Sri Lanka: Manipulating the People for Federalism

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 6 12:59:25 UTC 2007

Manipulating the People for Federalism

Thu, 2007-09-06 02:27
By Susantha Goonatilake

Sri Lanka although with a predominantly Sinhala population is a
multicultural, multi-ethnic society. The question we have to pose is
what political and social arrangements we should make to live with
each other in harmony. To give an answer we must have some basic facts
correct. But this is not an easy task because there is a large amount
of deliberate and unconscious misinformation, especially drawn up by
LTTE and other separatists as well as by foreign funded NGOs
interfering in our local politics. (In parts of India such NGOs are
being called FGOs, Foreign Government Organizations). A few years ago,
at the Organisation of Professional Association's (OPA, Annual
Sessions I gave a talk based on group research to clarify some of
these issues. Let me proceed in the same vein and attempt to remove
some of the cobwebs.

Federal and unitary states

As the issue is federalism versus the unitary state, let us make some
facts very clear. By far the unitary system of government is the norm
in the world while the federal system is the exception. Thus of the
191 states that are members of the United Nations, 127 countries have
unitary forms of government. Countries that have unitary
characteristics include France and Japan. The number of countries with
federal forms of government is only about 25. Prominent among them are
the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and India. But federalism in the
USA, Australia and Germany has no ethnic or linguistic boundaries.

Federal states had in some instances grown up as a country enlarged
bit by bit by adding different territories. The classic case is the
United States where from the original 13 states who made a Declaration
of Independence from the British (all of them were of European stock
and the majority ethnically British).

Later the United States gradually added new states by acquisition, by
war, treaty and other means. The striking feature of anybody who has
lived in the United States is that of a considerable degree of ethnic
and religious variety perhaps the largest such variety anywhere else
in the world. This is most vividly seen in New York City where perhaps
150 to 200 nationalities speaking nearly 200 different languages and
live side by side, and sometimes, especially for new migrants, without
a common language to communicate with their neighbors. I personally
have experienced this very well having lived in New York City and
enjoyed every minute of it. Ethnic variety can be a source of

Yet the United States is not a melting pot as was popularly imagined
earlier. It is a mélange of ethnicities and religious cultures with
some overlap. Thus in New York City itself there are ethnic pockets,
for example Chinatown in downtown Manhattan, Little Italy next to it,
Astoria for Greeks, Afro-Americans in Harlem, Latinos in parts of East
Harlem, Russians in Brighton Beach, Flushing changing hands from Jews
to East Asians and so on. In some of these neighborhoods signboards
are in different languages for example Spanish, Russian, Chinese,
Greek, Hindi etc. Yet there are no formal ethnic boundaries in New
York City or for that matter in the whole of the United States. There
are areas such as states near the Mexican border which has large
Spanish speaking populations but there are no ethnic boundaries.

The nearest Sri Lankan illustration of this diversity without borders
is in areas of Colombo where recent Tamil and Muslim migrants have
come pouring in from the North and the East. In Wellawatte, Tamils -
some poor, others rich from expatriate money in high-rise
air-conditioned comfort - jostle with Sinhalese selling vegetables and
Muslims outside the mosque. The message I want to give is that the
most powerful country in the world, the United States has say 50
federal states but does not allow ethnic borders.

Indian solutions

India has a very much larger population than Sri Lanka and with a
larger collection of social divisions than Sri Lanka based on
ethnicity, religion, caste, tribe India is being foisted on Sri Lanka
as an example for us to follow. Before discussing the Indian example
some basic facts of India's influence on Sri Lanka's separatism should
be made very clear. These have been suppressed in the popular
discourse either willfully or through ignorance. Sri Lankan Tamil
separatism has close links with the rise of Tamil nationalism and
later, of separatism in South India. Indian Tamil separatism in fact
was at times against India getting Independence from the British and
wanted a separate Dravidistan paralleling the case of Pakistan. Later,
especially with the Indian Central Government making the cry for
separatism illegal and after the 1962 India-China border war, these
demands for a separate independent state died down and is virtually
non-existent in present India. In the meantime however, close links
had been forged by Tamil separatist parties in India from the 1950s
onwards with Sri Lankan parties with separatist tendencies like the
Federal Party and its successor the TULF. These links have been very
well documented in some of the scholarly literature. The big drive for
Sri Lankan separatism however did not arise from these local Tamil
chauvinist parties or from the indirect influence of South Indian
Tamil racism.

