By Jehan Perera –
There has been an unexplained delay in the government’s plan to present a 19th Amendment to the constitution as an urgent bill to Parliament. As a result there is speculation that the government might have postponed its presentation, at least for the time being. There had been opposition from both ethnic minority political parties and the government’s own left wing parties to the passage of the 19th Amendment which seeks to weaken the 13th Amendment. It is possible that internal dissension is the cause of the delay. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa also declared he knew how to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He repeated this assertion at the Government Parliamentary Group last Monday at the Presidential Secretariat. He also added that if needed he would also be able to get some votes from the main opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians.
Therefore it is more likely than not that external factors rather than internal factors have been the determining factor in the government’s decision to delay the passage of the 19th Amendment. India has clearly expressed its unhappiness at developments in Sri Lanka. This is evident in a statement issued by the Indian government following a meeting last week between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a visiting TNA delegation. The statement noted that “The Prime Minister conveyed to the TNA delegation that he was dismayed by reports suggesting that the Government of Sri Lanka planned to dilute certain key provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution ahead of elections to the Northern Provincial Council. It was noted that the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment. The changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the Government of Sri Lanka, calling for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces.”
These Indian concerns were also reflected in the strong stand taken by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickemesinghe in Parliament opposing the proposed 19th Amendment. He said, “We have to stick to the commitments made to the international community and act on them. We cannot deviate from such commitments.” He also added that it would be a sin if the government were to unilaterally back off or renege on its promises. He also pledged his party’s support to the government to stick to the promises it had made to the international community. The strongly moral stance of the Opposition Leader’s speech is reflective of the breakdown of trust that needs to be rebuilt with both the international community and with the country’s own ethnic minorities.
Although the government started out with an ambitious plan to remove police and land powers from the provincial councils, do away with the need to get the consent of all provincial councils to pass legislation that impacted upon them, and to prohibit the merger of any two or more provinces to form a larger entity, it decided to drop the first two items. Both of these items have to do with the power of the provincial councils to govern themselves and to protect themselves from central government encroachment on their powers. This amendment would not be popular with the existing tier of provincial council politicians who would not wish to be robbed of their powers. Therefore the government decided to focus only upon the issue of the merger of two or more provinces. The only two provinces likely to seek a merger with each other are the Northern and Eastern provinces which are both provinces in which the ethnic minorities predominate.
The proposed 19th Amendment epitomizes what the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is about. At the root of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war is the existence of an ethnic conflict in which the political representatives of the three major ethnic communities (Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim) took up conflicting positions on important political issues, such as language, public sector employment and land settlement. As the Sinhalese people constitute over 75 percent of the population, their representatives have a permanent majority in Parliament to overcome ethnic minority dissent whenever the vote divided on ethnic lines. It is the imposition of the will of the ethnic majority over the ethnic minorities, time and again, that fuelled the demand for ethnic separatism and eventually for an independent Tamil Eelam.
The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been a long standing demand of the Tamil political parties and has become akin to an article of faith with most of the Tamil population in the two provinces. It was also a demand of the Tamil militant organizations that engaged in violence for an independent state of Tamil Eelam. Even today the EPDP which is a close ally in the government coalition continues to stand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. In these circumstances, the prohibition on any two more provinces to merge in the future will not be a consensual decision. On the other hand, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is seen as dangerous by the government and most Sinhalese people, as paving the way to the creation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam. Due to this factor, the proposed 19th Amendment will be a popular one with the majority of the Sinhalese people. Neither will it be opposed by any of the seven Sinhalese-dominated provincial councils, as none of them have shown any interest in merging with each other. Therefore the passage of the 19th Amendment will be politically advantageous to the government in consolidating its support amongst the Sinhalese majority.
The Muslim position in relation to the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is an ambiguous one. They would not wish to be dominated by the Tamil majority in a merged North East Province. The SLMC has insisted that in the event of a merger, the Muslim majority areas within the province should be given the status of a separate Muslim-dominated provincial council. They have also stipulated that event those areas in the Northern and Eastern provinces that are not geographically connected should be brought under the ambit of the Muslim-dominated provincial council. By implication, closing the door on the merger of the Northern and Eastern provincial councils will also preclude the possibility of a Muslim-dominated provincial council. Although a member of the government coalition, the SLMC has expressed its opposition to the 19th Amendment and its provision to prohibit the merger of any two or more provinces. Therefore, it is clear that if the 19th Amendment is passed it will be in opposition to the wishes of the ethnic minorities.
Shortly after the war ended President Mahinda Rajapaksa on behalf of the government promised the international community and the Sri Lankan people that a political solution would soon be found that had the backing of all communities. This position was reiterated this week in a media interview given by the President’s brother and Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “When it was pointed out that President Rajapaksa had assured India as well as other countries that his government would offer 13th Amendment Plus, the Defense Secretary said that what the President had meant was that he would give a better solution acceptable to all communities.” This provides the right understanding that any change in the constitution relevant to the ethnic conflict would be taken in consensus with the ethnic minorities and not unilaterally. With the proposed 19th Amendment, Sri Lanka was once again taking the road of unilateral Sinhalese decision making over the objections of the country’s ethnic minorities. It now appears that the possibility of an Indian boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has motivated the government to postpone the introduction of the 19th Amendment. The better path would be for the government to heed the words of the President after the end of the war and instead forge a solution that has the concurrence of the ethnic minorities also.