30 January 2016

A tutorial for federalists

Three senior TNA politicians, R Sampanthan, M Sumanthiran and S Sridharan are reported to be on their way to Britian to study the power-sharing arrangements in that country.  This reminded me of an article I wrote for the Sunday Island more than 10 years ago when a team of Parliamentarians went to Brussels to study federalism.  Re-posting because I believe there are relevant lessons.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has realised one thing. He knows he can promise heaven and earth to Anton Balasingham in Oslo, Thailand and goodness knows where else, but at the end of the day he has to come to parliament and talk "co-habitation" because promises have got to be translated into constitutional enactment. And for this he needs the numbers.

There are two ways of obtaining the numbers. He could obtain public support for one’s proposal in 
overwhelming proportions so that the opposition will be politically forced to toe the line. This "option" is out as far as Ranil Wickremesinghe is concerned because the "peace" lie has lost its currency. This is why he has to go for the second option, that of buying/convincing the opposition. This is the secret of the everything-paid tours that have been arranged for PA parliamentarian so that they can benefit from the best lectures on federalism around.

There is nothing wrong in people studying federalism or anything else for that matter, not least of all because studying anything is something that parliamentarians never do. Getting idea-less people who know nothing of historical process and historicity lectured to about these things is a good strategy because the chances are that they will swallow the line whole, ill-equipped as they are to offer counter arguments.

There is another side to the political equation, however. If politicians make up one side, on the other side there are the people. Ranil has lost the people. This he knows. What he might not count on is that people are better students than politicians. They will listen to federal proposals, look at federal models and if there are holes to pick in these arguments they will pick them. They will do this objectively and empowered with an historical perspective, the things which politicians lack most.

Our politicians are touring Europe, "studying" federal models. There are four such "models"; Italy, Austria, Germany and Belgium. Apparently, our political worthies are going to design the political solution to our "ethnic" problem after considering these models. As the eventual "beneficiaries" of these deliberations, it would be useful for us to study these models and the historical contexts within which they were developed.

Let us start with Italy. In Italy, "the problem" was referred to as "The Roman Question". It arose in 1870 when the newly formed kingdom of Italy annexed the Papal States. The issue was resolved through the Lateran Treaty in 1929, signed for King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and for Pope Pius XI by Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, papal secretary of state. The agreements included a political treaty, which created the state of Vatican City and guaranteed to the Holy See full and independent sovereignty. Also agreed on were a concordat establishing Roman Catholicism as the religion of Italy and a financial arrangement awarding money to the Holy See in settlement of all its claims against Italy arising from the loss of temporal power in 1870.

At the end of the day, what does the Italian Constitution have to say? Article 5 says that "The Republic, one and indivisible, recognises and promotes local autonomy, it shall apply the fullest measures of administrative decentralisation in services dependent on the State and adjust the principles and methods of its legislation to the requirements of autonomy and decentralisation. Let’s talk about Italians now. Ninety eight per cent of them are Roman Catholic. Everyone speaks Italian. The people are 100% ethnic Italians. It is a homogenous country in this sense. The constitution reflects the socio-political-historical picture.

On to Austria. It is a federal state, made up of 9 autonomous states, all German-speaking in a country where 99% of the population is ethnic Austrian. Historically a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when it became a republic, the states made up of ethnic Austrians came together to create present-day Austria. Article 8, pertaining to the official language says, "German is the official language of the Republic, without prejudice to the rights provided by federal law for linguistic minorities. In a nutshell, it is a mono-ethnic, mono-lingual state with an 80% population of Roman Catholics.

How about Germany? The Federal Republic of Germany is a federal union of 16 states. A region with a long and complex history, Germany did not become a unified nation until 1871. Before that time, Germany had been a confederacy (1815-1867) and, before 1806, a collection of separate and quite different principalities. Protestants live primarily in the North and the majority of the Protestants are Lutherans and they make up about 37 percent of the people. This is what is key: It is an almost 100% ethnic German state, and everyone, including the Turks (4% of the population) speak German and in fact have been naturalised to speak German. It is basically a mono-ethnic, mono-lingual and mono-religious (Christian) country.