The big push for Sri Lankan separatism came when the Indian Central
Government based on an Indian foreign policy decision decided to
subvert Sri Lanka by training, arming and dispatching different Tamil
separatist groups. All the armed separatist groups were trained in
India except that of the Vikalapa Kandayama for which Dayan Jayatileke
was indicted. This Indian policy of sponsoring armed groups was
somewhat parallel to the then Indian government under Indira Ghandi
sponsoring a Punjabi group under Brindanwale to suppress the Punjabi
insurgency. Ostensibly this Indian indirect invasion of Sri Lanka was
justified in some Indian circles as "to teach J.R. Jayawardena a
lesson" for his pro-Western foreign policy. In other Indian circles,
it was said that Sri Lanka was under the "natural" sphere of Indian
influence a parallel to the discredited Monroe Doctrine of the US
where Latin America was declared by the US to be under its sphere of
influence. The culmination of Indian interference was the so-called
Thimpu Principles which were imposed under Indian over lordship and
the later Indian Accord signed with warships outside Colombo harbor.
These steps exactly paralleled United States behavior with its smaller
neighbours at the height of the Monroe doctrine. Even now, India
interferes directly and indirectly in our affairs a contrast to all
our the South Asian neighbors, our South East Asian neighbors and the
most important East Asian country namely China which latter stands out
as a beacon of non-interference in other nations' internal affairs.

The Indian Monroe doctrine recognized the historically untenable
demarcation of the North and East as self-styled "traditional
homelands of the Tamils". Several Sri Lankan historians have shown how
this myth was artificially created in face of basic facts. The basis
for this is the infamous Minute by Cleghorn who falsely stated that
"Two different nations from a very ancient period, have divided
between them the possession of the island; first the Cingalese [sic]
….and secondly the Malabars [Tamils]". Cleghorn's extent of ignorance
of the country was illustrated by the fact that he went on to say that
the Sinhalese "derive their origin from Siam."

There was a Kingdom of Jaffna from the 13th century to the early part
of the 17th century. But except during the brief heyday of its power,
it seldom controlled any thing more than the Jaffna peninsula. The
first detailed map of Jaffna Kingdom by Baldaeus in 1672 AD shows it
being confined to the Jaffna Peninsula and Mannar Peninsula. And there
are indications from Portuguese sources that although Jaffna may have
been ruled by a Tamil king, a significant portion of its population
was Sinhalese. (This of course is paralleled by areas of the South
been settled by fresh migrants from South India). Before the colonial
powers, the entire East was ruled by the King of Kandy. The British
when it started rehabilitating the tank country in the 19th century
tried to bring in Tamil settlers but to no avail.

These and other objective facts show that the traditional homelands of
the N&E is historically untenable. The respected Indian journal
Economic and Political Weekly called it an "elaborate hoax". The
inevitable conclusion must be that Sri Lanka; in spite of the
Sinhalese being in a majority did not have tightly demarcated ethnic
enclaves. There were often ethnic admixtures as well as over time,
Tamil speakers becoming Sinhala by learning the language and vice
versa. The central message is that we were and are a mixed community.

The only mono ethnic entity is of very recent origin and is in the
Jaffna peninsula after the LTTE either killed off or drove away the
Muslims and Sinhalese who lived among Tamils. At the last stage of
this ethnic cleansing non-Tamils were given just 24 hours to leave the
area. This deliberate ethnic cleansing is to be differentiated from
the anti-Tamil riots in the South which, dastardly as they were, was
not done as a formal policy to drive away Tamils and create mono
ethnic wastelands.

This leads us to "Indian solutions" to India's ethnic problems. How
India herself reacted to violent attempts at secession like that in
Sri Lanka is instructive, the nearest parallel being to the once
Punjabi insurrection for independence. India reacted most violently
with mass killings of suspected separatists till this revolt was laid
to rest. But how about Indian states, in the Indian federation?

Again a few forgotten facts require mention. India at the time of
Independence was not just British territory, there were also
independent kingdoms ruled by Maharajahs and Nawabs. These were all
initially amalgamated into independent India. Later there was
redrawing of internal boundaries based on linguistic states-although
there was considerable debate whether there should be states based on
language. A striking feature of these linguistic states is that they
are not mono linguistic. Many have other language speakers within
them. In fact, minority language speakers in such a linguistic state
can be surprisingly very high. Significantly many of these states have
a larger proportion of minority speakers than the proportion of Tamil
speaking persons within Sri Lanka.

