Do some Sinhalese support federalism? - the information portal on South Asia

Mediated through Norway, the United National Front government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe made a new attempt at peace negotiations in early 2002. The result was the ongoing ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE and the start of a series of rounds of negotiations. [2] Despite the current pause in negotiations, this peace process has a new, promising quality compared to previous negotiations: For the first time there is a common basis between the conflicting parties, which aims at a federalization of Sri Lanka. In the Oslo Declaration in December 2002, the LTTE agreed for the first time to look for a solution in which the internal self-determination of the Tamils ​​is striven for within a federal structure in a unified Sri Lanka (Ferdinands / Rupesinghe / Saravanamuttu et al. 2004: 3) .

The subject of federalism as a means of resolving conflicts has a long tradition in Sri Lanka and did not only play a role in the political discourse during the current peace process. In order to better assess the new quality of the current discourse, the origins and problems of the earlier discussions about federalism will be discussed below.

Federalism as an Answer to Sri Lanka's Diversity?

Since S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike proposed the idea of ​​federalism as a constitutional answer to the diversity of Sri Lanka in 1926, it is a hotly debated topic in Sri Lanka. As Wilson shows in his historical review of the rise of Tamil nationalism, the Tamils ​​in Sri Lanka only began to support a violent separatist movement after their decades-long efforts to federalize the country were denied by various governments (Wilson 2000: 110) . The Federal Party, which moved to Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), had fought for a federal solution from 1949 to 1976 to meet the demands of the Tamil minority. In the following, an overview of important stages in the debate on federalism in Sri Lanka will be given before reference is made to the latest developments in the current peace process.

In his political speech on the introduction of federalism in Sri Lanka, S.W.R.D. Before Ceylon became independent, Bandaranaike [3] was essentially against the centralized administrative system introduced by the British. In his opinion, this hardly seemed suitable to do justice to the interests of the different ethnic-religious identity groups, but would rather have the old tradition of the earlier ones Sorrow of Sabhas (Village councils) destroyed, which allowed the different communities a far-reaching autonomy. [4] Bandaranaike advocated a model based on the model of Switzerland, as their size and ethnic composition showed some similarities with the conditions in Sri Lanka. His push for federalism must be seen in the light of the demands of the influential Kandyan Sinhalese, who wanted to secure their traditional supremacy in the Sri Lankan highlands through a system of federal states. [5] However, after independence, neither the colonial authorities nor the post-colonial local governments ever seriously considered introducing a federal system to reconcile the claims of different ethnic identity groups.

Tamil federalism concepts

The strongest support for federalism as a solution to the growing ethno-political tensions between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority came from the 1950s Federal Party. Your guide S.J.V. For more than two decades Chelvanayakam fought for a relaxation of ethnic differences by advocating a federal solution within a united state. The proposals and demands of the Federal Party After a federal solution, four objectives comprised:

1) Federalism or Autonomy for the Northeast: In detail, the proposal contained a federal Ceylon union consisting of two Tamil-speaking provinces in the north and east and seven Sinhala provinces. The merger of the two Tamil provinces was initially not sought. The emphasis was on the loose character of a federalism, which should be suitable for establishing an appropriate division of executive power between the Tamil-speaking sections of the population in their respective traditional homeland and other groups of local importance (Wilson 2000: 90f.).

2) Equal and equal status for Sinhala and Tamil: With regard to language policy, the Federal Party understood the "parity of official status" to mean that Tamil should be made the administrative and judicial language in the two Tamil provinces and that regulations should also be enacted that enable the Tamil-speaking population in the seven Sinhala provinces to conduct their official business in a language they understand. In the Indo-Lanka peace agreement, the J.R. Jayawardene finally initiated legislation for national recognition of both languages. However, the implementation of this promise still seems insufficient.

3) Citizenship for anyone who made Sri Lanka their permanent home: This demand mainly related to the plantation workers from India in the highlands of Sri Lanka, whom they adopted in 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act Sri Lankan citizenship had been revoked.

4) Ending any government-sponsored colonization of the Northeast that changes demographics: The government-sponsored settlement of Sinhalese families in the north and east of the island has significantly changed the ethnic composition of the population and thus also influenced the outcome of elections at the district level to the disadvantage of the "traditional" Tamil majority settled there. The LTTE has always referred to this policy as the colonization of the Northeast (cf. Wilson 2000: 82).

The proposals were based on the example of India with its cooperative model of federalism with a strong center (cf. Warnapala 1994). There were indications that the respective ruling party was accepting the proposals of the Federal Party would record.

The Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact of July 1957 and the Senanayake Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 were both agreements between the Federal Party and the respective ruling party, which had as its goal the implementation of federal structures. Both attempts were unsuccessful, however, as they were either undermined by the next change of government or fizzled out by sitting out the ruling party.

