The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on constitutional reform focused on devolution of powers met for the first time on July 9 without the participation of opposition parties including the Tamil National Alliance TNA). On the same day, the Indian National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the thorny issue of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, under which the provincial councils were established. Rajapaksa, while explaining the difficulties in devolving land and police powers to provinces, however stressed that he would accept whatever the proposal emerges out of PSC deliberations and requested Menon to use his good offices to urge the TNA to join the PSC.
These two important developments took place in the back drop of mounting opposition within the government for strengthening of provincial council powers. While the vast majority of the country, perhaps including President Rajapaksa himself believe that the provincial council system is a ‘white elephant,’ as openly described by no lesser person than Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga in his twitter, there is a universal acceptance that the Tamil majority provinces should have the right to manage their affairs under a substantial devolution package.
Although Sri Lanka has given an assurance to India during Rajapaksa-Manmohan talks in July 2010 and subsequently to UN Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon that the government would go beyond the 13th amendment to devolve substantial powers to Tamil majority areas, neither India nor the UNSG asked Colombo to specify the meaning of 13 plus. During one of the Indo-Lanka pow-wows in New Delhi, when Rajapaksa evaded the elaboration of his ‘13 plus’ promise, Menon himself asked if it was to establish an upper house to the parliament to ensure more minority participation and Rajapaksa nodded in affirmation.
The 13th amendment was introduced to create provincial councils as a follow up action on Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 to devolve powers to the Tamil majority north and east. However, the then President J R Jayewardene’s government, decided to set up 9 provincial councils for the entire Island-Nation in order to scuttle the mounting opposition to devolution of powers to Tamil areas. While the main opposition, including Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) decided to boycott the 1989 provincial council elections, they later entered the fray after realizing that the then ruling United National Party succeeded in building up a powerful second level political power structure through provincial councils.
The PC members enjoyed all the privileges enjoyed by central ministers, deputies and parliamentarians including duty free car permits, free fuel and various subsidies and benefits and gradually expanded their power bases to became a major asset to the party. First the SLFP and then JVP too realized their folly of boycott, and contested the subsequent PC elections and later the SLFP-lead alliance wrested power of all the seven provincial councils in the south. Although the central government did not devolve land and police powers to the provinces, the councilors were given all the perks enjoyed by the central parliamentarians, thus giving a clear impression to the masses that the PCs are nothing but ‘white elephants’.
Even at the height of the war against Tamil Tigers in May 2009, India was aware that it would not be prudent to expect Rajapaksa to keep his promise on 13 plus. A Wikileaks cabal revealed that the U.S. sought a bigger role in pushing a political solution for Tamils but was kept at bay by India. According to the cable, (then) Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon told the U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Peter Burleigh on May 15, 2009 that the Sri Lankan government had reassured India that “the government would focus on the implementation of the 13th Amendment Plus as soon as possible, but Menon was skeptical.” (207268: confidential, May 15, 2009).
The Sinhalese majority is opposed to the devolving of land and police powers to the Northern Provinces, mainly because of the bitter experience of 1990 when the first and only elected Chief Minister of temporarily amalgamated North and East Provinces, Vartharaja Perumal made a Declaration of Unilateral Independence. It was made worse by the visible Indian hand in the episode as Perumal left the country with the returning Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and sought political asylum in India.
In the circumstances it is essential to find a solution acceptable to a substantial section –if not the majority – of all the communities. Hence, a consensus through the PSC will go a long way to allay fears –unfounded or real- in the majority community. The TNA argues that there was no point in another PSC as the issue has already been thrashed out at several all party confabs during the last 30 years. However, one should not forget that for a long lasting solution it is essential to find consensus among major parties representing different communities.
There is a crucial role for the TNA as well as the main opposition, UNP in this national issue of paramount importance. The TNA and UNP will find a considerable support base among the government side for a reasonable devolution package as already four ministers, Rajitha Senaratne (SLFP), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (New Left Front), Tissa Vitharana (Samasamaja Party - Socialist) and D E W Gunasekera (Communist) have openly stated that the 13th amendment should be implemented in full and three of them are in the 19-member government team in the PSC. If the TNA, UNP and JVP eventually agree to fill the remaining 12 seats in the PSC, they will find a sizeable support from the treasury benches for a consensus formula.
To follow the rest of the debate, click:
• N Manoharan, "Reconciling Differing Viewpoints", IPCS Commentary #4025
• V Suryanarayan, "Welcome Changes in India’s Policy", IPCS Commentary #4022
• V Suryanarayan, "Tamil Disenchantment", IPCS Commentary #4012