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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1588

Devolution for political expedience will exacerbate the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The visiting Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has raised the issue of devolution as a political solution to the ethnic conflict with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. If this suggestion came from a credible honest broker, it would have had to be taken with due care and seriousness.

India unfortunately cannot be regarded as an honest broker having helped to create the conflict by nurturing and training LTTE cadres decades ago, and finally by foisting a merged North East province on Sri Lanka without any public consultation or approval.

India may have provided some help during the armed conflict with the LTTE, but ordinary citizens do not know what that help was. Some say they provided satellite imagery to track down LTTE ships so that the Sri Lankan Navy could intercept them and destroy them before they could land in the country and re supply the LTTE. It is however on record that they did not provide any military equipment and ammunition to Sri Lanka even at the height of the armed conflict.

On the other hand, the assistance that Pakistan and China gave Sri Lanka is well known, and in fact had not been for these two countries, it could well have been possible for Prabakaran and the LTTE to have had their Eelam, and possibly extended that to areas beyond the North and the East by now.

India may argue that they are now giving aid as well as soft loans to Sri Lanka on a massive scale to support the reconstruction of the North, and to a lesser extent, the East. This is true. However, it is also true that they are doing this to counter the growing Chinese influence in the country. Sri Lanka has become a hot bed of regional geopolitics.

We are constantly reminded that we should be cognizant of India’s domestic politics and the Congress government’s need to keep the Tamil lobby in Tamil Nadu happy, if they are to remain in power at the Centre. Hence the regular incursions in to Sri Lankan domestic matters and specifically, the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka. What is in India’s interest understandable. But, what about Sri Lanka’s own interests? Should Sri Lanka continue to be a pawn in Indian internal politics?

Pushing for devolution is an easy way out to keep the Tamil Nadu political lobby happy for a while. Neither the Indian central government nor the Tamil Nadu State government needs to understand current realities in Sri Lanka while they push for devolution, asymmetrical devolution at that, as the panacea for all ills between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Changing their stance would remove a vote winning slogan from political campaigns in Tamil Nadu.

To add to Indian interference, we now have the Tamil Political Parties Forum (TPPF) of Sri Lanka arguing for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as a start they say, to a fuller resolution of the conflict. They have also expressed their objection to the governments move to establish Armed Forces enclaves in various parts of the North and the East for Forces personnel and their families. The argument put forward is that such a move will result in changes to the demographics of the North and East.

What demographics? The demographics in the entire country have changed, and today, Sri Lanka is much more integrated than what it has even been. Have they forgotten the change in demographics in the Colombo district where the Sinhalese are a minority today, with Tamils and Muslims forming the majority? Have they heard any complaints from the Sinhalese about this? Have the Sinhala people complained about the growing numbers and influence of the Muslim lobby in Sri Lanka or that of Tamils in the plantation sector? While Sinhala people through their representatives have moved towards political integration, the same practice has not been followed by the Tamil politicians. In fact they have been doing the reverse.

The TPPF has mentioned Tamils living in a United Sri Lanka, carefully avoiding the word Unitary Sri Lanka. This subtlety demonstrates more than amply that the Tamil quest for a separate ethnicity based region to be governed by them is quite alive and kicking, and such a behind the scenes campaign even has the backing of none other than Douglas Devananda, a cabinet minister in the Sri Lankan government, and it also has the backing of the Government of India.

No doubt the government is not blind to these emerging developments, at least they should not be. The statements of the External Affairs Minister Mr S M Krishna, and on the heels of his visit, the communiqué issued by the TPPF after a meeting with President Rajapaksa are not mere coincidences, and surely, the government has to be aware of this.

These signs are ominous, and very disappointing. One would have thought at least this Tamil group, as opposed to the TNA, would have articulated a more unitary approach, and taken the stand that a solution should be found through national integration of all communities, and not through segregationist policies of the past which the TNA still adheres to. One gets the feeling that the same old Tamil song is being sung now by a different set of players and that nothing has changed to the lyrics.

It is time that the government seized the agenda from these politicians of yesteryear, and younger one’s who are thinking like those from yesteryear. Tamil people should be freed from the hold that these self serving politicians have on them, and they must be prevented being hoodwinked again by these people. The only way to do it is to introduce some political reforms that will give the ordinary Tamil citizen confidence that they belong to the present and the future, and not the past, and that they can and must live in a Unitary Sri Lanka.

The government must act and act now without prevarication. Steps should be taken to provide a greater degree of inclusiveness for all communities at national level governance. A second chamber to provide such inclusiveness is one way of sharing genuine power. National integration can only occur if there is a feeling amongst all communities that they have an equal stake in the countries affairs. At the moment, whatever has been said, or unsaid, by the government, the feeling amongst many Tamils is that they are yet to see any kind of political reforms that government has been mentioning from time to time.

The much talked about All Party Conference report appears to have been filed away although some hope was held out to the Tamil people that its recommendations will be given careful consideration. The President has also mentioned at different points in time that he will introduce a home grown political solution to address the conflict. These have all resulted in the build of some hope among Tamil people that political changes are in the offing. This has not happened as yet.

On the eve of the Indian External Affairs Ministers visit, the President mentioned that he has a solution up his sleeve, and went on to say everyone may or may not like what he has as a solution. Some allege that the President mentions a political solution either when he is in New Delhi or when power brokers from New Delhi come to Colombo, and that nothing happens in between.

The only way for the President to refute such allegations is to show his hand and inform the public what he has in mind as a political solution. That may not satisfy everybody, but at least it will lay all the cards on the table, and the country and India would know what is possible, and when it would be done.

The President is unlikely to agree to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. He may agree to aspects of it besides what has been implemented so far. He could agree to some central political reforms as mentioned earlier, and he could also extend devolution to all provinces, not just the North and the East, in a staged manner as long as such devolution is considered evolutionary steps in political governance, and not politically expedient measures to satisfy the Indians or the separatist Tamil lobby.

In the absence of the government’s specific stand on a political solution, opportunists amongst Tamil politicians have begun to raise their stakes again, as they did in the past. They have well oiled machinery to support them overseas and quite a few Western governments sympathetic to their cause supporting them as well. If this situation is allowed to go unchallenged, and the government does not heed the prior warnings of a revival of the separatist agenda of the Tamil lobby within Sri Lanka, the country could be headed towards another conflict, even another armed one.

It is time the government acted and nipped this agenda in the bud by upstaging the Tamil lobby and being far sighted in making necessary political changes at the centre and in the provinces.

- Asian Tribune -

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