Ethnic Problem and Constitution Reforms
Posted on October 2nd, 2020

N.A. de S. Amaratunga

A new constitution is being planned and a committee comprised of leading intellectuals has been appointed to draft it. One of the difficult issues the committee would have to grapple with would be the ethnic issue. Several aspects of the ethnic issue may have to be taken into consideration when tackling this matter; its genesis and evolution,  involvement of foreign powers, attempts at resolution, 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils may be some of these aspects.

Genesis and Evolution

Origin and growth of the Tamil ultra-nationalism could be traced back to the times before independence in the 1920s. During that time there had been cordial relations among leaders of all three communities and they had formed the Ceylon National Congress with Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Tamil, as its president. The Tamil leaders felt quite comfortable in the Legislative Council as they had equal representation with the Sinhalese though they were a minority community. The devide-and-rule policy of the British rulers had caused this anomaly in the composition of the Legislative Council.  This was due to the fact that only the English educated people were entitled to vote and there were proportionately more English educated Tamils than Sinhalese. However when the Colonial authorities granted voting rights for swabasha” educated people also in 1921 the number entitled to vote increased from 3013 in 1917, to 54207 and this number grew to 189335 by 1924. The Tamil leadership resented the idea  of the Tamils becoming a minority in the Legislative Council . In 1917 they were equal in number to the Sinhalese but by 1921 their proportion fell to 1/4th. This they could not stomach and consequently the Tamil leaders left the Ceylon National Congress. They formed their own Tamil National Congress thereby perhaps causing the first rupture in national unity.

The Tamil leaders did not stop at that, Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to London to request the British authorities not to grant the Donoughmore Commission recommendations in 1931 which included scrapping the communal based voting system and implimenting population based franchise.  Tamils could not reconcile to the fact that Sinhalese becoming a majority and Tamils a minority would be the natural outcome of universal franchise. Tamils did not want to give the rightful place to the Sinhalese as the majority in the country. GG Ponnambalam asked for a 50% represetation for the Tamils in the legislature.

When independence was being considered in 1947 GG Ponnambalam petitioned the British authorities demanding a separate state for the Tamils and if that is not possible not to grant independence to Sri Lanka. Ramanathan as far back as 1916 together with Ambalavanar  Kanagasabe had been for some time engaged in communal politics (see K M de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, p 393). These activities perhaps were the cause and origin of Tamil communal politics and separatism in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese at that stage were not at all  involved in its causation. Though there were several Sinhalese organisations such as Theosophical Society of Ceylon”, Ceylon National Association” and Anagarika Dharmapala’s anti-alcohol organisation, they had nothing to do with the seeds of dissention and conflict being sown by the Tamil leaders.

As a result of this intransigence of the Tamil leadership and the development of ideas about autonomy the Donoughmore Commission and also the Sinhalese leaders like SWRD started to talk about devolving political and administrative power to provincial councils as a means of appeasing the Tamils. Leaders like SJV Chelvanayagam carried these ideas forward and in 1957 at Vadukodai took the extreme stand of calling the Tamil youth to take up arms to win their rights. This call came to fruition and the LTTE was born in the 1980s. India helped the LTTE to wage an armed struggle. This India did for geopolitical reasons and eventually they forced the JRJ government to accept the 13th  Amendment and provincial councils as a political solution to the ethnic problem. 

However provincial councils and regional autonomy though had been in discussion since 1920s  could never be granted by leaders like SWRD, Dudley, JRJ all of whom withdrew their proposals because they knew granting it was political harakiri. That is how finally it came to be forced down our throats by Rajiv Gandhi who had his local South Indian politics and also geopolitical issues  to contend with. However, there was opposition to this high handed act within the government ranks and the JVP organized wide spread riots which had to be controlled by a declaration of curfew. The people of Sri Lanka have never endorsed the 13th A or regional autonomy.

Western involvement

Western powers for geopolitical reasons have got involved in our internal affairs. They would like to have a foothold on Sri Lanka. They have an intimate knowledge of the ethnic conflict and would not hesitate to make use of it to destabilize the country and create opportunities for their involvement and interference.  Sri Lanka due to its strategic importance has become an arena for global hegemonic rivalry in the Indian Ocean region. Western powers want to thwart the rising power and influence of China in the region. The LTTE was a useful tool in their hands, they helped it to raise funds in their countries and purchase arms. The Tamil Diaspora domiciled in these countries developed into  politically influential pressure groups and consequently politicians in these countries started to raise a voice for the Tamil course. They spoke on their behalf not only in their parliaments but also in UN bodies. Some called for a separate Tamil state. Trumped up charges of human rights violations were liberally utilized to pressure Sri Lanka to fall in line and support their agendas.

