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FINANCIAL CHRONICLE™ » FINANCIAL CHRONICLE™ » Security perspectives of province-based devolution: A reappraisal

Security perspectives of province-based devolution: A reappraisal

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Jeremy

Jeremy
Assistant Vice President - Equity Analytics
Assistant Vice President - Equity Analytics
by G. H. Peiris
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka's latest contribution to the debate he and I have been having on the Thirteenth Amendment (and 'province-based devolution') has been quite an antidote to lethargy and disinterest which is said to be an after effect of a nasty attack of dengue. He says what he feels he has to with a certain elegance and flair that has an invigorating effect. What he lacks in substance, he quite often (but not always) makes up with style. So, I have reasons to be grateful for his piece titled 'Devolution, Sri Lanka's defence and security: A realist response to Prof GH Peiris' (The Island of 23 May), thus giving me the energy to place his professed realism under further scrutiny.

The 'Devolve or Perish' Warning

When stripped of the usual bombastic phraseology ? "collective cognitive dissonance" and "the line of fire of Indian kinetic power" are two of the more interesting ones in this instalment of the 'Dayan Chintanaya' ? there is little that is not repetitive of what he has already said. He has reformulated his earlier assertion on the antecedents of province-based devolution facilitated by the Thirteenth Amendment in a futile attempt to make it sound marginally more plausible. He has repeated his claim that it was Sri Lanka's failure to devolve power on the basis of a province framework (conforming to the 'two-nation theory' adumbrated by the ITAK/TULF and meeting their demand for regional autonomy for an area claimed as the "exclusive traditional Tamil homeland') that precipitated the Indian intervention. He has tried to reinforce his earlier 'devolve or perish' theme with a fanciful Armageddon scenario which, according to him, reflects the "... the realities of the balance of power and the island's strategic vulnerability". Countering these assertions without repeating myself is difficult. But I'll try, confining as far as possible to the specificities that have been highlighted by him this time in order to strengthen his earlier claims.

First of all, there is Dr. DJ's persistence with the Bandaranaike avatar of the late 1920s, the barely perceptible 'regional autonomy' idea in the conglomerate of political thought (including a preference for 'Ceylon' to remain a part of the British Empire ? believe it or not!) that prevailed during the decades that followed, and the tenuous and tentative agreement between SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayagam in the aftermath of the ethnic riots of 1956 (the prelude to 'Emergency '58') ? a 'pact' which almost the entire spectrum of political opinion barring a thin scatter of diehard Trotskyites promptly rejected.

About SWRD's federal proposal which, as I pointed out earlier, was largely an exercise in "kite-flying" by an ambitious political novitiate ("born to rule", as his daughter was to inform us about 70 years later), there is another dimension which Dayan has missed. A similar proposal, we recollect, was submitted to the Donoughmore Commission two years later by an obscure radala delegation from the highlands whose barely concealed motive was that of clearing the Kandyan decks of the Soyzas, Silvas and Fernandos. In the context of what we know of Bandaranaike's vacillating stances in relation to contemporary issues of vital importance to the country such as communal representation and universal adult franchise, there is reason to imagine that he too, yet to discard the Brown Sahib garb, would have considered it a "jolly good thing" if it is possible to banish the Arunachalams, Saravanamuttus, and the Ponnambalams from the centre stage of national politics to their 'homeland' in the north. Needless to say, Donoughmore and his partner saw through these bogus humanitarian postures. Had they been taken seriously, we might well have had a 'Ceylon' consisting of three of four large ethnic ghettos by the time it acquired dominion status.

