Sri Lanka’s Constitutional-Political Dilemma TODAY: Three Types of Sri Lankan Separatists

Dayan Jayatilleka, in the Island, 19 September 2017,where the title is  “Constitutional choices and Tamil politics.  Three Types of Sri Lankan Separatists”

At the heart of the Constitutional Question is the crux of the continuing Sri Lankan crisis. And that is what may be variously called the Tamil Question, the Tamil issue, the Tamil problem, the Tamil national question, the Tamil nationalities question, the Tamil ethnic issue etc. I tend to see it as Sri Lanka’s North-South Question.

What is the Tamil Question? It is the problem of accommodating the identity and aspirations for irreducible political space of a community with a justifiable sense of pride and achievement, and doing so while not impinging upon the identity and aspirations for a secure space, of the unique community that forms the majority on this small island placed on a strategic sea-lane and in close proximity to a massive landmass with a huge population.

Who controls the destiny of this island? Who should control it? Who can sustainably control it? Is it the majority community? The outside world? The minority or a coalition of minorities? The minorities together with the outside world? Or all those who have chosen to live on it as citizens and consider it their home? Obviously the last named category. The problem is that this is not a homogenous category but a segmented one. Therefore the challenge is to formulate the basis on which this island should be shared.

Since the constituent, component communities are not willing to adopt the melting pot model (Vijaya Kumaratunga said in a 1986 lecture at Fr. Tissa Balasuriya’s Center for Society and Religion that “inter-communal marriage is the only real solution”), which we approximated as Ceylon, the only solution is a Realist one of ‘spheres of influence’. The question then is how much autonomous power each sphere should have. That in turn leads to the question of whether such power should include sovereignty or a measure of it and if so how much.

None of these question can be posed or exist in a vacuum or as an abstraction. We are talking about autonomous spheres on a relatively small island located where it is, with the neighbors it has, and populated by the specific communities it is peopled with. Each of these communities have their distinctive identity, histories or imagined histories, myths and legends and collective consciousness—or in the words of that most unromantic and coldly realist of authorities on the National Question, Joseph Stalin, each collective has “a common psychological makeup manifested in a common culture”.

How then to accommodate politically, the Sinhalese and Tamils, not to mention the Muslims, as collectives i.e. as communities? By means of what political structures and sub-structures? Given the history and demography of the island, the respective autonomous spheres of influence cannot be equal or as act as counterweights to each other. There cannot be a bi-polar model on a small island next to a hostile landmass which was a jumping off point for invasions. Thus the autonomous spheres of influence must be uneven and hierarchical with the sphere located at the vulnerable, porous periphery firmly located within and under a strong overarching structure—a unitary state, de jure and de facto.

Here again, it is not a question of abstract model building, but that of historical time. What is suitable at one stage of history is not suitable at another. What is feasible at one stage of history is not feasible at another.

Today, with a government that does not enjoy an organic two thirds majority but has stitched the numbers together in parliament in a fraught and fragile coalition, only a certain type or size of reform is possible without plunging the polity into instability. Tamil politics has arrived at a crucial crossroads. If it takes one path it will lose even if it wins. If it takes the other it will win even if it appears to lose. Which path will it take?

The Tamil politicians should strike the right balance between collective self-image and sustainability within the reality of the island they inhabit. One of the choices they face is between opting for the maximum and the optimum; the present and the future. The other choice is either to go for a Big Bang; to risk everything on one throw of the dice, or to adopt an incremental, gradualist and more organic option. Opting for the maximum means the maximum autonomy they can obtain given their present alliance with the UNP and the SLFP’s CBK wing. The optimum is securing the degree of autonomy that can be undergirded by the broadest consensus in the south and can thereby prove sustainable over the long term.

Right now the UNP-TNA-CBK bloc assumes that it can return to the arithmetic of January 2015 and prevail at a referendum by means of a combination of the majority of the minorities and a minority of the majority. A recent projection by Yahapalana intellectual Prof Kumar David argues that the ‘YES’ camp has only to secure 35% of the Sinhala Buddhist majority to win. Though it is likely that a protest vote combined with significant UNP (and Sirisena SLFP) voter abstention will depress this baseline figure to below 30% and therefore the ‘NO’ vote will prevail, let us, for the purpose of this article, assume that Prof David’s assumption is correct. If the TNA goes by that calculation it will lose even if it wins.

This is because a Constitution that secures only 35% of 70% of the island’s populace, i.e. the minority of the majority community, will suffer a crisis of legitimacy and almost certainly be a one-term constitution. We have a history of Constitutions perceived as partisan—recall that the 1972 Republican Constitution lasted only through the term of office of the government that introduced it. Since the pendulum swing against the incumbent government is likeliest prospect at the next national election, it is probable that a Constitution which lacks the endorsement of the majority of the Sinhala majority, will be replaced. Indeed that will be a key campaign pledge.

