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Rajan Sriskandarajah

Aaland - An example to Sri Lanka?
A Response to Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai

6 August 2006

 I was quite intrigued by Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai’s article titled “Aaland’s Autonomy: an Example to Sri Lanka” [Northeastern Herald - August 2006], and I am not sure if this is the best example for Sri Lanka to adopt. 

Let us first look at what Aland has. 

Background: Aland (or Aaland) is one of the six provinces of Finland.  It is the tiniest of them all (No. 6 in the map), with a population of a mere 26,000 people (2005 est.). Finland’s population is 5.3 million strong. The people of Aland are Swedish speaking, whereas the other five provinces are Finnish speakers.  

Both Finnish (spoken by 95% of Finland people) and Swedish (5%) are official languages of Finland, despite such vast numerical inequality.

Aland enjoys a special status among Finland’s six provinces. It has an elected 30 member parliament (called Lagting) that has control over all its internal affairs. Aland has its own police force, its own national flag, postage stamps, etc., and is an independent member of an organization of Nordic countries (Nordic Council). Aland province is totally demilitarized (it doesn’t have its own army, and Finland’s army is prohibited from being stationed there). Its population is also exempt from Finland’s compulsory military service. The other five provinces have no such privileges – not even their own parliaments. 

Wow! A tiny province with a mere 0.5% of the population of a country enjoying such autonomous status! 

Sri Lanka: The reason why I think this will not work in Sri Lanka has to do with the powers vested in the Central Government of Finland. 

The 200-member Parliament of Finland (called Eduskunta) is the supreme authority in Finland. It has absolute power to enact any law it pleases, even alter the constitution, and also override the President of the country. Its Acts are not subject to judicial review. In spite of such enormous concentration of powers, things have worked well so far, especially in terms of Aland autonomy. This is because the supreme parliament of Finland has chosen not to infringe on the autonomy of Aland. The 200 member Finnish parliament has only one representative from Aland. It has been said that, “In the course of the 20th century, the Finnish sovereignty has been perceived as benevolent, and even beneficial (to the Alanders)”. 

Now, contrast this with the performance of the Sri Lanka government (GOSL), which is also endowed with similar powers. I do not need resubmit the lengthy history of the numerous legislative and executive actions of the Sri Lanka government against the Tamils, to make my point. But, the fact that the GOSL has not only used powers in its ‘legal’ armamentaria against the Tamils, but also found ‘loop-holes’ in the then existing laws to do harm to Tamil interests, requires emphasis. 

The Citizenship Acts (1948 and 1949) to disenfranchise a million Tamils were drafted cleverly to circumvent the then existing constitutional prohibition (Section 26) against such laws. Everyone knows that these Acts were targeted against a section of the Tamils, but the way it was crafted was enough to pass legal muster. Sinhala Only act (1956) violated the same constitutional prohibition even more brazenly, but when it faced legal challenges, the Government of Sri Lanka changed the constitution! The constitution was changed to fit the law!! 

I can go on, but the point is, if the central government of Sri Lanka, as it is currently constituted, is kept intact, no amount of autonomy for the northeast will bring satisfaction. 

Better examples…

If we must look for examples (indeed we must, to gain greater knowledge on the subject), there are others. The Bosnia-Herzegovina arrangement, for example, is a better one. 

The Bosnia-Herzegovina constitution (1 December 1995) created three governmental bodies - A Central Government called ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina’, and two Regional Governments: ‘the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and ‘the Republika Srpska’. 

The role of the central government in this arrangement is very limited. Article III Para 1 of its constitution limits the role of the central government to TEN subjects, such as ‘foreign policy’, ‘foreign trade policy’, ‘customs policy’, etc. See endnote below for a complete list[i]

The rest of the governing powers are vested in the Regional Governments. These are powers over the internal matters of each region. This separation of duties of the central and the regional governments is absolute. In fact, this concept is enshrined in the constitution. Article III Para 3 (a) reads:

“All governmental functions and powers not expressly assigned in this Constitution to the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (central government) shall be those of the Entities (regional governments)”. [Insertion of parentheses is mine]. 

