OFTEN, when Sri Lanka’s ethnic-Sinhalese-dominated government appears to be offering a hand in friendship to the Tamil minority, it turns out to be a slap in the face. For example, in 2010 it appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the final phase of the 26-year civil war. But many Tamils saw it as a whitewash, because it absolved the Sri Lankan army of charges that it had deliberately attacked civilians during the war’s apocalyptic final battles in 2009, and many of its confidence-building recommendations have not been implemented. Or take the election scheduled for this September in the north of the country when (mostly Tamil) voters are for the first time to elect a provincial council. The government is now moving to neuter the council, depriving the region of much of the autonomy it had been promised.
The election would honour the letter of a 1987 amendment to the constitution, the 13th. This was a legacy of India’s disastrous intervention in the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland, or “eelam”. Written at India’s behest, the amendment devolved political power to the provinces, including, in theory, to the Tamil-majority north. In eight other provinces councils have been elected. Holding the election now will fulfil promises to India, Japan and others that want to see a genuine effort at national reconciliation after the rout of the Tigers. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has itself long promised greater autonomy for the Tamils.
The government would lose a fair provincial election. Demoralised after the defeat of the Tigers in 2009, resentful of the large numbers of soldiers in their province, and suspicious that the government is planning large-scale Sinhalese immigration, Tamils in the north are likely to vote for their own parties, in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) coalition. The government has pushed through changes that would enable those displaced from the region during the war to come back to vote. But the Tamil parties have welcomed the changes, calculating that more Tamils than Sinhalese or Muslims would make the trip home.
The government also wants to amend the 13th amendment, diluting it in two ways. One is to remove the right that adjacent provinces have to merge. It fears that the Northern Province would rejoin its neighbour, the Eastern Province, which has a mixed population of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. Combined, the two provinces would cover about 30% of Sri Lanka—and have a Tamil majority. In 1990 a local leader declared independence for this region as a Tamil eelam. Sinhalese nationalists are convinced that the TNA has similar plans. The president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, has said that a TNA win would “jeopardise national security and integrity”. Less cautious coalition partners warn luridly of another bloodbath.
The second set of changes is more controversial. They would weaken the provinces’ power to block laws and constitutional changes that affect them. This power can be irksome for the centre. Last year, for example, a national bill on rural development was held up by the courts on the ground that many of its provisions were provincial issues. The government is not alone in thinking that the two-tier system introduced by the 13th amendment is cumbersome and inefficient. But to Tamils in the north, it looks as if the bar is closing just as they are being let into the party.
The 13th-amendment dust-up shows three things about the Rajapaksas (President Mahinda heads a clan that sits atop the Sri Lankan polity). The first is their readiness to use their healthy parliamentary majority to drive through controversial measures with a minimum of democratic process. In 2010 the 18th amendment to the constitution was adopted by means of an “urgent” parliamentary bill. It was a mystery what the urgency was in lifting Mr Rajapaksa’s term limit and according him the final say in the most important civil-service, judicial and police appointments. In January this year, after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the government-inspired impeachment of the chief justice, the president and parliament simply overruled it. Now the merger-banning part of the 13th amendment may again be introduced as an “urgent” bill.
Second is the Rajapaksas’ centralising tendency. The two themes of their rule are to take power back to the central government and to make the central government ever more of a family-run conglomerate. And they have an authoritarian streak. This week their government produced a draft media code that Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, said, “could have a severe and chilling effect on free speech.” Third is their willingness to sacrifice national reconciliation for enhanced “security”—however far-fetched it now seems that the cowed Tamil population might again take up arms.
These tendencies have costs. Sri Lanka is still the butt of criticism from Western governments for failing to provide any proper accounting of the horrors at the end of the war and for continuing to discriminate against minorities. The Tamil diaspora remains influential in heaping international opprobrium on the government. And Sri Lanka’s relations with India remain fraught because of the sympathies of Indian Tamils for their ethnic kin.
Yet the government can shrug off foreign carping, pointing out that China is ever ready to help. A jamboree later this year, when Sri Lanka plays host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, is unlikely to be much disrupted by boycotts. Even if it is, it would only boost the Rajapaksas’ popularity with the Sinhalese. Yet continuing Tamil alienation does matter. Drastically under-represented in the civil service and the army, for example, many Tamils want not their own homeland so much as simple equality. In refusing to grant them that, the government is fostering the separatism which it so fears.