By Harim Peiris –
That the Rajapakse regime is in a mighty hurry to dismember and roll back the clock on the limited devolution of power accorded in Sri Lanka under the 13th amendment is borne out by the fact that the Cabinet of Ministers two weeks ago approved as an urgent bill, a constitutional amendment which would eliminate the ability of two or more provinces to amalgamate (merge to use the popular terminology) and work together for the public good. However, within a week the government had paused in its rush to destroy devolution and decided to not proceed with what it had deemed was urgent in the national interest. How and why it paused in its rush to destroy devolution deserves an analysis.
Cabinet not really united
Firstly the Cabinet meeting itself which approved the anti merger amendment was a stormy and heated cabinet meeting in which the government’s Sinhala Buddhist ethno religious nationalist flag bearers of the JHU and the NFF received considerable push back and unusually got as good as they gave from an interesting assortment of Muslim leaders, the old left and UNP crossovers. The meeting was so heated, that the Cabinet Spokesman had to deny reports that there had been fisticuffs between Communist Party leader DEW Gunasekera and JVP breakaway NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa. It must have been clear to President Rajapakse that his Cabinet was anything but united in agreeing to diminish or destroy devolution in Sri Lanka. In fact the majority of the Cabinet vehemently opposed piecemeal tinkering with the devolution features of the constitution and the abolition of the referral of legislation to provincial councils was differed and referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee.
A silent majority in government disagrees with the ethno religious nationalists
Not satisfied with a temporary deferment of the anti devolution 19th amendment, the same coalition of the traditional left party leaders, the UNP crossovers to government, SLFP stalwarts and Muslim leaders had a well publicized press conference on Monday 24th June, claiming that a silent majority in the government disagreed with the vocal minority of ethno religious nationalist JHU and NFF, in the UPFA, who they charged were a handful of extremists, the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Now this is the first time that forces within the government have challenged the direction and policies of the regime. This internal dissent and debate over anti minority measures is new and it shows a potential political weakening of the ethno religious forces within the UPFA. With President Rajapakse holding himself, just slightly above the fray, the internal dissent against anti minority measures is rising from within the more moderate and enlightened elements of the Sinhala leadership itself, the SLFP and the old left, as well as the other minority in Sri Lanka, the Muslims who of course of late have been at the receiving end of a violent hate campaign by extremist ethno religious organizations, unfettered by the government.
Problems in the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC)
The Rajapakse regime is also having a serious problem with its “Eastern Province” model, the UPFA’s only experiment in running an ethnic minority province with a Muslim chief minister. The Administration has been so used to running the province through the unelected and appointed Governor, who directly issues orders to the civil servants, that the UPFA members of the Eastern Provincial Council has essentially gone on strike against the Rajapakse Administration of the province and are refusing to function. For the SLMC which was independently elected to the Council and supports the UPFA to form a provincial administration, this situation is becoming intolerable, as it fails to deliver services to its constituency and the insult to its leader Minister Rauff Hakeem in leaving him out of the Parliamentary Select Committee cannot ender the regime, to Muslim’s already reeling from extremist hostility from various Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organizations.
A unilateral Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC)
The Rajapakse Administration also moved to unilaterally create a Parliamentary Select Committee to look into ways of how Sri Lankans can live together in unity. However, this Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) is more like a Cabinet Sub Committee as the opposition has laid down stringent conditions for its participation in the PSC and the government does not seem inclined to accommodate any of the requirements of the opposition. Hence a PSC without the UNP, the TNA and the JVP is solely a government committee. However, before any questions are asked about opposition participation, the government owes an explanation as to why Ministers Tissa Vitharana who chaired the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and Minister Rauff Hakeem who leads the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka has been left out. A PSC on the ethnic issues, without TNA, SLMC and UNP, is hardly a domestic process that either inspires any confidence or indeed will have any legitimacy as an inclusive process, either domestically or internationally. The UNP position is eminently defensible; the Rajapakse Administration should present its own proposal or views as the government of the day or in the alternate have a direct dialogue with the minority representative TNA and reach a sufficient consensus on a solution. The TNA meanwhile, has simply required the government to include the prior documents reached in national dialogue on the ethnic issue, including the Rajapakse Administrations own APRC proposals and the previous SLFP government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s proposals as part of the documents as a basis for discussion. Unwilling to compromise, the Rajapakse Administration seems determined to pursue a unilateral hard line position, which for the first time since the end of the war is having some domestic resistance and pushback.
* Harim Peiris‘s writings may be accessed online http://harimpeiris.com