By Jehan Perera –
The government is getting ready to pass a 19th Amendment to the constitution as an urgent bill. For the past several weeks, the government has been engaging in internal debate about the powers of the provincial councils and how they should be reduced. The urgency arises from the government’s much debated decision to finally hold the long-postponed elections for the Northern Provincial Council in September. The proposed constitutional amendment seeks to take away the power of two (or more) adjacent provincial councils to decide to merge together to form one merged province. The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been a sore point for successive governments and Sinhalese opinion leaders. They see the possibility of a merged North East province to be a threat to the unity of the country. Such a province would have a non-Sinhalese majority, and being about 30 percent of the country, could also become a viable independent state in which the majority of the population would be Tamil and Muslim.
It seems to be that, prior to the establishment of a Tamil-led provincial council, the government is keen to allay the concerns being raised publicly by its nationalist coalition partners, who see a Tamil-led Northern Provincial Council as being injurious to national interests. Already the Eastern Provincial Council is Muslim-led, though the government holds the majority position in it. Recent developments there suggest a weakening of the government’s position within the Eastern Provincial Council. This is borne out in a comment of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a cabinet meeting on the issue the constitutional amendment, where is reported to have said, “I know what is happening. They are raising anti-Sinhala cries. They are creating hatred. As long as I am there, I will not allow anything to happen. I am doing this for the sake of the future generation and not for my own benefit.”
These words of the President are revealing of the government’s sensitivity to what they perceive to be national concerns. The weakening of the government’s hold over the Eastern Provincial Council, which has a majority of Muslim and Tamil members, appears to have made government leaders more concerned about the forthcoming election of the Northern Provincial Council. There were stories being spread about cabinet ministers getting violent with each other due to heightened emotions in discussing the pros and cons of the devolutionary system of government. The dominant voice within the government has been seeking ways in which to strengthen Parliament’s power to impose its writ upon the Provincial Councils, and also to withdraw the devolved police and land powers from them. The fact that the government is proposing to do weaken the provincial councils just before a Tamil-led provincial council is about to be elected shows mistrust of the Tamil community.
The problem with the present government leadership is that they are so heavily immersed in the fears and apprehensions of the past with reference to ethnic separatism that they have not been able to show an ability to transcend them. But if they are to be truly leaders of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, in which the minority ethnic and religious communities account for 30 percent of the population, they need to be alive to the fears and apprehensions of these communities as well. They must not be one-sided in their affections for a section of the people, even if it be the majority section. The proposed 19th Amendment to the constitution is an example where the government is catering to the concerns of the majority community on the issue of Tamil separatism and not to the concerns of the ethnic minorities. The Tamil and Muslim minorities seek the devolution of power as a mechanism of power-sharing in which they too have a voice and the power to decide.
The state as protector of all citizens must be responsive to the sensitivities to those that feel alienated. Extremist positions do not heal but only lead to more and more conflict. To the larger world that is looking on, the proposed election in the Northern Province represents the most significant step on the part of the government towards reconciliation. The symbolism that the provincial council system represents is greater than the power it devolves. At this current time of great development but little effort at transitional healing, it is important that the government to not to undermine the devolution of power under the 13th amendment. The holding of free and fair elections for the Northern Provincial Council will be symbolic to Sri Lankans and to the international community that the government has committed itself to the reconciliation process and to providing democratic rights to its ethnic minorities.
The people of the Northern Province have had to endure many years of war, and have suffered tremendously because of it. There is development taking place in those areas that the people living there actively participate in and contribute to through their elected officials. Last week the President opened a domestic airport, a housing scheme and a newly constructed section of the highway in the Northern Province. He also said that when the provincial council was established, the government hoped to undertake bigger development projects for the North. He said that “We are giving the people of the North the same that are given to the South.” This is a very positive attitude that summarises what scholars in the field of peace building might say in many pages or even books, and is an approach to reconciliation that needs to be built upon by the government in winning hearts and minds of the people of the Northern Province.
In a post-war situation healing the wounds and bridging the ethnic and religious divides must be foremost in any action on the part of the state. All actions that follow a conflict must be those that take cognizance of the need for transition to a peace that heals. The statement issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference on the present crisis is worthy of note in this regard. The Bishops noted that the 13th Amendment “provides for the devolution of power to the provinces and has been in effect over the last two decades. There have been a few examples of tension with regard to the use of devolved authority, but by and large the system has allowed greater participation of people in the matter of governance.” The statement goes on to say that the amendment to the constitution on the devolution of powers should be part of a larger scheme of constitutional reform which must not be rushed through, but should be deliberated upon.
The provincial council system has been in existence for 26 years. The operation of the provincial councils, their weaknesses and advantages, are well known to the people residing in the eight provinces that currently have provincial councils. During the height of the war, the government gave assurances that after the war it would implement a political solution that went beyond the existing scheme of devolution of power. The President’s promise of 13th Amendment Plus at the conclusion of the war was an attractive reassurance to those who were concerned about the high human costs of the war.
The Bishops point out that “Essentially the problem in the North is a National question for which the solution is to be found by the local political leadership of both the Sinhala and the Tamil communities. What is needed is the proper study and careful consideration of all factors along with a broad based consultation of the different political parties and civil society groups before any changes are to be made. We are not convinced that this is happening.”
What the people of the North want is not separation but equality. The present leadership of the main Tamil political party, the TNA, has said this in public and community leaders say this at NGO organized seminars and workshops in the North and East. They need to say this more strongly so that the Sinhalese people will be reassured and the nationalist Sinhalese politicians cannot use separatism as an excuse to deny the Tamil people their rights. The equality the ethnic minorities, both Tamil and Muslim, want would be to be resettled in homes like they used to have, to have livelihoods, to get government jobs, like Sinhalese people do, and not be a disproportionately small fraction of the public service, police and even military as they are today. The ethnic minorities would also wish the government not to celebrate the war victory year after year, just as in the United States the government never celebrates the civil war victory. This is especially true when so many of their loved ones still remain missing and unaccounted for. What they might like the government to celebrate would be the day on which a political solution that is acceptable to all communities is made real by a government that cares for them as its own.