Finally we have Belgium and there are good reasons why I left this for the last. In Belgium there are two distinct communities. In the North, there are the Flemish who speak Dutch and in the South the French speaking Walloons. Flemish outnumbered Walloons, but French was the language of the upper classes who controlled much of Belgium’s wealth. Thus, Walloon interests were disproportionately represented in the government, and only the small segment of the Flemish who were bilingual could participate equally. The expansion of suffrage began to redress this imbalance, forcing the government to accord equality to both languages when transacting official business.

The Walloons have inhabited the region now known as Wallonia for thousands of years, descending from an ancient Celtic people known as the Wala. The historic Flanders region (the Flemish North) was an economic power during much of the Middle Ages, and included parts of what are now the Netherlands and France. When Belgium gained its independence in 1830, it retained from this historic region only the area that became the provinces of East and West Flanders.

Wallonia was not recognised as a region until the early 1960s, when Belgium was partitioned along historic language lines (with the exception of the city and suburbs of Brussels, which remained bilingual). Between 1970 and 1993 constitutional revisions transformed Belgium into a federal state, with most governmental authority devolving to Flanders and the other two administrative regions, Wallonia and Brussels.

Belgium’s history could have unfolded in other ways. For instance, the South could have joined France and the North, the Netherlands, based purely on linguistic considerations. Being neither Dutch nor French, ethnically, they chose to remain separate.

So, in summary, in Belgium we have a union of two states, made up of the Dutch speaking Flemish and the French speaking Walloons. However, they have one thing in common; the vast majority of them (80%) are Catholic. There will be no wars, no crusades. "Ethnic harmony" is guaranteed, because they are beholden to the spiritual leadership of John Paul II.

Let’s summarise these findings. In Italy, we have a mono-ethnic (Italian), mono-religious (Roman Catholic), mono-lingual (Italian) unitary republic. Then we have a set of mono-ethnic (Austrian), mono-religious (Roman Catholic), mono-lingual (German) independent states coming together to form Austria. Germany is a mono-ethnic (German), mono-lingual (German), mono-religious (Christians of various denominations) federation.

Now we come to the real focus of Ranil’s Federal Tuition Exercise: Belgium. In the end, it will be the Belgian model that will be considered. This is why we should compare the Belgian example with Sri Lanka. Belgium and Sri Lanka are roughly equal in size and both have (on the face of it) a North-South issue on linguistic and ethnic lines. This is where the comparisons stop.

Personally, I like the Belgian model. It is the product of historical geo-political realities expressed in the form of a constitutional document. Like in Austria, Germany and Italy, it is the representation of the true state of affairs, not a historical fabrication or an imposed "geo-political reality".

What of the Sri Lankan case? Just as the historic Flanders region (Flemish North) was an economic power during Middle Ages, the Sinhala Nation was during the same period (Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa) a flourishing economic power. Like the Flemish in the North outnumbering the Walloons, the Sinhalese outnumbered the Tamils. We had a rich Tamil upper class dominating politics, the public service and the economy at the time of Independence. Like the Belgian Walloons. They controlled much of the country’s wealth. Tamil interests, like those of the Walloons were disproportionately represented in the government and the public service and only a small segment of the Sinhalese who were bilingual could participate equally (just like the Flemish). In Belgium this historical anomoly was corrected through federalism. After Independence, this skewed political culture began to correct itself. What federalism would do, is to reverse this and re-entrench the anomaly.

In Sri Lanka, furthermore, the "issue" does not "enjoy" a similar history or historical span. In Sri Lanka the geo-political-historical reality was one where the Sinhala Buddhist Nation flourished from Nagadeepa to Deegawapiya and from Mahatitta (Mannar) to Gokannatitta (Trincomalee). The evidence is irrefutable. The Sinhalese, however, made two historical mistakes. The first was when the Dutch and Portuguese traders were harassing the Muslim traders. When they ran to the Sinhala king, he granted them relief. Traders became "temporary inhabitants" then "permanent residents" and later "refugees". Now they are claiming a historical mono-ethnic/mono-religious enclave and are moving towards a separate state.

