By Dayan Jayatilleka –
With the imminent visit of the Chinese Defense Minister to Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must feel very confident. With the extensive statement by one of his loyalists, Minister Dilum Amunugama, on the President’s possible conversion into “a Hitler”, the President must be very determined, and his loyalist must be signaling that determination and intention.
However, there are questions he must ask himself, especially with respect to India, the Tamil issue and the island’s North-East periphery.
President GR having given the signal against the devolution of power, the religious Right has rallied to reinforce that position.
“A group of Buddhist monks has appealed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and members of Parliament, representing all political parties, to put on hold Provincial Council polls, pending early enactment of the proposed new Constitution. The group has, in a two-page letter dated March 29, 2021, stressed that the Provincial Council polls should be conducted in terms of the new Constitution as much desired changes were likely to be introduced in respect of the electoral system, as well as devolution of powers.” (The Island)
Now that President GR reiterated to President Xi, Sri Lanka’s intention to learn from the ‘governance experience’ of the Communist Party of China, recent remarks by Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Beijing, may give an indication of the state model that will emerge from the Gotabaya presidency and Constitution. Citing Ian Johnson’s book ‘The Soul of China’, Dr. Kohona emphasizes that “re-imagining of the political-religious state that once ruled China” is the vision of China of the “nominally atheist” Chinese CP under President Xi, whom Dr. Kohona seems to depict as a born-again Buddhist. (Daily FT)
President Gotabaya has to ask himself at least ten questions before he goes down the road of “re-imagining the political-religious state that once ruled” Lanka and replicating it, constitutionally or extra-constitutionally.
1. What do the Tamil parties in his government think about devolution? Can he convince them that it is a guise for separatism and should be downsized in a new Constitution?
2. Is there any Tamil party in or out of government he can convince on this question?
3. Given that it was the 13th amendment and the devolution of power that drove a wedge in the separatist movement, what would the effect of deleting or downsizing devolution be?
4. Does he think that his Tamil partners in government will be strengthened or weakened by his anti-devolution stand?
5. Does the President think that he can run the North and East without any Tamil allies?
6. Given that India switched from a position of supporting the Tamil separatist movement—though it never supported the cause of Tamil separatism—to one of supporting the Sri Lankan state, after, and due to the Indo-Sri Lanka accord and the 13th amendment, what does the President think would be the stand of India, if the 13th amendment is abandoned?
7. Can Sri Lanka withstand the consequences of an Indian response to a unilateral Sri Lankan reversal of provincial-level devolution?
8. Does the President intend to consult Sri Lanka’s international friends on the matter of devolution? Or does he think it is a purely domestic matter?
9. If he doesn’t consult Sri Lanka’s friends, can he expect them to stand by Sri Lanka if and when it faces the repercussions of unilateralism on the devolution issue?
10. Will the President care to ascertain which of the 11 states that defended GoSL and voted against the resolution at the UNHRC, and which of the 21 that spoke against the High Commissioner’s report—including Russia, China, Cuba and Pakistan– would advise in favor of or support a move against the devolution of power and the 13th amendment?
Post-Geneva Tamil Politics
The Tamil nationalist mainstream was always contemptuous of the 13th amendment, never really laid claim to it and therefore never protected it, let alone consolidated the semi-autonomous Provincial Councils.
Even after the war and the crushing defeat of Tamil secessionism, Tamil nationalism never accepted the 13th amendment as either the framework or the baseline of negotiations with the Sri Lankan government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, which had the legitimacy to push devolution through.
Tamil nationalism strove to secure a Constitution which would go beyond not merely the 13th amendment but also the unitary framework itself.
In 2015-2019 the TNA joined the UNP and the JVP in creating a gridlock which has delayed the holding of Provincial Council elections.
Today there is no process of political dialogue between the government and the Tamil parties. Nor are there functioning Provincial Councils in the North and East. Therefore, there is no counterbalance to the unilateral creation of facts on the ground in those Provinces, through the various Presidential Task Forces.
There is also no political party with which the TNA can partner in the South, in Government or Opposition, that is willing to go beyond the 13th amendment, still less the unitary framework. Even the leftwing JVP and FSP are unwilling to commit to the 13th amendment and the provincial-level devolution of power.
That’s the hole that Tamil nationalism has dug for itself by refusing to apply the successful political strategy of the Sinn Fein of Northern Ireland in working the devolved structures that arose with the Good Friday agreement.
There’s good news, though.
1. Never has there been a broader international consensus which recognizes the principle of the devolution of power and the full implementation of the 13th amendment, as there is now, especially with the UNHRC resolution of March 2021.
2. The viable mainstream Opposition led by Sajith Premadasa, is openly committed to the maximum devolution of power within the unitary framework, and the implementation of the 13th amendment without any downsizing/dilution.
3. There is a tendency within the Government that is for the status quo on the provincial devolution of power.
Devolution, a deepening of democracy, is now defensible, both locally and globally. In the face of the politico-existential threat posed by Gotabaya regime, Tamil politics must focus on avoiding the huge blunders of the past and focusing on interweaving the three positive points listed above into a strategy.