One of the more worrying aspects of the mess we have got ourselves into recently is the revival of talk of a homeland for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This involves treating the North and the East as a single unit, a matter that should have died a natural death following both the Supreme Court decision demerging the two provinces as well as the practical demonstration, in successive elections, that the East was a very different entity from the North.
I can however understand the renewed demand for a homeland, given our failure to build on the positive factors above after the conclusion of the war against the Tigers. I was worried then by the TNA continuing to talk about the merger, even though it was argued in their defence that this was simply a bargaining point, and of course they would accept the Province as the principal unit of devolution. Unfortunately, now that we hear more and more frequent references to abolishing the 13th Amendment, it is quite understandable that the TNA and its allies – which are now more formidable than they were two years ago – feel they might as well push the merger more forcefully.
When in 1987 the Liberal Party welcomed the Indo-Lankan Accord, and the introduction of Provincial Councils, we also made it clear that we thought the merger a fatal error, that would destroy the whole idea of devolution. We said this because we believed that devolution was needed on the principal of subsidiarity, which means decisions should be made in any sphere by the smallest unit affected by such decisions. Obviously there should be provision for consultation where others would be affected, and for National Policy to ensure consistency with regard to services available to the people, but the main purpose should be empowerment of people with accountability in units that were readily accessible to them.
This was the reason why for a long time the Liberal Party did not think Provincial Councils were necessarily the answer, and debated whether Districts would not be more suitable. I was perhaps the keenest on District Councils, though I also had to accept that the Jayewardene government, having got the Tamil parties to agree to District Councils, had betrayed their expectations by with-holding funds as well as by the imposition of an appointed District Minister.
Given the bad faith he had engaged in, it was understandable that in 1987 he had to make up for this by accepting Provincial Councils. Unfortunately he also allowed a merger by sleight of hand, which contributed to fears that this was a first step to separatism, a fear exacerbated by the manner in which federal states split up elsewhere in the years that followed.
But just as we must understand the fears of separatism that the merger engendered, we should also understand the fears that empowerment will be withdrawn by abolishing the Provincial Councils. Concentrating on one’s own fears and not trying to assuage the fears of others is no way to achieve consensus.
The difficulties of moving forward came home to me when an otherwise intelligent man said that his ‘preference for the District is based entirely for reasons of ensuring territorial integrity. The province could trigger threats to territorial integrity due to the possibility of the North and East merging’.
This I fear is self indulgence. The merger of the North and East is a worry, but that has now been avoided. Renewal of the call for merger arises precisely because, in the first place, there are efforts to abolish Provincial Councils and, second, because we are not moving also towards empowerment of local government, which is the best defence against politicians in larger units wanting to increase their own authority.
We should also have moved far earlier, in accordance with the pledge in the President’s manifesto, to affirm the Province as the unit of devolution, which would have provided reassurance to both sides as it were. This could have been done through the establishment of a Second Chamber based on Provinces. I was indeed astonished, when I was put on the team to negotiate with the TNA, to find that the government had not mentioned this, nor indeed put forward any ideas at all. Though the TNA had put forward a list of reasonably moderate demands (excepting only the call for remerger) we had not responded to these nor given any ideas of our own.
I managed to change that by suggesting a Second Chamber. At first I was told that we should not introduce anything new, but I presume Prof Pieris then consulted the President, for at the next meeting he proposed a Second Chamber. Characteristically he spent hours explaining its possible composition, as to which he had put forward three suggestions. With characteristic insensitivity – I hope it was not low cunning – he suggested either the Province or the District as the basis for election or selection to the Senate.
I suppose it is understandable that someone who has never studied political science, but who by virtue of his training in Commercial Law was assumed by both President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to be a skilled negotiator, had no understanding of how the structure of a second chamber can affect the political culture of a country. What he should have been thinking of was promoting unity in diversity, and ensuring that different interest groups felt adequately represented at the Centre.
The best way of ensuring this is through five or seven members elected on the Single Transferable vote system, which would usually allow any group wishing to function as a bloc to gain representation with ten per cent of the vote.
But, even though the TNA was positive, the idea was not followed up. And so, two years later, we are back to a tussle of extremes, a tussle no one seems inclined to settle by a consensus that will also enhance representation.