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FEDRALISM IS GOOD

By Shyamon Jayasinghe, Melbourne

It is reported that President CBK has said that federalism is the answer to the national question. She had gone further and said that eighty per cent of the people would support federalism. Maybe she knows the feel of the people. The fact is that the latter are now attuned to accepting a kind of power sharing of a federal nature- a situation that didn’t prevail when CBK’s father tried to bring in a modified federalism. The LTTE’s has played a historical role in the evolution of our island’s politics by getting the country to a situation where the people would be federal- friendly.

Whatever may be President CBK’s flaws, one thing about her is that she has always looked upon the national question with a broadness and progressiveness that a responsible leader should evince. She and her illustrious mother had never been racial. It had been rare to seen the two pander to ethnic xenophobia, meaning the fear/hate/aversion/toward different ethnic groups or religious groups. Before these two, Dudley and Premadasa had been similarly tempered; not JR, who by his strategic silence encouraged the infamous1983 riots.

Federalism is about power sharing. It is very clearly not a division of the country ( ‘rata bedeema’). Nor can it necessarily lead to a break up of the country anymore than a unitary state could.

If we were to give federalism to the Tamil speaking communities of the North & East (I am deliberately avoiding ‘LTTE’ here) it would mean that Sri Lanka would have two sovereign powers one at the new state/states level and the other at the National level. This is unlike the current Regional Council system where Regions have no sovereignty. Federalism entails a written constitution that lays down the division of powers at the two levels of sovereign government and a Supreme Court that would enforce the formal division of powers. National- level powers covering the entire island would include the critical ones of defence (i.e. army, navy, and air force) and foreign affairs just as the present unitary government currently enjoys.

This arrangement has to be distinguished from that of a confederation, which is a collection of totally sovereign states. Short of confederation, federalism is more satisfying to those seeking regional autonomy for the simple reason that under the former the state does, under normal circumstances, enjoy sovereign power for its entire internal management with little intervention from the centre. In the quality of interference from the centre, however, there can be varying degrees of difference. The constitution of India, for example, allows the centre to take over the state government although under extreme and objective circumstances. On the other hand, the constitution of Canada is more rigid as far as this is concerned.

Therefore, there is no one type of federalism. The model we select will have to suit our circumstances and would have to be negotiated. On a practical consideration, the less financial clout and independence that a state has, the more would be the interference because dependence on the centre would entail the laying of conditions by the latter. A rigid type of federalism is unthinkable in Sri Lanka because of the relative poverty of resources in the North & East. On the other hand, in today’s changing global economy a state can enrich itself in the financial, transhipment and other international services sector very profitably reducing its dependence on the land.

I referred to the concept of being ‘federal-friendly’. This reflects the willingness of the people to share power with the Tamil-speaking population who have been living for ages in the North and East. It is pointless trying to engage in an exploration of ancient history in order to determine questions such as who occupied those areas first- the Sinhalese or Tamils. Such are theoretical issues. We have to accept the present and go forward from the present. We have lost the economic value equivalent to about 150 years by going into a destructive war. Sri Lanka has tremendous potential to move forward into prosperity for its people if it sets aside divisive issues.

The island’s Buddhist heritage provides an ideal potential mental environment for tolerance and living in peaceful coexistence with our Tamil brethren. Our leaders should exploit inbuilt values such as these in dealing with this question. There is a concealed xenophobia or predisposition in people to be averse or fearful of those they regard as “different”. Leaders are the culprits who have been historically exploiting this. In Nazi Germany Hitler enabled the xenophobia to erupt. In Sri Lanka, there are leaders on both sides of the divide who engage in inciting such xenophobic eruptions between ethnic and religious groups etc; Leaders do this for their power-seeking ends. This happened in 1983 to our detriment. There should be a national consensus among our leaders and the media not to exploit mass foibles of this nature and to move firmly toward inclusive policies and practices derived from the acceptance of equality of all people. An appropriate education must be imparted in schools. This is the only long-term path for keeping Sri Lanka’s integrity and preventing a break up.

In the drawing of a federal constitution, firstly a strict time frame for the operation of the ISGA should be layed down. After the deadline, there should be free and fair elections to the state body of the North & East so that genuine representatives of the Tamil people would be at the helm. Secondly, safeguards must be enshrined in order to protect the new minorities of the new state, namely the Sinhalese and Muslims. Thirdly, the current Regional Councils should continue to remain as subordinate bodies. In Australia, we have the federated states and the “Territories”. The latter have fewer powers than the states. A similar arrangement for the present Regional bodies other than the North & East can be considered


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