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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Unitary state and the concept of “one country, one people, one army !

Unitary state and the concept of “one country, one people, one army” - Daily Mirrow

By Subash Wickramasinghe

Whether it is the nature of the State that has embroiled the country in an unending conflict is a different matter altogether but what matters here is this contentious issue continues to play an important role with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka. The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) which is earmarked to find an all party solution to the problem finds it difficult to proceed any further due to this stumbling block of whether it should be unitary or federal. But when one analyses it deeply, one realizes that it is this very same unitary-federal debate that keeps the APRC going. Hence the unitary-federal debate acts as a multi-purpose utility item for the authorities to play around.

Those who believe that it is the unitary tag that has become the stumbling block to find a solution pinpoint the fact that the Soulbury Constitution never referred to a “unitary or federal state”. They highlight the fact that it was only the Republican Constitution that introduced the unitary system into this country and then the unitary character has been retained in the presidential system as well.

However one wonders whether such simple arguments can be adduced to discard the unitary system. The non inclusion of the unitary form of governance into the Soulbury Constitution cannot be accepted as a reason to drop the unitary form from the present constitution. In fact the Soulbury Constitution cannot be used as the guiding factor mainly because of the situation prevalent in the country then and now. During the time Soulbury proposals were introduced the Sinhalese and Tamils were together campaigning as a one unit for independence.

There had not been any attempts at separate entities or armed struggles for separation. Hence there had not been a situation for Lord Soulbury to consider unitary character to strengthen the governing body. But at the time late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced the Republican Constitution in 1972 the situation prevailed in the country was quite different to the peaceful situation in 1940s.

In the year 1955 the then Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawela pledged in Jaffna that he would introduce legislation to give equal status to Sinhalese and Tamil languages. Believing this pledge would have created displeasure among the Sinhala Buddhists, the other parties opposed to Kotalawela’s UNP campaigned against Kotalawela’s pledge. Accordingly S.W.R.D Bandaranaike who was also campaigning against Premier Kotalawela reacted immediately to Kotelawela’s pledge and promised to make Sinhala the official language if he becomes the Prime Minister. Realizing the mistake made in Jaffna Premier Kotalawela back tracked his pledge and he too promised to make Sinhala the official language after the election. As if to outsmart Kotalawela, Bandaranaike went a step further and promised to make Sinhala the official language within 24 hours. Bandaranaike won the election and soon after becoming the prime minister he made the Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka. Angered by this act the Federal Party led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam organized a demonstration opposite the Parliament in protest of making Sinhala the official language. Unfortunately this demonstration ended up creating violence in most part of the country. It is said that at least 100 were killed. But sometime later Bandaranaike signed a pact with Chelvanayakam to offer separate councils for Tamils. This pact was known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.

The then opposition led by J.R. Jayewardene agitated against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact saying Sinhalese have been ill-treated by the Pact. Later on Bandaranaike tore up the Pact to put an end to that episode as well. It was during this period Bandaranaike had introduced the Sinhala letter “SRI” on the number plates of all vehicles in Sri Lanka. In Jaffna Tamil people applied tar on the Sinhala letter “SRI” and painted Tamil version of “SRI” on number plates. By now it is clear that the peaceful cohabitation prevalent in mid 1940s when Lord Soulbury drafted the constitution had vanished and disharmonious situation created.

By 1965 the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake also entered into an agreement with Federal Party leader Chelvanayakam but the then opposition led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike campaigned against the pact forcing Senanayake to abrogate it. By 1970 Sirimavo Bandaranaike has regained power and the country too had gone through disastrous situations including Sinhala-Tamil violence, a failed coup by some army personnel to grab power and finally an insurgency by the JVP. It was under such calamitous circumstances Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the new prime minister introduced the Republican Constitution in 1972.

Considering the violent and calamitous situations among the two communities and the tendency for separation the Constituent Assembly duly enacted the new constitution with the unitary clause in it to pre-empt any attempts at separation. So it is very clear that the then prevalent situation in the country had prompted the then government to introduce unitary State.

Hence those who know the history of this country would not attempt to compare what Lord Soulbury introduced in 1940s to the Republican Constitution to say that unitary tag is not important at all. One cannot simply implant a system of governance haphazardly.

Situations prevalent in various countries differ drastically. Despite such cardinal rules some politicians attempt to implant various systems in Sri Lanka purely to introduce age-old political dogmas. For them the unitary system is a mere tag only. So they believe such tags are not important.

The unitary State came into being under such compelling circumstances. That is why the Republican Constitution cannot be compared to the Soulbury Constitution. The violence and the tendency for separation had prompted the entire membership of the Constituent Assembly to recommend unitary status for Sri Lanka.

Today the situation is worse and the government is compelled to use military force to crush separatist terrorism in the North of Sri Lanka. Not only is the North the entire country at the mercy of the terrorists. Even under such situations some propose to offer regional autonomy and to discard unitary nature of the constitution.

Under the unitary system the country is governed as one unit. Even under federal system some countries retain the foreign, finance and defence portfolios under the central government. However in Sri Lanka what is proposed is a complete devolution including the finance, foreign and defence to Tigers.

This is totally unacceptable not only because such power devolutions promote separation but because the Tigers’ aim of achieving their avowed goal of separation through a system that goes beyond federalism. That is why the Tigers rejected federalism at peace talks and introduced their own proposal of Internal Self Governing Authority (ISGA) The ISGA proposals are a worse form of governance even bypassing the federal system. The ISGA proposals are clearly aimed at separation. In fact much has been written and discussed about the ISGA proposals and this is not the time to re-analyze them. But the mere submission of ISGA instead of federalism clearly indicates the Tigers desire to have a separate State for them. At a time the Tigers demand and aim at separation through talks and military means it is suicidal to offer federal form of governance or regional autonomy to such a group.

On top of all these the Tigers avowed goal is to retain their armoury and the armed cadre and get the maximum devolution beyond the normal federal form of governance. That is why the ISGA proposals openly say that “the Tamil people mandated their elected representatives to establish an independent sovereign, secular State for the Tamil people in the elections subsequent to the Vaddukkodai Resolutions of 1976” (ISGA proposals) The ISGA shall have plenary power for governance of the North East including powers in relation to…raising revenue, levies, and duties, law and order and over land.

These powers shall include all powers and functions… exercised by the GoSL.” (ISGA proposals) This is the attitude of the Tigers as far as governance and separation are concerned.

Some politicians are of the opinion that this armed group which is controlling some areas by force be given maximum regional autonomy without disarming them. It is very clear that Tigers will never settle for anything short of separation. The separation they intend to achieve by way of proposals in the form of ISGA or military means. Their mainstay is their armoury and the trained armed cadres. They will never disband the military wing.

Even if the federal or quasi-federal system is introduced the Tigers will retain their armoury and the armed cadres. Accordingly in addition to foreign, finance and defence powers and an army of terrorists under a federal system would enable them to absorb even Tamil Nadu in time to come.

That is why it is said the prevalent circumstances are not right for federal system or to discard the unitary concept as it is the unitary character that helps maintain one country, one people and one army.

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