by P.K. Balachandran, Eurasia Review, December 14, 2022
There was agreement on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment first, and on the finalization of the contours of a new constitution with maximum devolution, by the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence
On the strong urging of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the All-Party Conference (APC) on the vexed ethnic question in Sri Lanka on Tuesday unanimously resolved to find a solution by the 75 th. Anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence on February 4, 2023.
All parties, across political and ethnic divides, agreed that between now and February 2023, several steps would be taken towards the declared end.
They agreed on the full implementation of the system of devolution envisaged in the 13th.Amendment (13A) of the constitution which was enacted following the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. There has been a persistent complaint from the Tamils (and also Chief Ministers of several Provinces in the Sinhala-majority areas) that the inadequate implementation of the 13A has been standing in the way of development activities at the Provincial level. The full implementation of 13A got unanimous approval at the APC.
The parties also agreed to go beyond the 13A to “13A-Plus” as promised by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, currently the leader of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). This promise was made because the Tamil parties were highly dissatisfied with the 13A. They were not involved in its drafting of the 13A in the same way as the Sinhalese parties were. The latter were in an overwhelming majority in parliament at that time.
The participants at the APC agreed to draft a new constitution with maximum devolution of powers to the Provinces, thus meeting a major demand of the Tamils who have been fighting for a federal constitution since independence in 1948.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, suggested that instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, parliament could take up the Experts’ Committee’s report on a new constitution which Wickremesinghe had himself presented to parliament in January 2019. There was agreement on this also.
Sumanthiran went further and suggested that while constitutional issues are being discussed, the government should also consider solving some non-political issues bothering the Tamils of the war-affected areas of the North and East.
He listed the following issues as being urgent and easily solvable: 1) the return of the lands taken by the armed forces from the Tamils. While 90% of the privately owned lands have been returned, lands meant for public use are still to be returned, Sumanthiran said. 2) the release of Tamils arrested during the war but who have been in jail for a long period.
Sumanthiran said that out of 31 such cases, 16 are still undergoing trial, and 15 are in jail as investigations into their case have not been completed.
The President then asked Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe to look into the matter. Rajapakshe pointed out that those who had been convicted for terrorism like killing political leaders or killing the public could not be released, though other cases could be looked into sympathetically. But the President and the Justice Minister accepted Jaffna Tamil MP C.V.Wigneswaran’s suggestion that cases in which convictions had ordered on the basis of confessions should also be reviewed because confessions could not be the basis of conviction.
The President suggested that these various processes could be taken up one by one, starting with the easy ones on which there is already a large measure of agreement (like the full implementation of the 13A). But Sumanthiran pleaded that all these processes should take place simultaneously and not one by one because time is short (the entire exercise should end by February 4, 2023). The President agreed.
Sumathiran said that he is satisfied with the outcome of the conference.
The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leader, Mano Ganesan, representing the Tamils of Indian Origin, said that at the Chief Ministers’ Conclave, many Chief Ministers of Sinhala-majorty Provinces had demanded that the 13A be fully implemented.
Ganesan further said: “As time is short, we can’t afford to go back and start all again. Let us start with elections in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and give the people of these Provinces, the taste of self-governance with full implementation of 13A.”
Going further, Ganesan pointed out that he had written to the President seeking the nomination of a high powered committee to accept proposals from the political leaderships of the Indian Origin Hill Country Tamil community and the Muslim community.
The President said in his address at the All Party Conference that he has named Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Ministers Wijedasa Rajapakshe, Ali Sabry and himself, as members of a committee to receive proposals related to the national question. Later, the President asked the TPA to submit its proposals on the Indian origin Hill Country Tamil community to Jusitce Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe.