supportive of a power sharing arrangement based upon federal principles or the federal idea.

It is against this backdrop therefore that this column – with the aid of previous writings- focuses on the concept of federalism or the federal idea within both a national and international context. It is well-known that the words Federalism or Federal became dirty words in the Sri Lankan political milieu in the past. Sinhala hard-line opinion viewed federalism as an euphemism for secessionism or a stepping stone to a Separate State. Thus Federalism became the “F-word” in Sri Lankan politics. It is indeed a tragedy that the concept of federalism or the federal idea was so crudely and cruelly dismissed without any consideration of its merits or plus points.

TNA Leader R. Sampanthan

It was perhaps the merit in what is called the federal idea which prompted former US president Bill Clinton to observe, “Maybe the federal idea isn’t such a bad idea after all” . This was in 1999 when he was the most powerful man on earth. It was at the end of the conference on federalism at Mont Tremblant in Quebec that Clinton made this remark. Incidentally former Sri Lankan cabinet minister G.L. Peiris also addressed this path-breaking conclave organized by the Forum of Federations based in Ottawa.

What is the Federal Idea?

What then is this federal idea? It is in one sense a concept that embodies various related things like federalism, federal systems, federations and federalist, etc. This is a world where the word “federal” has become almost the “F – word” in politics. Different countries and different entities for different reasons frown on this “F – word”. Therefore “federal idea” has become an indirect reference to this F – word. If a “rose by any other name could smell as sweet” then the word “federalism” too can be sanitised and discussed as the “federal idea”.

Let me quote Canada’s representative at the UN Bob Rae on this. The former Ontario NDP premier, ex-MP and Interim leader of the Liberal party is also a past president of the forum of federations located in Ottawa. In his foreword to the “Handbook of Federal Countries” published by the forum, Rae has this to say – “There has been a profound resurgence in interest in the federal idea in the last decade. I choose the phrase “federal idea” because the “ism” in federalism has a way of limiting debate and understanding”.

“In Spain the central government doesn’t like to use the “federal” word as it seems to indicate erosion of sovereign authority. Ironically Catalonians in Spain also frown on this because in their perception “federalism is not enough to articulate the unique Catalonian identity and right of self – government. In South Africa the earlier “apartheid” regime set up some federal structures to contain and diffuse pan-African yearning for freedom. So federalism became a dirty word to the blacks. When the African national congress attained power with its vision of “one South Africa” the ANC did not want to describe the new Constitution as “federalist”.

TNA Spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran

Sri Lankans are well aware of what Rae meant. In Lanka’s deeply polarised society federalism is certainly the “F – word” and worse. There is marked reluctance and trepidation on the part of many to espouse federalism openly. This is sad but quite understandable in a situation where “federalism” is seen as a conspiracy to break up the nation.

While many Sri Lankans look upon federalism with suspicion , the rest of the world is in ferment over the federal idea.

There was a time when federalism was seen as the ideal remedy for many of the world’s political maladies. It was perceived as the universal device to achieve unity in diversity. Experience has shown that this is not necessarily true in all situations. At the same time federal arrangements have certainly helped wield cohesiveness in many cases.

40% of the World’s Population

Twenty Five Countries today have federal or quasi-federal structures. These range from the sole superpower USA to tiny St. Kitts and Nevis; from Canada in the North to Micronesia in the South; from India in the East to Switzerland in the West. The population of these countries together amounts to more than 40% of the world’s total humanity. In addition there are some countries that are not federal but have special administrative arrangements amounting to de-facto quasi-federalism.

Let us proceed alphabetically. Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Comoros, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, the federated states of Micronesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, St. Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Venezeula are Federal countries. While most are explicitly federal a few like Spain are not, but in actuality are federal in all but name. Incidentally, President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his Sita Jayawardena memorial oration decades ago, spoke of Austria as a potential model for Sri Lankan power sharing.

