Accommodating competing interests
Posted on September 13th, 2012

By Neville Ladduwahetty Courtesy The Island

“The question of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom is currently the single most pressing issue in British politics and a point of growing concern across Europe. The Scots opted for their own regional government in 1997, and a referendum planned for the fall of 2014 will offer them the chance to create their own country, a goal to which the Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority faction in Scotland’s parliament, is expressly committed” (Charles King, Foreign Affairs, p. 114, September/October 2012).

The issue is what options are open to democratic polities to counter secession by regional governments? A separatist outcome in Scotland would create a precedent for Europe and beyond as to the accommodation of competing interests relating to governance and self-determination. The latest in this regard is the election on September 4, 2012, in Quebec, where the Parti Quebecois that seeks independence from the rest of Canada has won 54 of 125 electoral districts and is in a position to form the next provincial coalition government. Similar secessionist tendencies exist within Belgium’s Flemings, Spain’s Catalans, Italy’s Piedmontese, and Romania’s Transylvanians to name just a few within Europe alone.


Whether the tendency to be separate is driven by nationalism or any other factor, at ground zero level it is fundamentally due to an inability to determine and fashion the destinies of territorially defined groups. “The single greatest predictor of countries’ starting down this path is not ethnic difference, a long history of grievances, or political oppression. Rather, what gives rise to independence is the presence of some set of defined institutions – local parliament (read Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka), an administrative structure, a separable military force (read Police Powers in Sri Lanka), even lines on a map distinguishing one piece of land from another (read provincial boundaries) – that allow nationalists to translate aspirations into political action” (Ibid, p. 122,123).

The “defined institutions” referred to above is concretized in Sri Lanka by the 13th Amendment. At the heart of the tendency to be as separate as possible from the rest with complete independence as the extreme, is the search for a structural arrangement that permits groups to determine and live by decisions that affect them. If Sri Lanka is to avoid such pitfalls it is crucial that Sri Lanka reformulates current institutional arrangements in a manner that enable citizens to influence issues that affect their lives.

In the global village we live in the actions of some countries affect the rest. For instance the actions of countries that contribute to global warming affect the rest, due to rising sea levels to an extent that in the case of most would compel migration of peoples to higher ground while in the case of others, whole countries would cease to exist. Furthermore, extreme weather patterns would cause such severe drought that food shortages would be inevitable resulting in higher prices and even famine. The world is currently affected by all this, but is helpless to contain these trends.

Similar frustrations can develop at the national level of countries when regions are unable to influence actions that affect their lives. It is this inability that is at the heart of tendencies for regional groups to seek isolation or in the extreme, separation. However, as with all global issues, the degree of affectedness cannot be controlled totally by a region that constitutes a part of the whole. What affects an individual depends on the community, which in turn is dependent on the region in which the community lives, and extends to the country in which the region is located. Therefore, determinations that affect a region depend not only on what a region determines for itself, but also on what the country as a whole determines.

This fact requires structural arrangements to be organized so as to permit regions to determine outcomes that affect them, and for regions to participate in determining the outcomes that affect them at the national level. The dynamic in this construct is that if arrangements permit greater participation at the national level in the determination of outcomes that affect the periphery, arrangements sought by the periphery would proportionately be less and vice””‚versa. However, a significant fact that influences arrangements sought for the periphery is the size of the regional territorial unit – the larger the regional unit, the greater the extent of the powers needed to determine what affects them. It is this dynamic that drives the tendencies for separation in the instances cited above.


The concept outlined above is not reflected in the arrangements pursued in Sri Lanka. For instance, the 13th Amendment devolves power to the Provinces without any attempt to balance powers with arrangements at the national level. Consequently, under this arrangement the citizen is empowered to influence determinations ONLY at the provincial level. He/she has no voice in the determinations that affect him/her at the national level, particularly in the Executive Branch where most of the decisions that affect his/her interests are taken, except for representation in the Legislature. This is a serious lacuna that has all the ingredients for dissatisfaction and eventual separation.

The fact that the Tamil leadership is not particular about seeking arrangements in the Executive at the national level but instead seeks maximum powers for the periphery could be for reasons best known to them. However, purely from the standpoint of the citizen, there is no denying that if interests that affect him/her are to be addressed, structural arrangements at both national and peripheral levels need to be created to facilitate the expression of their interests, thereby creating opportunities to determine the total “self”. By not seeking arrangements at the national level, the Tamil leadership denies opportunities for Tamil citizens to benefit from representation at the national level concerning issues that affect them. Therefore, it is in the interests of all concerned that a holistic approach is taken if the nation and the state are to stay whole.