Dr. DJ does not concede the point that there could have been outcomes of province-based devolution (or 'regional autonomy' which the 'B-C Pact' if implemented against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans including a large segment of the Tamil community would have facilitated) other than what he naively imagines ? that of the northern Tamil leadership accepting without reservation the concept of a unitary Sri Lanka in exchange for regional autonomy for the claimed 'homeland', reduced in size (as it had to be) to the Northern Province. There are several corollaries to this one-track mindset, one of which is that the only alternative to regional autonomy for the Northern Province is military rule over that part of the country. Another is that neither the "international community" (i.e. governments whose Sri Lankan policy is driven by those sections of the 'diaspora' that persist in their commitment to destroy Sri Lanka, the others don't count), nor a "Tamil party of any significance" will accept anything less than province-based devolution (those who so obviously do, the Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharans, Douglas Devanandas and the Arumugan Thondamans, to name only a few, in Dayan's thinking are, ipso facto, of no significance - only the Tiger puppets matter).

The attempt to draw lessons from the disintegration of Yugoslavia is something of a novelty in Dr. DJ's present discourse. That he considers Yugoslavia a trump-card in his pack is suggested by the fact that he has repeated it in a more recent piece (The Island, 30 May). To cite Dayan from his 23 May 'response':

"As a student of comparative politics I am keenly aware that the unravelling of Yugoslavia - whose fine army, steeped in guerrilla fighting traditions had long deterred Stalin's Russia ? commenced precisely with the abolition of the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo. That unravelling was the result of political lobbying and argumentation by Serbian ultranationalists, along exactly the lines that Prof Gerry Peiris and his co-thinkers (such as the Bodu Bala Sena, oxymoronic though it be) that are engaging in today".

I do not mind the personal insult because it is a response of desperation ? a part of the verbal diarrhoea produced by failure to digest facts. Nevertheless I should digress to say that even the concept of a 'Bala Sena' (empowered militia) does not conform to my understanding of the essence of Buddhist thought - not that I claim any expertise on the subject. "Oxymoron" is perhaps correct, if it is intended to mean "a combination of contradictory ideas"; and, I have yet to discard from my mind the possibility of the 'Anti-Halal Campaign' being yet another exemplification of the on-going, externally induced, multi-pronged subversion of Sri Lankan interests (Even to harbour such a thought, according to the main spokesman of the BBS, is a "mah? p?payak" - I guess I have to take my turn at the katu imbula). Dr. DJ, it is time you realise that demonising Sinhala-Buddhists is just an objectively counterproductive anthropological pastime, and that the long-term record of "inclusivism" (Jaffrelot, 1993) and tolerance of the Buddhist of our country, though not unblemished, is much cleaner than those of other persuasions elsewhere.

What I do mind, however, is the utter absurdity of Dr. DJ's Yugoslav analogy - how on earth can a serious "student of comparative politics" be so superficial (and, so illogical) about what is widely considered the most significant political convulsion of post-war Europe? I should relate as briefly as possible the sad story of Yugoslavia and let the reader decide on the extent to which the abolition of Kosovan autonomy initiated the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Disintegration of Yugoslavia

The 'Kingdom of Yugoslavia' in its modern geographical configurations came into being at the conclusion of the First World War in 1918. Carved out as it was from the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, it brought together within a sovereign nation-state several disparate nationalities inhabiting parts of the Balkan peninsula and the Danube basin. Thus, its multi-ethnic population came to comprise Serbs (approximately 37%), Croats (21%), and Bosnian Muslims, a.k.a. 'Bosniaks' (12%), Albanians (9%), Slovenes (8%), Macedonian Slavs (6%), Montenegrins (2%), Hungarians (2%) and several smaller groups. Having been subjugated by the Axis Powers in 1941, Yugoslavia regained its sovereignty in 1945 as a 'socialist republic' under the control of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, the chief of the country's communist party, who had led the Yugoslav resistance against the occupying forces during the Second World War. After consolidating his hold over Yugoslavia, Tito severed his links with the Russian Communist Party, and remained the leader of his country until his death in 1980, establishing what has often been described as the most benevolent among the contemporary regimes in Eastern Europe.

