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The Federalism Option
It's been tried, but a new model is needed

Living on the Edge of Terror: Sometimes, only those caught up unwillingly in Asia's ethnic tugs-of-war can see clearly enough to pull for peace

Increasingly, states in Asia are coming to terms with a dangerous legacy of colonialism: boundaries seemingly drawn at random, without thought to internal lines of ethnicity, religion or race. Often, federalism is touted as a possible solution to the resulting tensions, since it allows for separate and coordinate units of government (national and regional) to have distinct and overlapping jurisdictions. Currently, federalism is used to try to resolve differences within vast states. It creates relatively homogenous units able to conduct their own affairs, but still responsible in some realms to a central government.

One problem is that federalism is seen as a panacea for all woes, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of each state. It has not been particularly effective, for example, in subduing separatist movements in Canada or Nigeria. In Asia, Indonesia, the Phil-ippines and Sri Lanka are all discussing federal possibilities. But it is wrong to simply assume that anything that worked in the West will work in Asia. Here's why:

Indonesia: Although the country was established as a federation of 15 autonomous states in November 1949, this structure was abandoned less than a year later in favor of a highly centralized system. The fear was that a federal organization would facilitate disintegration and weaken the identity of the people as Indonesians. The Regional Autonomy Bill, which could take effect at the beginning of 2001, promises more power and government funds to the provinces. But will mere autonomy satisfy the Acehnese, who have demanded freedom for years? Maluku declared independence in 1950, only to be taken back forcibly by the military. A form of federalism may be enough for the Malukus, where bloodshed is recent, but it may not be possible. Opponents claim it is against the Constitution.

Philippines: To deal with war and development problems in Mindanao, the Senate is examining federalism as a means to resolve provincial disparities. The proposal by policial scientist Jose Abueva envisages a two-stage transformation from the decentralized unitary system to a federal system by 2010. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, however, wants a separate nation, not autonomy. Compromise is needed.

Sri Lanka: Previous attempts at devolution, notably in the 1980s, failed mainly because there was no clear delineation of powers to be devolved. Unanimous agreement from Tamil parties also was absent. Last month the Tamil Tigers refused to address a government devolution plan unless Tamil self-determination was examined first. Secession, it seems, is non-negotiable.

Present models of federalism presuppose a transparent democratic framework, a strong and independent judiciary to resolve jurisdiction disputes, and parties willing to bargain without resorting to violence. The fear in such countries as Indonesia is that federalism will simply foster increased regionalism, causing more enmity. If it is to work, a purely Asian solution must be devised — one not based on experiences in North America and Europe, but on the more complex and violent conflicts of former colonies.

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