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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

Now in a 2nd Edition, with a new preface, and a comprehensive index.

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"...[F]orces us to think about Sri Lankan symbolic and social formations in an entirely novel fashion." -- Gananath Obeyesekere

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Tuesday
Feb212012

Reconfiguring Regional Power

Tuesday night found me in a television studio. The discussion programme I was invited to, TNL’s Ellchchi (which means light or awakening), is an exemplary one – conducted both in Sinhala and Tamil, its aim is to broaden the understanding of issues that Tamils face, by directly addressing the Sinhala people. Dayanandan and Sudath Jayasundara who anchor it, together, but also in Tamil and Sinhala respectively, are very good. I am not a regular of course; this was only my second visit.


During the show, I sat between a calm, thoughtful and very well-spoken Buddhist Monk from Wali Oya, in what used to be called the border villages, and a well known, equally articulate independent Tamil Politician who is quite popular in Colombo. I want to talk about what was said, but it’s not a matter of personalities for me, so I’m not going to name my fellow panelist.


Administrative devolution
The issue as laid out on my right was this. Administrative devolution. What does this mean?
Administrative devolution, which the monk whole-heartedly supported, means bringing the state closer to the people. It’s a position and practice that as old as the Premedasa regime in Sri Lanka, it’s a view espoused by many incarnations of the JVP. In this view, the Tamils don’t really have any special problems, except that of language that everyone agrees now, should be solved in the schools by producing multilingual students early. The problems of the Tamils, the monk said, were the same as those of the Sinhala and Muslims, lack of infrastructure, lack of opportunity, lack of employment. I think there is a lot of truth in that, but no, it’s not the whole truth.


On my left, the politician argued otherwise. No he said, there are special problems that the Tamils have, and at least the 13th amendment was the answer. But a broader frame of state reform and power-sharing was needed, this was his claim. Again, it is a well known one, going back to Chelvanakam’s Federal Party, and the numerous agreements, packs, packages and amendments we’ve had. Provincial councils are the small product of this large argument; what their powers should be, in relation to land and police, are now being debated. Again, I think there is a lot to this position; it does address a real and felt need of Tamils who live in the North; they have voted for it several times.


Power-sharing
I think I was supposed to debate the right and left of it. I didn’t. I proposed, all out of the blue, that if we have a cabinet of 27, let’s say, each province would elect 3 members. One of these must be from a poorly served, under build area in the province. We have nine provinces so it would be 27. Nine would represent ‘backward’ regions in the provinces. It’s power-sharing. It’s regional. It’s not Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. The number of 27 is just a number; it is divisible by 9, the number of provinces.


Now the idea of a “Cabinet” here stands for the question and problem of the force field that emanates from the centre that is Colombo. Did you know that since 1956, we’ve not had many elected MPs from the Northern Province in the cabinet? Actually it’s only one person in all those years, and some would say, he isn’t even really elected at all.


My proposal is sketchy, my space is limited here. But my point is not about the Cabinet as such. If the Cabinet has no power, and no money to spend, this idea is useless. But we have active men and women who have authority and money to spend on development. They should be elected and from every province in Sri Lanka. Yes, in Parliament there are. So that’s not new or radical. But they divide up according to parties, and the issue becomes well, why don’t the northern Tamil parties ever join the government?


The TNA sits outside, and is at loggerheads with the regime. The conventional answer might be, ‘bring them in.’ Give them 13++ and bring them in. But it’s not working and won’t work – if you do, another section will pull out, and the regime becomes unstable.


I offer, conceptually, another way. Nothing has to be given or taken. Let each province have its representatives in the centre. And share power. This plan does not depend on politician’s being sincere, or particularly good or nice to each other. It concedes that power is ugly, dirty, and cynical. But still, it can be shared. The point here is that regional representatives, from outside centres of traditional power be they be from Point Pedro or Siyabalaanudwa share power at the centre. It doesn’t have to be called the Cabinet, this body, but in it, must lie authority. Do it, I tell you, and we will be done.

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