The federation established under Tito consisted of 6 'Republics' - Serbia (42% of the country's population), Croatia (21%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (19%), Macedonia (8.4%), Slovenia (7.2%) and Montenegro (2.5%). Within Serbia, the provinces of Vojvodina (with sizeable Hungarians, Czech and Slovac ethnic minorities) and Kosovo (where ethnic Albanians accounted for over 80% of the population) were granted a limited range of special rights of self-government.

Until about the early 1970s the Yugoslav economy made impressive progress. In the final phase of the Tito regime, however, two destabilising processes began to operate against the earlier trends - one, the deceleration of growth in the context of global recession resonating in soaring inflation and unemployment in the economy as a whole; and the other, a widening of economic disparities between the different republics. Illustrative of the latter is a set of estimates according to which, by the early 1980s, while unemployment was as high as 50% in Kosovo, 27% in Macedonia, 23% in Bosnia, and 20% in Serbia, it was negligibly low in the wealthier 'republics' of Croatia and Slovenia.

To trace the principal strands of the deepening crisis that culminated in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the brutal civil war that occurred in its wake - it began with the failure of the experiment with 'collective leadership' (rotational presidency among the 'republics') at the Centre in the aftermath of Tito's death in 1980. This coincided with the development of splits within the communist party on ethnic lines. More or less simultaneously the Serb leadership attempted to gain control of the central government in Belgrade. This achieved only partial success in the sense that the Serb-controlled Centre then began to lose grip over the other member 'republics' of the federation. There was a further escalation of ethnic rivalry when, in 1987, Slobodan Mil?sevic, the leader of the Serbian communist party, wrested control over the central government. He embarked upon a strategy that involved, inter alia, the establishment of exclusive Serb hegemony not only over Serbia through various forms of 'ethnic cleansing', but also over other parts of Yugoslavia in which there were Serbian communities. This, in turn, had the effect of inducing the other member 'republics' to adopt pre-emptive measures to escape Serb domination.

The earliest among such retaliatory measure was the declaration of independence by Slovenia in 1991. A few months later Croatia seceded from the Yugoslav federation. This was associated with violent confrontations between the Croatians and the Serbs living in Croatia. Following a European Community-brokered ceasefire at the end of that year, Croatia gained formal independence. The declaration of independence by Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 paved the way for a 3-year civil war in the course of which the Serbs extended their control over almost two-thirds of Bosnian territory.

In 1992, when Bosnia-Herzegovina asserted independent nationhood, the Serb-Bosniak confrontations escalated into an open civil war involving, among other things, some of the most brutal forms of 'ethnic cleansing' - annihilation of tens of thousands of Bosniaks (reminiscent of the Nazi genocide half a century earlier) as well as their mass eviction from the Serb-majority areas. According to UN estimates, over the three-year period of the civil war, these mass murders and evictions had reduced the population of Bosnia by about 1 million, and created a refugee population of 2.3 million - i.e. 52% of the population of Bosnia as enumerated in 1991.

The Serb-Bosnia civil war was brought to an end through the 'Daytona Accord' of 1995 brokered by the NATO powers which partitioned Bosnia to create two independent republics - one, named 'Republika Srpska', consisting of the Serb-majority areas, and the other named the 'Bosnia-Croat Federation', consisting of the remaining areas of Serbia. Meanwhile, in 1992, Serbia and Montenegro were proclaimed the (new) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Mil?sevic's rule over the FRY continued to be featured not only by economic recession but also by secessionist movements gathering momentum in the province of Kosovo (south-western Serbia) and the 'republic' of Montenegro. In Kosovo where about 80% of the population is accounted for by 'Kosovo Albanians' had for long been the venue of an incipient separatist movement with the proclaimed goal of either independent nationhood or union with Albania. There emerged in this part of the FRY in the late-1980s a 'Kosovo Liberation Army' (KLA) that began to launch guerrilla attacks against the Serb security forces. At the height of FRY-KLA confrontations almost a million inhabitants of Kosovo had been displaced, and tens of thousands had been killed. The final outcome of these developments was the formal termination of the lose association between Serbia and Montenegro in 2006, and the UN-backed declaration of independence by Kosova in 2008.

