The danger of moving back from devolution


A soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, raises the South Sudan flag at the independence ceremony of South Sudan in Juba, South Sudan, on Saturday July 9, 2011. South Sudan celebrated its first day as an independent nation Saturday, raising its flag for the first time before tens of thousands of cheering citizens elated to reach the end of a 50-year struggle. (AP)

By Jehan Perera

 Last week South Sudan became the world’s 193rd independent country and entitled to a seat at the United Nations.  The break-up of Sudan came about 55 years after the country became independent of colonial rule.  During the colonial period, the north of the country was ruled by Egypt and the south by the British.  The fissure between the Arab-majority north and the non-Arab south was one that time did not heal.  Soon after Sudan became independent, power to rule the country became vested in the Arab majority north, where more than 75 percent of the country’s population lived.  An armed separatist movement began in the south, with the slogans of self rule and independence.  South Sudan emerged from long civil war after the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) in Nairobi in January 2005 between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. This eventually led to a referendum in January this year, at which 98.3% of the population of Southern Sudan voted in favour of secession.     

Although most Sri Lankans would have an aversion to separatist wars, the country’s government sent senior minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana as its representative to attend the Independence Day celebrations in Juba, the capital of the new country.  It is significant that Prof. Vitarana presided over the longest internal Sri Lankan process aimed at achieving a political consensus regarding a political solution to the country’s ethnic conflict. He headed the All Parties Representative Committee that had been established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain a consensual political solution in 2006. This body met over a hundred times and came up with an elaborate scheme of power sharing and devolution of power that could have satisfied majority and minority ethnic communities. But with the end of the war in May 2009, this report has been off the national radar and perhaps in one of the President’s cupboards.

Unlike the Sudan government, the Sri Lankan government prevailed militarily over its separatist opponent. This has given it the space and time in which to recover, develop economically, achieve reconciliation and put the past behind it.  It has also given it the illusion that a political solution that is acceptable to the ethnic minorities as much as to the ethnic majority can be avoided.  South Sudan has mass poverty, only 15 percent literacy and its basic infrastructure is in shambles or non-existent. The country it broke away from, Sudan, is also in poor shape with inflation soaring, as food prices rise, and it will have lost about three fourths of its oil income through the loss of South Sudan.  By way of contrast, Sri Lanka has a relatively high growth rate of 8 percent, has reached the level of a middle income country, and is trying to boost economic growth still further with ambitious infrastructure development projects.  However, the issue of a political solution to the ethnic conflict is no longer being emphasized.

Electoral test 

The forthcoming local government elections that will be held in 18 local authorities in the north will provide an indication to the government of its success in winning popular support from the northern Tamil electorate, and one that will negate the need for a political solution.  So far the government has failed to obtain this support.  At both the Presidential and General elections held after the war victory of May 2009, the government was not successful in obtaining the support of the majority of northern Tamil voters.  It failed again at those local authority elections that were held earlier this year in March as well. At a time when the government has come under international scrutiny due to accusations of violations of international law committed in the north in the course of the war, it will be very useful to the government if it is able to show that there is popular support for it from amongst the people in the north.

The importance of the northern electoral verdict explains why the government is giving so much of importance to the elections there in contrast to the other parts of the country where the balance 47 local authority elections are taking place.  Several powerful government ministers have been campaigning in the north for days, and the President has also campaigned there.  Speaking on the campaign trail, Economics minister Basil Rajapaksa said that the government was spending billions of rupees to develop infrastructure in the north and on clearing land that had been taken over by the military as High Security Zones, but which are now being returned to the people.  According to the government media, President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself distributed a large number of water pumps, spray guns, sewing machines, school uniforms, educational material, squatting pans and agricultural equipment to resettled people as immediate livelihood assistance.

At the same time opposition parties campaigning in the north have complained that the government is utilizing the security forces to intimidate their supporters.  There was a very bad incident at the very beginning of the election campaign when army personnel in uniforms broke up a meeting of TNA parliamentarians and beat up their government-provided security guards.  The JVP has also been complaining that its members have been arrested without legitimate reason by the army and subsequently released due to intervention by the police. The government needs to be concerned that interfering with elections in such a manner can deprive them of their free and fair character, as occurred most infamously at the District Development Council elections of 1981. While electoral victory at any cost might seem a pragmatic calculation to those in power, and an endorsement of the policy of centralization rather than devolution, the past experience of the country should warn against it.  

Continuing importance 

South Sudan is an example of the problem posed by an ethnic minority which will not go away through the centralization of power.  During the period 1972 to 1983, there was a regional autonomy agreement that granted a measure of self-rule to the south.  But this was abrogated by the central government which centralized power.  It was this act of withdrawing regional autonomy that led to the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement army, which was gradually able to wrest military control over the south.  A similar sequence of events can be seen in the case of Eritrea, which separated from Ethiopia in 1993 following long years of war.  There too, the autonomy arrangements were unilaterally revoked by the central government. The lesson is that the withdrawal of autonomy that is given to regional and ethnic minorities invariably leads to a strengthening of the separatist impulse.

Thus, even if the government does succeed in winning the elections in the north, it would be dangerous and counter-productive to assume that this gives it the license to abolish or reduce the autonomy already provided to the provinces through the 13th Amendment and the provincial council system.  In the context of the international pressures that are relentlessly mounting on the government in regard to human rights violations and war crimes, it would be unwise for the government to seek to undermine the 13th Amendment in any way rather than to strengthen the autonomy arrangements within its mandate.  In addition to the long expressed desires of the Tamil people to enjoy greater rights of self-determination in their political lives, it must not be forgotten that the 13th Amendment and provincial council system is an Indian legacy. Today’s Indian government is led by the widow and son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who pushed for the implementation of the provincial council system in Sri Lanka.  India is a key ally of Sri Lanka in facing up to any imposition by the international community.

The visit of Prof. Tissa Vitarana to South Sudan takes on significance because he was the chief architect of the final report of the All Parties Representative Committee.  When the government searches for a viable political solution to the ethnic conflict that promotes rather than reverses the devolution of power, this is the document that could form its basis.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been talking about setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee to work out a political solution, but this idea has been criticized as a likely time buying exercise in futility. It has been pointed out that this could lead to another several years of protracted discussion without consensus.  If the government is truly interested in coming out with a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict, it could request the Parliamentary Select Committee it convenes to consider the APRC report as its base and give it a short time frame of three or four months in which to come out with its political solution.

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