United Sri Lanka and Unitary Sri Lanka

by N Sathiya Moorthy

(September 29, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Grant it to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to do it – 'outsmarting' the adversary as he alone has done in contemporary Sri Lankan history. On the political front, yes, he has made Ranil Wickremesinghe and his own former President and one-time party chief Chandrika Kumaratunga bite dust time and again. More importantly on the ethnic issue, war and violence, LTTE leader Prabhakaran has finally found his match in President Rajapaksa.

It is not only on the war front that the Sri Lankan Government is on the victory-run. Even on PR and psy-wars, the Government has come a close second against the legendary capabilities of the LTTE propaganda machinery. Though not very long ago the President claimed that his Government was no match to the LTTE in such matters, facts prove otherwise.

The reference of course is to the way he turned the tables on the LTTE and the international community at the UN General Assembly. Before his New York visit, the international community was satisfied with charging the Sri Lankan Government with dereliction of duty in relation to the 200,000-plus internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in the war-ridden, Tamil-majority Northern Province. Today, the world acknowledges that the LTTE too should take the blame for holding the IDPs hostage, if not using them as 'human shields' against the Sri Lankan Army's massive strikes.

President Rajapaksa began his UN speech with a few lines in Tamil. It was 'stunt' in the eyes of the minority Tamils back home. But there were those outside the country who saw this as a 'symbolism'. Flowing from his oft-repeated claims to combining his war on terror with a return of peace and equity to the Tamils, it was a further step in the right direction. Already, the President is on record that he would usher in democracy to the North the same way it was done in the East as and when the SLA concluded the war successfully.

Prior to the UN address, President Rajapaksa commenced his US visit by meeting with the Norwegian facilitators to the failed/aborted Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE. This time round, the international community possibly knew that nothing much transpired by way of reviving the peace initiative. Yet, back home in Sri Lanka, the meeting symbolized the expectations about the possible and early revival of the peace process.

News reports indicate that the President stopped with briefing the Norwegians about the situation on the ground and his Government's perception on the need for and the possibility of reviving the democratic processes and structures in the North, after relatively successful experiment/experience in the East. He did not indicate any inclination to return to the negotiations table immediately, nor did he seek the Norwegians help for reviving the forgotten process.

Yet, the fact that the Government of President Rajapaksa has kept the Norwegians in the loop should be welcome. However, vague indications of the nature and the distant possibility of the revival of the peace process should not delay the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which is up on the anvil already. For, therein lies a dichotomy.

Sri Lankan Government leaders seem to be working on the assumption that the war in the North should come to a satisfactory conclusion before long. At least, no one is talking anymore about a three-year deadline and the like. If that were so, the absence of a political process acceptable to the larger Tamil community could create a vacuum that would soon become hard to fill.

In a way, the return of democracy without a satisfactory power-devolution package, acknowledged by the larger Tamil community, would only accelerate and accentuate the void. The Thirteenth Amendment as a via media for a time would help bridge that void. The larger negotiations/political processes should flow from the Thirteenth Amendment implementation, and not seek to replace it.

Recently at Chennai, India, APRC Chairman Tissa Vitharana, the Science and Technology Minister, reiterated his resolve for finding a political package acceptable to all communities. Of particular and continuing concern to him in this respect was the absence of unanimity on the 'unitary State' and the 'federal State'.

The fact remains that the 'unitary State' was not an original concept enshrined at the birth of post-Independence Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. It started off as a 'united State' but became 'unitary' when the travesty of equity and equality for the minority Tamil community demanded such symbolisms that have not kept Sri Lanka united, however.

More importantly, the Tamils no more insist on replacing the 'unitary State' concept with a 'federal State concept'. They also know that such symbolisms do not matter. What is needed is a genuine change of approach and attitude on the part of the Sri Lankan State and its institutions. They need proof of such change, both on the ground and the latter's incorporation into the State system and schemes.

