Devolution is no panacea for Sri Lanka’s ethnic ills
Posted on May 23rd, 2010

Ajit Randeniya

Ever since the war ended, haranguing of the government by external intruders such as the US, EU and the so-called INGOs, as well as the Colombo ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”kulturƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ set on implementing the All Party Representative Conference (APRC) recommendations has not stopped.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ These groups seem to be promoting devolution of power to the north and the east of the country through the 13th amendment to the constitution and the subsequent APRC recommendations as the panacea for all past ethnic ills of Sri Lanka, and by inference, the only safeguard available against future Tamil grievances.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ There has never been a sound ‘raison dƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ƒÆ’†’ƒ”š‚ªtre’ for devolution; it is promoted as a means of enhancing democracy, and sometimes primarily as a means of maintaining the unity of the state. Upon detailed examination, it begins to look like another device of the backers of the secessionist forces.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Devolution is no solution

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ A careful look at the causes of the ethnic conflict that led to the war, as well as Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s future needs in terms of safeguards necessary to prevent future upheavals shows that devolution is unlikely to serve a useful purpose in either of these areas: the original Tamil grievances did not include failure to gain a Tamil ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”homelandƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ until the 1970s when Prabhakaran initiated it, citing a so-called Vaddukoddai Resolution; and there is a large volume of evidence arising from international experience to suggest that devolution does not necessarily assist in addressing the critical issues in post-conflict societies.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ It is also noteworthy that major western countries such as the United States were formed through the reverse process of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”centralisingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ groups of colonies to create a nation, through the Philadelphia Commission in the case of the US. The devolution to Ireland and Wales and Scotland in the UK has taken longer than half a century on the average.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The devolution ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”solutionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ has external origins

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The push for devolution in Sri Lanka has its origins amongst the broader international forces with vested interests, and our neighbour India.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The promotion of the idea that devolution or decentralisation of power is the only prescription for assuaging minority grievances in countries emerging from serious ethnic conflict is the latest ideologically based instrument of neocolonialism; it is an easier way of achieving the age-old colonial aim of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”dividing and rulingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ the world, by affording the exploitation of internal divisions of an otherwise stronger nation state.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The fraudulent ideological foundations of this movement was laid through the 1980s and 90s by developing world ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”academic prostitutesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ such as Kumar Rupesinghe who served as the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”pied-piperƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ of the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”power-sharingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ movement, for handsome personal rewards.

The real idea being pushed surreptitiously is that in ethnically diverse societies, state is the greatest security threat to a given group, and devolving state power is the only means of reducing this threat; of course, this is self-serving, fraudulent propaganda!

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The dressed-up neocolonial, and indeed neoconservative, line of argument is that spreading power among a wider array of actors helps mitigate ethnic conflict by compensating for historically centralised power structures that gave rise to grievances and violence, and that incorporating the aggrieved groups into the political process, leads to national cohesion. They further argue that there is little cause for armed struggle if citizens have faith in the government to address their needs, allowing the exercise of local customs and religious beliefs without fear of persecution.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ All this sounds almost believable until a careful look is taken at the real causes of ethnic strife and real-life experience (what the pretentious would call ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”empirical evidenceƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢) relating to devolution in post-conflict societies: experience the world over has been far-reaching adverse consequences rather than positive results.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Underlying causes of intrastate conflict