Thus the so called Tamil problem was blown out of proportion in the global context. Western countries could not see evidence of discremination or oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka yet they got involved because of Indian Ocean geopolitics and local politics in their own countries due to the presence of a substantial vote base of Tamil Diaspora. India was involved for similar geopolitical reasons.

Thus the global involvement is not due to the true nature of the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka or its seriousness or importance but due to the hegemonic agendas of  the global and regional powers. Therefore the question arises whether Sri Lanka should take into serious consideration and be influenced by the position taken up by the Western countries regarding the Tamil problem.

The present state of the global power situation will also have to be taken into consideration. How much pressure could the Western countries excert on Sri Lanka, how much could Sri Lanka resist and what would India’s and China’s stand be in this regard are going to be the factors that govern the determination of the course of action Sri Lanka has to adopt. Sri Lanka had to capitulate when India  forced the 13th A on us as USA or any other world power opposed to India did not come to the rescue of Sri Lanka. Today the situation is different, the West is not as powerful as before, China has enormous stake in Sri Lanka in connection with its Belt and Road project and India may not want to get involved as much as it did earlier. Western countries and India would not want to resort to military intervention. The worst they would do is enforcement of trade sanctions. Economic effects of such an action would be mitigated to some degree by Chinese inputs for the latter would not want Sri Lanka to collapse. 

Attempts at resolution and their failure

From the time of its origin there had been serious discussions to find a solution to the Tamil problem. It is unfortunate that the Tamil leadership has refused to understand the real nature of the Tamil problem and see the unfairness of the position they take up when negotiating for  a settlement, for example the non-negotiable conditions comprising Four Principles put forward at Thimphu talks and the proposal for merger of North and East. Moreover the reluctance of governments to grant what is agreed upon at discussions and withdrawal from pacts entered into must also be taken into consideration with greater understanding by the Tamil leaders.

For example SWRD Bandaranayake withdrew from the pact he entered into with SJV Chelvanayagam and so did Dudley Senanayake. JR Jayawardena had discussions with Tamil leaders and also with Rajiv Gandhi and had the 10th  Amendment drafted as a solution but did not take steps to implement any decisions they may have agreed upon until the latter forced him to accept the 13th Amendment. Often the reluctance of Sinhala leaders to implement devolution policies are misconstrued as lacking in political courage and ideological strength whereas the correct reading would be that they did not want to commit political suicide. Even the forceful introduction of the 13th A caused lot of opposition within the government as well as riots by the JVP and boycotts by the SLFP.  Further the full implimentation of the 13th A has not been possible and the once merged North and East PCs have been demerged.

The previous government presented to the parliament a new constitution with federal features. What happened to those responsible for this deceitful deed must be taken into serious consideration by the Tamil political leadership. They were wiped out from the political scene and people gave a 2/3rd majority to the new government to ensure that such things will not happen in the future and a new constitution would be enacted that would secure the integrity of the people’s single sovereignty and the territory of their country.

The Sinhalese may never agree to allow a minority community to have special rights over part of the land that belongs to everybody. Further it is not the fair and just method to solve the ethnic problem. As more than half of the Tamils live outside the North a provincial arrangement with devolved administrative and political powers would obviously be not the best way to solve their problem. There may be better options of sharing political power that suits the country and the people.

13th Amendment

13th A and provincial councils were introduced to Sri Lanka as a solution to the ethnic problem but they were created by foreign vested interests to solve their problems than ours.  Indira Gandhi was tilted towards the USSR in the global power equation and JRJ was pro USA.  JRJ’s  foreign policy was disliked in New Delhi and Gandhi wanted to make JRJ realise the realities of regional geopolitics and she sponsored the Tamil terrorist groups. After she was assasinated  her successor Rajiv continued her policies. Rajiv Gandhi had two issues regarding Sri Lanka which he had inherited from his mother. One was the danger of  Sri Lanka’s  political leadership allowing the USA to use Sri Lanka to destabilize India and the other was the need to keep the South Indian politicians appeased with regard to the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka. He tried to achieve both goals by forcing JRJ to accept the 13th A which was designed to grant regional devolution and also to prevent the USA from using Sri Lanka to act against the interests of India.