There are other safeguards in this constitution to prevent hegemony of one group over the other, but for the sake of brevity I shall refrain from the details. 

Bosnia & Herzegovina and Finland, which are similar in population size (4.5 million vs. 5.3 million), have two different arrangements for their diverse ethnic constituents, and we should ask why. The government of Finland which has vast powers, with which it could have abused its tiny minority (0.5% of its population), chose to be ‘benevolent’ and ‘beneficial’. Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, on the other hand, killed each other on a massive scale, just for ‘hegemonic powers’. 

Which type of arrangement would be better for Sri Lanka?

[i] Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Article III: Responsibilities of and Relations Between The Institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina And the Entities - Paragraph 1 Responsibilities of the Institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina 

The following matters are the responsibility of the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina:
(a) Foreign policy.
(b) Foreign trade policy.
(c) Customs policy.
(d) Monetary policy as provided in Article VII.
(e) Finances of the institutions and for the international obligations of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
(f) Immigration, refugee, and asylum policy and regulation.
(g) International and inter-Entity criminal law enforcement, including relations with Interpol.
(h) Establishment and operation of common and international communications facilities.
(i) Regulation of inter-Entity transportation.
(j) Air traffic control.

Aaland’s autonomy an example to Sri Lanka
- Professor Bertram Bastiampillai, Source: Northeastern Herald - August 2006

For over 50 years since independence (1948), Sri Lanka has been confronted by political discord, first between the majority rulers, the Sinhalese and the hill country Tamils (descendants of Tamils of recent Indian origin who have been here since the 1820s) and later with other communities on the island.

In 1956, Sinhala was declared the sole official language of the country ignoring the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people including large numbers of Muslims from the north and east and elsewhere. The victims included the Eurasians popularly called Burghers whose mother tongue was English, and Malays who were mostly Tamil speaking.

The inevitable consequence was agitation by the Tamils, especially in the northeast. The Sinhalese response was unleashing anti-Tamil riots to suppress such agitation.

Further, Buddhists do not live in distinct territories. The Christians too are spread island-wide and the Muslims, observing Islam, are also spread out in the country. But Buddhism alone received constitutional prominence on a special, superior level.

Sri Lanka was never a nation in a true sense. People did not get integrated to build a nation, but remained separate and distinctive within Sri Lanka. A cohesive nationalism against even foreign rule among local inhabitants never developed. British imperial rule did not unify people in Sri Lanka to combat colonial domination, while in India such opposition was potent.

On the contrary our demand for freedom was based on petitions and prayers to British overlords submitted principally and largely by Sinhala elites with their negligible number of Tamil associates. These Tamils also had elites divorced from the common people of the north and east.

Later however these Tamil elites found that they could not work together with their Sinhalese counterparts, and the Tamil liberal leader Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam resigned from the Chair and membership of the Ceylon National Congress which with the Buddhist renaissance was turning out to be more pro-Sinhalese than he cared to tolerate.

Attempts to sort out differences between Sinhalese and Tamils failed many a time. In 1957 an agreement between Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Tamil leader of the Federal Party, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, had to be annulled at the insistence of intolerant Sinhalese headed by Buddhist monks. Similarly, another agreement between Premier Dudley Senanayake and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam was never introduced in 1966.

When India mediated in Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem which had by the 1980s become intractable, a settlement was announced through the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1987). But the settlement was soon watered down as Premier (later president) R. Premadasa and some of his colleagues in the UNP were opposed to being liberal and fair by the Tamils.
comment by tamilnation.org  "Did the so called  'settlement' have the agreement of the Tamil people? Here Velupillai Pirabakaran's Suthumalai speech on 4 August 1987 may be of some relevance. He said - "You are aware that this Agreement, concluded suddenly in haste between India and Sri Lanka, without consulting us as the representatives of our people, is being implemented with expedition and urgency. "

And in reality, were the annexures to the so called 'settlement' more significant than the actual 'settlement'. Here too, Velupillai Pirabakaran's remarks are relevant - "The Agreement  is not primarily concerned about the Tamil question. It is essentially a bi-lateral Agreement concerned with Indo-Sri Lanka relations. There are obligations in the Agreement that binds Sri Lanka to India's geo-strategic sphere of influence."