Professor G.H.Peiris has pointed out such plain statistics. Thus in
the North West of India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir 47.8
percent of the population are minority language speakers while the
North East state of Assam has 39% minority language speakers. Of the
South Indian states, Karnataka has a 34.1% minority that do not speak
as their mother tongue the majority Kannada language, Tamil Nadu has
16.1% of non-Tamil speakers, Andra Pradesh has 14.7% who do not speak
Telugu the regional and official language. The average of minority
language speakers for all linguistic states in India is 17.1%.

It should be noted that Sri Lanka has an area roughly comparable in
size to the average Indian state. What this means is that if Sri Lanka
was a part of India, it would probably be a state and the proportion
of Tamil speakers would be no different from the proportion of
minority language speakers in the average Indian state. There is
however one difference in today's Sri Lanka. Whereas in Indian states
only the principle language is considered the official regional
language (apart from Hindi and English) in Sri Lanka, the minority
language namely Tamil whose proportion of speakers is equivalent to
that in the average Indian state, is given recognition as an equal
official language on par with Sinhalese. So Tamil speakers, at least
at the formal, official level have more rights than they would in an
Indian state. But of course practice would be different from legal

Ground facts today

The issue of federalism to the North and East has been drastically
changed by the recent Supreme Court judgment which separated the
Northern and Eastern Provinces which had been joined together through
the sub imperial machinations of India. But what of federalism for the
ethnically cleansed Northern region and ruled by Sri Lanka's version
of Hitler? It is interesting to examine another dimension, namely the
actual population statistics to see how unfair the federal demand is.

The LTTE has not allowed a census in these areas for the very obvious
reason that it will reveal that the population has voted with their
feet by walking away from areas of LTTE influence. From visitors to
the Northern Province, we know intuitively that the population has
diminished. We also know of the rapid growth of the Tamil population
in areas like Wellawatte and other parts of the Colombo district. We
also know of mass Tamil migration as refugees (on real or phony
grounds). The question to be raised is how much exactly the Sri Lankan
Tamil population is.

The CIA fact book (which is a reliable source) describes Sri Lanka's
population as follows: Sinhalese 73.8%, Sri Lankan Moors 7.2%, Indian
Tamil 4.6%, Sri Lankan Tamil 3.9%, other 0.5%, and "unspecified" 10%
(based on the 2001 census provisional data). Here it appears that the
Sri Lanka Tamil population some of whose leaders are the ones
demanding separatism or federalism is today only 3.9% of the
population but the unspecified 10% hides some significant facts as the
LTTE did not allow a census. No census has been allowed by the LTTE
due to large out-migration of Tamils to the Western Province and
foreign countries. This incidentally has forced the LTTE into
increased child recruitment.

To get at the true figures for the actual Sri Lankan Tamils living in
Sri Lanka one has to get an estimate of Sri Lankan Tamil out-migration
from Sri Lanka. Pro-Tiger websites give some interesting statistics.
The Sri Lankan Tamil population around the world is found in the
websites and in These sites give us a
figure of the total of Sri Lankan Tamils living outside Sri Lanka as
697,000, which is a very significant proportion of the original Jaffna
Tamil population. Figures in LTTE web sites have however to be treated
with caution.

But there are other indirect sources. For example, the Mackenzie
Institute of Canada mentions that "Toronto has become the World's
largest Sri Lankan Tamil city, with as many as 200,000 here, and
another 50,000 or so in other cities. Estimates on how many are here
[in Canada] vary, and are at odds with census data — suggesting much
illegal immigration". Under such calculations, Colombo becomes the
second largest Sri Lankan Tamil city, with Jaffna trailing behind to a
third position. Many of these migrants have gone as economic refugees
and almost all of them (for example with their children being educated
into the culture of those countries and not to Sri Lankan Tamil
culture) will not return to Sri Lanka. What this means is that
federalism or separatism is being sought for a very small percentage
of the present and future Sri Lankan population.

Federalism proponents

If seen in objective terms federalism has no place in Sri Lanka, the
question we have to pose is how has it come to occupy such a visible
part of the national debate. If one takes national political parties,
the present UNP advocates it, as do the Old Left in the form of the
LSSP and the CP. The present government under the label "Mahinda
Chintanaya" does not support it, as do not the JVP and MEP. Of the
ethnic parties, the TNA being a proxy of the LTTE is undecided and
seems to swing from separatism to federalism. (One should note here
that the TNA was not properly elected but is there in Parliament
because of LTTE guns barring other politicians). The other ethnic
Tamil parties are for varieties of federalism while the Sinhalese
ethnic JHU is for a unitary state. The SLMC has apparently not made up
its mind.

