In what can be considered the final nail on the only constitutional attempt made in post-independent Sri Lanka to devolve power, an urgent bill to Parliament on Thursday will seal the fate of the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, with absolute finality.
For all the liberal rhetoric and verbal commitments to pursue a genuine solution to the festering political question, the Sinhala majority had demonstrated strong reluctance to accept any power-sharing model, including the Provincial Council system (which was never implemented to reflect its true spirit), similar to the militant rejection by the Tamil community to acknowledge anything short of a self-rule model that recognizes a traditional Tamil homeland.
Sri Lanka’s political history is replete with examples of various calls for the devolution of power as well as their violent aftermath. Each time the Tamil political parties voiced their demands, post-independence, the Southern leadership’s response had been crushingly uncompromising. On the other hand, the Tamil political parties since the 1985 Thimpu talks, had remained steadfast on their claim for the recognition of a traditional Tamil homeland in the North – the key reason for the failure of the Thimpu talks. The Sri Lankan Government swiftly rejected the four demands made in Thimpu on the basis that they sought to violate the Constitution, and breached the principle of sovereignty, proposing draft legislation on power sharing as a solution, which the Tamil delegation rejected.
The Thimpu Declaration set out four demands of the Tamil militant groups, the first ever peace talks to be held between the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil armed groups. When India facilitated the talks in 1985, the talks were expected to pave the way not just for the immediate political question but also to ensure regional peace, a permanent worry for India, keen to reign in the growing Tamil militancy in the island’s North with possible repercussions for Tamil Nadu, India’s own, political, problem child. It is also the key reasoning behind India’s unrepentant strategic support to the Sri Lankan Government to secure victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
Much water had flowed since the first round of failed talks. More rounds of talks had followed – and predictably failed. At the end of it all, besides the colossal loss of lives and the destruction caused by the prolonged military engagements, the war in its wake had only rendered Sri Lanka the loser, along with her people.
Yet, India’s involvement had never been one of a military nature alone, this despite the introduction of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) and the strategic support to the Sri Lankan Security Forces in the final phase of the war in 2008-2009. As much as it worried about regional peace and tension in Tamil Nadu, India understood as a key stakeholder, the political complexities of the problem, and the reason for brokering the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987, which finally paved the way for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
For all its faulty lines, it was the only constitutional effort made in the island to address the complex political question, with strong political implications also for India. Its relevance as a political tool to address an issue, in hindsight, had not been appreciated by most, including that in the United National Party (UNP) that introduced the amendment. It is this amendment, controversial as it is but not without its benefits, with a foundation to address the national question, billed to undergo drastic changes today, as it is scheduled to be amended through an urgent Bill.
Just as its introduction, its evolution too had been a painful process, often resisted and objected to by many. To begin with, it was one amendment that was not introduced with any ease. There was no public discussion on its contents as well as the reasons that compelled its introduction. Suffice to say that Sri Lanka had little choice in the matter. Yet, the Sinhala middle-class resistance does not stem from the absence of democracy in its introduction, but mostly due to a deep reluctance to share power with ethnic minorities.
At the time of its introduction, the government’s popularity took a strong nosedive as it signed a Peace Accord with a state of curfew declared together with a strongly-divided Cabinet. Yet, it led to the problematic birth of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which sought to introduce a Provincial Council system, the recognition of Tamil as a national language, and English as a link language.
Opposing the very essence of the amendment were members of the government at that time while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that gave leadership to islandwide campaigns, condemning the amendment as an attempt to divide the country, and a violation of territorial integrity. In retrospect, it is as if nothing had indeed changed, and the polity, not in the least has matured since 1987. The same arguments and prejudices continue to prevail, and the victorious government now appears to backtrack on recent undertakings to India to implement the amendment in full.
Fixation with a unitary state
Just like President Jayewardene’s move being opposed by the late Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and others, there are the Wimal Weerawansas and Champika Ranawakes, who believe, the amendment in its final analysis, seeks only to dilute territorial integrity and threatens sovereignty.
On the other hand, it is amazing to realize the majority’s fixation with the unitary character of the Sri Lankan State. It cannot be recognized as a concept deeply ingrained in the Sri Lankan psyche, and many would even argue it to be an alien concept, at least until the British colonized the island. For centuries, Sri Lanka had been happily (or at times unhappily) ruled, not by one single ruler at a time. Instead, history bears evidence that the ‘unifications’ were only by a few kings (and Dutugemunu springs to mind) was an act few kings achieved, and the country was ruled as autonomous States (provinces, States, administrations , take your pick) by different rulers, and the regions were popularly known as Ruhunu, Pihiti and Maya.
But a special meeting of Government Party Leaders on Tuesday evening, chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had resulted in a decision to propose key amendments, in the form of a Special Cabinet Paper, to be converted into an urgent Bill to amend the controversial amendment.
The amendments, according to top government sources, are twofold. One looks at asymmetrical power devolution, similar to a model proposed by Prof. G.L. Peeris during his days as Constitutional Affairs Minister of the Kumaratunga Cabinet, and since long forgotten. The constitutional clause that requires the consent of all nine Provincial Councils in order to amend the Constitution is to be amended, allowing the majority of PCs to make the decision. Likewise, the clause that provides for the merger between two Provincial Councils is also to be done away with.
The 13th Amendment had been the easy target of most politicians, since its introduction. Just like the 1978 Constitution, often portrayed as the mother of all ills, on the national constitution, the easiest to pick cudgels with had been this single amendment to the Constitution.
In implementing it, there had been much insincerity and majoritarianism. The failure to fully operationalize the Northern Provincial Council caused its first Chief Minister, Varadaraja Perumal, to unilaterally declare a spate state, and flee to India.
The majority, basking in the glory of post-war political superiority, is quite unwillingly to discuss genuinely, a solution to the national question. What that invincibility and majoritarianism fails to recognize is that such acts only fuel hatred in the country and indeed sow seeds once more, for dissention, and eventually, violent forms of dissent.