Of course it could be posited that if a new Constitution were overturned by the next government, then the long awaited separation could be triggered. Well, that project of “rejectionism”, external intervention was tried after the 1972 Constitution was promulgated and it didn’t work, culminating in Nandikadal in 2009. It may work this time around but then again it may not; so why risk it?

A far more viable strategy is that of the Good Friday agreement and the South African Constitutional negotiations: that is to obtain all parties consensus. It is an approach which eschews either unilateralism or simple bilateralism but strives for political multilateralism. Political multilateralism would recognize that the Tamils need a settlement that can carry the Southern majority with it, and this means the majority of the majority, not merely a minority of the majority.

In short the Tamils need to combine ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’. Idealism means pushing for the highest possible level of autonomy. Realism means conceding the heights of autonomy in favor of a broader base of support in the Southern heartland, thereby rendering the political formula more rooted and stable.

The current liberal mood of the Supreme Court which is accommodating to federalism is far less important than the geopolitical realities, including the domestic geopolitical realities. Just as the Sinhala majority has to reconcile itself to the durable geopolitical realities of the region, the Tamils have to reconcile themselves to the no less durable geopolitical realities of the island. The challenge is to find the saddle-point.

That saddle-point does not remain static. Someday it may slide towards greater federalization, but that’s not where it is right now. Right now, the saddle-point remains the 13th amendment and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s postwar promise to implement it. That promise took place within the Presidential system, assuming its continuity, and with no intention of its removal or reduction.

There are three types of separatists in the context of Sri Lankan politics and society:

Firstly, those who openly advocate or support the project of a separate state carved out of this island. These elements exist in the Diaspora, in Tamil Nadu and also in the North and East.

Secondly those who advocate ethno-federalism, the re-merger and self-determination, while knowing or not knowing but not caring, or simply not realizing, that given the geopolitics and history, such federalism will almost certainly be a halfway-house or escalator to Tamil Eelam.

Thirdly, those who reject any form of provincial autonomy and devolution of power/power-sharing including the 13th Amendment. These last named do not understand that nowhere on this planet outside of a purely Sinhala Buddhist conclave (and a predominantly middle aged male one, I might add), is it possible to persuade anyone with a narrative that says there will no territorial provincial autonomy whatsoever granted as a reformist addressing of the Tamil question. Such an unreasonable, eccentric, isolationist narrative only makes the case for separatism and activates it as a default option.

The anti-13A camp fought a civil war against it in the late 1980s and lost quite as decisively as the LTTE did two decades later. This defeat in the civil war was followed up by a double political defeat, with the opponents of 13A contesting the provincial Councils and no administration since 1989, be it UNP or SLFP-led attempting to reverse 13A. This included Premadasa who sent the IPKF away, and Mahinda after the 2009 victory–and nobody can doubt their courageous patriotism.

Though both these Presidents preferred and toyed with the district as the primary unit of devolution, their abandonment of that fleeting thought and continued retention of 13A was for a very simple set of reasons: the massive geopolitical reality of India, the Tamil Nadu factor’s salience in Delhi’s calculus, the probability of unaffordable blowback and the absence as in 1987 of any international allies to offset Indian pressure on Sri Lanka on this issue–the Tamil question.

Both the separatist LTTE and the xenophobic DJV-JVP fought civil wars against the PC system, but still it stands. Today those who still share these ideologies in the North and South are continuing to try to dismantle that structure. Over the decades 13A took root in the Sri Lankan polity, developing a support base in and around the system of Provincial Councils. 13A is a durable structural reality.

The current tightening of the political gridlock over the Provincial Council elections could harden into a deep freeze– an Ice Age—until national elections in 2019/2020, which will surely yield a patriotic-populist rather than a cosmopolitan-liberal outcome.

Led in the Steering Committee by the former chief negotiator of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration in the postwar talks with the TNA, Nimal Siripala de Silva, a moderate who has been seriously engaged with the ethnic question since at least 1990, the SLFP (MS wing) has proposed a Constitutional adjustment, not a change of Constitution. Specifically it has proposed a renovation of the 13th amendment. That is, and as the repeated, sustained failure of Chandrika’s “Package” of 1995, 1997 and 2000 shows, perhaps has always been, the structural or parametric limits of feasible reform.

The writer was Minister of Policy Planning and Youth Affairs in the North-East Provincial Council and the youngest Provincial minister in the PC system at its inception in 1988-1989.


Asanga Abeyagoonasekera: Geopolitics Of Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka Postwar Challenges In Reconciliation,”  22 March 2016,

 An UK Tamil viewpoint in cartoon form?


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