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#3578, 27 February 2012
Devolution in Sri Lanka: The Latest Take
N Manoharan
Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)
email: mailtomanohar@gmail.com

In a recent interview, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa outlined his thoughts on ethnic reconciliation and devolution succinctly: “We are keen on a sustainable political settlement. But it must have wide acceptance, especially in the context of the post-conflict situation.” The key words are “the context of the post-conflict situation.” What does the President mean by this?

There are a few aspects to it. Demographically, the Sri Lankan Tamil community is perhaps on the verge of losing the status of being the largest minority group of the island. In the last island-wide census taken in 1981, it registered at over 12 per cent of the total population. This was when the armed conflict had not broken out. But the latest headcount reveals the community to be around 7-8 per cent due to exodus, emigration, deaths, and even concealment of identity. Yet another demographic reality is, according to the Government of Sri Lanka, more than 50 per cent of Sri Lankan Tamils are to be found outside their ‘homeland’, the northeast of the island.

Politically, due to dwindled numbers and concentration, the community is in the process of losing electoral strength. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is considered to stand for Tamils’ rights, could get only 14 seats in 2010 parliamentary elections as against 22 in 2004. As a result of less numbers in parliament, the TNA is not in a hard bargaining position with the government, which enjoys two-thirds majority. Moreover, disunity among Tamil parties representing the community has made matters worse. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) that is traditionally seen as pro-government has its stronghold in Jaffna; the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), another pro-government Tamil party, is entrenched in the East; the TNA was dubbed as a proxy of the now demised LTTE. All these parties do not see eye-to-eye on any issue and fail to share a common vision for the Tamil community.

Militarily, as long as the LTTE was around, political settlement of the ethnic issue was on the cards. But, after the Tigers’ defeat, the Tamil community has become totally irrelevant to Colombo. This does not mean that one is advocating for a revival of Tamil militancy. The point is that the demise of the LTTE is a step in the right direction to resolve the long-standing grievances of Tamils. It should be taken as a golden opportunity to establish peace and development in the island, instead of indirectly suggesting that ‘we would only listen to those who pickup arms’. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is indeed vociferous, but has not been able to do much on the ground towards pressurizing Colombo to heed to their demands. Its voice is expected to become feeble in the coming months and years.

Economically, the Tamil-dominated northeast is the most underdeveloped region in Sri Lanka and a significant chunk of the Sri Lankan Tamil community is the poorest; sustaining itself on doles and diaspora remittances. It will take a while for the mine-infested region to get in to development mode.

Diplomatically, though the international community remains the only hope for the Tamil community, the potential is yet to be realised fully. The problem is of vertical division among the global players on the accountability issue. While the West, including the United Nations, insists that Sri Lanka should address allegations of human rights violations during Eelam War IV, countries like China, India, Pakistan and Russia wish to look at the issue in a comprehensive manner. So far, Colombo has been successful in resisting any international stricture with the help of these countries.

On its part, the government of Sri Lanka headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa is still in triumphalist mode. It is politically strong than ever before commanding overwhelming majority in parliament. The Opposition, at the same time, is weak and splintered. Since the Sinhalese hardliners are on the high, the government may not be in a position to concede much on the ethnic issue.

All these constitute what President Rajapakse calls the ‘post-conflict situation’. It implies that Colombo would deal with the ethnic issue from the position of strength. Federalism has been ruled out once and for all. Other options like devolution based on ‘2000 proposals’, a majority report of the All Party Representative Community (APRC) or even based on some features of the recently submitted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) are not under consideration. At best, the government may settle for the 13th Amendment ‘Minus’ (weak Provincial Councils with a strong centre). Even for this, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) route has of late been adopted in the name of ‘consensus’. It is back to square one, again.

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