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The national question of Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankans now have new President and another opportunity to focus their hearts and minds on the ethnicity based national question. The issue in hand is the feeling amongst some Tamils that they are not regarded as equal citizens of the country and they have not had merit based opportunities, particularly in education and jobs.

They feel that in order to achieve this equality, considering that all attempts to achieve this politically have failed, the only avenue available for them is the right to self-determination, an inalienable right as a distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural group living in the island of Sri Lanka.

However, the issue for them and for other inhabitants of the island is not whether they have this right or not, but whether exercising that right will deliver them the equality, harmony and the future they seek.

Most Tamil political groupings and those who took the extreme step of using violence to pursue this objective have failed in defining and establishing how they would exercise this right, were they successful in achieving it.

The LTTE and sections of the Tamil Diaspora that were and still are behind the move to carve out a separate State for Tamils, Tamil Eelam, in the North and East of the country are clear in their minds that only a separate State will provide them the avenues to exercise their right of self-determination.

The political representatives of a majority of Tamils in the North and East of the country, led by the TNA, have articulated the position that this right can be achieved through political devolution and minimizing central political control and authority over the North and the East. They talk of a unified country and not a unitary country.

The majority of the rest of the country agrees with political devolution within a unitary State, although they disagree with the extent of devolution and the extent to which central political control may be minimized. They view the political demand of the Tamil political parties led by the TNA as a path towards total independence and the eventual establishment of a separate State.

Besides the position taken by advocates on both sides of the divide, an overwhelming majority of apolitical Sinhala people, and possibly many within the Tamil community as well, see some practical issues that need to be addressed, and even explained to them, as to how regional self-determination could be exercised in practice and how it would advance equality and communal harmony

Firstly, they would like to know the position of Tamils living outside the North and East, now reportedly more in numbers than those living in the North and the East. They are unsure how those outside the North and the East would exercise their right to self-determination. This needs to be explained by the advocates of self-determination.

Secondly, they also would like to know why Tamils in the North and East would have more rights than those outside, should the political demand for self-determination be granted to the North and the East. They have heard the arguments of those advocating this position saying the North and East are the traditional homelands of the Tamils, but they have also heard arguments against that.

Most Sinhala people do not accept the traditional homeland theory as it cannot be backed historically and archeologically, while Tamil advocates claim it can be. Herein lies the insurmountable impasse.

Thirdly, most apolitical Sinhala people ask the question as to why a particular region which they cannot accept as the traditional homeland of Tamils, should be given special rights when Tamils in other areas will not have the same rights. They do not see this as a solution to the conflict.

Lastly, most apolitical Sinhala people consider that there is a constitutional framework in place now to build political and ethnic harmony between the two communities and this framework should be broadened to include more Tamils in central political deliberations and decision making processes. They see this as the recipe for the future welfare of all Sri Lankans.

Political fragmentation
They do not see a future for ethnic harmony or equality through regional political fragmentation but only through central assimilation and integration, and power sharing, and devolution of administrative powers to all provinces within central or national policy settings.

In general discussions amongst such apolitical Sinhala as well as Tamil citizens, there appears to be some consensus that there should be -

a. An Executive President with limited and codified powers to ensure the unitary status of the country. They see this as a key responsibility of the Executive Presidency that has a national mandate.

b. A second chamber drawn from provincial political representative who would review all national parliamentary bills and legislation, and make relevant recommendations to the national parliament. Such an exercise would ensure greater cooperation and consensus building between the national parliament and provincial political representatives.

c.  Joint central/provincial land management structures for all land excluding sea coastal land and land for security purposes. While the principal that land within the island belongs to all people is inalienable, the welfare of people living in various provinces needs to be heeded as successive central governments have embarked on projects from time to time without adequate consultation with regional populations.

d. A discussion on the extent of police powers that could be devolved to provinces, and as a way forward, whether an opportunity exists to create a quasi-provincial Police force dedicated to resolving civil matters and to engage in peace building amongst communities.

e. A mechanism to allow provincial administrations to seek investments locally and from overseas, with the approval of the national Central Bank, for areas of investments jointly agreed between the central government and particular provinces
Most seems to view any ethnic or religion based political parties as being inimical to the future welfare and harmony between communities in the country. They consider that only a greater degree of mainstreaming and participation in central and regional political activity will bring inclusivity and ownership, which in turn will advance a better understanding of each other resulting in a greater degree of harmony between communities.

Whether the current leadership of the Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil communities sees it this way and if so, whether they will demonstrate their leadership prowess by advocating this position with conviction and vigor is yet unknown.

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