The second historical mistake was when the British decided to plant coffee. The Sinhalese could have worked in the coffee plantations (and later tea), poisoned or otherwise sabotaged the destructive enterprise. Instead, they refused, making room for the influx of indentured labour from Tamil Nadu. Today, the descendants of these Tamils who arrived after 1853 are also making "traditional-homelands" noises. These plantations were set up consequent to evicting the Sinhalese from their ancestral lands and destroying the forests that they had preserved for centuries.

In both cases, the Sinhalese cannot blame the Muslims, Tamils, the Dutch, the Portuguese or the British. They were/are merely pursuing their self interest. The Sinhalese ought to have pursued theirs. The Sinhala leaders and the clergy of that time, instead, colluded with these invaders and betrayed the Sinhala people.

Things could have been much worse. When coffee went into decline during the 1850’s and 1860’s, successive governors undertook an ambitious task of rehabilitating the complex tank systems that existed the North Central and Eastern Provinces. This began in 1855. Governors such as Hercules Robinson and William Gregory intensified this effort. The objective was to develop paddy cultivation in the Vanni, Ampara, Polonnaruwa, Ganthalawa (Kantale) and Mahatitta areas. These areas, by that time, were sparsely populated. There was a large land mass, countless acres of abandoned paddy fields and a dilapidated irrigation network. They used the Indian labour in these regions to begin the shift from coffee to paddy. Fortunately for the Sinhalese, a tiny insect called Anopheles struck a cohabitational arrangement with the malaria parasite to drive away the invaders. Had this not happened there would have been nothing for Balasingham to discuss in terms of "political realities". The Sinhalese would have been an almost extinct minority.

These are mere facets of how the "ethnic equation" came about. The historicity, however, is not easily obliterated. Unlike in Belgium, the Tamils don’t have any historical basis comparable with that of Walloons or the Flemish who have been living in those areas for thousands of years. In none of the four "federal cases" under study was an immigrant or transient population granted autonomy. In our case, the Tamils either came to grow tobacco (for the Dutch) or coffee and tea for the British. The Muslims came as traders. The Sinhalese built this civilisation and all the archaeological remains in every nook and cranny of the country (and especially in the North and East) and the irrigation works similarly scattered all over the island stand as incontestable evidence of continued Sinhala presence. That they are no longer the dominant community in some areas is due to systematic evictions due to invasions beginning from the Anuradhapura period right up to the recent exercises carried out by Prabhakaran.

The "Belgian Way" proposal can only be met with a two-word response: "NO WAY". There is nothing wrong with federalism per se. It works, but only when the political and historical realities and antecedents point to such arrangements. Sadly for Ranil and for Balasingham, our history and our political reality do not extrapolate towards federalism. In Sri Lanka, the indisputable historical fact is that of an unarmed peace loving peoples continuously subjected to the terrorism of successive invaders. Accepting the product of such violent processes amounts to one thing. Abandonment. Of the Sinhala people. It is possible that Ranil is too poor to do anything else, but we are not.
There is another "way". The solution to a political crisis is best obtained when a truly representative body engages in a frank discussion. All this time politicians have ruled the country. It is high time that they give way to human beings. I once again reiterate the need to establish a "Constitutional Commission" representing all segments of the citizenry. The result of deliberations engaged in by such a body will necessarily be representative of historical and political realities.

The monopoly enjoyed by the politician in constitutional reform has to be done away with. Constitutional reform has been a business for the politicians. We have had parliamentary select committees, all-party conferences, individual pacts between politicians, and now study tours in the name of familiarisation, all of which soak up large amounts of public funds. They have had serious political repercussions as well. This has to stop. Citizens have to put a stop to this.

Sarath Amunugama and others need not have gone all the way to Brussels to study federalism or the Belgian model. Someone could have breathed a simple word in their ears, "libraries". However, now that they have gone, I would like to ask them one question (and of course Ranil and G.L. Peiris and anyone else can also answer it if they like): "Where does history start for you?" Is the answer 1983? 1956? 1948? 1853? 1815? 1505? For me, it goes back at least until Pandukabhaya. Belgium, ladies and gentlemen, resolved its case based on a history that for them began in the Middle Ages. In any case, Sri Lanka’s history does not begin with the demarcation of High Security Zones or the mapping out of "traditional homelands" of Tamil separatist imagination.