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Lessons Learned for Sri Lanka – WPR

[MISC, Wednesday, 6 January 2010 14:28 No Comment]

Last month, the Indian central government abruptly ended days of violent protests by carving out a federal state for the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. In an effort to end a five-decade-long internal conflict, the world’s largest democracy ceded a state for the greater good of stability and governance. India’s war-weary neighbor, Sri Lanka, would do well to take a page from New Delhi’s playbook as it looks to foster peaceful relations with its own minority Tamil population.

The Sri Lankan government must take advantage of its recent military defeat of the Tamil Tigers insurgency (LTTE) by negotiating for political inclusion of the Tamil people via a federal system. Previously, the government had agreed to a decentralization of power for the Tamil population in exchange for the disarmament of Tamil rebel groups, as per the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The accord served as the basis for the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, which devolved power through provincial councils, but failed to provide substantial local governance capacity. The Tigers’ subsequent unwillingness to disarm ultimately doomed the accord, and today, even in the absence of violence, problems persist.

Sri Lanka now faces governance challenges as it stands on the brink of resettling hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamil people back into mainstream society. This community — like the Telangana people in India — has deep socio-economic grievances stemming from years of government neglect. Tamil refugees will return to destroyed homes and communities that lack basic infrastructure, but simply building them houses will not suffice. The island nation’s stability will ultimately be determined by how well it politically integrates its Tamil minority. Creating a federal state would give Tamils a vested interest in pursuing a peaceful political solution, and ensure that their grievances are heard. Failure to achieve a meaningful and stable accommodation will leave Sri Lanka at the same crossroads it faced over three decades ago.

The upcoming Sri Lankan presidential elections should emphasize autonomy for the Tamil community via further devolution of power under a federal system. While both major candidates have mentioned the idea of devolving more power via the 13th amendment, neither has made it the central focus of the campaign. Opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka seems to support devolution more than incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, yet both sides face complicated scenarios in the event they try to tackle the problem.

Fonseka is backed by two major parties that differ significantly in their beliefs towards further devolution, which could lead to conflict should he become president. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa, who is actively formulating a devolution package, previously opposed a federal solution while serving as prime minister.

But with the LTTE threat now eradicated, a federal solution could gain traction as Sinhala nationalism lessens and the need to definitively delegitimize other potential violent actors rises. That is why the next president should make a federal system the key goal of his administration.

Similar to Telangana, economic development is a key driver for a federal state in Sri Lanka. Even the World Bank asserts that Sri Lankan decentralization has failed so far and that local-level fiscal authority remains limited. Under federalism, reconstruction appropriations could be specifically allocated to war-riddled regions, whose economic needs are unmatched by any other area of Sri Lanka.

Moreover, communities recreated from refugee camps have specific needs that can’t be obtained if the Tamils community lacks representation. Without the proper political infrastructure in the north or east, international aid will continue to target more easily accessible villages in the south, as proven by the World Bank’s latest $75 million grant. On the international stage, a federal solution would bestow more legitimacy on the central government and likely increase both the amount and scope of international aid.

On the other hand, questions remain regarding who legitimately represents the Tamil community in the post-LTTE power vacuum. Here again, applying the Indian model provides the central government the further advantage of being able to vet the Tamil politicians it chooses to deal with. A federal state can be created around moderate Tamil politicians, untainted by LTTE connections, such as Tamil United Liberation Front party leader V. Anandasangaree, who has previously called for a peaceful federal solution. An open critic of the LTTE, Anandasangaree also resisted joining the rest of his party in the Tamil National Alliance — a coalition that supported the Tigers in 2004.

The Telangana cause in India coalesced peacefully around a Gandhi-like local party leader, K. Chandrasekhar Rao. Taking inspiration from this, the Sri Lankan government should use the carrot of a federal state to influence Tamil political leaders toward the approach advocated by Anandasangaree, while using political exclusion as a stick against advocates of violent separatism, to move the country toward federalism and peace.

While it remains to be seen how great an impact the creation of a Telangana state will have on the economic disparities of the region, previous movements for statehood in India — including Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, and Jharkhand — all provide ample evidence of how a country can devolve power, yet remain a strong and peaceful nation. The recent political turmoil caused by Telangana should not dissuade Sri Lanka, a country that has already experienced decades of such debate and violence.

Instead, the Sri Lankan government should bear in mind the lessons in political accommodation learned by its neighbor as it seeks to bring a lasting peace to its war-riddled island.

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