The UNP leadership under Ranil Wickremasinghe is today not of the same
calibre as under his predecessors like J.R.Jayawardene and Premadasa,
who whatever their other shortcomings had strong leadership qualities.
The present UNP leader not only seems to relish in losing a string of
elections but also enjoy functioning as a puppet of the self-styled
international community especially the Norwegians. In its heyday the
UNP scorned federalism. When it had a 5/6th majority and could change
the constitution, as it indeed did many times, it shied away from

But the concept of the unitary state in the constitution was enshrined
by another set of now depleted politicians, namely the LSSP and the
CP. They were the main champions of the 1972 Constitution which
enshrined the unitary concept. In fact it was a leader of the LSSP, Dr
Colvin R. de Silva who steered that constitution through Parliament.
Today these two parties are a rump of their former glory. They have no
electoral power and more damagingly, take a diametrically opposite
stand to the unitary position they had taken when their better leaders
were in power.

A disgrace to their anti-colonial predecessors they, for example
Vitharana of the LSSP evokes the re-colonising slogan of "support from
the international community" as support for this dead left's present
support of federalism. This re-colonising project also occurs within
the CP. Its leader D.E.W.Gunasekera has accepted the colonial NGO the
Berghof Foundation as a partner in his own Ministry. Berghof wants to
demilitarise the Sri Lankan armed forces the opposite cry of the
former CP and LSSP demanding removal of any foreign military presence
from Sri Lanka. Any self-respecting former leader of the CP or of the
LSSP who fought against colonialism would be shuddering at this turn
of having a set of suddas with their own agendas guiding our political
future. And as the CP and the LSSP wants to deal with the Hitler like
racist LTTE, these past leaders would be further repulsed as the
present leadership does not seem to find anything wrong with
negotiating with LTTE demands based on racism, ethnic cleansing, and
raw fascism.

These former leaders of the CP and the LSSP would also shudder at how
foreign funded NGOs with definite political agendas on Sri Lanka have
infiltrated Sri Lanka (in India they are being increasingly labeled
FGOs -Foreign Government Organizations). In no other time in our Post
Independence existence are our very modes of thinking being subject to
foreign funded propaganda efforts. One has only to read some of the
stated objectives of organizations like the National Peace Council,
International Alert and the Berghof Foundation to realise that they
have formally laid out plans to brainwash the influential in the
country from the topmost positions in Sri Lanka downwards. We have had
our thoughts franchised out to these extensions of foreign powers and
the present CP and LSSP are in total cahoots with them.

But in spite of these machinations and conspiracies against democracy,
the LTTE seems to be under considerable threat both from within and
outside. And changing the constitution from unitary to federalism
requires a two thirds majority in Parliament and a referendum. The
LTTE has realized that this is not feasible - clearly evident through
some of their pronouncements. The OPA on the other hand through a
study done nearly a decade ago found that Provincial Councils, let
alone federalism were a waste and a failure.

Anybody going to the North and East will see that it has lagged behind
the rest of the country. The reason is not because of deliberate
discrimination but simply because the LTTE led war has prevented
delivery of services and investment through the normal organs that
operate in the rest of the country. It was with tears in my eyes that
I recently saw the rusting hulk of what was the cement factory in KKS
where I had first worked. Once normalcy prevails as in Tamil
predominant Wellawatte, one would see rapid development. Rapid
development is required in the war-torn areas.

Once normalcy is restored, in fact huge new investments in the spirit
of positive discrimination must be made in the North and East
reminiscent of say the Mahaveli development. But normalcy to be
restored requires removal of the fascist one-man rule of Prabhakaran.
And the only means of doing this is not feeding his Hitlerite dreams
but by defeating him using all means possible including of course
through the military option, which given the present LTTE weakness
should be much easier than earlier. Our main task should be to free
the Tamil people from this monster so that they could breathe freely
and prosper within Sri Lanka.

Susantha Goonatilake: A leading Sri Lankan scholar who has authored
among other publications Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri
Lanka (2006 Sage); Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Civilizational
Misadventure (Indiana University Press, 2001); Toward a Global
Science: Mining Civilizational Knowledge (Indiana University Press
1999, Sage India 2000)

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