What must be noted in particular is that even under Tito the Yugoslav federation was not a liberal democracy (as the concept is generally understood) and that it had a centrally regulated economy and a political apparatus tightly controlled by the 'League of Communists of Yugoslavia' headed by its Presidium ? the policy-making body for the entire country. Inter-ethnic power-sharing was thus largely confined to the representation which all ethnic groups had in the communist party and its trade unions. It was, more than all else, the increasing dominance of that party apparatus by the Serbs alongside ethnicity-based factionalism at the higher levels of the party hierarchy that triggered off the disintegration of the federation.

In the context of all these considerations what really is amazing is that the man who represented our country at the highest international forum believed (or pretends to believe since that time) that there is any worthwhile parallel between that arbitrarily established nation-state that existed over a brief span of seven decades, a 40-year federation that was tightly controlled by a single political party, and the secession of a tiny segment (4,000 square miles) of what remained of that federation by the early years of the new millennium, to the nation-state of Sri Lanka, the relations between its ethnic groups, and the impulses of the Eelam Wars.

Devolution and Empowerment in India

In a rebuttal of my suggestion that the implementation of the B-C Pact of 1957 or the document produced by the 'Political Parties Conference' of 1986 could have had outcomes different from that visualised by him, Dr. DJ has produced another classic example of superficial understanding of political affairs. It runs as follows:

"Well, let the reader judge the lucid realism of that scenario bearing in mind, however, that 'to go by Indian experience' as Prof Peiris says we should, nowhere has a region seceded because an agreement for autonomy was arrived at and implemented. On the contrary, every serious scholar agrees that it is precisely the flexible accommodation of regional (sub) nationalisms that has permitted the vastly diverse India to stay together".

Please take a careful look at this exhibition of realism. Now, if a "serious scholar" is defined as a person subscribing to the view that it was the successful accommodation of sub-national demands through territorial devolution that kept India intact, one cannot find fault with what Dr. DJ has said. Unfortunately for him such a definition of "serious scholarship" is tenuous. There happens to be many eminent Indian scholars with impeccable academic credentials and intellectual integrity who admit that territorial devolution has often failed to fulfil the demands of sub-national group interests, that there have been many instances of devolution aggravating rather than diffusing ethnic rivalry, and that, what had held together the Indian union more effectively than all else is the overwhelming military might of the central government of India. This is why one of the leading authorities of comparative politics (Horowitz, 1985) whom I cited earlier has concluded that: "Where central authority is secure, as in India, the appropriate decisions can be made and implemented by the centre. But where the very question is how far the writ of the centre will run, devolution is a matter of bilateral agreement, and an enduring agreement is an elusive thing" (emphasis added).

No, I think Dr. DJ should read more, much more, before he could make authoritative pronouncements on Indian experiences. He should read about what happened in the period leading up to, during, and after the Khalistan uprising (one of the closest parallels one could find to our Eelam uprising). He should familiarise himself with the scholarly writings on that misty but persistently turbulent 'North-East' of India which, despite India's admittedly laudable claims of democratic governance, is physically accessible to outsiders only if they obtain Delhi's permission to go past the Siliguri Corridor. He should learn about the never ending blood-letting between different tribal groups and between the 'natives' and the 'immigrants', the innumerable 'liberation armies' and their outbursts of murderous havoc, and the periodic Delhi-directed 'cordon, search and liquidate Jawan operations' that take place virtually unknown to the world outside except through the writings of Indian scholars and journalists. Further, Dr. DJ would do well if he were to try and grasp the extent to which devolution has kept a large part of Kashmir within the Indian Union; And, perhaps more important than all else, the disastrously negative impact of devolution on both India's relations with its neighbours and Hindu-Muslim relations in India.