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The first problem with the theory of devolution is that ethnic conflict is not always caused directly by intergroup differences or centuries-old feuds, but primarily due to anxieties over opportunities for education, health, employment, and breakdown in communication with the government. Our own case in Sri Lanka, when viewed without biases, proves this point. It needs to be noted that geographic, religious and linguistic differences in different cases around the world tend to hide the similarity of the underlying causes.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Research by M. Marshall and T. R. Gurr of the University of Maryland shows that the most powerful factor on internal conflict to be the income level: countries with per capita incomes below $2,000 have been found to be eight times more likely to engage in intrastate conflict than countries with per capita incomes above $4,000. (Marshall, M. and T. R. Gurr, 2005: Peace and conflict; A global survey of armed conflicts, self determination movements, and democracy. University of Maryland). This is the reason why internal conflict tends to be regionally concentrated with Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia disproportionately represented.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Devolution is not likely to address these issues during the life times of several generations, if it does assist at all.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Decentralised authority, rather than building a stronger sense of ownership and affinity with the state, has been found to accentuate differences between regions, fosters citizen identification with ethnic or geographic groups rather than the state, and emboldens demands for particularised services by minority groups.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ For these reasons, devolution has been found to increase the risks of ethnic and civil strife; loosening central control triggers an inevitable sequence of ever greater demands for autonomy, increasing the pressures on the unity of the state.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Regional Councils or political parties are more likely to precipitate ethnic conflict and the drive to secession by mobilising constituencies on ethnic or geographic grounds. By weakening incentives to consider national interests, decentralisation encourages local politicians to stake out hard-line positions in defense of regional priorities, deepening political polarisation. It also encourages ethnic identification, accentuates inter-group differences, and fosters discrimination against local minorities such as cast groups, increasing the likelihood of ethnic strife. In response, central governments may naturally attempt to undermine devolved powers to regain authority.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The end result, in short, is ongoing disputes between the centre and the periphery, benefiting the external forces; devolution has been proven to increase vulnerability to external influences by opening up divisions outside actors can readily exploit. Of particular risk are the countries where an ethnic group engaged in sectarian conflict has a strong base of support just across the border, or large diasporas, a situation uniquely applicable to Sri Lanka.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ According to the research of Dr David A. Lake & Dr Donald Rothchild of Princeton University, of the 55 civil wars that reached a successful settlement since 1945, none had territorial decentralisation included as part of the settlement; the more observable tendency is towards increased centralisation as seen, for example, in Argentina, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Venezuela (In Sustainable Peace: Democracy and power After Civil Wars, eds. Lake and Rothchild. Cornell University Press, 2001).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ One of the main problems cited by Lake and Rothchild is that decentralised arrangements, following the resolution of jurisdictional disputes, by a Constitutional or Supreme Court affiliated with the central government, gives rise to complaints of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”unfairƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ behaviour by the centre: Sri Lanka has already experienced this phenomenon with the Supreme CourtƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s nullification of the north-east merger in 2006.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Lake and Rothchild conclude that, empirically, decentralised states follow one of two paths. Either they re-centralise (following the mechanism above) or the minority resists violently, leading to disintegration. If a state does decide for some reason to increase its decentralisation, the minority can be expected to seize the moment and try to break away. Decentralisation does not last.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The local proponents of devolution have failed to carefully evaluate the ideological and practical issues associated with devolution generally, the origins of the particular Sri Lankan initiative, and the experience of the 13th amendment based initiatives over the last two decades.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ A careful look at the pros and cons of this supposed ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”solutionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ shows that the proposition that devolution based on APC recommendations is the only means of a sustainable solution to Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s ethnic conflict does not hold water.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Background to the 13th amendment

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ It is rarely observed by the proponents of the devolution idea that the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution which forms the legal basis of the initiative was adopted simply as the means of implementing the devolution provisions of the Indo-Lanka Accord that was virtually forced on J.R. Jayawardena (JRJ), at his weakest moment back in 1987, by India.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Accord was drafted by Rajiv GandhiƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s advisors at the time who were motivated by the twin aims of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”teaching a lessonƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ to JRJ as well as in offering a helping hand to the Sri Lankan Tamils, within the broader framework of a Pan-Tamil state they identified with.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Those who value and campaign for democracy also need to remember that the Accord was signed amidst a curfew in Colombo on 29 July 1987 due to protests, over many controversial elements contained in it.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The current bureaucratic line in New Delhi views the full implementation of the 1987 Accord is a matter of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”political prideƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ for India, rather than a foolproof solution to Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s problems.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ To this extent, the devolution model proposed by India is almost a copy of IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Federal model in that, the Ninth Schedule to the 13th Amendment sets out three lists of subjects and functions ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” the Reserved List (RL), the Provincial Council List (PCL) and the Concurrent List (CL).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ In addition to this general background, Section 2.2 of the Accord specifically stated that “…the northern and eastern provinces as now constituted, will form one administrative unit, having one elected provincial council…”

