Sri Lanka: from a Tragedy to a farce

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 2 13:32:15 UTC 2007

>>From a Tragedy to a Farce: Comments on the SLFP Proposals

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

Professor Wiswa Warnapala, the Minister of Higher Education, is one of the
leading political scientists in Sri Lanka. He has produced, even after
entering the busy life of politics, many books in a wide variety of
subjects, the most recent being about Sri Lanka-Russia Relations. When the
media reported that Prof. Warnapala would be the main architect of the Sri
Lanka Freedom Partys proposals to the All Party Representative Committee
(APRC), we all became optimistic assuming that the proposals would
adequately address complex issues of restructuring the postcolonial state
in Sri Lanka. However, the SLFP proposals submitted to the people on May
Day 2007, have demonstrated clearly and conclusively that the SLFP have
not traveled forward in time but far back. Its fresh approach to a complex
problem, that has grown to gigantic magnitudes over the years, is in
essence nothing more than the proposals of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham
Pact of 1958, almost five decades ago! History sometimes, in Sri Lanka
oftentimes, repeats itself, but as Marx aptly puts it, the first time as a
tragedy and second as a farce. The SLFP proposals are totally
disproportionate to the questions at hand. Not only are they a retreat
from the earlier positions of the SLFP, they cannot be a basis for a
long-lasting solution to the ethno-political conflict in the country. The
drafting of the proposal, which took so much time, reminded me of an old
Sinhala saying: kandak vili la meeyek veduwa vage.

The SLFP proposal includes inter alia (1) devolution of power with
district as a unit of devolution; (2) a second chamber; (3) making chief
ministers ex-officio members of the 75 member second chamber; (4) national
water and land commission; and (5) district ethnic ombudsman. The powers
of the second chamber have not yet been specified. Since Prof. Warnapala
was a strong unicameralist in the past (he quoted from Dr N. M. Pereras
PhD dissertation in support of this position), the SLFPs proposed second
chamber would not be more than a replica of the lower house. Since I have
discussed the issue of the second chamber in relation to Sri Lankas
Ethno-political conflict in my earlier article in the Daily Mirror
(republished in A Glimmer of Hope: A new Phase of Constitutional Reforms
In Sri Lanka, Colombo: South Asia Peace Institute, 2007), I will not delve
into the subject here. The innovative proposal to establish an ethnic
ombudsman is promising, but the appointment procedure specified in the
proposals may not produce results. The section on the language in the SLFP
proposals shows that the authors are even ignorant of the present
constitutional provision on language. However, in this article my focus on
the SLFPs proposals will be limited to its proposals on devolution of

The Current Discourse
Whatever its limits, the Report of Sub-Committee B (RSCB) contain positive
features. It accepts that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious,
multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society. It proposes that power should
be devolved, with the existing provinces being the unit of devolution. The
sub-committee has no objections toward a second chamber if it can
effectively address the issue of power-sharing. On the other hand, RSCA
has proposed changes that would produce far-reaching results and would
make the Sri Lankan state more accommodative. It is no secret that the
RSCA proposals have a close affinity to the 2000 constitutional draft bill
that was presented to the Parliament by the Peoples Alliance government,
of which Mahinda Rajapakse and the members of the current SLFP
sub-committee on constitutional proposals were key members. Both the RSCA
and the Constitutional Draft Bill 2000 accept that the minimum unit of
devolution would be the existing province. Both documents have left space
to accommodate specific Tamil and Muslim demands especially in relation to
the Eastern Province. The Chairperson of the APRC, Minister Tissa
Vitharana have also suggested that the unit of devolution should not be
lower that the existing province. What is the status quo? The 13th
Amendment introduced devolution of power on the basis of the existing
provinces with the qualified merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces. A
recent Supreme Court decision delivered a verdict that on legal grounds
the merger was no longer constitutionally valid. Of course, the
constitutional issues transcend legal boundaries since constitutional
issues in a pluri-national society are more political in nature. What I am
trying to stress here is that the Sri Lankan constitutional discourse has
reached some consensus that the unit of devolution should not be smaller
than the existing provinces.

Is there a justifiable ground for the SLFP to now change this consensus
and to suggest afresh that the district instead of the province be the
unit of devolution in future constitutional arrangement? I would say no.
The chauvinists of the current SLFP leadership are here trying to find a
justification for the choice of district as a unit of devolution based
almost in a farcical manner on the principle of subsidiarity and the
concept of grama rajya. The two concepts are of great importance in a
pluri-national society not as substitutes for the protection of group
rights but as complementary to it. Let me explain. The setting up of
constitutionally separate two-tiers of government can be justified on
multiple grounds. The notion of subsidiarity has increasingly been invoked
to legitimize the setting up of a lower level of government. It has
multiple meaning, but what is most common and relevant here is that it
refers to organizational and territorial principles requiring that
decision-making and implementation be carried out in a space that is as
close as possible to the citizen. This idea also goes with the notion of
deliberative democracy where all the affected should be given an equal
opportunity to participate in decision-making as equals in a non-coercive
context. The principle of subsidiarity in this sense addresses the issues
of effectiveness, and good and inclusive governance. However, it does not
and could not directly address the rights of self-determination of
different peoples living in the same territorial space.

Secession Justified
In RSCB as well as in Tissa Vitharana proposals, these two principles the
principle of subsidiarity and the notion of grama rajya- are incorporated
by introducing a third-tier of government. That was the principle
enshrined in the Indian Constitution. However, the SLFPs so-called
indigenous model based on the idea of Grama Rajaya is based on complete
ignorance/ negligence of the Indian model and the complex nature of the
Sri Lankan problem. The SLFP leadership seems to reject the national or
ethno-political question in Sri Lanka by arguing for devolved smaller
unit. One of the key demands of the minorities in Sri Lanka is that they
should be allowed to take decisions that affect them and their destiny.
What is good for the numerically big nation may not be necessarily good
for the numerically small nations living in the same territory. The best
examples were the Citizenship Acts, Official Language Act of 1956, and the
language-based standardization policy in the early 1970s. The whole
question of constitutional change arose because of the failure of the two
autochthonous constitutions because they were prepared according to the
needs and requirements of the numerically large nation, the Sinhalese.
SLFP proposes attempt the same once again without taking into account the
proposals by the TULF (Anandasangree), EPDP, EPRLK (Pathmanabha) and the
Muslim political parties for more comprehensive power-sharing

The SLFP proposes to set up 30 district councils as the second-tier of
government. In a way, the current proposals are even short of
Bandaranaike-Chelvanayaham Pact of 1958. Because the B-C Pact (if I
remember correctly) accepted that the Northern Province should be kept as
one unit and that units could be merged with the consent of the
Parliament. The principle behind this is that the numerically small
peoples should be given space, not only to participate in governance, but
also to govern themselves with the control of reasonable resources. Can a
district council protect, preserve, and advance the culture of the Tamil
people? Village committees are territorial units, not politico-cultural
units. Majoritarianism in a pluri-national society can be contained only
if numerically small nations can constitutionally mobilize their strength
effectively against the unreasonable and hegemonic decisions of the
numerically large nation/s. District committees are designed to divide
them more and more, and as a result to weaken them and their identity.
The SLFP proposals give justification to the demands of the LTTE for a
separate state. As Mr Sambanthan, TNA MP once remarked, the LTTE is in
fact a baby of Sinhala chauvinism. This chauvinism is once again expressed
by the SLFP in its 2007 proposals. So the SLFP by presenting these
proposals continues to feed the baby, the LTTE, to keep it alive.

Sumanasiri Liyanage teaches Political Economy at the University of


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