Framework for a new Sri Lanka; a Union of Regions

One can argue that the context to the problem creation had some differences during the colonial and post-colonial period, when, during the colonial period, the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese politicians were more concerned about a common enemy, the British colonialists, rather than each other, although seeds were being sown towards the creation of the problem.

by Raj Gonsalkorale

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Sri Lanka is in dire economic strife, its politicians are a discredited lot, and are produced by a system that perpetuates corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Inter community harmony is as facile as the cloak of ritualism that passes as Buddhism. A new governance model is needed that meets the inherent psyche of its people, and which lessens the power of politicians and enhances the real power of people. 

It is strongly suggested that the concept of a Union of Regions authored by late Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam is given serious consideration. Dr Tiruchelvam was murdered by the LTTE for bringing forth this proposal, but mercifully the murderous LTTE is no more. The climate is right to revisit this proposal and build on it to introduce a governance model that can take the country towards the future and not to its dark past. People are sick and tired of the current system and what it produces as politicians. The system has to change if it is to produce the undoubted talent that the country has, and which remains and will remain silent on account of the flaws in the current system.

Tamil ethnic conflict

At the outset, readers could perhaps consider the possibility, some might say the reality, that the ethnic issue involving the Tamil and Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka was created by the leaders of these two communities, and not by the Sinhala & Tamil communities in the country. True, they had grievances but at the time of the creation of the contemporary issue, which one could identify with the British colonial period, they were not unmanageable and compared to what it became over time, miniscule in extent and intensity. It could be argued that a mole hill became a mountain over time, and a volcanic mountain that that. It erupted in 1983 in the hands of the then government. The rest, as they say, is history.

To the best of the writer’s knowledge, Sinhala and Tamil people have not engaged in any major conflict between them even during the times of Kings and Queens of the country.  The island is replete with a history of invasions from India from time to time to gain control of local Kingdoms, conquer territory and battles fought by the country’s Kings to defeat invaders. 

The population of the country comprises of migrants mainly from India who arrived at different times throughout history with the indigenous people of the country being the “Aadi Vasi people or the Veddah’s. In this context, the rest are all occupiers who have made the island their home.

But, has it been the home for Tamils in recent times? Their ethnicity has rendered them targets for violence. State sponsored goons demonstrated in 1983 in no uncertain terms that Tamils were not safe in the country, except in areas where they were the majority. It also sent rightful signals to the Tamil community that the State could repeat such inhuman acts whenever and wherever they chose. 

In looking for a solution to the conflict, what perhaps is paramount is how Tamils could be safe in their homes and workplaces wherever they live in the country. This has to be the aspiration of all Sri Lankans. 

Tamils of Sri Lanka

In contemporary Sri Lanka, it needs to be mentioned that in any discussion concerning the Tamil ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, there are different aspirational dimensions amongst the Tamils that needs to be considered depending on the Tamil group concerned, that is,  whether it is the group referred to as Sri Lankan Tamils who are the Tamils from India with a very long history in the island, in particular the Northern part of the island, or the more recent arrivals from India who are domiciled mostly in the central part of the country, who are also referred to as plantation Tamils.  

All are Sri Lankan Tamils now but the ethnic issue that has drained the country for decades concerns the former category, although the latter category too has their grievances and aspirations. 

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka is not a homogenous community, although both groups have faced issues in common, primarily with regard to their safety and security in the country.

The writer wishes to suggest a discussion on a way forward for all Tamils,and the country as a whole, having regarded some of the reasons that were responsible for creating the problem, and as Einstein said, to explore a way forward with a mindset that the problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that were used to create the problem.

No doubt many people and groups contributed, wittingly or unwittingly, to creating the problem beginning with the British Colonialists. Tamil politicians as well Sinhala politicians too contributed to creating the problem, and some, still continue to do so. One can add sections of the Maha Sangha too for adding fuel to the fire and from a contemporary perspective, that they still influence the perpetuation of the problem. Then, there is the powerful Tamil Diaspora, or at least a section of it, which continues to perpetuate the problem. The first point for discussion could be that the factors that contributed, and, used to create the problem, are still being used to as the basis to find a solution to the contemporary situation, and whether this is what the country should be doing.

Governance models that have failed

One can argue that the context to the problem creation had some differences during the colonial and post-colonial period, when, during the colonial period, the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese politicians were more concerned about a common enemy, the British colonialists, rather than each other, although seeds were being sown towards the creation of the problem.

Much has been written, still being written, discussed and debated about a solution that the Sri Lankan Tamils in the North and East are seeking based primarily on self-determination for Tamils living in the North and the East, within a merged province.

