Sri Lanka – Should future generati ons suffer the follies of the past?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 7 13:09:08 UTC 2006

  Published on Asian Tribune (
Sri Lanka – Should future generations suffer the follies of the past? Created
2006-09-07 03:03

By Raj Gonsalkorale

*"If this trend continues, the LTTE will die a natural death in a few
years," says Rohini Hensman, a Sri Lankan analyst. Yet, Ms. Hensman
emphasizes, the LTTE can only be beaten politically, not militarily. Drawing
an analogy with Hezbollah, which could not be vanquished by the more
advanced Israeli army, Hensman says, "Even an overwhelming military might
cannot wipe out a guerrilla movement as long as it has support from a
section of the population."*

Despite such predictions, coming not just from Ms Hensman, but from several
other Sri Lanka watchers, as well as the higher echelons of the Sri Lankan
military, it would be quite unwise to write off the military strength of the
LTTE, although their recent performance does indicate a weakening of their
fire power and tactical capability. It is reported however that the LTTE has
withdrawn, rather than being beaten by the government forces in Sampur and
that they have relocated their fire power elsewhere.

Ms Hensman is quite right though about being able to beat the LTTE
politically, if only the Sri Lankan politicians including the moderate Tamil
politicians and other key interest groups such as the private sector in the
country and the Buddhist clergy could exert pressure in the right direction
to find a political solution that is just and reasonable for the Tamils, the
Sinhalese as well as the Muslims. As Mr Anandasangaree, the leader of the
largest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, The Tamil United Liberation
Front and a very brave person at that having the courage to oppose and be a
very irritable threat to the LTTE, said in a letter to President Mahinda
Rajapaksa on the 55th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, "It is
well to remember that rivers do not flow backwards...," meaning that a
weakening of the LTTE military strength should not be taken as a weakening
of the Tamil political objective and that the governing party and others
must look forward and find a reasonable solution to the conflict. Mr
Ananadasangaree of course referred to a Federal Solution as being the way

As argued by the author previously, neither Federalism nor Asymmetrical
devolution is considered an answer or a political solution to this conflict
although a Federal structure might appear as one, for some. At best it may
be a temporary solution to ease the pain caused by years of war, death and
destruction. On the other hand, it could well be the beginning of another
problem as discussed earlier. Federalism, unless it extends to redrawn
provincial boundaries and it extends to the entire country, will tantamount
to Asymmetrical devolution in one part of the country and that will not
address the causes that Tamils have been fighting for politically and
militarily for decades. It will only result in there being several groups of
Tamils enjoying varying degrees of rights within the same country.

The concept of devolution identified in the proposals submitted by the
former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did extend the concept
to the entire country where she proposed an indissoluble "Union of Regions"
as opposed to a "Unitary" Constitution for the country. Her proposals, as
far as the author is aware, were based on symmetrical devolution to all
regions. Such a concept would have provided substantial and equal autonomy
to the combined North East provinces, as well as to the rest of the country.
Many however, did not appear to support the concept proposed by the former

While it may appear as idealistic, and impractical to some, a real solution
can come if the clock could be wound back to at least the fifties, and if
saner and objective minds could prevail to see whether problems that
surfaced as a result of Constitution changes that took place after that
period are as valid today as they may have been at the time such changes
were made, and see what additional measures and safeguards could be taken to
ensure Tamils and Muslims and other minority communities could function in
Sri Lanka as equals alongside the Sinhalese.

This attitude and thinking appears to prevail amongst substantial sections
of the moderate Sinhalese as well as Tamils judging from media comments,
articles written and discussion sessions on several websites. Although there
is no formal evidence to say so, it is likely that many moderates who hold
this view are mostly those born after 1956, and who have unfortunately
experienced a Sri Lanka not of their making and are suffering the
consequences of a legacy inherited by them. It is likely that they are
speaking for themselves and their future generations, with a few being able
to forge a better and more secure future in other countries. Their view is
that times have changed, and circumstances that may have prevailed at the
time to justify and introduce legislation such as the Sinhala only Act in
1956, are no longer valid in a world that is shrinking, becoming
increasingly Globalised and market oriented, and where the English language
has become an essential passport to break national and international

Their argument that those who still push for pre eminence for the Sinhala
and Tamil languages at the exclusion of the English language, are those
suffering from the "small pond syndrome" and only interested in perpetuating
their own power bases without seeing what is happening in the world outside,
appears quite valid if one looks at countries that have progressed
economically in recent times like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, just to
name a few. Their view is that if we are unable to rise above the "small
pond syndrome" and meet today's Global challenges by focusing on economic
development rather than narrow sectarian communalist views, then Sri Lanka
has no future, will continue to linger behind other developing countries,
and will not have a future for them or their future generations, either as a
Unitary State or even a Federal State. It is widely held that communal
politics will only intensify the cry for separation from the Tamil
extremists and will result in ongoing instability, unrest and violence.

