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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2733

‘Mahinda Chinthana’, Maximum Devolution & Mannar

By Dayan Jayatilleka

I was too little to witness the 1958 riots, but was barely in my teens when the 1971 insurrection took place, and was therefore able to register the atrocities. For the past 35 years, most of which I spent in Sri Lanka, I have, like the rest of our citizens, absorbed many horrors, committed by all sides in our several civil wars. However, in those 35 years, never have I seen such evidence of unmitigated evil as I did in the photographs of the Mannar massacre, with its hanging, disemboweled children.

I do not know who did it, but I know enough about my country to be aware that both sides are capable of this; and capable of it in order to pin the blame on the other. The Sri Lankan state however has an unavoidable duty to swiftly induct international forensic expertise to conduct the investigation. The FBI would be best. There is a precedent: no less a patriot than President Premadasa brought in experts from Scotland Yard to investigate the killing of Lalith Athulathmudali (and Scotland Yard sent in a brilliant young Sinhala woman, a former Visakhian, who was perhaps the inspiration for Michael Ondaatje’s book ‘Anil’s Ghost.)

If the evidence points to the LTTE, then it will be a damning indictment which will shatter forever its credibility among the Tamils. If on the other hand the weight of the evidence is that these savages came from the Sri Lankan armed forces or Tamil auxiliaries, then they must be ruthlessly weeded out and punished, thus protecting the legitimacy of the armed forces and the State as a whole. Those who committed the horrors of Mannar are too demonic to be permitted to walk among us. If such monsters go unpunished, or, worse, unexposed, no one is safe.

After Oslo

As the scheduled talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE collapsed, LTTE strategy became clear with the issuing of a communiqué in Oslo, and the publication of a key speech. The lengthy LTTE communiqué, couched in legal terminology concluded with the declaration that it ‘Reaffirms its policy of finding a solution to the Tamil national question based on the realisation of its right to self-determination.’ (TamilNet, June 10)

The Oslo communiqué confirms the thrust of a recent address by a top Tiger commander, which in turn indicates that the Oslo text can be read as a declaration of intent to launch an all-out war.

Tiger to Leap

Prominent member of the Tiger High command, Sea Tiger chief Soosai, gave a valuable insight into Tiger thinking and plans as he addressed the passing out parade of new recruits for the Tiger militia in Mullaitivu last Sunday.

Soosai declared the intention of Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran to launch in the foreseeable future, a decisive military offensive, which he justified as being pre-emptive in nature. He characterised the coming offensive as taking the form of a Blitzkrieg - the Nazi strategy of sudden, multi-pronged onslaught aimed at rapid victory. “It will be a blitzkrieg, a sudden and swift simultaneous attack to redeem our entire Tamil homeland in the North and East.”

Giving more detail he disclosed that the offensive will be unlike the earlier wars fought by the LTTE, and will be waged on all fronts simultaneously.

“Similarly, in this coming campaign -- the ultimate war -- our Leader intends to launch once and for all, a military campaign in such a way to bring this issue to a final conclusion instead of fighting to redeem land inch by inch…. There will be no more fighting in pieces and in instalments. Our Leader’s plan is to launch a campaign simultaneously in the North and East which should redeem our homeland….Instead of waiting for the enemy to launch the war we would have to take the initiative and take on the enemy. The best course of action is for us to leap forward and confront our enemy who is occupying us at present….By strengthening the Liberation Tigers to attack the enemy before the enemy leaps on us we would be able to achieve victory as quickly as possible. To launch that rapid headlong attack more Tigers are needed. We are moving into the final stage...…“The thirst of the Tigers is the Tamil Eelam homeland”

(The full text of Soosai’s speech was carried in the online Asian Tribune, on Friday June 9th.)

Devolution Project

This time, the striving for devolution takes place in a threefold context: (i) the breakdown of the Oslo talks, (ii) the signalling by the LTTE of an imminent onslaught and (iii) the full glare of the global media, watched by our friends, allies and sources of economic support, all of whom have put us on notice (and it is a ‘red notice’). If we fail, the Tigers succeed – first in their case, then in their cause. In order to succeed, we must have a criterion of success and clarity about the goal we are striving for. How should we define failure? What would constitute success?

Failure is NOT the inability to secure the LTTE’s support for the reforms we design. Not even the heavily militarised, supra-federal ISGA would satisfy the Tigers. If that were really a goal, they would not have prevented Tamils from voting for Ranil Wickremesinghe, who to his eternal discredit, is the only leader on the planet to entertain anything like it as a basis for negotiation.