Swiss Confederacy Model

Dismissing my assertion that, given Sri Lanka's size and form, province-based devolution is unnecessary for Sri Lanka on the grounds that "size has nothing to do with it", Dr. DJ refers once again to the musings of young Bandaranaike and the not so young Leonard Woolf. My reference to the basic geographical configuration of Sri Lanka as a consideration of relevance was not due to my being unaware of small federations. Apart from Switzerland, there are five other federations ? the tiny archipelagic Micronesia, Comoros, St. Kitts & Nevis, and the lose collection of sheikdoms comprising the United Arab Emirates ? that are much smaller than Sri Lanka. But in all these there are the geographical peculiarities that account for the existing structures of government.

The origin of the 'Swiss Confederation' could be traced back to the formation of an association of settlements in three Alpine localities referred to as waldstatte ("forest states") in the 13th century. Its survival and growth in the centuries that followed could be explained mainly with reference to the desire on the part of the people inhabiting this rugged mountainous area, in settlements physically isolated from one another, to collectively safeguard their independence from the powerful kingdoms and empires that rose and fell in the adjacent parts of Europe (Austria, Italy and France) periodically extending their control over parts of the Swiss Alps. By the time the Swiss Confederacy assumed its present geographical configurations in the mid-19th century, it covered about 16,000 sq. miles of territory.

While the persistent desire for independence and, in the 20th century, neutrality in the context of the world at war, provided the main impulses for integrity and cohesion of the Swiss confederation, its locational centrality in Europe, periodic invasions (accompanied by migration) from adjacent areas, and the physically disparate nature of its settlements, contributed to the persistence of sharp cultural (ethnic) diversities within its territory. A major ingredient of this diversity is language. About two-thirds of the Swiss population speak German; one-fifth, French; one-tenth, Italian; and one-hundredth, Rhaeto-Romanic. The Swiss population is also divided in roughly equal proportions on the basis of religion ? Protestant and Catholic.

The only serious threat to the integrity of the Swiss confederacy occurred as far back as 1847 with the formation of a league referred to as 'Sonderbund' consisting of the Roman Catholic cantons, evidently in violation of the Swiss constitution of that time. The ensuing conflict was suppressed by the federal troops the following year, paving the way for the emergence of a stronger central government. This transformation acquired formal expression with the promulgation of a new constitution in 1874 which converted the existing association of cantons into a unified federal state.

The basic territorial unit of the Swiss Confederacy is the 'Commune' of which there are about 3,000. Communes range in size from less than a tenth of a square mile to about 100 square miles, and are vested with considerable autonomy in many matters that directly concern daily life. For instance, the larger communes have their independent law enforcement institutions. The communes fall within one or another of the 26 'Cantons' or 'Demicantons' into which the confederacy is divided. Each canton has almost the entire gamut of institutions of government. There is a close spatial correspondence between clusters of cantons and the distribution of the linguistic groups. If this is what Sri Lanka needs, OK, lets empower the Pradeshiya Sabhas, being cautious, however, of the criminally minded 'neo-ratemahattayas' and the 'neo-arachchis' who often tend to hold sway at that level.

Switzerland has for long enjoyed a high level of political stability, remaining free of violent inter-group conflict. It is regarded as an example of extraordinarily successful federalism in the sense that, while it has preserved its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and neutrality in external relations over several centuries of periodic political upheavals in Europe, since about the mid-19th century, it has also averted internal conflict and accommodated popular participation of all its ethnic groups in the affairs of government.

Given these extraordinary circumstances, could there be any pragmatically worthwhile suggestion that the type of territorial devolution in the Swiss confederacy would be appropriate for Sri Lanka? Of Oxford returnee Bandaranaike I have said enough. Leonard Woolf, it is said, was far too dreamy even for Virginia. Attempting to replicate the unique circumstances of successful territorial devolution in Sri Lanka, it seems to me, would be like an attempt to transplant the Swiss Alps on our island territory.

