A Book Review – By Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda, University of Colombo Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis - Towards a Resolution

By R. B. Herath


Publishers: Tafford Publishing, Victoria, Canada - ISBN 1-55369-793-6


R. B. Herath’s book, Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis: Towards a Resolution, has come at a time when Sri Lanka is entering into a decisive phase of political transformation. The government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have reached an agreement to explore the possibilities of a federalist constitution as a measure of settling the ethnic conflict through political reforms. Interestingly, the LTTE leadership has now re-interpreted their concept of national self-determination to mean regional autonomy and self-rule within a ‘united’ Sri Lanka. The constitutional model within which the arrangements for regional autonomy would be concretized is federalism. If the ethnic question were to be resolved through non-military means, it required a system of extensive power sharing, an option that also presupposed a democratic reconstitution of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state. But, Sri Lanka’s political-constitutional debate on this theme has not been a particularly strong one. Many constitutional jurists in Sinhalese society appear to prefer a unitary model in its unreformed Westminster heritage while the federalist constitutionalism has been developed in Sri Lanka primarily by Tamil legal scholars. A reasoned and passionate plea for federalization of the modern Sri Lankan has at last come from a scholar with a Sinhalese ethnic identity. This is indeed a welcome intervention in the otherwise thin Sri Lankan debate on political transformation.


In a lucid and concise introductory chapter, the author presents the basic framework of his analysis and arguments, thereby enabling the reader grasp the essence of the book with relative ease. His starting point is one with which I totally agree. It is true that Sri Lanka has had a long pre-colonial and colonial history and some of the factors that may have contributed to the ethnic conflict also have a long history. However, the escalation of the ethnic conflict into a separatist war has been largely due to developments that occurred after independence. He identifies three factors that have contributed to post-independence conflict escalation in Sri Lanka: shortcomings of the post-independence constitutions, divisive and chauvinistic policies of the political leadership and the inadequacies of the post-colonial economy to promote equity, justice and development across class and ethnic cleavages. The failure of nation-building and national integration, as the author points out, is at the center of our post-independence predicament. The challenge, then is, how to address this failure and move forward in order to build a modern, pluralistic and democratic polity in a society that is torn sunder by a protracted intrastate war and violence associated with it.


In chapter two, which runs into 65 pages, the author provides an account of the historical background of Sri Lanka’s present crisis. Marshalling a multiplicity of analyses in a vast range of scholarly literature, Herath presents a strong argument for reconciliation and trust building among different ethnic communities in Sri Lanka. His historical narrative is both critical and independent of the received narrativization of Sri Lanka’s past in the nationalist historiography as well as literature. Chapter three is about what the author calls “present paranoia,” or the making of Sri Lanka’s present tragedy. The authors focus on the rise of majoritarian politics in Sinhalese society that has led to the breakdown of democratic ethnic relations in a plural society and the emergence of a protracted ethnic war. His democratic, secular critique of ethnicized politics is penetrating, rationalistic and modernist.


The most important chapter of the book is Chapter Four entitled “A New Beginning.” He makes the assertion that a meaningful new beginning for Sri Lanka is possible only when a revived awareness and recognition of the linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity that already exists in Sri Lankan society. The recognition of this essential diversity is, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, is fundamentally linked to a politics of recognition. The politics of mis-recognition of ethnic minorities has been at the center of minority grievances as well as minoritarian rejection of the kind of institutional democracy that has been practiced in post-colonial Sri Lanka. Hearth’s plea is to accept the essential heterogeneity of Sri Lankan society as an enabling and empowering force, and not as a debilitating factor as viewed in hyper-ethnicized politics of exclusivity. The acceptance of diversity and difference in an enabling and democratic perspective, as the author argues, can also effectively deal with the highly emotionalized idea of homeland. Obviously, Herath has observed the recent ethnic politics in Canada and elsewhere. While advocating the position that there should not be ethnically exclusive homelands, he concludes that the government should not determine where its citizens should go and settle. The settler himself or herself should make that decision. The government should not assume the power to control the rights and freedoms of the individual in any manner.


In Chapter four, the author also proposes a new democratic model for Sri Lanka. His concept of the government has three levels, the central government, regional governments and municipal governments. The national legislature should be a bicameral one, elected by the people. The regional governments should also have bicameral legislatures. The central government and regional governments should in turn share the legislative powers of the people which should base itself on the principle of popular sovereignty. There should also be an extensive framework of checks and balances in the proposed federal system of governance in order to “ enrich and foster bonds of oneness among the different regions of the country” (p. 168). These checks and balances should include the constitutional prohibition of discriminatory legislation, guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms for all, unanimity as well as veto power in legislation, promotion of common values, equalization programs and people’s exchange programs as diverse levels.


The author is also aware of the fact that changing the centralized model of Sri Lanka’s system of government into a federal model could come into effect only through a major amendment to the Constitution. Any amendment to the constitution is possible only through a two-thirds majority support in parliament. But given the divisive and fragmented nature of politics in Sri Lanka at present, cooperation among political parties and leaders necessary for such a major change is not possible to materialize. Herath addresses this dilemma by shifting the role of agency from political parties to the people. As he argues, in the final analysis, the real power to implement or not to implement changes to the constitution lies with its people. The people should not wait for any particular political leader to “ceremoniously initiate such a process.” People themselves must initiate the process on their own, discuss and debate among themselves “wherever they meet and talk.” In this almost Aristotelian envisioning of active participation in citizenry in the public realm, such discussions and debates should constitute “a deliberate, rational and democratic process, involving all the people of the country, in an atmosphere of reason, cooperation, goodwill and mutual respect” (p. 174).


As Henry Subasinghe comments in his note, R. B. Herath’s book is a frank reflection of history and politics of Sri Lanka that has produced its tragic ethnic crisis. It is written with the purpose of making a constructive intervention in Sri Lanka’s present conjuncture of politics. It seeks the resolution of the ethnic conflict through a process of transformation leading to democratic and pluralistic re-fashioning of political communities in Sri Lanka. It is a reasoned plea for tolerance, pluralism, peace and democratization which has interestingly come from an expatriate Sri Lankan who has reflected on the tragedy and crisis of his country from afar.


Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda
Professor and Head
Dept. of Political Science and Public Policy
University of Colombo
Sri Lanka

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