09 April 2013

The LLRC and devolution

The politics of skipping the caveats

When the Government proposed setting up a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), there were howls of protests from the likes of Jehan Perera and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. Many of these I/NGO operators didn’t even appear before the LLRC perhaps fearing that the Commissioners would ask them to submit in full their various comments to the media, in the form of statement or political commentary. When the LLRC finally came out with a ‘Report’, they changed their tune. They said ‘Implement the LLRC Recommendation!’

They forgot, conveniently, that the LLRC had exceeded its mandate. That’s ok. A lot of people, after all, are happy to ‘exceed’. More importantly, they appear to be blissfully unaware of two things. Firstly, that the LLRC was a far cry from a body enacted to draft a constitution. Secondly, some of the recommendations require constitutional amendment and even referenda. A third ‘forget’ can be added: the Government is not bound (as per the mandate-limitation) to implement all of the recommendations. There’s can-do and cannot-do in all this. There is, moreover, ‘done’, ‘doing’ and ‘forget it’ too. There is wanted-speed and doable-speed.

What has excited these ladies and gentlemen, and of course some members of the Opposition, is the inclusion of the word ‘devolution’. True, it’s not ‘federalism’, that F-word dominating what passed for ‘political discourse’ when the reins of power were held by patently anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist and indeed pro-LTTE, pro-Eelam elements, but then again, in an LTTE-les Sri Lanka of ‘reduced circumstances’, if ‘straw’ was sought, ‘devolution’ was good enough a cling-on.
What is most interesting is the fact that true to form, they have taken the LLRC recommendation on devolution totally out of context and have never once referred to the relevant caveats. They would do well to read the points elaborated in Section 9.231 of the LLRC Report.

9.231 Devolution should necessarily be people-centric in nature and the following considerations should be borne in mind –
A. Devolution should essentially promote greater harmony and unity and not disharmony and disunity among the people of the country. The promotion of this ‘oneness’ and a common identity should be the principal aim of any form of devolution while protecting and appreciating rich diversity.

B. The focus should be to ensure that the people belonging to all communities are empowered at every level especially in all tiers of Government. Devolution of power should not privilege or disadvantage any ethnic community, and in this sense, should not be discriminatory or seen to be discriminatory by the people belonging to any ethnic community within the country.

C. The democratic empowerment of the people should take place within the broader framework of the promotion and protection of human rights which is a fundamental obligation of the elected government deriving from specific provisions of the Constitution and the Treaty obligations the country has voluntarily undertaken.
D. In addressing the question of devolution two matters require the attention of the government. Firstly, empowering the Local Government institutions to ensure greater peoples’ participation at the grass roots level. Secondly, it is also imperative that the lessons learnt from the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Councils system be taken into account in devising an appropriate system of devolution that addresses the needs of the people. It should at the same time provide for safeguarding the territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka whilst fostering its rich diversity.

Let’s take these one by one. Caveat A imposes the condition of ‘harmony’. Now if devolution uses the current provincial boundaries (randomly drawn, let us not forget), which constitute the basis for the (diminished) Eelamist demarcation, if the majority of Tamils people live outside the North and East (for example), how on earth can devolution along these chauvinist lines powered by myth-models and exaggeration inspire anything but suspicion and anxiety among the Sinhalese? They would consider such devolution as ‘Threat to Existence’! There won’t be harmony. ‘Oneness’ would be wrecked.

Caveat B speaks of empowerment. This is good. It calls for much better governance and greater affirmation of citizenship-meaning. One does not need ‘devolution’ for this and if any community feels disadvantaged then all that needs to be remembered is that the felt ‘discrimination’ will continue to prevail in the other 7 provinces (where the majority of Tamils live). Devolution does not combat discrimination; better laws might. 
Caveat C is about human rights. The upholding or subverting of human rights has nothing to do with the structure of the state (for example, whether it is a federal, unitary or other arrangement). So Caveat C, like Caveat B, is an add-on that is not devolution-specific.
Finally, Caveat D. It is about ‘building on what we have’, i.e. the local government institutions. It is about greater and meaningful participation. Such ‘democracy,’ again does not require devolution as per the 13th Amendment, 13 Plus posturing etc., but about scripting in checks and balances into the relevant articles of the constitution. Caveat D also unequivocally salutes the need to ‘provide for safeguarding the territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka whilst fostering its rich diversity’. The devolution debate has gone too far with taking as ‘fact’ and ‘legitimate’ the extrapolations of Tamil chauvinism for any power-devolution to established provincial lines not be seen as a threat to territorial integrity and unity.
Take all these caveats and power devolution to existing lines can be safely ruled out as ‘not in line with LLRC recommendations’. The only devolution that abides by these caveats, then, is a formulation that trashes current provincial boundaries and re-draws geographical units in more scientific (e.g. based on river-basins) ways with close attention to ensuring that no community, large or small, feels threatened.
Given all this, one thing is clear: those who have been waving the LLRC Report have just seen one word, devolution. That, or else, they are intellectually dishonest. Take your pick!

[Published in THE NATION, April 7, 2013]