Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 108

Here He Goes Again: Misrepresenting the Other While Waving the Federalism Flag

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

Following his trademark habit as displayed in the first article (18.02.2007), Professor Fernando keeps distorting and misrepresenting my writing in his second article published in The Asian Tribune (25.02.2007). In my previous articles in The Asian Tribune (15.02.2007 and 20.02.2007), I did not claim that there was a continuous unitary concept (or a unitary state in reality) in Sri Lanka from the Kandyan Kingdom to the present day. To say this authoritatively, I should have done historical research and provided corresponding evidence.
Dr. Siri Gamage:  "I thought that Michael Roberts book provides information and analysis about the historical context, which gave rise to a concept like 'unitary state'. (Book Jacket)" Dr. Siri Gamage: "I thought that Michael Roberts book provides information and analysis about the historical context, which gave rise to a concept like 'unitary state'. (Book Jacket)"
I am not a historian. I leave this task of proving this contention or disproving it to the historians and political historians. In my first article (15.02.2007), I referred to the work of a historian cum anthropologist who published a book on the Kandyan Kingdom or Sinhale as he calls it.

However, in his two articles Fernando charges me as if I had argued that a continuous unitary state concept or unitary state in reality existed in the consciousness of the Sinhalese from the Kandyan Kingdom to the present day. I categorically denied this assertion by Fernando before. Yet in his latest article he continues to misrepresent my position and criticize me assuming that I claimed a continuous existence of a unitary state concept in Sri Lanka. It seems that once he is obsessed with a point of his own creation, he cannot see anything else even after my denials of the claim! What a tragedy indeed?

According to Fernando, One of my bad habits is writing the following:

"The thrust of Roberts' book, which has been compiled after meticulous analysis of various sources (Unlike Professor Fernando's outburst), seems to suggest that there has been continuity in the Sinhalese consciousness and identity over the centuries."

My reference to 'centuries' in the previous article was a reference to centuries up to the Kandyan period. This clarification is essential because Fernando has interpreted this to mean that it meant 'Sinhala consciousnesses continued from the Kandyan period to the present day'. He has chosen to interpret my statement to fit his argument. Fernando must understand that I mentioned the above in the context of the period examined by Roberts. Yet as Fernando was firing all guns at me with a vengeance, he takes my statement out of the context and then charges me as if I was referring to the post -Sinhale period. Taking a statement out of the context and charging the author is a common strategy deployed by politically motivated academic Kattadiyas - not by political scientists of repute who generally give balanced views. I am open to fair criticism but not those based on distortions and misrepresentations. I cannot be blamed for a claim or an interpretation that I did not make in the first place.

To go beyond the binary debate his solution is for others to drop the unitary state concept. He says otherwise people will deify and reify the unitary state concept. Reification means taking a 'concept' as 'reality'. So the Professor's solution to solve the binary issue and to solve Sri Lanka's ethno-national conflict is to go for a full federal system of governance while deleting references to unitary state. I doubt whether President Rajapaksa or his government will buy this - even though Fernando claims that he has lectured him in his presence while the President was the Prime Minister.

Fernando has no stomach to examine or evaluate whether there are any reasonable arguments on the part of those who advocate a unitary system with a degree of devolution of power to the regions, or to see if there are compromises to be made between the two conceptions of governance. Only thing he knows like a mantra is to chant federalism, federalism and federalism for Sri Lanka! Anyone else who even mentions the word 'unitary' triggers a lot of anger in him. If he is angry only one can disregard it thinking it is a personal issue. But he takes further steps by attributing false meanings to what others' say and then start criticizing others from a strict (I must say blind) federalist standpoint. This sort of obsession with a single solution colored by heavy ideology to a complex problem like the ethno-nationalist problem in Sri Lanka does not help build bridges between contending parties and diverse constituencies either. It only helps to marginalize the other except the few who support extreme or strict federalism.