A clear departure from the far-reaching federalization concept of Federal Party represented the new constitution of 1972. This emphasizes the unified character of the state with an outstanding position of Buddhism, which was formulated again in the 1978 constitution.

Between 1972 and 1975, just a few years before Chelvanayakam's death, that changed Federal Party their political strategy and began to demand a separatist solution: "If the Tamils ​​want to live in self-respect, there is no alternative but to fight to the end for Tamil Eelam, a state of the Tamils" (quoted in Wilson 2000: 108 ) [6] This change of heart was the result of 20 years of experience with various Sinhala governments who either rejected a federal solution or - in some cases - agreed to it, but knew how to prevent implementation. [7] Wilson sees the nationalist and discriminatory policies of the government of Srimaro Bandaranaike as the catalyst behind the uprising of Tamil nationalism for an independent state, in particular the tightening of admission requirements for universities against Tamil students. Wagner shows that any compromise in the sense of a federal-state structure was blocked by the strong resistance of the Buddhist nationalist movement, which claimed that the Sinhalese population was discriminated against the Tamils ​​and thus opened the door to a 'Sinhalization policy' (Wagner 1997: 203 ). The adoption of this Sinhala nationalist policy by the two leading parties put the legitimacy of the state of Sri Lanka in question. It signified a departure from the concept of the secular state, which guarantees all citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation, the same rights and opportunities (Wagner 1997: 203).

The discussion after the Indo-Lanka peace agreement

With the Indo-Lanka Peace Agreement of 1987, the debate about federalism began to move again. With the introduction of a system of provincial councils, a path of symmetrical decentralization was chosen in all regions of the country. This solution was preferred to an asymmetrical distribution of power, in which only the northeastern province with a majority Tamil population would have been granted autonomy. Ghai remarks that the symmetrical transfer of power to all eight provinces was politically easier to implement than an autonomous solution for the north and east of the country (Ghai 2000: 18).

The Federal Party (TULF) redefined its demand for the creation of an Eelam state in the 1989 federal formula. [8] She spoke out in favor of a "Union of States" or, later, a "Union of Regions" for a political solution to the conflict. These terms have been adopted in various decentralization proposals made by the government of the People's Alliance and the opposition parties after 1994.

An important aspect of the earlier debate about federalism, which has had a lasting influence on the discussion to this day, is the fact that the term "federalism" was often misunderstood or polarized in the dispute between certain political parties. Wilson states that it is quite possible that Sinhala MPs understood the concept of federalism only in its slang meaning, which was synonymous with a "division of the country" (Wilson 2000: 104). The reason given for this misunderstanding is that the Federal Party discussed the idea of ​​a federation between north-east Sri Lanka and south India before making proposals for a federal system in Sri Lanka (Warnapala 1994: 127). This original idea of ​​"secession from Sri Lanka" aroused fear and suspicion among the Sinhala majority, and Sinhala politicians often recalled it to argue against a federal solution. The discussion about the name of the Federal Party: Literally translated from Tamil it reads "Ceylon Tamil State or Government Party". Although leading politicians of the Federal Party repeatedly pointed out that "state" here meant a unit within a federation and not a sovereign state, the populist opinion was that the Federal Party ultimately seek the division of the country through the creation of a separate Tamil state. Another source of misunderstanding was the fact that many academics and politicians believe that two independent states are needed before Sri Lanka can become a federal state (cf. Edrisinha 2001: 25). Regarding the anti-federal tendencies, the Federal Party firmly. "Those who say that a federation will lead to partition are either not clear about the meaning of the term or they are trying to distort the real meaning for dishonest political purposes" (quoted in Wilson 2000: 91).

The rehabilitation of the concept of "federalism"

Until shortly before the signing of the 2002 peace agreement, there was reluctance to use the term federalism in the debate about a political solution. Before the peace talks began, G.L. Peiris, one of the ministers who worked in the lead on constitutional reform until 2004, said it was time to familiarize the population with the model of federalism by reintroducing the term into the political discussion. In the past, politicians used the term decentralization (Devolution of Power) preferred over the word federalism. With the breakthrough at the peace talks in Oslo, where the LTTE publicly recognized the option of a federal solution to the ethnic conflict for the first time under the condition of extensive autonomy for the north and east, the term federalism suddenly found its way into the public discourse. Newspaper articles appear daily on the concept and comparative studies on federal structures. In addition, federally organized countries such as Canada, Germany or Switzerland offer advice to the conflicting parties. [9] With this, federalism has changed from a taboo term to a fashion word and is now the great hope for Sri Lanka's peace process. According to Schindler, however, federalism is not a solution to an acute conflict, but rather a means of preventing hostilities (Schindler 1993: 37). After the end of a war, the establishment of a federation based on equal rights for the conflicting parties can successfully prevent future conflicts from breaking out. In this regard, the peace agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has created the necessary basis on which the debate on federalism can resume. The peace process thus offers the prospect of a future federal structure for Sri Lanka.

