by P. Sivakumar, October 20, 2017
One of the tragedies of Sri Lanka is that the Sinhalese have never understood the meaning of federalism or they pretend not to understand. Most of them think a federal state means a separate country where the Sinhalese will be sent out. Federalism is not separation and it is the rights of North & East Tamils. Only its denial will force the Tamils to seek separation. Unfortunately, even 8 years after the war ended, the Sinhalese are still not willing to give the Tamils their due rights. The Tamils cannot continue within a unitary state anymore. They need to get back to their original federal state as it was before the British united the island in 1833. The Tamils may have lost the war, but they have not lost their rights to federalism or self-determination.
Even though Tamil grievances/discrimination existed and still exists in Sri Lanka, the National Question or the Tamil Question is NOT primarily about discrimination. The issue is that the question of federalism/maximum devolution or self-determination/autonomy is rooted in the geographic area (North & East) where the Tamils are the majority (very similar to Quebec, Catalonia, Kurdistan, and so on) and it is not defined by the percentage of Tamils who live outside the North & East (due to economic and other reasons).
In almost all countries in the world, a minority with a separate territory is granted a federal state because only in a federal state a minority but a territorial majority can work cohesively with others. The ground reality as the whole world can see is that the Sri Lankan Tamils are still having a clearly defined (Tamil speaking) territory in the North & East of Sri Lanka where they are living as a separate majority with a separate culture. The demarcation between the Tamil and Sinhala territory (separated by the river during the early period) has existed from ancient times. It is supported even by the Dutugemunu story in the Mahavamsa where King Kavantissa tells his son Dutugemunu “The region on this side of the river is enough” and warns him not to invade the land of the Damilas. However much they try, nobody can change the demography of Tamil North & East of Sri Lanka which was Tamil, is Tamil and will be Tamil forever.
Since its inception in 1949, the Tamil party ITAK had been accused of being attempting to divide the country by espousing Federalism. This has led to the growth of an erroneous impression among the Sinhalese that Federalism amounts to Separatism. However, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered a landmark judgment of profound importance that has gone against the grain of this “Federalism is Separatism” fallacy. In a federal system, anybody and everybody can move from one state to another without any restrictions. Take some examples of countries with federal states like the USA, India, tiny Switzerland, etc. If an American citizen wants to go from Texas and settle in New York or an Indian wants to go from New Delhi and settle in Tamil Nadu or, a Swiss wants to go from Zurich and settle in Sion, he/she does not need any visa/passport or change in citizenship. Similarly, in a federal Sri Lanka, if a Sinhalese from Matara wants to settle in the NE or a Tamil from Jaffna wants to settle in the South, he/she does not need any passport or change in citizenship. Nobody is going to chase them out. No Tamils in the South are going to move to the NE and no Sinhalese in the NE are going to move to the South by having a federal system.
A federal Southern province means the people of the South are given freedom to look after their own affairs and a federal Northern Province means the people of the North are allowed to look after our own affairs. It is a system of government in which a written constitution divides power between the central government and provincial/regional governments. It is a process of decentralization where power and wealth are shared. It attempts to protect the regional interests in a country like Sri Lanka where the population is so diverse with different needs and political views. The presence of federal/provincial governments in a united country makes it easy for the state to administer local issues and prevents these regions to be at the total mercy of the central government.
The unitary state in Sri Lanka has brought more misery and suffering to the people of the island than any actual benefit. It has always suffered a constitutional crisis unable to stabilize itself as a democratic polity and has always accompanied the suppression of peaceful life of the Tamil people of this island. Even though Mohd Ali Ginna was a close friend of Gandhi and Nehru, he did not want the Muslims to be ruled by Hindu India and asked for separation (Pakistan) at independence whereas our Tamil leaders foolishly trusted/believed the Sinhalese leaders and accepted the unitary state at independence. The Sinhalese came up with several pacts and promises but finally gave nothing to the Tamils other than breaking their promises, cheating the Tamils, and unleashing violence on their non-violent/peaceful campaigns. The Sinhalese by doing so has totally lost the trust of the SL Tamils. Knowing very well that for the past 69 years the Sinhala leadership cheated the Tamils,even today the TNA is naively trusting the present Yahapalana government believing that they will solve the Tamil Question.
If the Sinhalese continue to deny the rights of Tamils and insist that the whole of Sri Lanka belongs to them and will continue to remain as a unitary state, it will only push the Tamil leaders to seek alternative measures like mobilizing large masses, if not all of the Tamil people, for a Non-violent campaign with Direct Action or even go further by calling for a UN sponsored referendum to be held for the North & East Tamils in Sri Lanka to establish a separate state just like ‘Kosovo’, ‘East Timor’, ‘Montenegro’, ‘South Sudan’ and so on where the Tamil people of Sri Lanka will get their traditional Tamil homeland back. Unlike the armed struggle (militancy-cum-terrorism), the repetition of non-violent campaigns with Direct Action will have full International and UN support and sometimes direct interference. Tamil Diaspora should make sure that the International and UN interference in Sri Lanka continues until the National problem is solved and a proper federal system is set up in the country. The Tamils should NEVER EVER negotiate with the Sinhalese anymore for a solution (self-determination, federalism, etc.) without involving a powerful country like US or the UN as the mediator.