by P.K.Balachandran, Daily Mirror, Colombo, December 7, 2022
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe will be meeting the Tamil parties of the Northern and Eastern Provinces on December 11 to find a solution to the longstanding Tamil issue.
But the chances of a solution emerging look extremely dim given the fact that the gulf between the government and the Tamils has widened in the past few months thanks to Wickremesinghe’s statements. The abject failure of past engagements between Sri Lankan governments and the Tamils is also casting a shadow on the forthcoming talks.
Wickremesinghe proposes to devolve powers to the Districts rather than the Provinces, as is the case now. But the Tamil parties will, on no account, accept that. For the Tamils, the President’s proposal is tantamount to breaking the Tamils’ unity.
The Tamils see the Sinhalese as a single political block and are eager to face them as a single Tami block. This is why they have been asking for the unification of the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern provinces or, at the very least, meaningful devolution of power to the existing two Tamil-speaking provinces. But the Sinhalese argue that district-wise devolution will be more democratic and meaningful. And, at any rate, the majority Sinhalese fear that ethno-based Provinces would lead to minority power and even secession.
From the time of Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, till date, the issue of devolution has bedevilled relations between governments backed by the majority Sinhalese on the one hand, and the minority Tamils on the other.
Nevertheless, the two sides have periodically engaged in talks albeit punctuated by rioting, military action and terrorist acts. They are now going to talk again due to pressure from India and the West. Talks will also get Western support for obtaining an IMF bailout.
An encouraging factor is that, in the past, talks had brought workable ideas to the table. And that could well be the case this time too. In the past, these ideas were abandoned due to an ensemble of primordial ethnic fears, crass political competition, the rise of Tamil militancy and the hardening Sinhalese majoritarian ethos. If these factors are minimized, and if commitment on the part of the leadership to find a solution is shown, the December 11 talks could end in ethnic reconciliation.
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact (B-C Pact) of July 1957 was the most promising to date. If it had been implemented, Sri Lanka would not have had a 30-year war.
The B-C Pact provided for “Regional Councils” (RCs) with delegated power over a wide range of subjects like agriculture, co-operatives, lands and land development, colonization, health, education, industries and fisheries, housing and social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. The RCs were given powers to tax and borrow. The Northern Province would constitute one region and the Eastern Province would contain two or more regions.
Tamil was recognized as a ‘national minority language’ with provision for its use in the Provincial administration and courts in the North and East. Colonization schemes would not be used to convert the Northern and Eastern Provinces into Sinhalese-majority areas. The RCs were to have powers of land alienation, and also to select personnel to work on such schemes.
The leading Tamil party, The Federal Party, responded positively to the B-C Pact, but the opposition United National Party (UNP) agitated against it on the grounds that it would destroy the unity of Sri Lanka. As a consequence, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike tore up the pact.
In 1980, the J.R.Jayewardene government introduced the District Development Councils (DDC) Act to devolve powers to Districts instead of the Provinces. The DDC consisted of Members of Parliament from the District plus members elected directly to the DDC. Each DDC had an Executive Committee consisting of the District Minister, the Chairman of the DDC, and not more than two other members appointed by the District Minister in consultation with the Chairman.
Though very disappointed, the Tamils accepted the DDCs. Elections to the DCCs in Jaffna were scheduled for June 4, 1981. But on March 31, a Tamil militant group fired at a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) meeting at Nachimarkoviladi in Jaffna, in which two policemen were killed. The Security Forces then went on a rampage burning the iconic Jaffna Library. Nevertheless, the elections were held, and the TULF won.
But the TULF found that the DDC had little or no power. Power was in the hands of the District Minster and the Finance Minister in Colombo. The DDCs collapsed like a house of cards.
Then came the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, negotiated not by the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Lankan government, but by the governments of Sri Lanka and India. The Accord envisaged devolution of a modicum of powers to “elected” Provincial Councils. The Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged temporarily to form a single Tamil political unit.
But the Accord was stiffly opposed by the Sinhalese and also the Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had signed the Accord with President Jayewardene, was assaulted by a soldier during a Guard of Honor and the LTTE went to war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was to help implement the Accord.
However, despite the turmoil and violence, the Jayewardene government enacted the 13 th. constitutional Amendment (13A) devolving a modicum of powers to elected Provincial Councils. There were ‘Reserved’ and ‘Provincial’ lists of powers. A ‘Concurrent’ list outlined shared powers, though the centre could also legislate on Concurrent subjects disregarding the Province. Financial provisions for the Provinces were also to be allocated by Parliament. And the Provincial Councils could be overruled by the President under the Public Security Ordinance. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) points out that the powers of Provincial Councils could be “controlled, reduced or abolished by the Central government unilaterally.”
The 13A was implemented only partially because of a lack of commitment on the part of the majority Sinhalese and the governments backed by them. The LTTE rejected it and the moderate Tamils were lukewarm. While the Sinhalese considered the Provincial Councils to be White Elephants and divisive, the Tamils considered the devolution of powers grossly inadequate. Their aim, since 1948, has been a federal constitution. But for the Sinhalese, federalism is a stepping stone to secession.
However, in the 1990s, President Chandrika Kumaratunga took up the threads of constitutional reform even as she continued the war against the LTTE. She was keen on winning over the Tamil moderates. Under her, parliament drafted a new constitution. But the draft, devolving power to the Provinces, was opposed by hardline Sinhalese and the opposition UNP. The exercise was abandoned.
Kumaratunga made another attempt in 2000. The government’s proposal said that legislative and executive powers would be distributed between the Centre and the Regions, while keeping the “Unitary” character of the Constitution. But again, hardline Tamil and Sinhalese opinion prevailed over the moderates and the idea of constitutional reform was abandoned.
When a government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came into being in 2015, work began on a new constitution to satisfy its Tamil supporters. The Public Representations Committee, the Subcommittees and the Steering Committee did excellent work. But the process had to be abandoned because of a lack of commitment on the government’s part and also the serial suicide blasts in August 2019. As the blasts were carried out by Islamic radicals, the government, fearing communal divisions, abandoned plans to devolve power to the Tamils.