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Wednesday, 19 September 2018
Wednesday, 19 September 2018 | Sri Lanka Watch
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The devolution debate PDF Print E-mail
Sri Lanka is a plural society in which there are diverse communities of people. They see themselves as Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, low country and Kandyan, and of various class and caste groups. Sociologists have documented the pluralism in Sri Lankan society from the earliest times when writings were inscribed on stone carvings and its much later acknowledgement during the British colonial period when more than a dozen communities were described as inhabiting Colombo.  However, in today’s context, the main line of division is ethnic, with political parties being set up to advance ethnic agendas. 
The diversity in Sri Lanka varies from province to province and locality to locality.  The people who live in areas that have been traditionally multi-ethnic have developed coping mechanisms that are in advance of those to which ethnic diversity is less common.  An area of old ethnic diversity and plural settlement is Puttalam in the North West Province, where I spent the last weekend as a participant in a seminar on pluralism   Puttalam has also come to bear some of the impact of the thirty year ethnic war that ended in the LTTE’s final defeat.  It is now home to tens of thousands of Muslim people who were expelled from the North by the LTTE in 1990.  There are tensions between the traditional inhabitants and the newer settlers, who intended to be temporary settlers but have now resided in Puttalam for close to two decades.
One of the observations made at the seminar was that the traditional inhabitants of the Puttalam district have purposefully made accommodations to enable multi ethnic coexistence to take place.  The main mosque in Puttalam town was constructed over seven decades ago in a much more peaceful and optimistic time.  Therefore a deliberate decision was taken to make the construction of the mosque an inter religious and inter ethnic effort.  The architect who designed the mosque was of Sinhalese ethnicity, while the engineer who did the wiring was Tamil.  Although there have bee instances of inter-ethnic tensions, these have so far not gone out of hand.  In 1976 there were Muslim-Sinhalese clashes in Puttalam town but these were an exception.
Throughout the seminar in Puttalam, the spirit of coexistence manifested itself in the interaction and contribution of the participants.  The participants included central government officials now working in the districts, local government officials from the Puttalam area, leaders of community based organizations, Buddhist monks and other religious clergy.  This micro level meeting of less than forty persons, and its non-violent and rational discourse, belied the ferocity of the national debate on issues of multi ethnicity and power sharing.  The religious clergy represented their communities and their willingness to interact and demonstrate empathy for pluralism reflected the ethos of their religions and their communities.  Unfortunately, they too often get bracketed as being in the nationalist category due to the debate that is currently monopolized by those espousing nationalist views on the political stage and national media.
At the present time the national debate on the future directions of society in Sri Lanka is being dictated to by the nationalist groups.  They are dominant, but are not necessarily a majority in either the government or in the electorate at large. The co-optation of Tamil and Muslim political parties into the ruling alliance and the manner in which they have been compelled to contest together in the forthcoming Northern elections is an indication of the present governmental desire and design for unity within a single alliance.  The vision appears to be one of ethnic minority participation within a centralized system of power, rather than of independent decision making powers within a devolved system of power.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been regularly stating that a political solution is necessary to resolve the ethnic conflict. At the same time, however, there are other members of the government who are adamant that a political solution has become irrelevant in the aftermath of the defeat of the LTTE.  With the restoration of central rule over the entire country, this section of the polity sees no need for a political solution. They have even argued that to call for a political solution is to denigrate the sacrifices made by the Sri Lankan military to defeat the LTTE at such a high cost.  The failure of previous attempts to arrive at a political solution have convinced them that the only way to deal with the problem is to have a military solution, and  to ensure that there is continued military dominance so that another insurrection does not happen.
The problem of peace talks in the past, which sought to obtain a political solution to the ethnic conflict, was that the LTTE claimed the mantle of sole representative of the Tamil people, and successive governments acquiesced to that undemocratic demand.  In the context of the LTTE’s total military defeat, there is obviously no further need to negotiate a political solution with the LTTE.  But the dissenting view that held that the LTTE was not the sole representative of the Tamil people, has now moved to the centre stage. Those civic groups and political parties that insisted that the Tamil people continue to have political grievances that are specific to the ethnic minorities , continue to make the point that the roots of the ethnic conflict needs to be dealt with in a democratic and peaceful manner, through negotiations with them. 
The LTTE was a rigid group led by an inflexible leader who did not conform to the requirements of a political solution, which requires acceptance and accommodation by all sides.  The LTTE’s rigidity and inflexibility ultimately paved the way to their failure and doom.  A stable and negotiated solution is necessarily one that ensures all sides that they have been fairly treated and that they are joint participants in the outcome.  The purpose of devolution of power is to ensure that one section of the population does not feel that is being unfairly dominated or being imposed upon by another section of the population or their political leaders.
In view of the dominant nationalist sentiment that is being articulated today, the government will face a problem in responding to this Tamil demand, and also to the international pressures on it.  This is especially in regard to enhancing the devolution of power to satisfy ethnic minority sentiment that could pave the way to a political solution.  Some of the proposals being forward are to increase the quantum of powers available under the present Provincial Council system, and to establish a Second Chamber of Parliament with representation from the provinces and with veto power over parliamentary legislation.  The current nationalist dominance of the Sri Lankan polity, coupled with the nearness of decisive national elections, not least the General Elections, would reduce the likelihood of any substantial movement forward that is intended for the ethnic minorities.
On the other hand, so long as people see the devolution of power as being to empower their own provincial council rather than to resolve the ethnic conflict, it is unlikely that they will oppose such a strengthening.  At the seminar in Puttalam, the participants complained about outsiders running their affairs, rather than people of the area running their own affairs.  They called for additional powers and financial resources to be made available to the people of Puttalam and their elected officials.  In other words, people who might be swayed by nationalist fears of the devolution of power as a solution to the ethnic conflict might be supportive of devolution of power to strengthen their own provincial council. This may be a way forward for the government in an election period.

By Jehan Perera 
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