Midweek Review

Devolution to whom? The Tamil people

by B Sirisena Cooray
Chairman, The Premadasa Centre
The Tigers are not the Tamil people. This is a basic truth we should bear in mind if we want to see a durable peace in this country and if we want to prevent the division of this country.

The outrage of July 1983 would not have happened if we understood this simple truth. The LTTE ambushed and killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. We, because we did not understand that the Tigers are not the Tamil people, vented our rage on innocent unarmed Tamil men, women and children. And by doing that we gave the Tigers a boost they may have never got otherwise.

My Apex Council proposal is not aimed at the LTTE. I know full well that the LTTE will not accept it. But when the LTTE comes up with its interim council proposal, we too should be ready with our own proposal. It is not enough to just reject the LTTE proposal. The international community would never allow us to get away with such a stand. Far more dangerously it will prove the Tigers’ propaganda that the Lankan state and the Sinhala people will never agree to devolve power to the Tamils peacefully; and that therefore the only answer is a violent division of the country, to set up a Sinhala state in the South and a Tamil state in the North.

That is why we have to be ready with our own proposal which can satisfy some of the basic demands of all the communities involved. Such a proposal should enable devolving power to the Tamil people without undermining the security of the Sinhala and Muslim people in the East. Such a proposal should also promote democracy by paving the way for multi-party elections in the East.

The Apex Council proposal can do both. It will link the North and the East without merging it, thereby making the divisive merger/de-merger debate irrelevant for the time being. It would guarantee more powers for the provincial councils. And it will, by mandating elections, ensure that all the people of the North and the East have some say in their future.

The Apex Council proposal can be implemented immediately, without any delay since it only needs a simple majority in parliament. It is therefore eminently viable.

I have come up with a formula which, I believe, can address some of the concerns of a majority of the majority and a majority of the minority. There will be other ideas, other formulas. The time has come to propose them, debate and discuss them and finally come up with the best possible formula.

Not doing that would be playing right into the hands of the Tigers.

The LTTE obviously wants to avoid having to face democratic elections. From media reports it is clear that the problems between the LTTE and the ordinary Tamil people are growing. We must offer help, security and hope to these Tamil people. We must not make the mistake of throwing these people back into the arms of the LTTE.

We can make that fatal mistake in two ways.

We can make that fatal mistake by giving in to the LTTE on all matters as the government is doing now. That way the Tamil people will think that the only way they can exist is by bowing down to the LTTE.

We can also make that fatal mistake by refusing to devolve power to the Tamil people arguing that the LTTE is only interested in Eelam or federalism. That way the Tamil people will come round to the Tiger point of view that the Sri Lankan state will not willingly devolve power and the only way is the Tiger way, that of armed separatism.

Both of these erroneous policies are based on the belief that there is no difference between the Tamil people and the LTTE. The end result of both these policies would be to strengthen the LTTE. Which is what we did in 1883 and again in 1987. We are doing it again, and not just concerning the Tamil people.

I have watched with concern the growing hysteria about religious conversions. I have been asked on several occasions to give leadership to the ‘struggle against conversions’.

If economic compulsions are being used to convert people, then that problem should be handled in a cautious manner, on a case by case basis, with the participation of leaders of all established religions.

What is happening now is in a way what happened prior to July 1983. The ‘church’ is being blamed by people who have no conception of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism and the difference between the old established Protestant churches and the new evangelists. If this trend continues the day may not be far away when Sinhalese kill each other as Buddhists and non-Buddhists. What that will do to the cause of the unity of Sri Lanka, to our international reputation should not be hard to imagine.

President Premadasa once warned: "Today we live in societies where passions are easily flamed. The results of emotion destroying logic are all around us. Violence, inhumanity and brutality are visible consequences of emotionalism. In this sea of passion we need to raise the standard of reason. We need to respond to the call of balance and impartiality". That warning is as apt today as it was in 1990.

As Buddhists we should be able to understand the value of reason, of moderation, of balance, of intelligence. If we turn our backs on these values, if we allow irrationality, extremism and stupidity to guide our actions, we will be doing an irreparable damage to our country and our religion.