This is the most important attitude change that has to occur and it is an
issue that has to be given leadership and direction by all opinion leaders
and men and women with substantial influence amongst the Sri Lankan
community, both within and outside the country. The principle of equality
hangs in the balance as long as the Sinhala Buddhists continue to hold a
superior view, and unless this is addressed, Tamils and Muslims will not
feel they are equals. So, the first principle is for any references in the
Constitution to the superiority of Sinhala Buddhists to be removed and to
change such clauses to reflect a truly secular country where everyone is
equal and enjoys equal status, and State protection and sponsorship is
afforded to everyone in equal measure. It will be interesting to see how
many Sinhalese have reflected on the fact that the national Anthem, the
single most important unification symbol, has only Sinhala verses and is
sung in Sinhala. If the country is to move to true secularism, the Anthem
must include verses in Tamil so that those who have been excluded so far
from the symbol that is supposed to unify everyone, could in fact sing it
proudly as fellow citizens of the country.

An issue that is held as probably the cornerstone that changed the
multiethnic, multi linguist nature of the country, is the language policy
change introduced by the late Prime Minister S.W. R. D Bandaranaike.

The policy change introduced in 1956 and which underwent numerous changes
over time, is today a non issue from a policy perspective as both Sinhala
and Tamil languages are official languages of the country. What is needed
though is to make sure that administrative measures are introduced with
definitive timelines to implement this policy in the entire country,
including the teaching of both languages to all students, but very
importantly, not at the exclusion of teaching English to all students.
Teaching of the English language to all students in the country, in addition
to teaching both Sinhala and Tamil should become a major national policy
issue with definitive time lines for implementation. If ever there is an
administrative issue that requires devolution, then the implementation of
the language policy is one such issue.

Devolution is needed in the country, but what is needed is administrative
devolution so that the citizens of the country are better served by the
political and administrative machinery, and economic development is enhanced
through such administrative devolution. Devolution based on Ethnic lines
will only perpetuate the very divisions that exist today and which will
contribute to a further fuelling of fires, conflict and disharmony. There is
a crying need for administrative devolution in several areas such as health,
education, civil administration including policing, and in other key areas
of economic activity. *Administrative devolution though has to be undertaken
within national policy guidelines, and this is where political devolution
has to be curtailed in relation to national policy settings, subject to
equal rights and equal representation for the three major communities in the
country in such policy settings. The suggestion of a second chamber with
equal representation for the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, made in a
previous article was based on this thinking.*

In order to ensure equal rights for the three major communities, perhaps
what Sri Lanka needs is a Bill of Rights, as an inviolate, insoluble part of
the Constitution that articulates the secular nature of the country and the
equal rights of all people in the country irrespective of their ethnicity or
religion. What Tamils rightly fear is the ability of the Sinhala Buddhist
majority in the country to forge some unity and change Constitutions at
will, even if secularism is well enshrined in a particular Constitution. The
challenge for the Southern politicians is therefore to find ways and means
of allaying such fears, not with their words, as that can change depending
on the direction of political winds at any given time, but through legal
means that will ensure equal rights enjoyed under a secular Constitution are
forever, similar to the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

Sri Lankan is noted more for their volubility than action. It is now time
for some real action in relation to finding a political solution to this
conflict. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed an expert committee to
propose, initially, the main concepts relating to a possible solution. It is
hoped that this will be forthcoming as expected in the next month or two. It
is also hoped that this committee will have the strength and resolve to
propose a concept that provides a real alternative to Federalism or
Asymmetrical devolution, and instead suggests administrative devolution
within national policy guidelines, where such policy is determined centrally
with the three major communities having equal rights and representation in a
second chamber that has the power to approve, change or reject policy bills
sanctioned by the first chamber. It is also hoped that the concept includes
giving inviolate and insoluble guarantees for true secularism through a Bill
of Rights. Above and beyond all this is the need to keep the focus on the
future and not the past, and view the world from outside the small pond. Our
political leaders, religious leaders, successful entrepreneurs and other
opinion makers and leaders in the wider civil society owe this to our future

- Asian Tribune -

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