Hot on the heels of his Indian tour, President Ranil Wickremesinghe convened an all-party conference (APC) on July 26 to discuss the future of one of Sri Lanka’s most controversial constitutional amendments ever made: the 13th.
Enacted following the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, it paved the way for the creation of nine provinces as devolved units with a temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
A contentious topic at the best of times, there is general agreement that the provincial councils (PCs) have been made to fail by the Lankan government due to the latter’s refusal to empower the provincial administrations meaningfully. The PCs have often appeared as entities that drain public resources and do not serve the public.
From time to time, many Southern political parties have portrayed the PCs as a mechanism designed to undermine the island’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—especially before the demerger of the Northeast was achieved. This impression has largely taken root in the South, and both the PCs and the call for power-sharing are viewed by many Southern parties and sections of the public as supporting the ‘Tamil cause’ or laying the foundation for ‘separatism’. Very little has been done to address these fears and win public confidence vis-à-vis power-sharing as a practical way to build trust among communities and for all people to live with a sense of equality and exercise political rights.
The PCs are also seen as a ‘solution’ thrust upon Sri Lanka by India through a show of power by the latter at a time when it was highly sympathetic to the Tamil political cause wherein certain groups were fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils. There is also a history of Tamil militant groups being trained in parts of South India, so India’s interest in power devolution in the island continues to feed suspicions among some sections.
This inherent distrust of intentions is compounded by the idea that power-sharing may result in emboldened Tamil parties undermining Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. In short, implementing 13A in full will require significant political will and a genuine effort to educate the South on devolution and its merits, apart from addressing the fears harboured by them.
The Amendment’s history and evolution will not make it easy for President Wickremesinghe to garner support among the Southern political parties despite his consistency in pursuing reconciliation—with power-sharing at the core of it. Little wonder that when the APC was convened, political leaders questioned his motives for wanting to bring up the old Amendment, especially when the country’s main concern was to overcome the financial crisis.
Many suspected that this was done for reasons ranging from political expediency targeting possible elections next year to paying India back for the emergency assistance it provided during the recent economic crisis.
These concerns were possibly also fuelled by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to ensure a “life of respect and dignity” for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. “We hope Sri Lanka will fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil people. We hope Sri Lanka will fulfil its commitment to implement the 13th Amendment and hold Provincial Council elections,” the Indian Premier said during the meeting with President Wickremesinghe.
For his part, the president expressed his genuine desire to implement the Amendment fully. He told party leaders that Sri Lanka should either retain PCs with adequate devolution of power or abolish them. Unlike in the past, or as seen during election campaigns where beating the controversial Amendment is done regularly to garner Southern votes, even arch-critics of power devolution did not condemn the Amendment or the PC system. Instead, they questioned the necessity to prioritise it at this juncture.
On July 31, the Tamil National Alliance claimed the party was consistent on the demand for power devolution since 1956 and urged PC polls be held without delay.
Twenty-five years later, many sour points around 13A remain, with India’s motives questioned by many Sri Lankans. It is not seen as a genuine attempt to devolve power but is seen as a strategy that was chalked out over two decades ago to recognise Tamil political aspirations and contain the raging armed struggle at that time. Some fear it would not be treated as adequate, given that Tamil militancy had to be militarily quashed in 2009 after a series of failed political negotiations. India’s role in 13A remains a point of rancour.
While the South dabbles in the debate on the sincerity of the move and national security vis-à-vis power devolution, it is already too late for the Northern and Eastern communities. They genuinely feel that successive governments have failed to recognise their political grievances and take timely decisions to demonstrate political sincerity through power-sharing mechanisms.
There is a lot of water under the bridge. The political leaders from the North and South of Sri Lanka need to overcome their hardline positions, acknowledge all valid concerns from both sides and address them sincerely.
Irrespective of the backdrop against which it was introduced, the 13th Amendment is now a part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. For the longest time, it has been discussed from ethnic or security standpoints, but not adequately from the political standpoint, with little emphasis on achieving long-lasting peace and reconciliation. Whenever a discussion from this standpoint did happen, it was often a case of us vs them, replete with mistrust, making progress impossible.
Provincial Councils were established in 1988. A quarter century later, it would be politically regressive to avoid discussing the steps necessary for the island government to enable the effective functioning of these councils.
The biggest challenge would be to alleviate fears and find genuine answers to generate public trust in the system and to find, from the proposals submitted to the president, futuristic ideas to move forward. To fully implement 13A would mean winning the confidence of both the Sinhalese and Tamils. The ghosts need exorcising and genuine concerns from both ends should be addressed to effectively end the cloak and dagger game.
The government—hard as the task may seem—must work to win the confidence of the Sinhalese and demonstrate the value of power-sharing so as to achieve a peaceful Sri Lanka. A genuine commitment must be made to the Tamil people to fully implement 13A, so that they can peacefully coexist with the island’s Southern citizens.
Dilrukshi Handunnetti is an award-winning journalist and lawyer. She is a founder and director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). She can be reached at email@example.com.