Federalism: Why only for Tamils?

“We must ask, why Federalism to Tamils? Why not to the Sinhalese in the South? We need Federalism for South because centralised power from 1947 Parliament to 2017, for 70 years, have failed to develop the rural Sinhala society” said Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine of this “Unity Government” delivering the keynote address at the S.J.V. Chelvanayagam commemoration on Wednesday 26 April (2017) at the Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya.

Organised by the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) the party founded by Chelvanayagam in 1950 after he broke off from the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the event was presided by TNA Jaffna District MP M. A. Sumanthiran and was also addressed by the Leader of the Opposition and the TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, MP.

Speaking on Federalism, Minister Senaratne said, it was politically wrong to interpret “Federalism” as an opening for “Separation”.

Federalism is the most democratic form of power sharing within a single united country, he said. Minister Senaratne’s explanation on Federalism was simple. It allows people in different regions to take care of their day to day responsibilities including their cultural life, while politically acting together as a single Nation State.

He is certainly right.

If Federalism leads to “separation”, Velupillai Prabhakaran would have first negotiated for a Federal System. He would have been the hard line campaigner to have the “Oslo Declaration” signed in December, 2002 to be enforced without delay. The Norwegian facilitated peace deal was declared as signed between the GoSL and the LTTE on 05 December with Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator for the LTTE announcing-

“That is what we decided, that we will opt for a Federal model. This Federal model will be within united Sri Lanka which will be appreciated by the Sinhalese people I suppose.”

If Prabhakaran was as convinced as the Sinhala extremists that Federalism leads to a “separate” State, he would have been the first to demand a Federal System.

That it doesn’t and accepting a Federal model would derail his armed campaign for a separate State was why Prabhakaran never pursued the “Oslo Declaration”.

But why Chelvanayagam wanted a Federal State was for simple reasons, Minister Senaratne explained.

That was to take care of their day to day responsibilities including their cultural life in the North-East, while acting together as a single Nation State.

As the first National Convention of the ITAK in 1951 resolved, “…..It is their (Sinhala and Tamil) common motherland and with a view to promoting and maintaining national goodwill and close co-operation with the Sinhalese people.” The “common motherland” that “Thanthai” Chelva stood for and believed would be best served as a “Federal Union of Ceylon”, would not have allowed Prabhakaran his dream of an “Eelam” State.

A “Federal Union of Ceylon” instead would have allowed the Sinhala South to take their destiny into their own hands, in their own regions.

Continuous centralisation of power in Colombo for 70 years since the first Parliament was elected in 1947, denied this opportunity to the Sinhala South, was what Minister Senaratne stressed upon.
The Sinhala South has failed to learn that lesson, despite the tragedies the South had to live with and is living with.

Centralised power in Colombo even before this free market economy left the Southern districts too poor and lacking in socioeconomic development.

In just 20 years since independence, the Sinhala youth in rural South decided to rebel against the State, for a better future. The JVP began organising their armed insurrection from 1968. It was the marginalised rural poor that served as recruits for the 1971 insurgency.

After the economy was completely liberalised in 1978, majority Sinhala Districts outside the Western Province could only supply cheap labour to heavily exploiting export manufacturing sector and soldiers to a war that was not theirs.

War brought sealed coffins to villages and robbed youth in their prime as “missing in action”. Yet others continued to join the army to be sent to the battle front. They had no other choice. Two years after liberalising of the economy, the Jayewardene Government made into law the Foreign Employment Agency by an Act and after years repealed it to establish the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment by another Act.

These legal provisions were basically to export semi-skilled and largely unskilled labour from the rural society, who could not be gainfully employed in their own villages and districts.

Young mothers, about a 100,000 every year, leave as house maids to the Middle East, quite conscious of the fact that many of those who had gone earlier had been nailed, stoned, whipped, physically and sexually abused having gone as house maids.

The Sinhala South has never asked themselves, why they should leave their districts in search of jobs that are nothing but menial-jobs that only or mostly provide temporary living and no secure future. They don’t ask why only exploitative manufacturing factories come to rural towns and not modern private hospitals, high-end shopping complexes, condominiums and jogging paths.
There isn’t any cash flow in these rural areas for those investments to go rural. There’s only cheap labour.

That’s what the Sinhala South is beneath the ‘consumerised’ culture that lives with money. The Sinhala rural South only have the apparel and export manufacturing sector labour and the housemaids gone to an alien soil to toil and the soldiers.

Their money can only sustain small groceries, communication centres, three-wheelers and “fried rice, kotthu” boutiques.

Forty years of free market with centralised power in Colombo has left nothing more for rural life. Sadly, this is not being challenged for many reasons.

First and most importantly, it is the social psyche in the South that panders to the centralised power in social life.

The Sinhala South needs powerful centres. Their fancy for “kings” even in modern politics, says it all. That Sinhala psyche allows political parties to be heavily centralised. Almost 30 years since Provincial Councils were established, no political party has structured its organisation in line with Provincial Powers.

There are no provincial conventions to elect their provincial party leadership and adopt their provincial programme. It is the Colombo leadership that decides candidates even for Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha elections.

In India, even for their Lok Sabha elections, Congress candidates for Tamil Nadu are decided by the TN Congress in Chennai and not in New Delhi.

Trade union leaders are no different. The leaders don’t want to let go of their importance and power in Colombo.

Most primitive in that sense are the teachers’ trade union leaders and the GMOA leaders. They represent two subject areas that are most devolved under the Provincial Council system. Yet, there are no provincial council unions that take up even basic issues of their service like transfers. The Colombo leaders would not allow such provincial power.
In the teaching profession with 217,000 in Government schools, there are no Provincial Teachers’ Unions functioning.

So is the media here in the Sinhala South. Everything “national” and means Colombo centred. There are no provincial newspapers, no provincial FM stations, even if one argues it would not be feasible to run Provincial TV stations the way they are perceived here in Colombo. Even the provincial Sinhala businessmen don’t think it would be profitable for them on the long run, to invest in a provincial newspaper.

If they wish to learn about provincial newspapers running with decent profits, they only have to turn to Jaffna. There are at least two Tamil provincial newspapers that are very popular in the North.  South, Wayamba and Uva could easily have one newspaper each at a profit.

It’s the Sinhala psyche that allows political power to reside in Colombo. And it is Colombo that develops and nurtures Sinhala racist ideology to herd the Southern Sinhala voter into their ranks. It is on this Sinhala politics the mainstream political leaderships compete for votes. That has not come to an end, despite the claim the two major political rivals forming a “Unity” Government brings a national consensus on power sharing.

First is the fact that out of the present 95 MPs in the SLFP led UPFA, 52 MPs don’t abide by the SLFP leadership of President Sirisena. It is therefore no “unity” between the two main Southern parties.

It is just a “one and a half” party alliance. Second is the fact, this “Unity” has not brought about any consensus on the ethnic issue and power sharing. They are toeing the same “Rajapaksa line” cementing further the Sinhala racist sentiments with daily trips to the Chief prelates, promising “war heroes” with every State patronage possible and making statements they feel would provide them with a larger Sinhala Buddhist vote bank, than what Rajapaksa could command.

South therefore needs a Sinhala “Thanthai Chelva” to campaign for a “Federal Union of Sri Lanka” that can for sure lift the rural poor into a decent and democratic life, with political power closer home. I doubt Minister Senaratne could live up to that challenge despite his political understanding of what Sri Lanka needs for future development and inclusive living.

The misery of the South is that we lack political leaders who could live up to what they publicly say. But the fact remains, Sinhala South will have to leave aside the model of centralised power proved a failure during 70 years and move to the next option, that of power sharing.

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