However the LTTE did not accept it and waged war against the Sri Lankan government. Negotiations with them always failed as their goal was a seperate state or something close to it. They were militarily defeated but their idealogy is carried forward by the present Tamil political leadership. Obviously Tamil politicians have not come to terms with reality, the impossibility of getting what they want. Or what is more probable is they are abusing the national emotions of Tamil people for political gain. They should know that when they resort to demanding the impossible the Sinhalese will close rank as happened at the recent presidential and general elections and no government can go beyond what is granted at present i.e. 13th A without land and police powers. This arrangement, however, does not solve the problems of the Tamils and other minorities as they are widely distributed in the country.

The 13th A with its Land and Police powers hangs over us like a Sword of Damocles which could eventually pave the way for a separate state.  

Provincial Councils

It is utterly absurd to divide this little island into nine political and administrative areas. It is too small to be divided. More than 50% of the Tamils, for whom one of these areas are demarcated with some autonomy, live outside that area, therefore this division does not serve the purpose.

Several Provinces have existed without their Councils with no breakdown of essential services to the people for more than one year due to elections not being held. PCs were created as a solution to the so called ethnic Tamil problem but the silence of Tamil politicians on the issue of delay in elections to the Northern PC is deafening to say the least. If they can do without their PC there cannot be an ethnic problem of enormous magnitude which necessitated  the introduction by force of the 13th A by India.

Moreover the Provincial Councils do not serve any useful purpose. Instead it is another bureaucratic barrier to the people that increase the red tape, inconvenience, number of corrupt politicians that people have to bribe to get any official work done. The work done by these PCs could easily be carried out by the GA and the kachcheri system we had previously without the involvement of politicians. Similarly administrative power could be devolved to the North through the local government institutions. Thus the 13th A and its offspring the provincial councils could be done away with bringing great benefit to the people including Tamils.

Possible methods of resolving the Ethnic problem

What the Tamils want is political and administrative power that would enable them to manage their own affairs in the areas of their habitation and also have a say in the affairs of their country. Administration can be decentralized via the existing local government institutions. These institutions could be further empowered to attend to the needs of the people at grass root level. District level administration via district secretaries which could be similar to the government agent system of yore could also be strengthened without the yoke of the provincial council. If the local administration which is the system that has to work in intimacy with the people and solve their day to day problems could be comprehensively strengthened and streamlined more than half the problem would be solved. The PCs didn’t do this, instead they made the local administration more cumbersome.

There are several options for solving the political power sharing issue. The methods that have been discussed by political scientists of repute fall under two broad categories: (1) classical”  political power sharing which they like to call Consociationalism and (2) Integrationism which is also called Centrepetalism (Horowitz, 2000) . The former could have four areas of power sharing; 1) coalition government, 2) proportionality at all activities like education, employement etc., 3) minority veto for selected subjects and 4) autonomy at the periphery for minority groups. Autonomy at the periphery has been tried in Sri Lanka with little success.

In Integrationism, which is propounded by those who oppose Consociationalism, there is encouragement for cross ethnic cooperation and fair allocation of resources. Very often a combination of features from the two methods are found to be more effective and moreover are found to have caused less possibility of enhancing ethnic differences and recurrence of conflict (Waller & Wolf,2011).

A study carried out on 62 African and Asian countries has shown that horizontal power sharing, (which means power sharing at the centre), was more successful than vertical power sharing, (which means power sharing at the perphary) (Linder & Bachtiger 2005). Instead of political power devolution at the periphery which has proved to be a failure in Sri Lanka and which doesn’t solve the problem that pertains to the minorities distributed all over the country, an arrangement at the centre may be more suitable.

Sri Lanka may benefit from a method that combines power sharing at the centre and the principle of proportionality in all allocations and appointments. The former could be institutionlized either with a second chamber or ensuring minority representation in proportion to their population ratios in all three arms of the government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The power of the sovereignty which belongs to the people is placed in the custody of the president in a presidential system of government. The president delegates this power to the cabinet, the parliament and to the judiciary. This tenet need not be changed so that the single sovereignty is not jeopardised.

Proportionality which is the other major arm of the power sharing mechanism suitable for Sri Lanka, which has to be based on ethnic ratios as mentioned earlier, could be adopted with constitutional guarantee, with regard to appointments to high posts and allocation of resources for education, employement, culture and religious matters and other vital subjects.       

N.A. de S. Amaratunga

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