Failure would be the unwillingness or inability of the Sri Lankan state to generate and legally inscribe an autonomy package for the Tamils that is considered adequate by the international community. It is far easier to satisfy the international community than the Tigers or the TNA: the Co-Chairs have reiterated that the Tigers must accept a solution within a united Sri Lanka, and no one out there is even insisting on an explicit and full federalism. As Richard Boucher pointed out, what is important is not the expression but the substance. Judging from news reports out of Delhi, MK Narayanan, National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister, indicated to our Foreign Minister that India would be satisfied by a close approximation of its model of quasi-federalism. If we do not insist on the term ‘unitary’, there will be no reactive pressure to stamp the reforms ‘federal’. If India is satisfied, so too will be Washington (and the rest).

Why Devolution?

Why, ask the Sinhala chauvinists with indignant bellicosity, does the international community urge devolution for the Tamils and Muslims, and why should we comply? There is surely a conspiracy afoot, they conclude in their ignorance and paranoia. The second part of the question is easily disposed of: because these external actors help us pay the bills, and could hurt us if they disengaged, leaving us isolated to face a Tiger blitzkrieg. The answer to the first part of the query is simple: the world wants the Tigers out of action as a destabilizing terrorist force, and knows that devolution will undermine the Tigers. There is no historical evidence whatsoever of a strong guerrilla army, especially one based on an ethnic or ethno-religious minority, being neutralized or defeated other than by a strategy involving reforms which win the hearts and minds of some part of the guerrillas’ social base; assuage longstanding grievances and neutralize the guerrillas’ appeal; and win over at least the moderates of the aggrieved community. Devolution will create a new intermediate stratum of Tamil stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s unity and socially anchor the Sri Lankan state in the North-east.

Reform splits the struggle and strengthens the moderates; the absence of reform entrenches the extremists. No counter-insurgency has succeeded (or revolution prevented) without timely reform. From their own historical experience the international actors know that the day Sri Lanka institutes authentic autonomy for the Tamils, is the day the Tigers begin to lose.

If we produce a set of reforms perceived as fair by the international community, and the Tigers accept due to international pressure, then we shall be blessed with peace. If as is far likelier, the Tigers reject it, it is they (rather than we) who will expose themselves definitively as fanatics in the eyes of the world. The Tigers’ isolation will be complete, and the international community will support Sri Lanka with major players being more likely to support the reforms with military assistance.

Success then is not to produce a reform package that appeases the Tigers but one which convinces the international system–chiefly the USA and India - of its fairness by the Tamil community.

(Ethnic autonomy, by the way, is not some Western or Indo-US conspiracy or misplaced obsession. Those of us who comprised a BCIS delegation sent to Islamabad in early 2005 by Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, were urged by the brilliant and articulate young State Minister for External Affairs, to consider a federal system as in Pakistan, as a possible solution to Sri Lanka’s prolonged conflict.)

Two Errors to Avoid

Sri Lanka’s efforts at devolution have failed due to three main reasons, listed here not in any hierarchy of efficacy: Sinhala and Tamil chauvinism, and inter (and intra) party rivalry. There is no reason to assume that President Rajapakse’s latest effort will not be subject to the same dynamics. This is why it is vital to have a roadmap which can bypass the political claymore mines along the way. Two main errors of thinking seem to attend the latest APC exercise and if unchecked will cause its failure. The first is that a political settlement of the Tamil issue is contingent upon acceptance by the LTTE. The second is that devolution is not possible within “Mahinda Chinthana”/the unitary framework.

Making the implementation of reforms conditional upon acceptability/acceptance by the Tigers is to ensure that there will be no reforms at all, because the Tigers will not settle for anything short of Tamil Eelam. “The thirst of the Tigers is for Tamil Eelam!” Conferring the Tigers veto power over devolution is not only erroneous, it not necessary even as theatre, since it is not the policy urged on us by the world’s sole superpower. As Richard Boucher expressed it so clearly and correctly in Colombo, the question of [not talking to] the Tigers must not be confused with [talking about] the legitimate grievances, aspirations and demands of the Tamil community.

JVP-UNP line

The UNP is speaking in two voices, representing two tendencies as well as two impulses in the party. One –represented by Karu Jayasuriya- is that of a constructive and responsible relationship with the President and the Govt. The other is that of the pro-Tiger collaborationists and political putschists who wish to wreck the Rajapakse presidency, and in the shortest possible time.

The JVP and UNP argue that devolution is impossible within ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ due to its commitment to the unitary state. This is hypocritical and ignorant on the part of both parties. Hypocritical, because the JVP killed thousands who supported devolution under a unitary system (the provincial councils) on the grounds that it was authentic enough to be synonymous with separation! For its part the UNP sought to devolve power precisely within the unitary framework from 1980-7, actually did so in 1987-88 and strove to do more under President Premadasa. (Premadasa was committed to implementing the proposals of the parliamentary select committee chaired by Mangala Moonesinghe, and would have done so had he not been assassinated).