Finally, was the so called  'settlement' and the 13th Amendment 'watered down' by President Premadasa or was the 13 Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution from its inception a comic opera?"

District development councils (DDCs) of 1980 and later the provincial councils system proved futile and provided no satisfactory solutions to Tamil expectations. Linguistic nationalism and resurgence of extreme Buddhist demands thwarted the grant of even limited concessions to the Tamils for a place under the sun. Today, the north and east remains without a provincial council, while, ironically, councils are functioning in Sinhala areas.

If there is a will to solve the Tamil problem one can think of examples as that of accommodation of the demands of minority communities in Catalonia, Spain, or in Aaland and its executive council under the Autonomy Act in Finland. The Act is the basis of Aaland’s autonomy, enacted by Finland’s parliament, and accepted by the Aaland Islands.


This Act permits Aaland parliament to enact laws on education and culture, health and medical services, promotion of industry, internal communications, local district administration and local police services. Right to own and hold real estate has been restricted to preserve land for the Aalander.

Finland retains powers over posts, customs and monetary matters, courts of justice, and the penal code, most aspects of civil law and foreign administration. Aaland has an elected representative in the Finnish parliament to safeguard Aaland’s interests. Aaland has no armed forces and no independent fortification can exist there. Aaland is also not nuclear.

Aaland’s parliament of 30 members is elected every four years by secret proportional ballot and the minimum voting age is 18 years. Political groups in Aaland are independent. Finland collects taxes, customs dues and charges in Aaland as in Finland. Outlays for Aaland are borne through an allocation in the state budget placed at disposal of Aaland’s parliament. Aaland Islands receive similar benefits as other areas of Finland with special concern for the autonomy of Aaland.

Likewise, Sri Lanka’s north and east too can receive special consideration for neglected development or damages caused by skirmishes. Economic action in Aaland is free owing to self-government.

Yet, there is supervision of the laws passed by Aaland’s parliament by the Finnish president. The president vetoes acts which are beyond Aaland’s legislative competence. The Aaland delegation, half appointed by Finland and other half by the Aaland parliament supervises to check that Aaland does not exceed limits of self-administration.

Aaland’s executive council is the government of Aaland which drafts and effects matters regarding autonomy. This executive council is appointed by the Aaland parliament on parliamentary principles after discussion between political groups. This is to ensure that the executive council takes action desired by a majority and no minority government is permitted.

To assist it, the executive council has administrative machinery comprising a Central Board with six departments. The Aaland government executes the will of the administration in all spheres under autonomy, devolved upon Aaland authorities instead of the Finnish state. Various ministries, a cabinet and administration boards such as housing or education boards carry on work inside Aaland.

Originally Aaland belonged to Sweden but occasionally with an autonomous administration. In the 1808-1809 war, Sweden was forced to surrender Finland and Aaland to Russia. When the Russian empire disintegrated in 1917 Aaland planned to reunite with Sweden. Finland did not wish to comply with Aalands’s wish but agreed to allow Aaland some internal self-government by a decision under Finland Parliament Act of 1920. But Alanders did not like this. However, the League of Nations decided that Finland should be sovereign over Aaland in 1921. Finland agreed to comply with Aaland’s wishes but enacted an Autonomy Act in 1922 when the first election to Aaland’s parliament was conducted.

Apart from Aaland there are many other autonomous regions which offer examples that Sri Lanka can profitably follow instead of being vexed continually with a Sinhala-Tamil problem and constant bickering and belligerence. Then alone could the island enjoy peace and stability. Sri Lankans should divert their intelligence and industry to build peace rather than encourage violent conflict.


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