Nothing more nothing less

mace“Nothing More, Nothing Less” with no surprise shortcomings is the need of the hour to resolve the national issue with constitutional reforms undertaken by the Coalition Government. In the past many deficiencies were left undetected and more were added intentionally to the system of governance by the rulers; the needs of the population particularly in the rural villages and estates in the hills were not met as the powers were not sufficiently decentralized and remained as a curse on the population. Each time people agitated the rulers reacted in haste with force on the people without seeking to resolve the root causes. Suppressed people took arms and reacted violently which led to two uprisings in the south, followed by the third in the north with increased savagery against the state. The northern uprising dragged on to a bloody civil war for three decades before the state silenced the guns with the assistance of few friendly countries.

In Sri Lanka the passage to independence was negotiated without any struggle; the 1947 constitution did entrench in it all the protective provisions for minorities based on the Westminster model with an upper house, the Senate was established. There was a stable parliamentary democracy with a two-party system; as neither of the two larger parties was able to gather parliamentary majorities has become coalition politics. One major failure of the two-party system was the unwillingness or inability of the two major parties to recruit substantial support in the Tamil areas, which were generally dominated by Tamil parties. As the minority was largely excluded from party politics, the Senate members were appointed to safe guard the interests of all minorities in the country and the rulers were successful in avoiding any internal struggles for nearly 10 years after independence.

Earlier in 1956 the passage of the Sinhala Only Act in parliament that made Sinhala the sole official language was the catalyst for heightened tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities that eventually resulted in ethnic riots that year and more serious riots two years later. The accommodation reached in language policy after the violence associated with the introduction of language policy reform in 1956, is significant. The conflicts that followed illustrate the operation of some of the most combustible factors in ethnic relations: language, religion, long historical memories of tensions and conflict.  This forced the Tamil minority to agitate for a federal system of rule which they had rejected in the pre-independence period; as the leadership claimed that Tamils are now a harassed minority, the victims of frequent acts of communal violence and calculated acts and policies of discrimination directed at them; a classic case of a sense of relative deprivation.

The rulers, who were busy melting out discriminate policies against the minorities, made another major error in judgment by failing to create employment opportunities for the youths of the country.  Under the free education system after independence, with rapid expansion of educational opportunities in mother tongue in the rural areas competition for posts in the public service increased and the rulers concentrated their efforts greatly to reduce the prospects of the Tamils in their traditional search for positions in government service. In the twenty-five years after independence the Tamils were overtaken in almost every sector of state employment and in the professions by the Sinhalese. As the employment opportunity cake was not enlarged, the jobs saved from the Tamils were not sufficient to meet the need of the Sinhalese youths. Many graduate youths throughout the island were left unemployed, because their course of study was not suitable for the urban based private sector employers.

Another blunder was the departure from the traditional practice of selecting students on the basis of actual marks obtained at an open competitive examination; these changes in university admissions policy contributed substantially and dramatically to the sharp deterioration of ethnic relations in the last three decades and was influential on the politics of the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the government changed this policy, and moved towards a more equitable university admissions system, a mixture of district quotas and merit, and affirmative action for rural areas. But the state failed to create a development environment in the country to create more employment for the very substantially increased number of graduates getting out of the universities.

The resulting frustration were the root causes of the conflicts in the country that led to two Southern Insurrections in the majority Sinhalese dominated Southern regions of the country the first in 1971 and second in 1987–89; as well the Northern insurrection in the minority Tamils dominated Northern region that spread to the Eastern region and to the highly destructive Civil War (1983-2009) that engulfed the rest of the country. State terror was unleashed on all three uprisings and the youths retaliated with more terror. The southern uprisings were suppressed by the state forces ably assisted by the friendly nations.

The Northern uprisings in 1987 developed into prolonged separatist agitation resulted in many confrontations between well-rooted minority Tamils and a powerful but still insecure Sinhalese majority. In 1971 the Senate was abolished and in 1972 Sri Lanka assumed the status of a Republic and a constitution was introduced in 1978 which made the Executive President the head of state. Modifications initiated between 1956 and 1978, conceded parity of status to the Tamil language with Sinhala and the clauses on language in the constitution of 1978 reflected recognition of an existing reality.

The North-East uprising and attempts to suppress by the state met with failure. The state reacted with force and aggravated the situation by introducing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1978 is the legislation, that provides the powers to law enforcement officers to deal with issues related to terrorism was first enacted as a temporary law in 1979 and was made permanent in 1982 was the worst of the decisions made by the centralized power. The Special Task Force (STF) an elite Special Forces unit of the Police Service specializing in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations was formed in 1983 not as a military force but rather as a highly specialized police unit and has developed into a major security arm of the state involved in VIP security, protecting sensitive terrorist targets and suppressing activities which pose a threat to national security.

