Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Stark Choices for Sri Lanka

by V Gunaratnam

Let us resolve to be masters, not victims, of our history, controlling our own destiny without giving way to blind suspicions and emotions. – John F Kennedy

So much is turning on two words, Unitary and Federal, as the debate rages on about their constitutional implications for Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese seem so closely wedded to the unitary state concept that they have lost sight of the very thing they are trying to prevent, the breakup of the country. Obviously, we are perplexed.

The Sinhalese and their leaders not only continue to suffer from debilitating constitutional blues, unable to think outside their ‘unitary state’ box, but they also keep stepping in and out of the peace talks with complete disdain, as they have done for four years, with no discernible impact.

Now President Rajapakse is trying his hand. But his own position on the question does not inspire much confidence either, after his reaffirmation of the unitary state, and his rejection of a Tamil homeland.

But if we accept the truism that in politics everything is possible, we have to go with him for the present, because the LTTE is still in the picture. Rajapakes is, however, on a short leash, with the challenge to come up with a decision by the 2006 deadline. And, by a strange twist of fate, it is he and the Sinhalese who’ll be making that decision for us about which way to go!      

Clearly it needs a paradigm shift in thinking by them to recognize that coexistence with power-sharing is the best security against the breakup of the country. The peace process also won’t go anywhere unless they accept this in principle, and align the needed political will behind the concept before it dies for lack of ‘federal oxygen.’ Perhaps if they stop thinking in terms of Tamils or Sinhalese, and start considering what is best for the country for a change, they might find a way out of their dilemma.  

Power-sharing is a natural development from the unitary state concept, as a response to secessionist threats. Nothing short of it would be acceptable to the Tamils, after having suffered twenty years of a cruel war, and five decades of pervasive discrimination against them in language,culture, religion, education, jobs, and so on.

Whatever label might eventually be given to the power-sharing arrangement, it would mean sovereignty being constitutionally split with the centre, giving Tamils autonomy over their homeland, to act with final authority, independent of the centre, in areas determined by the accord. Political obligations would then be to two authorities, but the country would remain as one.

But what we have now is the exercise turned on its head, with Sinhalese fear psychosis stoked to the point where they believe that sharing power would be tantamount to the LTTE being given license to secede. This irrationality raises an important question.

Is it better for Sri Lanka to peacefully agree to power-sharing, preserve the union as one country, have the accord and de-escalation secured under international guarantees and supervision, or refuse to share power and force the Tamils to secede (by a mere declaration), land them (Sri Lanka) in no-man’s land, with the risk of going to war in the face of expected international recognition of the legitimacy of the separation in the face of their intrangency?

The answer is very clear. It is what is favoured by the international community, led by India, the US, the EU, and others in broad terms: sharing power within a federal framework. When these countries that stood by Sri Lanka all these years, and having witnessed their repeated failed attempts at a resolution, are now proposing a solution of their own, we cannot see how Sri Lanka can convincingly reject their collective wisdom.

Sri Lanka must also know by now that their political stance has become untenable, and that their strategy for a solution has run its course. If they are still dreaming of a military solution, it is too late for that now after twenty years of war and, in any event, the international community is not going to stand by and let this madness turn the country into a humanitarian disaster. But having exhausted their own resources, they must now work with the international community to reach an accord with the Tamils.

The sooner ‘others’ in Sri Lanka also get their heads out of the sand, get to understand and accept this solution, and stop trying to force the island into a ‘unitary’ jacket, and undermining the peace process, the sooner a resolution of the national crisis will be reached.

The federal order has proven itself in many other countries as offering viable solutions to accommodating peoples divided by ethnic differences, yet seeking a common political order. Sovereignty split between the Tamil homeland and the rest of Sri Lanka, and authority entrenched in a constitution which neither can revoke or alter unilaterally, is the best protection to prevent undue action contrary to our will, and domination by the majority, and for Sri Lanka to preserve the country as one.

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