ABOUT 64,000 people died in Sri Lanka’s civil war before the small island’s Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for a separate homeland, finally began peace negotiations in February 2002. The talks are now bogged down over who will control US$4.5 billion in foreign aid pledged to reconstruct the country. When that issue is sorted out, the two sides will look to Canada for guidance: this country’s ability to accommodate Quebec nationalism within Confederation may carry lessons for Sri Lanka. Working with the Forum of Federations, established by Ottawa in 1998 to support mature federations and assist developing ones, former Ontario premier Bob Rae, and David Cameron, who helped write the Canadian Constitution and is now vicedean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Toronto, recently travelled to a Tiger-controlled area. There, they taught a seminar on federalism. Cameron’s report:
JUMPIN'JACK FLASH is playing on the aircraft’s loudspeakers as we land at Palali airport near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Waves of heat assault us as we climb into a decrepit bus that takes us to the terminal, an unsightly collection of shacks guarded by Sri Lankan soldiers. Apart from a few foreigners on official business, the passengers are mostly Sri Lankans—some returning to their homeland for the first time since leaving 20 years ago to escape the country’s bloody civil war. A generation of Tamils has been born abroad; earlier at the Colombo airport, we met a couple from Toronto accompanied by their sons who seemed very Canadian with their hockey sweaters and complaints about the heat.
The Sri Lankan army controls this part of the north, and as we leave the airport a soldier gets into our vehicle and accompanies us past observation posts, machinegun nests and earth berms to a military checkpoint. Bob Rae and I are on our way
to the Vanni, a northern region controlled by the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. As our four-wheel drive vehicle speeds along the bumpy road, a panorama of burned-out houses, bullet-scarred walls and roofless schools flashes by. Placards warning of land mines dot the side of the road. Some, in English, reveal a hint of Asian gentility: “Unauthorized intruders will be dealt with with minimum necessary force.” The British ruled Ceylon—which became independent in 1948 and was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972—for 150 years. This island nation, located 50 km offlndia’s southeast coast, has a population of more than 19 million. The majority are Sinhalese and predominantly Buddhist. The Hindu Tamil, numbering about three million, live mostly in the north and east of the country. They played an important role in the British colonial administration, but their power was eroded after independence when the Sinhalese began to dominate. Buddhism became the state religion, Sinhalese an official language, and access to government jobs and higher education became extremely difficult for Tamils.
Two constitutional experts travel to war-torn Sri Lanka to teach about democracy. Their efforts could help bridge a deadly divide.
Simmering tensions finally boiled into full-scale war in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers led a drive to establish an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Since then, there have been the political assassinations of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, suicide bombings and the eviction of hundreds of thousands of people from their historic homelands. In February 2002, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government finally signed a truce, after both acknowledged that neither could win.
Rae is the founding chairman of the Forum of Federations, and we made contact with the two sides after they agreed to the peace talks. Since the Tigers wanted independence and the Sri Lankan government wanted to preserve a unitary state, we figured that a solution would almost certainly involve a form of federalism. Both sides welcomed our involvement, and since then we have been offering advice on federal systems, constitutional reform, and on ways other countries have dealt with bitter linguistic, cultural and religious divisions. Our early efforts may have helped the two sides at peace talks held in Oslo late last year, when they finally agreed to work toward the creation of a federal system. To quote the press release issued at the time: “The parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.”
On this trip, we have agreed to meet with Tamil representatives in Kilinochchi, the largest town in Tiger-controlled territory. From Jaffna we drive south, traversing the Jaffna peninsula, crossing Elephant Pass, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Highway A9, the main route connecting the north to the south, is a mess. The best parts are strips of ancient blacktop, but even these are teacherous as they suddenly subside into tilted, stony vehicle traps. Bridges have been worn away to the thin metal under-girders; we hold our breath as our vehicle crosses at slow speed, lurching from one exposed girder to another.
It’s early afternoon when we arrive at the military checkpoint on the border between Sri Lankan government and Tigercontrolled territory. Devastation is everywhere, but there is a palpable sense of energy in the people. New buildings are being
constructed amid ruin. Farmers are working fields that have lain fallow for years. Tamils have traditionally been devoted to education, and we pass bombed-out schools where girls, dressed in white cotton dresses, and boys, in white shirts and blue shorts, study outdoors under thatched roofs.
Finally, we reach Kilinochchi, a concentration of modest, single-storey shops and houses, turn off the A9 and make our way to Tiger headquarters. We’re welcomed and offered tea by Anton Balasingham, the chief Tiger negotiator, and S. P. Tamilselvan, the other senior negotiator. A Tiger official, Pulli, a big, cheerful man with a rippling, infectious laugh, takes us directly to the office where our seminars will take place. The Tiger’s Political Committee needs to learn a lot in a hurry about federalism, constitutional government and democracy. The members of the committee are young and some come from the Tamil communities abroad. But most are cadres in the liberation army, whose political education has been on the battlefield, as warriors in a guerrilla movement.
We have been told there will be no translation, that the 20 or so people in the committee either understand English or are learning it. During the next two days, under a gigantic photograph of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tiger’s supreme leader, we give a number of seminars, including Federalism 101, on the Canadian model, and another on what federalism might mean in Sri Lanka. Members of the committee, a third of them women, are attentive and serious. Those from the diaspora who speak fluent English inevitably dominate the discussion, and help the others to understand what we are saying.
As we discuss Canada, it becomes clear that they have an intense interest in the Canadian model because of the way our country has peacefully accommodated Quebec nationalism. The Tigers, not surprisingly, are especially intrigued by Canada’s Supreme Court opinion on secession, which appears to offer a constitutional means of achieving full independence. In August 1998, our court ruled that secession would have to be negotiated if a clear question were put to the people of Quebec in a referendum, and a clear majority voted to leave.
Still, the Tigers seem to accept that the Tamils will never have a country of their own, and now seem prepared to develop a
federal system they can live with. To help them, we hand out copies of a 500-page book prepared by the Forum of Federations that outlines how 25 different federations work. But Pulli still seems to prefer the Canadian model, and snatches a copy of the Canadian Constitution from my hand to keep. We promise to meet with the Political Committee again in the future.
The Sri Lankan government strongly supports our work with the Tamil Tigers, believing that it can only help to move the negotiations forward. During one lunch break, we meet the Tiger’s chief of police, a quiet, thoughtful man. An elfin, grey-haired man,
Amparasu, is introduced to us as the legal adviser to the chief. Educated in England, he spent his career working as a comptroller for the World Bank, but returned home upon his retirement and joined the Tigers. The Tamils have been cut off and isolated by war for 20 years, and Amparasu says they are anxious to be fully part of the world again. Toward the end of lunch, Rae and Amparasu discover they attended the same college at Oxford University; it’s difficult to imagine a more improbable place to come upon an old college tie. Perhaps Kilinochchi is not so far from Oxford or the rest of the world, after all.
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