Since the government last week named its list of nominees to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to discuss the 13th Amendment (13A), the names omitted from the list have become a hotter topic of conversation and speculation, than those in it. Two important coalition partners — the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have been left out. No explanation has been forthcoming as to the reasons for these glaring omissions.
The PSC was formed to seek consensus through a process of discussion among relevant players to resolve the contentious issues in the 13A and suggest changes that may be needed. The ultimate objective is to arrive at a political solution to minority issues. Seeing that the Muslims form a 9% minority in the country one would expect the biggest party representing them, the SLMC, to be represented. But neither SLMC leader Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem nor any other SLMC MP has been named.
LSSP Leader and Minister of Scientific Affairs Prof. Tissa Vitarana chaired the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) that deliberated for two years and presented a set of proposals endorsed by 13 political parties to President Rajapaksa in 2008, to resolve precisely these same issues. One would have thought his experience in moderating difficult negotiations on the nitty-gritty of power sharing, among an assortment of disparate groups, would have made him an invaluable resource in the deliberations of the proposed PSC. But the government has thought better of having an informed discussion, it seems.
“I can only surmise that there has been pressure brought from a certain lobby that doesn’t like my point of view, and feels that my presence in the PSC hinders their point of view getting across,” Vitarana told ‘ the Sunday Times.’
Meanwhile External Affairs Minister G L Peiris has waxed eloquent to the diplomatic community about the PSC’s objectives of resolving issues relating to constitutional reform in an “all-inclusive” manner, and the need for a “structured and comprehensive approach” in these matters. It’s interesting that in 2008, after receipt of the APRC proposals by the president, then Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama in similar glowing terms gave a diplomatic briefing on the ‘historic’ consensus which emerged among party leaders. The diplomats must be savvy by now as to what the ‘Sri Lankan doublespeak’ means.
A subtle shift
A more subtle shift in the government’s plans for the 13A is in relation to the two government-proposed changes to it. Briefing the media on Cabinet decisions on Thursday 13th June Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella clearly said that while the first of the proposed changes which sought to do away with the ‘merger provision’ would be presented in the form of a bill in parliament, the second and more controversial proposal to do away with the requirement for approval of all councils in order to proceed with legislation on matters affecting provincial powers — would be referred to the PSC. This was reported the next day not only in mainstream media but also in the official website of the Presidential Secretariat www.priu.gov.lk
However it now appears that the Government intends to include BOTH its proposed changes to the 13A, in the same bill – the 19th amendment to the constitution. All provincial councils have been hurriedly asked to pass resolutions approving the two amendments so that they may be incorporated in an ‘Urgent Bill.’ There was no consensual agreement on the second proposed change. There has been no explanation of the shift to include it in the 19th amendment, apparently a position adopted at last week’s SLFP parliamentary group meeting. The shift has not been endorsed by the cabinet, it appears.
The two surprises that surfaced in the past week — the non-inclusion of the LSSP and SLMC in the PSC, and the move to include both proposed amendments in the same bill, going against a cabinet decision — give rise to speculation as to whether the ruling coalition’s extremist elements have the President’s ear in some privileged way. The two developments cast a shadow over the Government’s bona fides in respect of understandings reached with its coalition partners, as well as in relation to what is being communicated to Opposition parties and the public.
Need for participation
Ironically it is this second proposed amendment, the very clause in the 13A that the Government finds to be a thorn in its side that now obstructs the Government in getting rid of it. The UPFA controls all eight existing provincial councils. But the composition of the 37-member Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) is such that the SLMC’s seven members can collectively tilt the scales in any vote. The council has 15 Opposition members (TNA – 11, UNP – 4) and 15 UPFA members not counting the SLMC (SLFP 14, NFF -1). Given the friction that prevails, it’s clear the Government won’t get the support of the SLMC in passing a resolution in the EPC relating to the proposed amendments.
Nobody would dispute that if there are misgivings about aspects of the 13A, they need to be addressed, and changes made if necessary. But the PSC needs the participation of the Opposition UNP and JVP, and important parties representing minority constituencies like the SLMC and the TNA, in order to ensure that its decisions, when implemented, will be lasting. The JVP members in spite of their somewhat doctrinaire stance of opposing the 13A, because it was forced upon us by India, are among the few Southern MPs to highlight problems faced by Northern Tamils in parliament.
The 13A, warts and all, remains the only constitutional provision for power sharing with the minorities, already in the Sri Lankan constitution. It could form the basis for a political solution to Tamil grievances that has eluded the country for decades. In the first episode of an excellent new educational programme, ‘Vantage Point’ broadcast on Thursday night by ‘MTV Sports,’ Sri Lanka’s former UN ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka argued the case that “it is in our enlightened self-interest to make this work.” By cutting out key partners in its own coalition from the PSC at the outset, and adopting unilateral changes in the modalities to be followed, the Government diminishes the chances of its own success in this admittedly difficult process