By Jehan Perera –
For any system of government to work it requires an acknowledgement and respect for each other’s role. Trust and goodwill are also important to have between those who hold key decision making positions within the system. When the Northern Provincial Council was established following democratic elections in September, it seemed that a giant step forward had been taken in terms of arriving at a political solution to the ethnic conflict that gave rise to protracted war. But three months after the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council the breakdown of relationships is epitomized by the conflict between its presidentially appointed Governor and democratically elected Chief Minister. There might still be an opportunity to mitigate this conflict before it reaches a chronic stage of no-return between the government and Northern Provincial Council.
Both Governor G A Chandrasiri and Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran are very capable individuals who rose to the highest levels of their respective professions. They are now in positions that were meant to be a check and balance on the power of the provincial councils. Nor surprisingly the appearance and reality today are of a Governor and Chief Minister locked in conflict. The Chief Minister has found himself to be without the powers to discharge his responsibilities by the people who elected him.
Prior to the establishment of the elected Northern Provincial Council, the Governor was necessarily the key figure in the administration of the province. He took all the important decisions, including providing budgetary allocations for the construction of the new provincial council building, and engaging in various acts of charity, including providing funding to individuals who needed medical attention abroad. With this practice in memory, the Governor has taken the position that the Constitution of the country vests the power of staff appointments to the provincial council with him. As a result the Chief Minister cannot even appoint the key staff, such as the Chief Secretary, he would have work for him in the provincial council. The Governor has also refused to give his assent to some of the initiatives proposed by the ministers of the provincial council. In public statements in his defense, he cites the Constitution of the country as giving him the power of decision making.
The response of the provincial council, and of the TNA which is the ruling party in the provincial council, is to call for the Governor’s removal from office and replacement by a civilian governor. While this call makes a clear political point in terms of the TNA’s right to govern the Northern Provincial Council after its electoral victory, it fails to bring a solution to the existing problem. In the interim the people’s problems remain unresolved. On the one hand, the TNA has the mandate of the people without any doubt, as it scored an overwhelming victory at the Northern Provincial Council elections. On the other hand, there is also the TOR or terms of reference provided by the law, which specifies what the Chief Minister and his Board of Ministers may and may not do. The Governor has taken to himself the power of decision making on this count, backed by the enforcement power of the State.
But there is also the spirit of the law, and the purpose for which the provincial council system was intended. It was to resolve the ethnic conflict and to enable the Tamils in particular, and also the Muslims, who are relatively small minorities in the country as a whole, but who are majorities or large minorities in parts of the country, to enjoy decision making powers of their own. Although there continue to be nationalists in the government who continue to deny the existence of an ethnic conflict, mainstream opinion in the country has become more liberal. The report of the LLRC, which was appointed by the President to find the lessons of the past, and how not to repeat them, is evidence of this liberal spirit.
The view of the LLRC commissioners was that the political leaders of Sri Lanka needed to apologise to the people for their failure to find a solution to the ethnic conflict, and to address the genuine grievances of the ethnic minorities. The elections to the Northern Provincial Council and its establishment as a political authority in the context of implementing the LLRC recommendations and meeting international expectations has considerable potential to address the problems faced by the people of the North in the way that they wish. It also has had the benefit of showing who the representatives of the people of the North are, and what their priorities are. This is to ensure that decisions are made by their elected representatives who are closer to them than the central authorities in Colombo.
The issues that took centre stage at a meeting of the Jaffna Managers Forum that I attended last week gave an indication of the priorities of those who are community leaders in Jaffna. At the centre of their discussion was the need to empower the Northern Provincial Council to give direction to the allocation of resources in the province, and for the benefit of the people. At this time legal power is vested with the central authorities who have not been responsive to the people’s problems or to their demands. In the discussion it was pointed out that there had been a spate of suicides of business persons due to the failure of their business plans and inability to repay the loans they had taken. A number as high as 20 was given for the past few months. The non-utilisation of the local labour force by south-based business enterprises was also noted.
Some of the other issues that came up were the re-emergence of army-run businesses, such as small restaurants and shops, along the main roads. It was noted that travelers from the South preferred to stop at them, but that this deprived the local people of a source of income. There was the observation that the ultra modern hospital put up with Japanese government assistance, which had 27 beds in the Intensive Care Unit, only used 16 of them as there was no nursing staff to ensure that all the beds were utilized. The digging up of limestone in Kankasanthurai, within the high security zone which is accessible only to the military had led to the possibility of sea water coming inland and to the possible loss of land to sea erosion. Resolving such issues and empowering the provincial council to deal with them requires change in the attitude of the central government authorities and a willingness on their part to relax their controls.
The 13th Amendment provides overriding legal powers to the central government vis-à-vis the provincial councils, not only in the Northern Provincial Council but in the other eight provincial councils also. The Governor of each province is vested with superior legal powers by the constitution, even though he or she is an appointed official, and not elected as the provincial council members are. Although the Governor’s powers are overwhelming, his or her political role needs to be a residual one. The Governor is appointed by the President. He is not elected by the people. Three months after the holding of the Northern Provincial Council election, it is incumbent on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make the Governor’s post-election role clear and thereby empower the Northern Provincial Council. As a former army general, Governor Chandrasiri will surely take his orders from his Commander-in-Chief. But so far alas, this does not appear to have been done.