Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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History of Intransigence

by J.T. Janani, Tamil Guardian, October 4, 2006

Why has devolution of any form not happened already, almost sixty years since independence and thirty years since Sri Lanka’s war began?

Ulf Henricsson, the outgoing Head of the international Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) said in exasperation recently that the European Union’s decision to ban the LTTE was “more a high-level decision made in the cafes of Brussels” than a considered move based on an understanding of the prevailing situation. The same could be said of the European Parliament’s September 2006 resolution, which makes sweeping assertions about Sri Lanka’s conflict.  

Sri Lanka under the British Paragraph nine of the twenty-six paragraph resolution, for example, says with suitable indignation, that the EU “condemns the intransigence of the LTTE leadership over the years, which has successively rejected so many possible ways forward, including devolution at the provincial level or Provincial Councils; devolution at the regional level or Regional Councils; as well as the concept of a federation with devolution at the national level.”  

Any reasonably informed observer of the history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics would have been struck by the sheer lack of nuance in the statement. Not only for disregarding the widely-recognised complexities that underpin conflicts such as Sri Lanka’s, but for contemptuous brushing aside of the deep rooted grievances that Tamils of successive generations have been attempting to seek redress for.  

My first point is that the EU, whilst making sweeping assumptions about the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, doesn’t answer what, if you take the logic of the resolution at face value, is an obvious omission in it: the government of Sri Lanka could have at any time in the sixty years since independence legislated into existence some devolution of power to the island’s minority communities.  

In other words, the approval of the LTTE is not needed for Sri Lanka to roll out ‘devolution at provincial level or provincial councils or devolution at the regional level or regional councils or federation.’  

Indeed, the Sri Lankan constitution allows amendments to be made to it provided there is the backing of two thirds of the 225 seat Parliament - which the Sinhala majority easily has.  

In other words, the Sinhala people can legislate any devolution, with or without the support of the Tamils or Muslims’ MPs.  

Assuming, as the EU Parliament’s resolution does, that the Sri Lankan state is keen to implement devolution, why has it not done so, either in the Sinhala south and/or in the Tamil north?  

Surely it does not fear that the Tamils will rise up in open revolt if they are offered some part of their fundamental rights? I am not saying they will necessarily settle for what Colombo doles out, but surely no one expects an uprising if devolution is unilaterally rolled out?  

My second point concerns the European Union’s perception of what the Tamils are entitled to politically – and, by extension, what they think of the Tamils.   Whereas all the major international state actors have now conceded that the Tamils have ‘legitimate political aspirations’ to manage their own lives, none of these actors have called for Sri Lanka to begin implementing any measures towards devolving power (though there are occasionally some feeble calls for ‘language rights’ to be respected).  

In June 2006, for example, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher stated pointedly that Tamils “have a legitimate desire to control their own lives, to rule their own destinies, and to govern themselves in their homeland.” His sentiments have since been echoed by other US officials and those of other countries.  

Well and good. But neither the EU or, for that matter, the US have as yet used their considerable leverage over the Sri Lankan state to bring about any political reform and devolution.  

In theory at least, as argued above, there is no reason why such reform needs the buy-in of the LTTE or, for that matter, the Tamils to be implemented. Devolution need not therefore await the outcome of negotiations with the LTTE even.  

But instead of pushing for the institutionalisation of Tamils aspirations (i.e. rights), far too many international actors focus instead on the LTTE’s disarmament as an unstated pre-condition for the Tamils to get their rights.  

Which comes back to the original question: why has devolution - of any form - not happened already, almost sixty years since independence and thirty years since the war began?  

The fact is, the EU assertion that the governments of Sri Lanka have been willing to make genuine offers of powersharing to the Tamils is a patently false one.  

At no point since independence have the Sinhala people made a genuine offer of power sharing to the Tamil people. I say Sinhala ‘people’ deliberately, referring to a broader base than just the ruling political party, to one that truly encompasses other institutions of the Sinhala collective – including the Buddhist clergy.  

From the outset of the war, no Sinhala government has taken up devolution with any seriousness (i.e. to the extent of overcoming Sinhala opposition to push it through).  

Meanwhile, the history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations is punctuated by a series of pacts for power sharing struck between the representatives of the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhala.  

Yet each and all of those pacts have been abrogated after being signed.   And they have been torn up by the Sri Lankan government due to pressure either by the Sinhala opposition or by influential forces such as the Buddhist clergy.  

And many of these double crosses occurred well before Tamil militancy began smouldering in the 70s. These include the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam (‘B-C’) pact of 1956 and the 1965 Dudley-Selvanayagam. Both were unilaterally annulled by the government.  

The Provincial Council concept of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was never implemented properly amid the JVP era bloodletting.  

The LTTE, it should be noted, was not party to that deal – which neatly lumbered India with the unenviable task of disarming the Tigers - anyway.  

In any case, the North-East Provincial Council (encompassing what the Accord calls the ‘historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples’) is likely to be dismantled by the Supreme Court shortly, given that the present government’s ally, the JVP, has filed a case towards this.  

Even in the late nineties, the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, long the darling of the international community, claimed it could not get the 2/3 majority in needed to amend the constitution (though when it came to extending the President’s term, a cosy arrangement between the Supreme Court and her office was quickly reached).  

And so it is again this year. The two main Sinhala parties are talking, but the third, the JVP, is already mobilising against any possible ‘concession’ to the Tamils.   The path behind Sri Lanka’s present crisis is littered with wreckage of broken deals and ignored offers. Even the tsunami failed to shift Sinhala intransigence. The P-TOMS tsunami aid sharing deal, which was much lauded by the EU, no less, was neatly crushed through the Supreme Court by the JVP (whilst the other Sinhala parties simply forgot about it).  

The difficulty for the Tamils is that it is not simply that the Sinhala polity refuses to accept Tamils have a right “to control their own lives, to rule their own destinies, and to govern themselves” (in Richard Boucher’s words).  

Rather, the problem is that the EU and the US, while paying lip service to Tamil rights, pointedly avoid pressuring Sri Lanka into ensuring these are respected and institutionalised. Indeed, paragraph nine of the EU’s September 2006 resolution could have just as easily have insisted the Sri Lankan state do just that.  

Assuming these are rights, rather than concessions, that is.

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