Maybe, even as the APRC is continuing with the good work, President Rajapaksa may have to look elsewhere for solving this tickling problem – which is all about continuing with the terminology of the 'unitary State' in the Constitution and at the same time devolve adequate powers to the Provinces for the Tamils and all other communities to feel that their demands and aspirations have been met, substantially if not in full measure.

It is in this context, independent India's experiments and experiences involving the judicial processes become increasingly relevant. Through a series of court cases over half a century reflecting the changing dynamics of the socio-political realities in an economically evolving India, the Supreme Court in the country has continually interpreted the laws and the Constitution of the nation in a way that may have rendered legislative interferences and political processes redundant in this otherwise critical aspect of nation-building.

The Indian Constitution, at birth, did not characterize itself either as 'unitary, federal, or confederated, or whatever. Interpretations stamped it as 'quasi unitary' at birth with some wanting to call it 'quasi federal', instead. Over time however, the Judiciary in particular have injected changes into the scheme in slow doses that constitutionalists the world over would rather call the Indian model (?) as 'mostly federal with unitary elements in it'.

For one thing, traditional definitions of the State do not have such a classification, to begin with. The Indian scheme has evolved one and has evolved into one. Nothing stops Sri Lanka from evolving a model of its own, to suit its circumstances if it does not want to remain dogmatic – and has the will and willingness for the same.

If anything, the Indian scheme introduced concepts such as 'democratic socialism' and 'secularism' into the Preamble of the Constitution without going in for wholesale changes that Sri Lanka introduced twice around the same time, in the seventies. The ground situation is vastly different, and neither the Legislature, nor the Judiciary intervened to introduce those changes.

'Democratic Socialism' continues to guide the Indian scheme, but then on the ground, India has adapted 'market capitalism' as the economic philosophy of the New Generation since the Nineties. 'Secularism' has become a hotly-debated topic for the New Generation but no one has related it even once to the Preamble.

In this case, not even the Executive took the initiative, as was the case with the economic reforms. The political processes and the electoral vacuum that it entailed threw up not even 'secularism' but what was claimed to be 'pseudo-secularism' into the discourse. Twenty years down the line, the debate rages on, and continues to guide the much-marketed and equally maligned electoral process in the largest democracy in the world.

In his UN speech, President Rajapaksa indicated a willingness to talk to the moderate Tamils, and to the LTTE, if and when the latter 'decommissioned' its arms. The Sri Lankan Government has consistently not used the term 'surrender of weapons'. What obviously Colombo has in mind is a situation as prevailing in the Eastern Process, where the mainstreamed Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) continue to run a 'democratically-elected government' without surrendering their weapons from the days as LTTE/breakaway LTTE militants.

For the international community to hold President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan State accountable to their commitments, the Tamil community in general and the LTTE in particular need to meet them at the half-way mark. The LTTE in particular cannot pick and choose instances and incidents for appealing to the international community on occasions and blaming it for alleged dereliction of moral duties at other times.

The LTTE, and more so the Tamil community needs to understand that the 'international safety net' is as much theirs on the political front as it is for the Sri Lankan State on the military front. In the past when the Tamils suffered, the international community was not involved – not until the Indian engagement of the Eighties, which the Tamils spurned, purposely and decisively.

Otherwise, if the Tamils and/or LTTE think that President Rajapaksa is not sincere and serious about a negotiated settlement, they should call his bluff. Thus they can prove to the international community how they have been right all along – and how naïve the latter have been all along. That alone could make for another beginning, but then the Tamils and the LTTE would have to convince the international community and themselves, too, that they are not in the wrong, either.

The international community needs to ensure that they do not get carried away by the blame game being played out by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government on the human rights issue – despite the gravity of the situation in the North, particularly pertaining to the IDPs. While retaining their focus on the present, they need to be looking at the future even more.

It is here that statements like those from the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon tend to provide the fodder for the PR battle that the Sri Lankan Government can do with. The last time it happened, mostly over charges of extortion-centric abductions and 'white van disappearances' on the streets of Colombo, for over a year the international community did not look as seriously at the evolving IDP situation in the North – only to regret it now.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.
- Sri Lanka Guardian