The Devolution Debate: Facts that should not be forgotten

By G. H. Peiris


Several articles by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke published in The Island during the past few days indicate that he is very definitely the most articulate and, arguably, the most “intermestic” exponent of the notion of the ’13th Amendment’ (implemented more comprehensively than at present with all powers and functions referred to in its Ninth Schedule vested on Provincial Councils– PCs) being the constitutional via media that would ensure stability, good governance and interethnic harmony. Dr DJ is no doubt aware that, following the misguided curtailment of Presidential powers through the 19th Amendment of the Constitution in 2015, alongside the practice of foreign agents including diplomatic personnel bypassing the Colombo government in their transactions with the ‘Northern PC’ emerging an unofficial ‘convention’ in Sri Lanka’s external relations, his prescription would actually entail the creation of a more autonomous network of PCs than envisioned at the promulgation of the 13th Amendment thirty years ago.


The third instalment of Dr. DJ’s recent discourse on this subject (The Island, 21 September) is adorned with the maxim “Fugget aboutit” –borrowed from a display of machismo by a character in the Hollywood crime serial ‘Miami Vice’. Contextually the maxim is an initial thematic thrust intended to persuade the readership that the ‘Province verses District’ dispute should be forgotten about because “…it is no longer a legitimate subject for debate”. But thereafter he proceeds to argue passionately on the side of province-based devolution, implicitly equating all other viewpoints as representing the cardinal sin of ‘unilateralism’. In an attempt replete with oracular assertions (woefully deficient in hard evidence)intended to reinforce his own submissions to this “illegitimate” debate, he makes a passing reference to the wisdom of Gautama the Buddha and Aristotle the Hellenic sage, and then broadcasts a haphazard scatter of mundane pronouncements and prescriptions by others such as SWRD Bandaranaike’s “federal proposal” which was no more than a fledgling test-flight by a highly pedigreed young man in the late 1920s towards nationalist leadership; Joseph Stalin’s demented pronouncement on the existence of a “common culture” among the innumerable nationalities enslaved in the gigantic Russian Empire of his time; Fidel Castro’s supposedly profound thoughts on “healing the wounds” of unresolved’ National Questions’ in Sri Lanka and, believe it or not, in the ‘African Horn’; JR Jayewardene’s disclosure to the Editor of ‘Lanka Guardian’ which the veteran journalist did not consider worthy of mention anywhere in that journal; and Vijaya Kumaratunga’s call (figuratively, no doubt) for “inter-communal marriage”. Quite hilarious – please re-read it and enjoy, unless you wish to “Fugget about it”.


Following a brief interval thereafter The Island of 25 September carried what could well be Dr DJ’s first salvo at two of his critics in which there is an elaboration of his earlier reference to the well-known “Middle Path” enunciated in Buddha Dhamma, and a solemn exposition of the “Mervin Doctrine” (no toothless grins please, you old ‘College House ‘fogies). Both these are intended to lead us along his “Middle Path”, and to terrorise us with an apocalyptic spectre which any deviation from that path would ensue, specifically: “… ceaseless satyagrahas in the North and East …triggering a global media tsunami of denunciation, resulting in an Indo-US response against which China is too far away to defend us, should it be so inclined”. In responding to this exhibition of both multicultural erudition – a breath-taking range from Anguttara Nikaya to Peloponnesian Wars – as well as poignant filial devotion, should we, with all the gentility at our disposal, tiptoe away in respectful silence or, alternatively, shouldn’t we point out that the wisdom of remaining in the ‘Middle Path’, especially in political affairs, depends vitally on the destination to which the path leads and the nature of what lies beyond its lateral peripheries – i.e. the options? Shouldn’t we also whisper that even those with an elementary awareness of the history of our country do not need a sanctified “Mervyn Doctrine” to appreciate, from contemporary geopolitical perspectives, the island’s locational hazards?