He asks me why I didn't give a balanced view about federalism and unitary state concepts in my first article. Isn't it funny that Fernando is now charging me for things I did not do in the original article? My article was not meant to give a dry lecture on federalism in Sri Lanka. It's aim was to refer to the work of Michael Roberts about Sinhale. Fernando speaks about a balanced treatment but he himself has provided only an imbalanced treatment of the subject in his article! Instead of giving a balanced treatment of the two concepts, he is waving the flag of federalism as he has been doing during the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga years. The Sri Lankan parliament did not support the so-called 'devolution package' during Chandrika years. The politics, leadership and the country have moved much from that era in quite substantial ways by 2007. If Fernando couldn't succeed in his valiant efforts to ideologize the others to his federal doctrine, I do not think he is able to convert thinking people in Sri Lanka today given the changed ground conditions. Thus one can understand his frustrations. But why should I become the target for his predicament?

In a nutshell, he is engaging in a game of shadow boxing, i.e. targeting me for something I did not claim or argue and then criticizing me. Perhaps he finds an easy target in me to argue his well-known position (as he claims in his latest article dated 25.02.2007), which is supportive of a federalist solution to the political problem with the LTTE. There are many vocal and articulate spokespeople in Sri Lanka in all spheres of society who support a unitary state. Professor Fernando is best to approach them or start criticizing them without wasting his time to unduly extrapolate the points I made in my article/s and thus misrepresent the same. I did not seek a controversy with an ardent federalist like Fernando when I put pen to write my first article.

He fears that I am attempting to deify and reify the unitary state or the corresponding concept and carry the unitary state flag all the way to the Kandyan period. He should not fear this. I am not a historian to systematically analyze the historical sources and try to prove this. However, I am aware that Michael Roberts is continuing his research to cover the later period as well and perhaps his work will illuminate this aspect better. As far as I am aware, I did not 'prejudice the research and the author' under review. If I did, he would come out and indicate this openly. Therefore, Fernando does not need to worry about this aspect.

Fernando further states the following:

'I also disputed his linking of violence in Sri Lanka, in 1983 and 1987-89, to the 'Sinhala psyche' and the cultural roots thereof, and named such efforts as 'academic sorcery,' to mean unscientificŠ..Why Dr. Gamage didn't answer my questioning of his attempt (based on Roberts of course) to link violence (including decapitation and dismemberment!) in Sri Lanka in 1983 and 1987-89 to 'Sinhala psyche' and cultural practices? I propose that he explains his position' (Asian Tribune - 25.02.2007).

This is yet another distortion and misinterpretation of my original paragraph which I wrote in reference to the work of Roberts. I reproduce the paragraph in question below for the readers to independently understand the extent to which Fernando is willing to misrepresent my writing and find an opponent to advance his federalist arguments.

Referring to the book by Roberts I stated,

'The book contains valuable insights and interpretations about the practices adopted by contending parties during the violent periods in 1983, and 1989-90,e.g. acts of mutilation and decapitation as part of the politics of terror defusing fear in the whole body politic and local areas (2003: 152). He asks the question as to why the dismemberment has been such a favoured tool of punishment in Sri Lanka during periods of political upheaval. Coupled with accounts of sorcery and similar practices including war poems, Roberts provides a fascinating interpretation to the manner by which the polity performed during times of peace and conflict in Sinhale' (Asian Tribune -15.02.2007).

Did I link Sinhalese Psyche with this sort of violence? In the above article, immediately after the above paragraph I raised some questions that other scholars could examine in the context of continuing thinking and practices of the Sinhalese. If I claimed a continuation of Sinhala consciousness based on unitary state concept, why should I raise a series of questions in my first article? Obviously Fernando can't see this as it is. He likes to see my writing only with federalist sunglasses, which he seems to wear even in darkness, to suit his shadow boxing game.

Fernando has even started to read my mind now! Look at what he says about my potential reaction to his latest article:

'Under the above circumstances, I am not interested in continuing this debate any further although I understand that he would be delighted to do so' (Asian Tribune - 25.02.2007).

Q. How did he know that I would be delighted to continue the debate? Is he using a mystical methodology of some sort to read my mind, or did he realize that his response was so far out of the way that I would write a reply for sure?