The proposal to have a second chamber with representation from the provinces would strengthen only the Legislative arm of the government. However, it is actions of the Executive Branch that affect individuals and communities most. Therefore, there a vital need for the Executive to be so structured that opportunities are available through elected representatives for the expression of a citizen’s interests. Without such representation the determinations that affect the citizen’s interests would remain lopsided. This imbalance has to be remedied by having an inclusive Cabinet that permits citizen interests to be addressed both at the regional level and at the national level in areas that affect him/her most. Such modifications could be further strengthened by reverting to the District as the regional unit since the District gives greater opportunity than the Province for the interests that affect the citizen to be addressed.


Under existing arrangements decisions that affect Sri Lankan citizens are taken at the Provincial level through representatives elected to Provincial Councils and by representatives elected to Local Government bodies. At the national level, legislative interests that affect the citizens are addressed by representatives elected to Parliament. However, this is limited only to policy. But it is Executive action that affects citizen’s interests most, e.g., law and order, education, health etc. etc. There is however, no arrangement in the Executive for the expression of interests that affect the citizen. This is due to the composition of the Executive being based solely on considerations of coalition politics, excluding all else. Therefore, if the interests of the citizens are to be addressed, the composition of the Executive needs to be reformed to reflect regional representation as well, which in turn would tangentially reflect ethnic considerations. However, since pragmatism requires accommodating coalition demands, the composition of the Executive should accommodate a mix of coalition pressures as well as regional representation; an arrangement that could be accommodated by a judicious mix of Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers. It could then be possible for issues that affect the citizen to be addressed both regionally and nationally.


Societies that are able to accommodate competing interests of self-determination are stable. However, it must be appreciated that the pursuit of the right of self-determination by one group may be at the expense of the right of self-determination of another. The rights of one group stop at the boundary where the rights of the other begin, whether it is self-determination, right of dissent, or freedom of speech. In the examples of Quebec or Scotland the right to secede is unilateral. This right violates the rights of the rest in Canada and U.K. Therefore the outcome of a referendum ONLY either in Quebec or Scotland would not be legitimate without the determinations of the rest in Canada and U.K.

The situation in U.K. is a result of politics. Scotland has consistently favoured Labour and Liberal politics. In order to gain this support the Labour Party in U.K. granted concessions that ended up with Scotland having its own Parliament and the opportunity for a referendum to decide its future status. Ironically, if Scotland separates, England would enjoy a durable conservative majority. These are the consequences created by the Labour Party in U.K for temporary gain. What price politics?

This is so in Sri Lanka as well. The right of self-determination of the Tamil community to whatever degree, 13A plus , or any other, cannot be realized unilaterally without that same right being extended for acceptance or rejection by the whole of the Sri Lankan nation. Despite rejection by the rest of the Sri Lankan nation, 13A plus for a Province would mean asymmetrical arrangements that would entrench unequal arrangements among citizens; an acceptance that some are more equal than others. Even a referendum only in the Eastern Province as called for in the Indo-Lanka Accord for the purpose of merger with the Northern Province has no validity in the absence of a determination by the whole of the Sri Lankan nation. The only valid and acceptable outcome would be a Referendum in which the whole nation was involved. If the interests of every group seeking political power are to be accommodated unilaterally it would inevitably be at the cost of the interests of the larger group whether it is Canada, U.K. or Sri Lanka. It is this that makes the pursuit of unilateral interests at the expense of the others’ interests that make it unacceptable because it violates the will of the majority.

The manner in which competing interests could be accommodated is by formulating structural arrangements that would facilitate individuals and communities to realize the outcomes of what they determine for themselves. The practice up to now has been for arrangements based on regional autonomy. What individuals and communities determine cannot be fully realized only through regional arrangements because of our interconnectedness and our interdependence. “Giving Holyrood (Edinburgh) what it wants without reforming central institutions would only widen the divide between Edinburgh and London”¦(the) SNP faction in the British parliament that acted more like ambassadors to a foreign country than members of a united legislature” (Ibid, p. 121).

This is the problem with devolution/regional autonomy as presently conceived. The realization of “determinations” is more complete when they are addressed regionally and nationally. It is the absence of arrangements at both levels, regionally and nationally, that have fostered tendencies for incrementally extending autonomy leading eventually to separation. Therefore, there is a need to reform current arrangements at regional and national levels where opportunities are institutionalized to enable citizens through their elected representatives to influence the decision making processes as to what affects their wellbeing. It will only be through such collective and collaborative endeavours that individuals and communities would be able to realize their aspirations. It is then and only then that it would be possible to realize true internal self-determination.

2 Responses to “Accommodating competing interests”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    These lines are very important : “What individuals and communities determine cannot be fully realized only through regional arrangements because of our interconnectedness and our interdependence”.
    We are INTERCONNECTED & INTERDEPENDENT in every way possible, particularly in small countries such as Sri Lanka.

  2. Dham Says:

    None of the above provinces of countries Neville mentioned produced a ruthless,barbaric, maniac religion called Tamil Tigerism.
    Therefore only solution to such seperation in Sri lanka is the gun.

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