External Intervention: "Worst Case Scenario"

On this, once again, I need to quote Dr. DJ verbatim as a safeguard against an accusation of sleight-of-hand. This is what he says:

"It is not that intervention is already planned. However, the atmosphere, diplomatic (Geneva, New York), conceptual (retroactive R2P) and world opinion, is building up ? or being created ? which is not unpropitious for such intervention and in which any intervention would be readily endorsed. It certain went uncontested in 1987. The last time, Sri Lanka was able to roll back that intervention because the LTTE took on the IPKF, generating collective cognitive dissonance in Tamil Nadu which in turn led to V P Singh making and fulfilling an electoral promise to withdraw Indian troops. In any future scenario of intervention, this factor will not operate. There will be no Tamil army fighting the Indians or anyone else who may come along. There will also be not foreign troops in the Sinhala areas, and therefore no possibility of a heroic, protracted, patriotic guerrilla war of national liberation against them".

Dayan proceeds in this vein, and adds:

"I would also draw attention not only to the speculation about US military arrangements with the Maldives, but far more importantly, the supplementing of existing Indian naval air base in the South (which has the longest airstrip in the region) with the brand new airbase in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, to which India plans to transfer its top-of-the line Sukhoi SU30MKI war planes. ..."

Enough is enough; those of us who haven't cracked our ribs are shivering in our boots! The average reader, I guess, is expected to feel, "look, this guy is such an expert in strategic cum military matters that he even knows from which base the Indian bombardment of Sri Lanka will be launched, and which aircraft will be used for the purpose". Yet, there are more than a few who would know that much of this is pure bunkum. About the military logistics of the predicted intervention, Dr. DJ should know that Delhi, if it decides (ignoring all consequences) to launch an attack of Sri Lanka, could commence operations from any or all of the 6 major air force bases in the Deccan area; that even by 2005, India had a fleet of about 50 SU30MKIs in its total operational fleet of about 800 fixed-wing military aircraft in addition to a large fleet of attack helicopters, any of which could convey to any part of Sri Lanka anything ranging from a thermonuclear bomb to a consignment of parippu. There is, in addition, the dreadful attack capacity of the Navy, and a huge arsenal of medium range surface-to-air missiles (This is published information, but not 'Wikileaks', available to anyone.) As to whether such an attack lies within the bounds to reality, the most persuasive answer I have come across, which cannot be reproduced here, is found in last Sunday's instalment of the review of Dr. DJ's magnum opus by the veteran journalist HLD Mahindapala (The Nation, May 26: p. 11).

It is mainly as a safeguard against this "worst case scenario" which, according to Dr. DJ, "Sri Lanka must make note of in its security environment and its strategic vulnerabilities", that he advocates our proceeding with the 'Thirteenth Amendment' with the 'pluses' as demanded by the "international community", its lackeys, India, and the remnants of the Eelam campaign, but not necessarily the ordinary people of Sri Lanka including the Tamils who appear to be quite content with their recently found freedom and even the post-war material advances, except when those in the local human rights industry persuade them that they ought not to be. That, of course, does not mean that the Tamil people in the north will readily abandon their primordial loyalties when it comes to voting. If it does not work in the way envisaged by Dr. DJ, well so what? He could always say with hindsight that the 'plusses' were inadequate or that timing was wrong, or the central government was provocative in its dealings with the NPC, or that Colombo was not pliant enough in its dealings with the West, or that the Rajapaksa regime has been too friendly with China, etc. etc.

Such explanation would, of course, be of little consolation if the suggested devolution becomes, not a compromise but an irretrievable give-away with no gains in security and internal stability, but permanent losses in respect of vulnerability to external threats. All indications both from past records as well as what could be discerned in the relevant geopolitical configurations are that, from the viewpoint of Sri Lanka's security, it will inevitably be the latter rather than the former.
 

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