As a political scientist he should know that in a pluralist country like Sri Lanka diverse political opinions exist. Yet why does he find the presence of those who argue for a unitary state an obstacle to finding an amicable solution to the ethno-political conflict? He is obviously in no position to tolerate opposing views, ie. Unitary views, Or acknowledge the existence of a Sinhalese collective consciousness relating to it today. If he has his way, Sri Lanka would have been a federal state decades ago. On my part, I do not subscribe to an extreme view taken out of the western political science text book -whether it is a federal or unitary solution to Sri Lanka's ethno-political conflict. All reasonable options have to be explored to make the country governable for all communities. Rights of the minorities cannot be at the expense of the rights of the majority. By the same token, the rights of the majority cannot be at the expense of the rights of minority'.Sri Lanka is a small island with a similar population to Australia's. Any division of power or territory for the purpose of governance has to be conceptualized within a unitary state as many friendly countries and the national government have already emphasized.

The problem with Fernando's argumentation is that he has mastered the art of 'taking my writing out of context to suit his argument'. I wrote my original article in order to alert the readers to the work of Michael Roberts (2003). His explorations about the Sinhale or the Kandyan Kingdom showed me that the concept of a unitary state existed in some form during that period in the minds of those who had power and authority, and it was even reflected in the popular writings, official communications and other expressions. This is why I used the wording in my first article as 'Historical Hints'. I thought that Roberts book provides information and analysis about the historical context, which gave rise to a concept like 'unitary state'. Why should I then write about the historical context or roots about the federal concept? Unlike Fernando, I do not have time to join the bandwagon of federalism for Sri Lanka due to my teaching commitments. If he is so committed to the concept of federalism for Sri Lanka, disregarding the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state, and the ideological and conceptual concomitants flowing from this, or indeed the socio-political contexts that give rise to significant concepts, he should criticize political parties like JHU and JVP, other friendly countries that are supportive of a unitary Sri Lankan state, and even Mahinda Chintana which affirms the unitary state concept. He should criticize the Buddhist monks and their organizations that are supporting the unitary state concept. He should criticize the Sinhalese patriotic organizations that are continuing a campaign against local and foreign propagandists who have a federalist agenda behind their cloaks rather than try to find an unlikely opponent in me to advance his federalist agenda. If he investigates my writings in general (without his federalist sun glasses) he will find that I am not a vigorous opponent of a degree of power devolution.

What Fernando does in his latest article is to describe the origin of unitary state in Sri Lanka from 1947/1972 onwards in a legal and constitutional sense only - as if they existed in a political, social and cultural vacuum. He seems to think that these legal and constitutional concepts did not emerge from a corresponding local social and historical context. He has no time to think about the collective consciousness of Sinhalese people or the social context, which carried these concepts willingly or otherwise. He interprets the unitary constitution as the attempt by one J.R.Jayawardena. It may be convenient for someone like Fernando who is advocating federalism for Sri Lanka to limit himself to legal/constitutional documents only in this way because it then helps him to hide behind constitutional documents. People make constitutions. Constitutions do not make people. Constitutions and laws are socio-political constructions designed to serve powerful interests in society. Dry political science of the modern variety does not teach about this aspect. One has to turn to postmodernist and postcolonial thinking to uncover these critical sociological aspects of constitution making as well as unmaking of nations and societies.

His attempt to paint a picture as if the Sinhalese people did not carry a collective consciousness (ideas, concepts, ideology, feelings, associated views and attitudes) about a unitary state concept for the country and state they live in ‘Even’ in the post-independent period shows the serious limitations in his approach and methodology. On the contrary, it is possibly because the Sinhalese carried such inclinations in their received wisdom and consciousness that they were supportive of each effort made by the national governments since independence to safeguard the national unity, sovereignty and integrity. It is no wonder the Federalist views of a western-educated traditional political science guru like Fernando who has deep reservations about not only such Sinhalese consciousness but also the whole concept of unitary state has become marginal in the current political and academic discourse in Sri Lanka.

Fernando even attempts to provoke Sinhalese and Tamils against me by making irresponsible statements like the following at a politically charged time like the present one:

'Of course the views expressed by Gamage hopefully would not go to the Sinhala readers immediately. But those will immediately be read by a significant section of the Tamil community. It would fuel the suspicions of the Tamil community towards the Sinhala community and make an opportunity for the LTTE to create a major wedge between the two. The effort does not picture the Sinhala community in any positive manner among the international community either. It simply says that Sinhala people are dogmatic, uncompromising and even a 'primitive kind of breed' still harboring the concepts of a kingdom of the 18th century' (Asian Tribune - 25.02.2007).

