Tussle Over Giving Lankan Tamils Devolution

Of power under the 13th. Amendment

By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham, NewsIn.Asia, Colombo, June 13, 2024

Colombo, June 13:  Many amendments have been brought to the Sri Lankan constitution in more than four and a half decades which were detrimental to democratic governance. But there has been no major controversy about them. But the 13th Amendment (13 A) which has a democratic dimension, has been controversial in the extreme.

It has been in the Constitution for more than three and a half decades, but has not been implemented in full.

The 13A enacted following the July 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord to introduce elected provincial councils has not been properly implemented by any government. As the country looks ahead to the Presidential election, the controversy over 13A has been revived.

Tussle over giving Lankan Tamils devolution of power under the 13 th. Amendment

Last week in Jaffna, the two main candidates in the upcoming Presidential election, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB ) leader Sajith Premadasa and National People’s Power (NPP )  leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake announced that their governments will implement the 13A.

The Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa who was on a four-day visit to the North last week, promised to implement the 13A while addressing a function in Kilinochchi in the Vanni region. Earlier also, while addressing the SJB rally in Colombo, he said that efforts would be made to resolve the problems of the minority communities with the support of the Sinhalese people and that the 13A would be implemented. He had never taken a strong stand against the amendment before.

At a meeting with the leaders of Ilankai Thamizharasu Katchi (ITAK ) popularly known in English as the Federal Party, in Jaffna last Monday, Premadasa reiterated his current position on the 13A.  After the meeting, Premadasa, who met journalists, was asked if he would give police and land powers to the Provincial Councils. In response, he avoided a direct answer but said that 13A would be fully implemented and that there will be no 13A plus or minus.

The next day,  Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the NPP also met the leaders of ITAK in Jaffna and assured them that a future NPP  government would take steps to solve the national ethnic problem through a new constitution. But before that the Provincial Council  system would be properly implemented.

Dissanayake also reminded the Tamil leaders of the pledge given in the 2019 Presidential election manifesto of the NPP to continue the Provincial Council system. It was mentioned in the first paragraph of the section titled ‘National Peace and Reconciliation’. It said that the Provincial Councils would  continue to function effectively until a permanent solution was found within a new constitution based on the principles of equality and democracy through the devolution of political and administrative powers.

However, the proper functioning of the Provincial Council system is nothing but the full implementation of the 13A. Based on Dissanayake’s comments to the ITAK leaders, it can be surmised that the NPP currently supports the full implementation of the 13A.

At the same time, Dissanayake has taken the position that the 13A is not a solution to the ethnic problem, just as Tamil political parties have been saying.

Dissanayake, who had visited the North two months ago, had said that he was not prepared to bargain for Tamil votes by promising a solution based on a federal system or even the implementation of the 13A. He has now reversed his stand. But he did not say anything specifically about police and land powers.

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke last year about implementing the 13A well ahead of Premadasa and Dissanayake, hard-line Sinhalese nationalist forces and Buddhist monks expressed strong opposition.

Addressing the 2023 National Thai Pongal Festival in Jaffna, the President announced that his government would take phased steps to fully implement the 13A in two years. Outraged Buddhist monks staged a demonstration outside parliament and set fire to copies of the 13A, when the President ceremonially opened  the new session of Parliament on 8 February 2023.

During a session of the All Party Conference at the Presidential Secretariat, the President said in a stern tone that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should be implemented or abolished and also suggested that a new constitutional amendment could be introduced by any member of parliament as a private member bill to repeal the 13A. But no one has come forward to do so.

A few days before going to New Delhi on an official visit to India in July last year, the President floated the idea of implementing the 13A  without  police powers at a meeting with Tamil parties. The Tamil parties rejected it outright.

A few weeks ago, when President Wickramasinhge  met the former chief minister of the Northern province  and a current Member Parliament Justice C.V. Wigneswaran in Jaffna, it was pointed out to him that Premadasa had assured that his government would implement the 13A when he addressed a May Day rally.

The President promptly urged Wigneswaran to ask Premadasa whether he could implement it with police and land powers. It seems that the President expressed his belief that it is impossible for any government to implement the 13A with police and land powers.

Due to the protests against the 13A in South Lanka following the President’s announcement last year, it was widely believed that during the Presidential election it was impossible for any of the major candidates to publicly mention a political solution to the national problem in their election manifestos.

Before Premadasa returned to Colombo from Jaffna, MP Udaya Gammanpila, the leader of Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, condemned Premadasa and said that  Leader of the Opposition would not have made that pledge in Jaffna if he had understood the consequences of giving police and land powers to the provinces under the India-imposed 13A.

As the national elections approach, many more Sinhala nationalist political parties and Sinhala Buddhist organizations will no doubt come out against Premadasa and Dissanayake for their “Jaffna Declarations” in order to win over the Sinhala nationalist electorate.  Thus the Tamil people doubt whether they will stand firm in their position despite such opposition.

An SJB Colombo District Member of Parliament while addressing reporters in Colombo last week said that their leader would not have spoken in Jaffna about full devolution of police powers to the provinces and that there was no problem in devolving social and environmental police powers to the provinces.

Meanwhile, former Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the leader of the National Movement for Social Justice, has appealed to the government and political parties, especially the Tamil political parties, to take advantage of the opportunity given by Premadasa’s assurance in the North and asked the government to convene a round table conference to explore ways of finding solutions to post-war problems.

There has been no response from the political parties to Jayasuriya’s request.

If the main political parties and their leaders stand firm in their positions and do not succumb to the vicious  propaganda of the Sinhalese hardline nationalist forces, they can definitely prevent the presidential election from going in a communal direction.

It was learnt from the leaders of the ITAK that Premadasa and Dissanayake said that it was necessary to take advantage of the current situation where the Sinhalese nationalist forces have been  weakened in South. Tamil politicians can decide what position to take in the Presidential election depending on whether the leaders of the SJB and the NPP will mention the pledge to implement the 13A in their manifestos or not.

Most of the Tamil politicians are also struggling to take a firm stand on the proposal of fielding a common Tamil candidate.

In this context, it is  important to note a pertinent point made by MP  M.A. Sumanthiran in his address at a political symposium in Jaffna last week. He said that instead of coming to the Tamil people and giving promises, the main Presidential candidates should explain their plans for a political solution to the national ethnic problem to the Sinhalese people in the South.


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