A basis for the resumption of the peace talks is the draft for a "transitional government" submitted by the LTTE in November 2003 (Interim Self-Governing Authority - ISGA) for the north and east. This could pave the way for the implementation of the first federal structures. The LTTE's detailed proposal has not met with a positive response from all Sri Lankan identity groups, but the LTTE has declared the draft to be negotiable. One point of criticism of the LTTE's proposal is the repeated emphasis on 'self-government', while there are no references to the need to formulate common rules of procedure and laws. However, it is precisely this minimal basic consensus on the design of joint decision-making procedures and the separation of powers that is of decisive importance for the implementation of functioning federal structures (Ferdinands / Rupesinghe / Saravanamuttu et al. 2004:3).

In the more recent debate it has been emphasized that a federal solution for Sri Lanka requires the recognition of the Tamil population, who mainly live in the north and east, as a separate ethnic group with a specific cultural identity. Since this recognition is one of the core demands of the Tamil national movement, it is necessary to recognize the north and east as the historical home of the Tamil minority. However, the recognition of a Tamil nation should in no way diminish the political status of the Muslim and Sinhalese populations living in the north and east. The same applies to the members of ethnic minorities who do not live in the north-east of Sri Lanka, in particular to the Tamil plantation workers (cf. Rupasinghe 2003: 9). However, it is precisely this aspect of comprehensive minority protection that is still neglected in the LTTE proposal. The federal option, if it is to be a solution to the longstanding conflict, would have to guarantee protection of minorities for all ethnic groups in all parts of the country. This also presupposes that the interests of all identity groups are adequately represented in the next round of negotiations.


[1] The LTTE has tried in the past to enforce its demands by violent means, in particular suicide bombings against government officials or bomb attacks on buildings representing the state. In the past decade, large areas of the northeast have been de facto under the power of the LTTE, which has even set up its own courts of law in the areas it has occupied.

[2] Between September 2002 and March 2003, several rounds of negotiations took place on international soil. Since mid-2003, the rounds of negotiations have only been interrupted once for the time being due to various problems. It is now up to the People’s Alliance, re-elected in 2004 (coalition party made up of the SLFP and various smaller parties) to resume negotiations with the LTTE.

[3] S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951 and was elected Prime Minister in the third parliamentary elections after Sri Lanka's independence.

[4] Bandaranaike spoke of the earlier mourning sabhas as "loose federations" held together by a common oath to the king.

The Kandyan Sinhalese sought the establishment of three different states, one for the Kandyan Sinhalese, one for the Sinhalese of the lowlands and one for the Tamil provinces.

[6] Wilson notes that the requirement for a separate state was a far simpler concept than the earlier calls for a federal system. Accordingly, it quickly achieved high popularity (Wilson 2000).

[7] An interesting account of the Federal Party's struggle for a federal solution to the ethnic conflict and the reactions of the dominant United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party can be found in Wilson 2000.

[8] Since 1992 there has been a consensus between the following Tamil parties on the need for a federal solution: Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). In contrast, the leader of the Tamil people in the highland plantations, A. Tondaman, spoke out against such a solution.

[9] see Pravada, Vol.8, No.4, 2000: "Federalist Option"; Daily Mirror, January 11, 2003; Federalism and Institutions (Nancy Bermeo); Daily Mirror, January 9, 2003: "Search for Federal Structures" (Vasana Wickremasena); Sunday Observer, January 12, 2003: Federal Solution. Towards Greater Democracy (Ajith Rupasinghe); Daily Mirror, January 14, 2003: "All-party Team to Study Federalism"; Northeastern Herald, January 17, 2003: "Federalism in Sri Lanka - Is it the Way Out?"

This post belongs to the focus: Between War and Peace.


  • Edrisinha, Rohan. 2001. ‘Meeting Tamil Aspirations within a United Lanka: Constitutional Options’. Discussion paper. Center for Policy Alternatives,, accessed August 28, 2002.
  • Ferdinands / Rupesinghe / Saravanamuttu et al. 2004: ‘Sri Lankan Peace Process at Crossroads: Lessons, Opportunities and Ideas for Principled Negotiations and Conflict Transformation’, Colombo: Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies
  • Ghai, Yash (ed.). 2000. Autonomy and Ethnicity. Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-Ethnic States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rupasinghe, Sunday Observer, Colombo, 12.1.2003, p.9
  • Schindler, Dietrich. 1993. ‘Philosophy and instruments of federalism’, in: Swiss Institute for International Research. Federalism: means of conflict management. Chur: Rügger. 23-38.
  • Wagner, Christian. 1997. ‘Sri Lanka - Crisis in Legitimacy’, in: Mitra, Subrata K., Rothermund, Dietmar (eds.). Legitimacy and Conflict in South Asia. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers. 194-206.
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