Though federal none of these countries share exactly the same system. Each country has different administrative arrangements and internal structures. They also vary greatly in size. Russia has republics and many types of regions within; India has states and union territories; Switzerland has cantons while Germany and Austria have landers. Belgium has three regions and three cultural communities while Spain has autonomous regions; the USA has states, confederacies, local home rule territories, unincorporated territories and native American domestic dependent nations while Canada has provinces, territories and aboriginal organizations. Venezeula has states, territories, federal dependencies, federal districts and many Islands.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe

Apart from federal and quasi-federal states there are also Countries having de-centralized unions with federal features. The United Kingdom comprising England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and five self-governing islands is the best known example of this kind. Italy with 15 ordinary and five autonomous regions is another; Netherlands has 11 provinces and one associated state; Japan has 47 prefectures; Fiji Islands is a consolidation of two ethnic communities; Colombia has 23 departments, four inter-dependencies and three commissaries. Ukraine has 24 oblasts, two metropolitan areas and the autonomous republic of Crimea; The people’s republic of China has 22 provinces,5 autonomous regions, four municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao.

Federacies and Associative States.

Another phenomenon is that of Countries with federacies and associative states. Bhutan is an associative state of India. Cook Islands is a self-governing associative state of New Zealand. Netherlands Antilles, San Marino, Liechenstein, Monaco are associative states of Netherlands, Italy. Switzerland and France respectively. Puerto Rico and Northern Marianas are federacies of the USA. Madeira and Azores Islands are Portuguese federates. Likewise Greenland and Faroe Islands are Danish federates. Britain has the federates of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Aaland Islands are a Federacy of Finland.

It could be seen therefore that the federal idea is not restricted to categorical federal or quasi-federal states alone. The federal idea is a free spirit permeating the body politic of many states. There is no “mono-principle” here. Each country has fashioned its own unique arrangement to suit its needs. Apart from the administrative convenience and the imperative to provide citizens with the best form of government these Countries have also taken into account diversity of peoples, regional variety and imbalances, historic and geographic necessity etc. as criteria to evolve systems of governance. There has been no rigorous dogma , stifling aspirations of constituent peoples.

“Comparing Federal Systems.”

The federal idea has assumed a new importance and related vigour in recent times. There are a number of reasons for this. Ronald Watts of the Institute of Intergovernmental relations at the Queens university in Kingston, Canada is the author of “Comparing federal systems.”

An excerpt from it explains this global trend, “Modern developments in transportation, social communications, technology, and industrial organization have produced pressures at one and the same time for larger political organizations and for smaller ones. The pressure for larger political units has been generated by the goals shared by most Western and non-Western societies today; a desire for progress, a rising standard of living, social justice and influence in the world arena and by a growing awareness of worldwide inter-dependence in an era whose advanced technology makes both mass destruction and mass-construction possible.”

“The desire for smaller self-governing political units has risen from the desire to make governments more responsive to the individual citizen and to give expression to primary group attachments-linguistic and cultural ties, religious connections, historical traditions and social practices-which provide the distinctive basis for a community’s sense of identity and yearning for self-determination. Given these dual pressures, more and more peoples have come to see some form of federalism, combining a shared government for specified common purposes with autonomous action by constituent units of government for purposes related to maintaining their regional distinctiveness as allowing the closest institutional approximation to the multi-national reality of the contemporary world.”

Ronald Watts sums up the essence of the federal idea. On the one hand there is the tendency to form larger entities including supra-national bodies like the European union. On the other, there is the need to accommodate different intra-national aspirations of an ethnic nature. So Belgium reverts to federalism to satisfy the Flemish and the Walloons while Brussels is the seat of the EU parliament. The Union Jack flag may have the crosses of St. George, St. St. Andrew, St. David and St. Patrick but merry England cannot hold the United Kingdom together without devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict has its genesis in colonialism. Modern Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then is a British creation. The Island was unified administratively but the people were divided politically through representation on communal lines. What was “united” to exploit was “divided” to govern. In the absence of adequate and equitable forms of power-sharing the Island is wracked with post-Independence conflict within pre-Independence boundaries.

Reactive Tamil Nationalism

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism has been primarily reactive in nature. The Tamils thought of themselves as being on par with the Sinhala people as co-founders of the modern nation of Ceylon. Universal franchise and territorial representation reduced them to a principal minority. The Tamils still thought of themselves as belonging to the Island in its entirety. So they wanted balanced representation and then adopted responsive cooperation as political strategies.