State has been accused of sponsoring and aiding terrorism against the country’s population during the latter part of the 20th century. The government did crack down on all three insurrections using brutal force, killing tens of thousands of students and other civilians suspected of being sympathizers. The total number of victims included those killed in retaliation by the government’s official armed groups and other killer squads. Throughout this insurrection many state and private property were also destroyed and were assassinated by the end of 1989. The government tri-forces were involved in the armed conflict with the militant Tamil youths and there were widespread allegations that both sides committed numerous atrocities and human rights violations, including war crimes, during bloody civil-war lasting three decades for over 25 years, the war ending in 2009 caused significant hardships to the population, environment and the economy of the country, with at least 100,000 people killed during its course.

The Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority are not the only players in this intricate political drama even though, at present, they play the principal roles, while the Tamils in the estates are the most neglected minority in the country and have remained so neglected by the rulers and without proper leadership. It could fuel another struggle if no proper attention is given to resolve their very basic issues like reasonable pay, housing, healthcare and education. The Northern uprisings developed into a struggle for devolution, which was a purely an internal matter took on a cross-national dimension with India’s role as mediator in the political negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and representatives of Tamil opinion in the 1980s led to establishing a second tier of government in 1987 under the Indo-Lanka Pact, a major political achievement given the failure of previous attempts made in 1957-58, and 1965-68. Unfortunately, it was done in haste and one of the unhappy consequences of concentrating attention on the provincial units has been a neglect of one of the less controversial and more viable forms of decentralization – local government institutions at the municipal and urban council levels and village council levels.

The pressure for devolution of administration was limited to the Tamils living in the north where they are in the majority and east where they form a substantial minority. Apart from the opposition of the Sinhalese majority to most schemes of devolution of power, the Muslim minority, especially those living outside the Eastern Province, have been deeply concerned about the dangers of their political marginalization in a decentralized political and administrative structure. The 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord between the governments of India and Sri Lanka, without proper consultations with those directly affected the Tamils nor the Muslims living in the North and East provinces of the country; but the Provincial Council system was introduced into the current constitution by the now famous 13th Amendment the same year and the two provinces were merged and North-East Provincial Council was formed with the same for the rest of the provinces.

Sadly this system of devolution cooked-up in haste with many shortfalls was from the very start rejected by the Tamils youths who took control of the provinces as incomplete and the civil-war continued. To make matters worse the state failed to implement it properly, were ineffective to sort out many teething problems and at every available opportunity put spanners in the works preventing the process succeeding. A referendum to make the merger of N-E permanent should have been held in the first year, which successive rulers kept shelving each year; and after three decades with end of the civil war got a controversial court order to demerge it on technical grounds, a decision not well received by the moderates in the country. The Muslims who were never party to the PC system and the merger of the two provinces are now against re-merger that Tamils want; as opportunity exist now for them to dominate the Eastern Province. Thus there are differing views on merger of the three communities’ poses problems for the two leaders who wish to put this ethnic conflict issue into the history books and create harmony between these three communities could abide by the constitution with freedom to take the nation on a path of development by improving efficiency and productivity of the region.

Unfortunately, in a country where ‘whom you know matters more than what you know’, people irrespective of ethnicity or religion worshiped their leaders like a would-be-god making them feel more important. After all the leaders are only human like any other citizen, “Nothing More, Nothing Less” and people cannot change the behavior of leaders for change comes from within. In the past it was this people mentality that enabled the leadership to work in violation of the first constitution and make many grave errors of excluding the protective provisions into the new constitutions that would have given safe guard to the minorities and they went out of the way to include protective provisions for Buddhist Sinhalese not needed for the majority community under true democracy. A golden opportunity exist for the two leaders to demonstrate to the people that they are different and for the legislators to assist these two leaders; by them explaining to their electorates of the need to get the ethnic conflict a thing of the past; making it clear to the voters of “Nothing More, Nothing Less” policy to resolve the national issue; by providing all the minorities’ protective provisions discarded from the first constitution and provisions related to language and provincial council system in the current constitution included into the new constitution under preparation with no fuss about remerging of N-E, if those in East vote in favour of merger in a referendum. Everything is possible if the rulers and the ruled stop living in the past glory and abide by the constitution to start working in harmony; improve the efficiency and productivity of economic activities then the country will develop to become a leading nation in Asia – “Nothing More, Nothing Less”.