The goal of self-determination for the North and East within the framework of the political governance model introduced by the British colonialists, the Westminster model, is a phenomenon that had little relevance prior to that as the governance models that preceded the Westminster model were decentralised, lose structures. On the whole, for a variety of reasons, there were varying degrees of ipso facto self-determination for Kingdoms and other forms of governance bodies that existed within the island.  

In the context of this historical perspective, the British colonial masters, and the country’s Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim political elite who worked with them to introduce the Donoughmore constitution followed by the Soulbury constitution, removed the inherent, historical nature of governance in the country. Sri Lankans continued on this trajectory when introducing the 1972 and 1978 constitutions.

Fissures began to appear in these models after independence, and Sinhala, and primarily Buddhist, domination of governance led to widening of these fissures. Attempts were made by some political leaders to address these fissures with proposals like regional councils (Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact), District Councils (Senanayake/Chelvanayakam Pact) and the Union of Regions bill (Kumaratunga/Tiruchelvam proposals)and finally the introduction of Provincial Councils at the behest of India.

Enter the LTTE

In the absence of an acceptable solution to the conflict, the problem escalated to violent means of achieving a separate State within the island as the solution. While there cannot be any justification for this violence perpetrated by the LTTE, which became the sole armed as well as the unarmed political group campaigning for “Tamil” demands, the fundamental aspirational mindset amongst Tamils in the North and East was never understood or addressed.

During the period of LTTE dominance, efforts were made by various parties to find a negotiated solution. The most noteworthy of all was the effort by Norway to mediate between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government to find such a solution. It failed, and the full scale war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government Armed forces saw the military demise of the LTTE in 2009.

In a very interesting and revealing article titled Let Us Be Clear On What We Buried In Nandikadal Lagoon by Sanjeewa Ranaweera published in the Colombo Telegraph on the 26th of July 2021 (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/let-us-be-clear-that-what-we-buried-in-nandikadal-lagoon/), the Norwegian led peace process is comprehensively summarised. The role played by Eric Solheim is also examined and an interview with him also included as part of the article. 

The article as well as the Solheim interview portrays the dynamics and thinking of the LTTE leader Prabakaran, and the political ideologue and Prabakaran’s adviser and confidante Anton Balasingham, and the highlights strategies adopted by Ranil Wickramasinghe, then Prime Minister, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. 

One is not sure whether these strategies were aimed at finding a solution to the conflict with the LTTE, or whether they were directed towards finding a solution to the conflict with the Tamils and their aspirations. The reason for saying this is because if the objective of the strategy was the latter, then, there would have been an acceptance that the LTTE was the sole representative of the Tamils as no other Tamil political entity from Sri Lanka was associated with the effort made by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe.Such an acceptance would have meant an acceptance of the LTTE political philosophy as well as their violent tactics. This is mentioned not as a critique of the effort, but to highlight it as one of the many problems that were created in the perpetuation of the ethnic conflict.It is also revealing that Anton Balasingham had reportedly been consistently taking the position that a solution had to be found through negotiation and not through violent means.

The future direction?

Given this backdrop, and moving forward to the future rather than looking backwards to the past to look for a solution, and with the benefit of hindsight, a solution has to be found which stands the test of time in a future that will be so different to the past when the problem was created in the first place.

The future will be one of currently unimaginable technology, innovation and life styles. Governance models will change and those governing will have to change. Most of the types currently in political governance will become Dinosaurs when looking at the future. Some may say they already are!

Religious traditions, cultural traditions of course will continue as they have for centuries, albeit perhaps with less conviction as it is already happening. 

In respect of political governance models in Sri Lanka so far, they have fundamentally failed to chart a peaceful, contented path towards the future. There is mistrust and degrees of animosity amongst communities and a decline in values.

The primary community conflict is with the Tamil community and this can only be addressed through a governance mechanism that provides a degree of self-determination, not just for its sake, but because the models that does not provide it, but which have been tried and tested, have failed to ensure the safety and security of the Tamil community and even the Muslim community, and affected the country as a whole.

In this context, it is strongly suggested that the conceptual framework of the Union of Regions model authored by late Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam is considered as the framework to move onto the future.

It will assist in negating the negatives of the provincial council system including ineffective, costly duplication and lessen the politicisation of administrative activity.

Regional governments within the framework of a national governance model, provided its primary function would be to engage in policy settings to maximise resources in the region both material and human, and to ensure the safety and security of people in the region, by people from the region, would address the issue of self-determination substantially, and assist in decentralising governance power far more effectively than the current model.

Personality centric, highly centralised models will not work and Sri Lanka will be saddled with all associated drawbacks in its attempt to move onto the future. Hopefully, it will dawn on the current set of politicians that the model in operation has been diminished because of them, and by them, and the model has precluded efficient, honest and credible persons from participating in the model. 

A new model based on the framework of a Union of Regions should not replicate the negatives of the current system. The thinking should be directed to the future and not the baggage of the past or even the present.

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