Conflict: Federalism, Tamils and the Referendum Trap

by J. S. Tissainayagam
There are reports that the UPFA government is preparing to hold a non-binding referendum to obtain consent of the people to take forward the process of changing the constitution.  The question/s to be put before the people will decide: (a) their willingness to be governed by a presidency in the future and (b) whether they would accept federalism.

The UNP has disagreed with the move – it is most interested in preserving the presidential form of government and is on record that it opposes the non-binding referendum because it would initiate an illegal process of changing the constitution, which has a clearly laid down procedure of requiring a two-thirds approval in parliament that is then endorsed at a referendum by the people.

How will the referendum affect the Tamils of the NorthEast?  The history of independent Sri Lanka has demonstrated that institutions of the central government – in whatever form – have failed to uphold the rights and liberties of the Tamil people.  Though theoretically the president is elected from an all-island constituency, this has not prevented successive presidents from transforming into an anti-Tamil vanguard no sooner they are elected.  The best example is President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose 62% majority at the 1994 presidential elections was reaped with no mean contribution from the Tamils, but which did not deter her from launching Eelam War III against them.

On the other hand, the Sri Lanka parliament too has been rabidly uncompromising in not only perpetuating, but also spearheading Sinhala hegemony over the other communities.  Crude majoritarianism has been used to decide vital issues of governance. Therefore, both presidency and parliament are institutions of oppression for the Tamils, and need to be extensively modified if they are to be meaningful to them.

Of much more immediacy is Tamil concerns on federalism.  Not only has it been a form of government for which the Tamils have waged a struggle, but also the proposed referendum is expected to use it as the means of hooking the Tamil vote.  Federalism is set to be included in the referendum question to obtain the support of the Tamils, which is exactly why it is so frightening.

Though the Tamils believe that federalism could be an answer to their demands under the right circumstances, one has to know whether the federal model that is eventually implemented will answer those demands.  We have to be clear about one thing: any form of decentralisation has to take into consideration the realities in Sri Lanka’s NorthEast.  The LTTE runs a semi-state with an administration, police and judiciary and, most important, controls an armed fighting force.

Is it conceivable that the south, which includes the Sri Lanka government, that is vehemently opposed to granting Tamils any meaningful concession, so much so that it is even against interim arrangements in the form of the ISGA and is haggling over the joint mechanism for the disbursement of tsunami recovery aid, will agree to something that reflects these NorthEastern realities?

What will be difficult for the LTTE to gainsay, however, is its public commitment to federalism at the Oslo declaration.  The Tigers could say it was only a statement issued by the Norwegian facilitators, but whether it will be convincing enough is the question.  On the other hand, the moment Tamils agree to constitutional change based on the Oslo statement, one could be sure the Sri Lanka government would use it to begin a dialogue, but continue its foot-dragging.

The only salvation for the LTTE and the Tamils on the larger political questions ever since the CFA was signed has been the option of returning to the demand for a separate state in the event the government reneged on its commitments.  This has been despite the Oslo agreement and something the LTTE threatened to do late last year when the controversy over the ISGA reached an unacceptable point.

If there indeed were to be a majority in the Tamil areas for ‘federalism’ at the referendum, the government would use it as a popular mandate not to implement decentralisation, but as a verdict against separation.  That is the trap in the referendum.  In which case, whatever political and military oppression the Sri Lankan government were to unleash in the future, the Tamil demand could not exceed a federal form of government.

Even if this was not to happen, in the past also Tamils have been duped by constituent assemblies.  Before the 1972 constitution was passed the Federal Party walked out of the chamber stating that its wishes were being ignored, but not before its presence had bestowed a legitimacy on the exercise.

Of one thing we can be certain: the international community’s eagerness for such a referendum going through.  So-called global opinion would then use its much-vaunted yardstick of the "people’s verdict" as a stick to beat the LTTE and control the politico-military future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Northeastern Monthly

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Posted April 4, 2005