A Way Forward?

By V. Gunaratnam, August 30, 2013

A Government in Difficulties

Sri Lanka suddenly finds itself in a rather sticky situation, having shown insufficient progress on its own commitments to alleviate the deterioration in the human rights situation in the country. UK has warned that it will look for a strong and unified response at the UN HRC in Geneva if it fails to do so.

Next, as if bowing to pressure from the US, India, and Japan, Sri Lanka decided to hold elections in the North under the 13th Amendment, on September 21 or 28, 2013, as part of the “political solution” to the protracted civil war and power-sharing arrangement with the Tamils.

While Sri Lanka is readying to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013, observers seem to think that it is facing serious problems on the democratic front with reports of systematic torture, arbitrary detention, interference with media freedom, and economic difficulties. But without question, the Tamils have been the main target of these actions.

Treatment of Other Communities

Sri Lanka has done little to resist inequality with its non-Sinhalese Buddhist communities. Bashing Tamils has always been a political strategy with them, at the cost of human suffering, and economic advancement.

What is very troubling is that the malaise is spreading to the treatment of religious minorities, in particular, the Muslims and Christians, with their people and institutions becoming the targets of extremist gangs of government inspired forces.

While the world has progressed in so many ways, Sri Lanka has fallen far behind, held back by ethnic upheavals, which began with Banda’s Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which sowed the seeds of divisions that continue in more viscous forms to this day.

When politics triumphs reason, it is easy to forget that unity of all the races in the country is vital for peace, and vibrant economic development. But after the war, Sri Lanka hitched its wagon to China, and borrowed blindly from them to finance a lavish economic fantasy that fails to address the needs of the people in any adequate manner.

While the Rajapaksas’ follow their own illusions of economic development and grandeur, the country is experiencing more economic problems after being cut off from access to the rich export markets of Europe after failing to account for the atrocities committed at the end of the war.

India, the US and others expected Sri Lanka would move swiftly to reconcile with the Tamils by finding an acceptable solution to their problem at the end of the war, but it did virtually nothing. It was perhaps because the Rajapaksas’ did not want to hurt their political ambitions by conceding anything to the Tamils, by having to explain why anything had to be conceded to the defeated Tamils. To add to the difficulties, there is the perennial antipathy of the Sinhalese to any Indian role in Sri Lanka.

Going back to independence in 1948, there was an unwritten compact between the Sinhalese and Tamils that they would both live by the constitution handed down by the British, and only change it by mutual consent. But politics triumphed that understanding when Srimavo Bandaranayake shattered everything by unilaterally enacting the Republican Constitution in 1972, sidelining the Tamils. From that day forward, the Tamils have suffered immeasurably, and finally driven to war.

Nothing has happened in 65 years since independence for the Tamils to enjoy the fruits of freedom from the British. The Indian solution in the form of the 13th Amendment of 1987 was kicked about endlessly, but nothing has materialized until now, with the promised elections in the North.

Let us look back and see how Thanthai Chelva and the TULF framed the rights of Tamils and see where we stand.

A Look Back in History

The TULF, with Thanthai Chelva at the helm, laid down the Tamil position in the Vaddukodai Resolution of May 14, 1976: “This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular Socialist State of TAMIL EELAM based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country.” They emphasized the historical reality that the “Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between them the possession of Ceylon.” There is no better enunciation of the Tamil position today as then.

And on another occasion he said “Throughout the ages the Sinhalese and Tamils in the country lived as distinct sovereign people till they were brought under foreign domination…the Tamils were in the vanguard of the struggle for independence in the full confidence that they also will regain their freedom, but the Sinhalese have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people.”

The 13th Amendment

The 13th  Amendment establishing provincial councils (PC) was enacted on India’s initiative in 1987, in a maneuver by them to intervene and settle the ethnic problem between the Sinhalese and Tamils. But it has been gathering dust for the last 26 years without being implemented..

The dynamics of the Tamil situation has changed drastically after the war when Sri Lanka was put in the dock by the UNHRC, and asked to explain the atrocities committed by their armed forces in the last days of the war. So far Sri Lanka has failed to provide any answers, or open the war zones for inspection until now. It has also not moved to reconcile with the Tamils, nor taken any meaningful steps in that direction.

Easily the most important outcome of the war is that the Tamils have captured international attention, and it is very unlikely they will take their eyes off Sri Lanka or Tamils until an accord is reached.

The defeat in the war does not mean the Tamils have to throw up their arms in a gesture of helplessness, and stop agitating for their rights. The PC solution, with all its defects, is just as a step forward, with the international community watching over them. After all, the TNA is contesting the elections on the footing that the elections are being held under the 13th Amendment.

But the 13th Amendment does nothing for the Tamils, except that it simply allows the people to elect a body of people to their Provincial Council. After that it is the President who rules the province through the Governor appointed by him, and who holds office at his pleasure. The Governor is also the executive head of the province. It is the Governor who appoints the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers from those nominated by the elected councilors, if he approves. The decisions of the Ministers are conveyed to the Governor, and if he approves, he has them implemented.

Perhaps the most important consideration for the province are the funds needed to run the province and implement the wishes of the people. No local taxation is possible under the PC provisions. The 13th Amendment stipulates that it is the President who decides on the quantum of funds the PC gets, and steers his recommendation through parliament.

So it is easily seen that the 13th Amendment is just a hollow piece of legislation, which does nothing for the provinces to rule themselves! But with all its limitations, the Sri Lanka government did not implement it probably because it had the Indian stamp on it, and provided a powerful political clout at election time with the Sinhalese electorate!

A Way Forward

Consider the 13th Amendment as just a signpost in the direction the Tamils are headed!

Let there be no illusion about the Tamils wanting to be anything but a legitimate partner within Sri Lanka. After all, it is their heritage. Sri Lanka is their homeland, just as much as it is for the Sinhalese. They have the inherent right to cede, if the Sinhalese carry on as before. But separation is probably not economically favorable or even a viable proposition for either, unless it becomes inevitable.

But after their 65-year quest for equality, there must be a guarantee that history will not repeat itself. For this to be possible, the Tamils must have a guarantee of fundamental rights, which would include the right to self-determination, and the guarantee of liberty, freedom of religion, and so on. The UN declarations on this subject are comprehensive and provide an excellent a guide.

These rights must be embedded in the constitution! This is not an easy proposition to get done. But given the history of the Tamils over 65 years since independence, nothing should be taken for granted. It would fall on the International Community to get the appropriate provisions embedded in the constitution, because it is quite impossible to envisage the likelihood of the Tamils and Sinhalese coming to terms on this issue without external assistance.

Getting the fundamental rights entrenched in the constitution would be the clearest way of establishing long term peace on the island, and getting all the communities working together as one.

Look at the United States of America and how they elected a ‘Blackas their president, something that was unthinkable only a few years ago. The blacks enjoyed the same rights as the whites and others, even before this happened.

Also, see how the Scots are doing! Following an agreement between the Scottish Government and HM Government, the Scots will be asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” at a referendum to be held in 2014. This is nothing less than a revolution in the thinking of the English and Scottish people and their lawmakers.

Nearer home, look at Singapore and how they are doing. See how the many communities in Singapore have flourished for decades, enjoying the freedoms that were denied to their counterparts in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps a viable solution will finally all lead to a new beginning for the people of Sri Lanka!


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