When these failed came the Federal demand. Tamil self-perception now confined itself as a regional minority. Even here the political leaders were prepared to compromise far short of federalism and opted for alternatives like regional councils, district councils, etc. Finally came the desperate cry for separation and resultant armed struggle. The Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 resulted in the 13th Constitutional Amendment which enabled the creation of Provincial Councils. Federalism if adopted at the appropriate time may have prevented the bloodshed and carnage that ensued after the ethnic conflict escalated.

The proponents of federalism argue that adopting it will strengthen unity and territorial integrity. Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany, Spain, etc. are cited as examples. But it cannot be denied that federalism has failed to prevent secession too. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are well-known examples. The Malaysia-Singapore and Pakistan-Bangladesh splits of the past as well as modern break-ups of Czech – Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro are also lessons. In Canada, separatism flourished in Quebec despite federalism. Britain devolved power to Scotland and Wales but secessionism seems to have gained ground there. Nigerian federalism did not prevent the Biafran civil war.


Nuances to Take Into Account

There are however many nuances to take into account when analysing the countries in question. At one end of the spectrum are Belgium and Spain willingly opting for federalism as a solution to curb separatist tendencies. Yet Belgium and Spain continue to have issues. In Canada the equation is changing with the separatist Parti Quebecois announcing that no referendum to facilitate secessionist “sovereignty” will be held in the near future. The main Quebec parties are now for greater autonomy and powers within a united Canada.

Recent amendments in Germany have strengthened federalism. India through its co-operative federalism model became more and more federal in practice. But the emphasis on centralization and the “mono model” by the BJP govt is troubling. This tendency is visible in Australia and USA where increasing “centralised” authority is slowly eroding the concept of pure federalism.

Federalism therefore provides no “one size fits all” type of solution. Each Country has to examine and adopt arrangements conducive and suitable for individual needs.

Dynamic and Constantly Evolving

Sri Lanka too needs to explore the federal idea intensively and fully before deciding whether to accept or reject it or adopt it with appropriate innovation. The federal idea is dynamic and constantly evolving. What we in Sri Lanka need to do is to explore the federal idea and have an informed debate about its pros and cons and also on deciding whether we adopt or reject it.

Let us also not forget the prophetic words of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1926 when he stated “A thousand and one objections could be raised against the (federal)n system, but when the objections are dissipated, I am convinced that some form of Federal Government will be the only solution.”

In the Words of Bob Rae

In spite of the heat generated in Sri Lanka by this “F – word” there is no denying that the Federal idea is catching on in a world of ferment. The Federal idea is impacting greatly on a world changing fast. In the words of Bob Rae, “The resurgence of the federal idea has at its core many different causes. The vitality of the values of democracy, the revolutions in the politics of identity and human rights, the twin collapse of apartheid and bureaucratic communism, the impact of the technological revolution, the economic changes we associate with the word globalisation, all these have made their contributions”.

“This renewal is not at all confined to countries that have a federalist tradition. Countries have long had to struggle with the simple truth that geography is rarely synonymous with automatic homogeneity. Ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious conflicts have become the dominant issues facing the world order today.”

“Wars after 1945 have been as much within countries as between them, with disastrous consequences for peace and security. It is no longer soldiers dying in millions but civilians. From Rwanda to Cambodia, from the Balkans to East Timor the battleground was within countries that are unable to resolve the conflicts of what Michael Ignatieff has called, ‘blood and belonging’.

“It is in this context that the federal idea is re-emerging. Indeed, issues of federal governance are at the centre of active political and legal discussions in every part of the globe, particularly in areas where conflict resolution is a critical necessity. National sovereignty is not dead and the age of the nation-state is not over. But the notion that these are exclusive or all defining is clearly outmoded. Governance practices within countries are inevitably subject to the scrutiny of world political and economic opinion, and most important, to the rule of law itself”.

“The collapse of the one party state, the demands of identity, the urge to local empowerment, the insistence on greater openness and transparency in government, and the recognition that in a smaller and much more inter-dependent world sovereignty is no longer an absolute, has brought the federal idea to the fore again”.

This then is what the federal idea is all about!

Tamil Nationalist Parties and a Power Sharing Arrangement – Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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About editor 2669 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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