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ It is clear that the Sri Lankan government was pressured by India into signing the accord and its passage through parliament was opposed by elements within the ruling UNP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the JVP.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ It is rarely noted that there was an ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Exchange of lettersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ between the Prime Minister of India and the president of Sri Lanka that accompanied the signing of the Accord.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”lettersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ issued a warning to JRJ in very civilised, but patronising language. The warnings included: ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚¦ ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”not to allow ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”ourƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ respective territories to be used for activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, territorial integrity and securityƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ (emphasis added), and to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”meet some of India’s concernsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ that included ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”reaching an early understanding about the foreign military and intelligence personnel, not allowing Trincomalee or any other ports to be used for military use by ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”anyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ country, a joint venture on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, and a review of agreements with foreign broadcasting organisations to set up facilities in Sri Lanka.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Though JRJƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s inept handling of the India-Sri Lanka relationship since Indira GandhiƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s time, due to his servility to the west, clearly contributed to IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s overbearing approach to Sri Lanka, these demands were quite unusual in diplomatic terms.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Provincial Council experience

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Admittedly, the provincial councils under the 13th amendment do retain a significant level of central control over the legislative, financial and policy and programs through the Reserved List and the powers of the Executive Presidency and parliament. The Reserved List contains powers that are exclusively reserved to the Central Government and the shared functions are ultimately controlled by parliament.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Such ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”safeguardsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ however, as the preceding discussion showed, introduce fresh ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”bones of contentionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ rather than securing a peaceful future for Sri Lanka.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The notion of devolution, raises the question as to whether a decentralised form of government is bound to hold secessionist forces in check or whether it will merely be a prelude to the break up of the state.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Sri Lanka needs to rethink the sole dependence on devolution as the future and look for original solutions based on the specific issues involved on the ground.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The international evidence supports such an approach.

2 Responses to “Devolution is no panacea for Sri Lanka’s ethnic ills”

  1. cassandra Says:

    Thank you for a most informative article. The subject has clearly been well researched and you have presented your ‘case’ logically and simply.

    It seems that almost everyone is sold on this ‘devolution’ thing, as if it is some powerful mantra, some potent nostrum to fix the ‘problem’. As you have correctly pointed out, devolution is very much a prescription emanating from abroad and warmly embraced with by some in the country but is not necessarily the right prescription. It seems like a prescription written to by a doctor who is trying to treat the complaint symptomatically rather than after getting down to the root of the problem.

    You have made some very valid points. And, to me, one of the most pertinent things highlighted by you, in regard to devolution, is to point out that “of particular risk are the countries where an ethnic group engaged in sectarian conflict has a strong base of support just across the border, or large diasporas, a situation uniquely applicable to Sri Lanka.” This is a major factor you simply must consider very seriously.

    Two phrases often used are ‘the grievances of the Tamils’ and ‘the aspirations of the Tamils’ I often wonder how many stop to reflect what the two separate phrases mean. Aspirations go beyond just grievances. And we know that the aspirations include the establishment of a separate Tamil homeland. And this goes a long way back. It predates the Vaddukodai Resolution and even the Sinhala Only Bill of 1956 that is often cited as the beginning of organised discrimination against the Tamils. What the Vaddukodai Resolution did was to articulate more vocally than before, the search for a separate homeland – not initiate it. It merely confirmed it. And there is nothing to confrim this dream has been abandoned. And it is in that context that your comments about the “particular risk” that Sri Lanka runs is especially pertinent.

    I cannot quite see the logic of those who persevere with the 13th Amendment. It is a flawed thing on a number of counts. Among other things, it was part of an agreement which Sri Lanka had to sign under duress and is therefore legally bad, it has not been implemented for more than 20 years and is not relevant to present conditions. It was also part of an agreement which placed obligations on both parties and India has certainly not fulfilled her part of the bargain which included the disarming of the Tigers.