Does he live in another planet? The views I expressed are well known in the Sri Lankan society and even the Diaspora through media outlets like The Asian Tribune. By trying to convey a false message to the average Sri Lankan as if my views are dangerous, is he really attempting to achieve anything in terms of an intellectual debate, or provoke others against me? Here his intentions seem to be hypocritical rather than noble.

Doesn't he know that there are political parties such as the JVP and JHU that are against a federal solution? Doesn't he know that there are various people's organizations also against federalism? Doesn't he know that the Buddhist hierarchy, i.e. Nikayas, do not support federalism? Doesn't he know that even in the present coalition government there are MPS and Ministers who are not in favour of federalism? Doesn't he remember the contents of Mahinda Chintana? The Sinhalese people do not need me to say that they have a consciousness that subscribes to a 'unitary' state of Sri Lanka. It is already there. Fernando is the one who is having difficulties in convincing the Sinhalese that they should swallow a federal system to address the ethnic minority issues. Take the sunglasses off and try to understand what the people themselves think and say rather than preaching to the Sinhalese as if they are kindergarten kids. No analysis of the kind presented by Fernando will convince the Sinhalese and convert them to his federalist agenda, unless the rights of the average Sinhalese are preserved in full in a sovereign and unitary set up. Thus he needs to look at compromises. Fernando need not worry about my writing going to Sinhalese or Tamil people. The debate in Sri Lanka itself is much advanced now.

There is no doubt that Fernando is using my article/s to advocate his federalist formulae for Sri Lanka. If he did it without attacking my writing and me or by inflating them and distorting the same by taking out of the context, it would have been taken as a credible counter point. What he has done is to create an avenue to wave his federalism flag so openly because the mood in society has changed in Sri Lanka against federalism after the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the president. Fernando has lost an audience in the country for his one-sided views and arguments. Mahinda Chintana, the political manifesto of the President's party commits the government to a unitary sovereign state of Sri Lanka, and he is obviously frustrated.

Fernando criticises me for saying that those who argue for a unitary state in Sri Lanka are more vocal. He asks me where the empirical evidence for this is. Why can't he see the platforms of JHU and JVP as well as many Sinhalese patriotic organizations for evidence? Why can't he see statements like the following by another Sri Lankan political scientist to find evidence?

'A survey done by the Social Indicator in 2004 has revealed that only 44 percent of the respondents support reorganization of the Sri Lankan state on the basis of some form of power-sharing. This relatively weak support for power-sharing may be attributed to multiple reasons' (Sumanasiri Liyanage November 28, 2006- Revisiting the Devolution Debate, Tamil Week

Unlike federalism gurus who thrive on the funds given by well resourced Western NGOs with an agenda to carve out the island into several pieces in the name of maximum devolution of power, and work as de facto proxies of the LTTE in the South, my own view is that as a responsible government, GOSL must explore all options including the unitary state concept within the confines of a democratized framework and a reasonable degree of devolution of power to the regions while preserving the core functions of the Central government. Thankfully the All Party Conference seems to be engaged in just this task.

Unlike Fernando, I am not a blind federalist. For that matter I am not a blind unitarist either. I believe there should be open and frank discussion about various options to solve Sri Lanka's ethno-political conflict. I also believe, as Sumanasiri Liyanage has stated, that we should go beyond the binary debate, i.e. Federalism vs. unitary state, and examine the linkages between the Centre and Regions under a devolved model of governance. This is how we can advance the devolution debate for Sri Lanka - not by attacking each other on flimsy grounds. Michael Roberts himself adopted a non-binary approach in his work regarding Sinhale.

In view of the distortions, misrepresentations and out of context comments/criticisms that Fernando has made thus far regarding my writing in The Asian Tribune, I will not respond to his criticisms and requests for further clarifications. I wish to thank Asian Tribune readers for keeping their faith in substance rather than rhetoric and ideology.

Dr. Siri Gamage Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

Also Read:

* Can We Drop the ‘Federalism vs. Unitary’ Debate and on What Grounds?

* 'Invoking History' - an intellectual Bad Habit: A Response to Professor Laksiri Fernando

* ‘Invoking History’ - an Intellectual Bad Habit: A Response to Dr. Siri Gamage

* Concept of Unitary State and its Roots in the Sinhala Consciousness - Historical Hints from Michael Roberts's 2003 book

Share this