The late Mervyn de Silva, we are aware, was a highly gifted journalists who (among other things) seldom lost his inimitable sense of humour, and an author of several erudite scholarly works on international affairs, especially of Southeast Asia. Yet attempting, as Dr DJ has done, to underscore Sri Lanka’s geopolitical “helplessness”on the basis of what de Silva had written several decades ago, and highlight it as a criterion of decisive relevance to the current desultory but potentially disastrous exercises in constitutional reform is tantamount to a gross misrepresentation of the geopolitical transformations that have occurred in the Indo-Pacific Region since that time ̶in particular, the emergence of China as a global superpower, and China’s increasingly formidable presence in the Indian Ocean maritime fringe and the Himalayan periphery of South Asia in the face of intense resentment especially on the part of the ephemeral Indo-US confluence of interests, and the salience of that transformation to the options available to Sri Lanka in the exercise of its rights of national self-determination.


In short, there is no need whatever to regard our country’s proximity to India as a karmic determinant that impels us to remain subservient to the constitutional demands made by (or backed by) the very forces – domestic and international – that had overtly or covertly nurtured the thirty-year Eelam War, and have persisted with their efforts to destabilize Sri Lanka after the battlefield defeat of the LTTE in 2009.

The last item in the list of extracts from the ‘Mervyn Doctrine’ cited by Dr DJ states: “Through effective de-centralisation of power and resources devolved to Provincial Councils it may be possible to head off the next threat … the devolution of power should be matched by new economic growth areas”. In my view the relevance to this extract to the present debate stems mainly from the fact that even in Mervyn de Silva’s capricious mind there was a distinct reservation regarding the capacity of province-based devolution to counteract the “next threat” (which presumably he perceived as a Delhi-led territorial dismemberment of Sri Lanka). Remember, this segment of his foresight was offered in 1993 by which time the ‘North-East Province’̶ a territorial entity of ‘regional’, rather than ‘provincial’ devolution based on the myth of an “exclusive, traditional, Tamil homeland” in Sri Lanka, epitomised in the LTTE banner and/or a component of a future state in the Indian federation no doubt as desired by Delhi. Further, despite the fiasco of unilateral declaration of independence by the elected Chief Minister, Vardaraja Perumal, of its short-lived PC,(no joke if a similar stunt is performed now – US, UK and India will probably rush to recognise Eelam as a ‘sovereign nation’) it had become more or less a permanent fixture, and remained as such for almost twenty years until a group of eminent lawyers persuaded the Supreme Court that its continued existence was unconstitutional. Mervyn De Silva’s reservation appears to indicate that he was conscious of the risk which the devolutionary arrangement of the ’13th A’ entailed.


There was another doyen of comparable eminence in his profession, the late H. L. de Silva, whose perception of that risk is succinctly presented in the following passage (Sri Lanka: A Nation in Conflict – Threat to sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic governance and peace, 2008): p. 122.)


“While being cognizant of the dangers of federalism in a political soil conducive to separatism it must not be assumed that there are no dangers in the grant of over generous measure of autonomy to peripheral units under a system of devolution, because devolution can in the long run contribute to the upsurge of centrifugal forces that eventually lead to secession and the breakup of the State. The introduction of devolution in the context of a political ethos that is prone to separatism must not be embarked upon recklessly without due care and caution.


That these nuggets of wisdom from the two De Silva’s do not represent either ‘unilateralism ‘from an ‘intermestic’ perspective or a rejection of devolution as a modality of power-sharing from ‘domestic’ perspectives is made evident by another fragment of the ‘Mervyn Doctrine’ which Dr DJ has not cited verbatim but has glossed over with a hazy comment. That reads as follows: “Does this (the aforementioned locational adjacency to India) mean that a small nation must necessarily be subservient to its big neighbour, that it cannot pursue a policy independent of its big neighbour, or even hostile to its neighbour? Not at all. It can. But it must recognize and be ready to face the consequences of such a hostile relationship. We have a perfect example in Cuba, with whom we can draw parallels” (see, Colombo Telegraph of 23 June 2013). In my own chinthanaya, the much maligned Pakistan has also accomplished that against all odds for seven decades vis-à-vis its Kashmir policy (despite losing its absurd “Eastern Wing” in 1971),abandoning the US-led SEATObefore it became defunct since 1977, and consolidating its strategic linksbeyond the mighty Karakorum Range. That Mahinda Rajapaksa achieved for Sri Lanka the “impossible” of liberating the ‘Northeast’ must also be placed at a similar plane.




To be Continued


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