    I also cannot see, if devolution was the real concern, why you had to have a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to make devolution work. One can be forgiven for thinking that such merger was the thin end of the wedge, and from there secession might not be far off.

    Your article is a timely reminder of the dangers Sri Lanka needs to be wary of when considering the solution to the ‘Tamil problem’, and I trust it will receive, in the appropriate places, the serious consideration it deserves.

  2. Sie.Kathieravealu Says:

    You are correct in saying that “Devolution is no panacea for Sri Lanka’s ethnic ills”. Find below a different way of sorting out the various problems in the country through “TRUE DEMOCRACY” for peace and prosperity FOR ALL.

    Some suggestions that would help to create a UNIQUE SYSTEM OF GOVERNANCE that would ultimately bring in GOOD GOVERNANCE by showing the way out for injustice, discrimination, oppression and corruption born due and bred by the present system of governance that is mistakenly or mischievously termed as democratic by persons who call themselves political scientists.

    “Even the demand for devolution needs to be reframed as a demand for democratization that brings government closer to all the people, not just minorities, apart from being made far stronger than the 13th Amendment, which has loopholes allowing the Centre to take back the devolved powers. Along with the demand for abolition of the Executive Presidency, and further devolution to smaller units, it would give all the people of Sri Lanka more control over their lives, instead of having their lives ruled by a remote power in Colombo that knows little and cares less about their needs”.
    So, it is high-time we start to RETHINK in terms of a solution that would address the ASPIRATIONS ALL THE PEOPLE in the country, not just the aspirations of the Tamils, in a just and meaningful way rather than continue to criticize other people for their “faults
    A UNIQUE concept that moves towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement (not devolution) based on true democracy – a large number of people participating in the governance of the country based on equality, equity – is a great deviation from the usual thinking of the meaning of the word “sharing of power” is given below for the perusal and comments of concerned people.
    The best political solution/system of governance to address the problems faced by various sections of the Sri Lankan society – particularly the poor, the politically weak and the various categories of “minorities” who do not carry any “political weight” – would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives of the people by separating the various powers of the Parliament and by horizontally empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of the separated powers at different locations.
    It has to be devolution HORIZONTALLY where each and every set of representatives would be in the SAME LEVEL as equals and in par and NOT VERTICALLY, where one set of representatives would be above (more powerful than) the other, which is the normal adopted practice when talking of devolution, in this power-hungry world. It is because “devolution of power” has been evolved “vertically”, we have all the trouble in this power-hungry world. So, for sustainable peace it should not be the present form of “devolution of power” but “dilution of powers” or “meaningful sharing of powers” in such a way that no single person or single set of people’s representatives be “superior” to another.
    This system of governance would help to eradicate injustice, discrimination, corruption and oppression – the four pillars of an evil society – and help to establish the “Rule of Law” and “Rule by ALL” for sustainable peace, tranquility and prosperity and a pleasant harmonious living with dignity and respect for all the inhabitants in the country. It is based on the principle that everyone must have similar powers, rights, duties and responsibilities and most importantly everyone should be deemed “equal” and treated “equitably” before the law not only on paper but also practically – be it the Head of State, The Chief Justice or the voiceless poor of the poorest in the country.
    Since all political and other powers flow from the sovereignty of the people, it is proposed herein that these powers be not given to any ONE set of representatives but distributed among different sets of people’s representatives (groups) elected on different area basis (village and villages grouped) to perform the different, defined and distinct functions of one and the same institution – the Parliament – like the organs of our body – heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, nose, ear etc. – performing different and distinct functions to enable us to sustain normal life.
    In these suggestions the powers of the Parliament have been so separated and distributed among different sets of people’s representatives in different areas so as to dilute the powers of an individual representative or that of a set of representatives in any area. (Dilution is better than Devolution)

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