The parable of Lute and devolution

By Upali Cooray

A very thought provoking pragmatic debate ended today(11th Sept.) between Dr. Dayan Jayatillake(DJ) and Emeritus Professor Dr. G.H.Peiris (GP)  in the Colombo Telegraph and in The Island newspaper, concerning the devolution of political power in Sri Lanka. There appears to be two contrasting views between the two who are known as backers of the Joint Opposition (JO).  They have recently come out openly challenging the government’s attempt to carry out constitutional reforms enabling implementation of the 13th amendment. I believe that some realities which did not surface in this debate and significant facts about their intellectual thinking over the years should be told in order to augment our understanding about the two intellectuals.

A well known academic and activist DJ  has a chequered history behind him, becoming implicated in extremist politics, founded with others; the Vikalpa Kandayama” (Alternative Group) In the 1980s. His group supported the Tamil militancy for some time and maintained that their actions were a war of national emancipation, not terrorism. Vikalpa Kandayama” formed a relationship with the EPRLF of Vartharajah Perumal who declared Tamil Elam” in the North and East. Having being elected as Chief Minister he said that Sri Lanka Army is not required in his Elam. Vikalpa Kandayama was banned in 1986 and DJ who was a Minister in Perumal’s Elam government for a short stint, was indicted, in absentia, by the Colombo High Court on 14 counts comprising conspiracy to overthrow the state through violence. In the meantime, DJ had gone into hiding, spending two years underground in Sri Lanka and one year in India. He was then pardoned by President J. R. Jayewardene. Perumal fled to India.

DJ then joined the Sri Lanka People’s Party after its leader Vijaya Kumaratunga was assassinated and became a member of the party’s central committee. Chandrika Kumaratunga whom he now calls federalist was the leader of the party after Vijaya’s assassination. She adopted the same policy on devolution even at that time. DJ then gave up his radical beliefs and became a prominent supporter of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, serving as his advisor from 1989 to 1993.  Devolution, democracy and development were Premadasa’s plan to resolve the ethnic problem.

DJ’s’ crowning glory was shielding Sri Lanka from denunciation by the UNHRC for alleged human rights violations during the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. DJ had been appointed for a two-year term but when his contract expired in June 2009 President Mahinda Rajapaksa extended his contract until June 2010.  His glory was short lived, when on 17 July 2009 the Foreign Ministry told him by fax to “relinquish duties and return to Colombo on 20th August”. According to DJ no reason was given for his sacking but it was suggested that Sinhalese nationalists” were unhappy with support for the implementation of the 13th Amendment.

Though the Indian government brought pressure on President Rajapaksa, to fully implement the 13 plus amendment he never did so. Tactically he held free elections in the Northern province and nothing more was given as required by the Indians and the Tamil Diaspora supported by the West. Chief Minister C. V. Vigneswaran was elected to office in 2007 who now adopts a more radical policy than the TNA and requires the government to fully implement the 13th amendment plus.

On the other hand GP who has never been a political activist but a political thinker and an unofficial and a prominent member of the think tank of Rajapaksa government, and now the JO. He uses his geographic knowledge adeptly in his arguments why devolution of power should not be permitted by any government in Sri Lanka. DJ in his writings in English to The Colombo Telegraph and the Island newspaper implies that GP belongs to Sinhala fundamentalist school and a strong exponent of the concept.

What is not observed by many is, DJ in his Sinhala speeches does not dare to directly state that he is an exponent of the 13 amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka which would ultimately lead to a formulation of a federal state with police and land powers vested with the province.

Addressing the Viyath maga” conference organized by the war winning former defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa held recently, DJ was careful in his Sinhala speech not to show his innermost thinking but cleverly spoke of smart patriotism or enlightened patriotism instead of island mentality. He suggested that new elite such as professionals in the national list in a presidential system and unitary state would be the answer. He never elaborated that the unitary state would have the propensity to end in cessation.

An extract from his piece The ethnic issue: fantasy vs. reality”… (Colombo Telegraph 25th Sept.) that any attempt by Colombo to roll back the 13th amendment, scrap province and introduce the district as the unit of devolution will be met, in the first instance, by ceaseless Stayagrahas in the North and East and violent crackdown by state(especially under a more nationalist government) will be instantly transmitted by camera phones 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” .

The other question is DJ while superficially showing he is an activist of the JO, his writings in English are more on par with Yahapalana regime policy on the national question. As GP says …..there is no need whatever to regard our country’s proximity to India as Karmic determination that impels us to remain subservient to the very forces……..overtly or covertly supported the thirty year Elam war”

The Tamil terrorist problem in Sri Lanka began during the cold war. India subsequently became a strong ally of the US. Things changed rapidly during the last two decades and China has become the largest exporter of goods to both countries. A si’ne qua non.

China’s formidable power will unquestionably become more so, as the Port at Hambantota and the Port City in Colombo will attach us to the string of pearls. Besides, what GP failed to mention is the proposed KRA canal that would connect Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea across southern Thailand. The canal would provide an alternative transit for shipments of oil to China and Japan shortened by 1200 KM. China refers to it as a part of string of Pearls in the 21st century maritime Silk Road.  The Chinese have completed feasibility studies by 2016 and awaiting Thai government and the King’s approval. What we in Sri Lanka should realize is that there is no other port between the KRA canal and Hambantota resulting in every cargo ship having to have a bunkering stop at that port.  Therefore the argument of DJ that China is too far, strategically and geographically, will hold no water in the very near future.

In passing; The Island newspaper (10th Oct) first page news item on Catalonia, is notable. It says Catalan independence would not be recognized: France. Pressure has mounted on Catalan President to back down after hundreds of thousands of protestors last week rallied to defend national unity”. DJ should comment.

GP in his book Twilight of the Tigers” challenges that the territorial devolution is a feasible method of settling Sri Lanka’s political problems and questions the thinking that started the peace process in 2000-01.Peiris had correctly  foreseen the  course of the war unlike DJ because he is an expert in this arena, having contributed to Jane’s intelligence review. Moreover, for years he has kept to an uncompromising patriotic position seeking to safeguard the island’s sovereignty. He stood alongside with persons such as H.L. de Silva and S.L Gunasekara in opposing federalism on the grounds that the devolutionary processes under consideration, including the north-east merger sub-state (which was later persuaded to the Supreme Court by a group of lawyers, its continued existence was unconstitutional, would imperil political stability).  GP approaches the subject from a statist” position devoted to efficient centralized planning and delivery. The book is up-to-date by his expertise in economic Geography and political economy. Thus, study of his masterpiece on Sri Lanka Challenges of the new millennium would assist readers who wish to acquire in depth material on the issues he raises. The book would supplement his argument in the Twilight that the creation of an exclusive Tamil homeland would not work peacefully because of such issues as the distribution of water resources and agriculture, Jaffna Tamil Vellala superiority over Batticaloa Tamils (remember Karuna) would emerge as thorny flash-points for future confrontation.

The parable of Lute which DJ quotes(Colombo Telegraph 25th Sept) is, Buddha living in Rjagaha in India questioned one of his disciples, having given him a Lute to play in which the strings have to be tuned to have proper balance…..” Similarly, if energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax, it will lead to lassitude. Therefore keep energy balance and the balance of spiritual faculties”……

One has to question whether DJ has kept his intellectual balance similar to that of GP.


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