From the hypocritical to the ignorant: the JVP and UNP argument (first articulated, in Geneva, by Anton Balasingham!) that devolution is impossible within “Mahinda Chinthana” smacks of ignorance because any search engine would throw up a list of countries ranging from Britain to China which have a non-federal or unitary form of government with substantive degrees of autonomy for regions. China has an Ethnic Regional Autonomy Law –making nonsense of the JVP’s argument that devolution “on an ethnic basis” is reactionary and divisive to the point of facilitating separation!

Of course the JVP may say that devolution is no longer possible within the unitary state as it exists in Sri Lanka after the 13th amendment. This view, that the 13th amendment utterly exhausts the possibilities of devolution within the Sri Lankan constitution, is shared by the JVP, TNA and Ranil’s UNP. However, Emeritus Professor Lakshman Marasinghe for one disagrees (most recently in a lecture reproduced in the Daily News).

Moderate Infusion

Whether or not the JVP–UNP interpretation is correct is a decision for the courts. In the meanwhile the least risky choice for the APC would be to design a devolution package within the unitary state. This ‘revisionist’ or ‘reformist’ approach, based on the revision or structural reform rather than replacement of the present constitution, is neither dependent upon the support of the UNP as a party, nor a majority at a referendum. Therefore it is safer, less vulnerable.

This brings us to the contentious issue of UNP crossovers. The LTTE will always feel threatened by the prospect of consensus between the two major parties and Mr. Wickremesinghe’s political conduct will be governed perennially by that consideration. If President Rajapakse counts on UNP support and is taken for a ride, as President Kumaratunga was in 2000 over the draft constitution, he would have only alienated his support base while weakening his image. On the other hand the induction of UNPers would strengthen the president and augment his ability to speedily devolve power within the unitary state. If he wins over UNP MPs he would give the ruling SLFP a much needed infusion of modernist moderates.

This would improve the Govt’s profile in the eyes of the international community and the national minorities, broaden its social and electoral base, enhance its managerial competence and appeal to the private sector. Above all, it would reinforce the centrist position in the Sri Lankan political system – which is why the JVP is so utterly opposed to it.

Affordability, not Desirability

Hitherto the discussion - lethally violent in the 80s - about devolution was all about desirability: is it good or bad? That discussion has been superseded in relevance. The most critical concern is no longer desirability but affordability.

Last week, the JVP led PNM initiated a campaign, itself a platform for a portentous JVP-JHU ‘action bloc’, for the de-merger of the North and East, a disastrous move in that it would (i) unilaterally bury any residue of the Indo-Lanka accord and (ii) has no Tamil takers - not even the most moderate. (None of the political elements supporting the PNM campaign are from a Tamil party; not even the EPDP). This would strengthen the anti-Sri Lanka lobby in Tamil Nadu, weaken our friends in New Delhi and greatly reduce our chances of securing India’s support in the event of full-scale aggression by Prabhakaran. The absence of support from India would mean tardy support from the USA and elsewhere.

Richard Boucher’s remarks on the need for the Tamil community of the North and East to have greater control over their destiny in those areas which they have traditionally inhabited, is nothing other than a repetition almost two decades on, of the Preamble of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, with its phrase “the areas of historic habitation”.

The prize is an autonomous region for the Tamils of the North and East “within a single nation of Sri Lanka” as Boucher put it in his speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Colombo (“within a united Sri Lanka” was the near-identical phrasing of the Co-Chairs statement). Whoever gets there wins, and whoever gets there first wins bigger. If both sides agree then we all win and Sri Lanka gets the international support needed to fulfil its potential for peace and prosperity. If the Tigers climb down from a separate state to the acceptance of federalism or regional autonomy, and we do not, they win global support and we are isolated. If we move up from the status quo to genuine regional autonomy, we win that support and the Tigers are isolated. The increased international support we secure through devolution will either translate itself into such intense pressure on the Tigers as to forestall war, or will enable us to win the war.

Now that the US, the EU, Japan and India are of one view, the military balance between LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces is what it is, and we are economically and militarily dependent on the rest of the world, can we afford not to devolve, or to delay and dither? The inescapable reality is that the Sri Lankan state suffers from two major disadvantages: an almost totally Sinhala military has to fight in a largely Tamil area, the North-east, while its own rear, the South, is permeable to Tiger infiltration and attack (e.g. Katunayaka 2001, Welisara 2004).

These deficits and disadvantages can only be offset, albeit partially, by a magnet that draws Tamil support away from the Tigers and the support of major powers towards us. That magnet is adequate devolution.

Unpalatable as the choice may be to some, either we recognise an autonomous Tamil region within the boundaries of Sri Lanka or the world community will unplug, Sri Lanka will find itself isolated, and a Tamil homeland will establish itself by shrinking those boundaries. The choice is ours. Now that’s our ‘right of self determination’! Let’s hope we exercise it wisely.

- Asian Tribune -

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