By Jehan Perera –
Prior to the Commonwealth Summit there were several positive signals from both the government and TNA. It was the government that led the way by boldly deciding to conduct the Northern Provincial Council election, campaigning at the polls with enthusiasm and accepting its verdict with an appearance of good grace. However, after CHOGM there has been a decline in good news in relation to post-war reconciliation. The news is dominated by bitterness, be it the issue of the international community investigating the past or the pro-LTTE speech in Parliament by an opposition TNA parliamentarian. There are signs of a growing deterioration in relations between the government and TNA. The failure of the Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran and the TNA to take part in the district development committee meetings in Jaffna and Kilinochchi bode ill for the cooperation between the central and provincial authorities.
The present structure of the provincial council system under the 13th Amendment is that power and resources are with the central government. Without the cooperation of the central authorities, there is little that the provincial authorities can do. The problem in regard to cooperation between the two parties at the district development committee meetings is that they are presently chaired by the minister of the central government in charge of northern affairs, Douglas Devananda. He has been chairing these meetings, along with the Governor of the Northern Province at which very important resource allocation decisions are made. One of the complaints of the northern people has been that these decisions reward only supporters of the government. Another complaint has been that the decisions taken have emphasized infrastructure at the expense of the immediate livelihood needs of the war-affected population.
The Northern Chief Minister has so far rejected offers to co-chair the development committee meetings with Minister Devananda who has many years of experience of handling ministerial work and has the whip hand over the government officials of the area. There is an apparent lack of confidence in an equal partnership or in joint and mutually acceptable decision making on the part of the newly elected provincial council members who belong to the opposition. This is unfortunate, as there is a danger of this type of disagreement blighting the expectations of the Northern people in regard to the newly formed provincial council’s ability to deliver concrete results to them. If the northern people feel that their expectations are not being realized within the structures of the Sri Lankan state, and that their elected representatives are powerless, this will surely serve to jeopardize the hard won peace that now exists.
There is also another factor at work that is diverting attention away from issues of devolution of power. After CHOGM there has been an international focus on accountability issues that relate to the last phase of the war. The political discussion within the country has veered to issues of human rights and to the possible motivations of those who promote accountability for past violations. One of the consequences is that issues of governance have been dropped off the centre stage. An important motivation in seeking accountability for the past is to ensure justice to the victims of past human rights violations. Another is to prevent the abuses that occurred in the past from recurring in the present and future. These are legitimate motivations that need to be respected. However, the question being raised in Sri Lanka is whether there are other motivations also.
The focus on accountability is enabling the government to avoid dealing with governance issues that also have a major impact on the lives of people. In particular the issues connected to the system of checks and balances in a democracy have been overshadowed and are not debated. The UNP’s boycott of the budget debate is an example. This was due to the government shifting budget allocations to ministries without obtaining parliamentary approval. But there has been little or no discussion of this issues and no public outcry at all, even though the allocation and misallocation of financial resources is of utmost consequence to the life of people. Instead the outcry is against the external imposition of accountability issues on the country.
While the issue of devolution of power is only one aspect of governance, the ability and willingness to devolve such power can pave the way for better governance in general. This is because the effective and efficient sharing of power between different groups of elected authorities requires non-partisan institutions to maintain the balance between them. Institutions such as the judiciary and finance commission will play an important role in ensuring that the system of devolution works. But they will also ensure that other aspects of governance improve which will benefit all sections of the people, and not only the ethnic minorities who lead the campaign for devolution of power.
Accountability issues have taken the centre stage after CHOGM and the announcements by British Prime Minister David Cameron that he would ensure that his government pursues these matters at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March next year. On the other hand, prior to CHOGM it was the issue of devolution of power that was at the centre stage, especially after holding of the Northern Provincial Council election. There is a need to bring back the focus on to the devolution of power and implementation of the 13th Amendment in a manner that meets the needs of the people of the provinces. The overwhelming victory of the TNA gave the hope that this opposition-controlled provincial council would wield its powers effectively and thereby set a positive example of power-sharing to be emulated in the rest of the country also.
There is general belief within Sri Lanka that the willingness of the government to move forward on the issue of devolution of power was a result of international pressure. The government felt obliged to give specific commitments with respect to the devolution of power to both the Indian and Japanese governments. But in the aftermath of CHOGM the international pressure has shifted to the issue of accountability to the detriment of devolution of power. The disclosure that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is still open to the idea of accepting the Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran’s invitation to visit Jaffna may be a bid to restore the balance between accountability and governance.
The Indian announcement may be part of a synchronized international effort to rectify the imbalance brought about by the post-CHOGM focus on accountability issues by the international community. Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram has said that India will pursue the implementation of the 13th Amendment regarding the devolution of power. He also added that “If there is no change in Sri Lanka’s attitude, India will continue to press on the international community for a detailed inquiry into the human rights violations and killing of Tamils and punishment to those who are behind the killings.” There is a suggestion in this statement that India is prepared for a trade off, and will press for accountability if there is no progress on devolution. These are matters that need to be discussed.