By Kath Noble –
Probably even Mahinda Rajapaksa is amazed at how much he can get away with. At the end of the war, he promised that he would fully implement the 13th Amendment. In fact, he promised that its full implementation would be just the beginning – further steps would be taken to ensure that Sri Lanka never had to face such an ordeal again. He may even have believed it.
Yet here he is now, trying to pass constitutional amendments to do away with a number of its very significant clauses.
Discussion of this fascinating turnaround has tended to focus on the international community, in particular India. What will India do if Mahinda Rajapaksa goes back on his word? What will the world think?
Of course this is important. India has proved that it is eminently capable of destabilising Sri Lanka. Its supply of weapons and training – and a safe haven – to Tamil militant groups was vital to their converting numbers into results after Black July. More recently, India’s support of Western diplomatic efforts to raise the issue of war crimes at the United Nations has contributed to – if not by itself resulted in – the loss of other key states of the Non-Aligned Movement, plus the toughening of global public opinion.
In between, India helped the Government to pursue its military campaign against the LTTE to a successful conclusion.
Its current alignment with the West on Sri Lankan issues should be a major cause for concern, given Western enthusiasm for and experience of destabilisation, especially of countries with leaders that it considers troublesome.
One of the inadvertent consequences of the victory over the LTTE is the massive overconfidence of Sinhalese nationalists. They have come to think that Sri Lanka can take on the world. That it is an island of only 20 million people – and 20 million people who are united in body but not yet in spirit – does not register. Bring on a billion Indians and however many from the West! Never mind the suffering such confrontations entail, even when they don’t involve the use of force. Let them try! This is linked to the fallacy that they have already defeated India once. But it was the LTTE and not the Government or the JVP that forced the withdrawal of the IPKF, and the most important factor in that struggle was not its military capacity but the Tamil ethnicity of its members.
Only the form of intervention would be in doubt with the undoing of the 13th Amendment. It is a ‘red line’.
The absolutely obvious – yet apparently incomprehensible to Sinhalese nationalists – result of such provocation of India would be the practical strengthening of the separatist cause in Sri Lanka.
It would also be theoretically strengthened, of course.
Separatists hate the idea of functioning provincial councils in the North and East. That is why the LTTE rejected the 13th Amendment and why the British Tamils Forum has this weekend issued a statement ruling out any deal that is based on it. To justify dividing the country, they need to argue that Tamils cannot live in Sri Lanka. They need to convince people that they will always be dominated and discriminated against by Sinhalese, if not actually murdered by them. And making those claims would be a lot more difficult if the most important decisions affecting the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Tamil majority areas were being taken by their elected representatives from the Tamil community itself.
Involving the most popular Tamil political formation in the governance system would also encourage it to move away from such an agenda. They should be given an incentive to work for Sri Lanka.
By contrast, keeping the TNA out of power leaves it with nothing better to do than spearhead another push for Eelam.
Abolishing provincial councils is a totally loopy idea. And of course the campaign to get rid of the 13th Amendment is being led by the usual crowd of lunatics. (I was momentarily delighted a couple of weeks ago when the Ravana Balaya started protesting about somebody’s plan to build a statue of Sita, thinking that their getting involved in such absolutely pointless issues of no possible interest to anybody was a sign that we could finally forget about them, but no such luck!)
The problem is that such efforts are used by the Government to give the impression that its own stupidities constitute a reasonable compromise.
Removing as many powers as possible from provincial councils – as the Government is trying to do through its proposed constitutional amendments – is hardly better than getting rid of them altogether. Indeed, what actually needs to be done is to work out how to give them more responsibilities, looking at reviews that have been undertaken of their functioning in the rest of the country. There are numerous very useful studies, both official and those carried out by independent academics and civil society organisations. The report by the Institute of Constitutional Studies, published in 2010, would be a good start.
The Government could still do it.
One of the saddest aspects of the current hullabaloo over provincial councils – and the point that is most worth debating now – is that it is in no way reflective of public opinion in Sri Lanka. A 2011 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives found that almost 40% of the Sinhalese community had no opinion whatsoever about provincial councils. Another more than 30% was in favour of them, with the existing level of devolution, while additional devolution of powers was preferred by another 15%. In other words, very few people were dead set against the 13th Amendment.
(More than 40% of Tamils wanted additional devolution, while around 20% preferred the existing level.)
Of course a lot of the Sinhalese community can be persuaded that the 13th Amendment is actually tantamount to hacking off their own feet, and that process is now well under way.
What the research tells us is that they need leadership.
What they are getting is Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka and the Vens Galagodatthe Gnanasara, Akmeemana Dayaratne and Co.
Although the sheer number of different groups calling for the abolition of provincial councils makes it seem as though it is a mainstream effort, this is simply a reflection of their astute tactics. Rather than working under a single banner – which they could just about manage to hold up between them – they have each formed their own organisation to work for more or less the same ends.
It is about time more sensible politicians launched a counterattack.
The stand of the SLMC and EPDP is a relief, since it is more or less the first indication that members of the administration have minds of their own, plus something resembling a backbone. The Cabinet Memorandum by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitarana and DEW Gunasekera is also welcome. But it is not enough for them to refuse to vote for the Government’s constitutional amendments – Mahinda Rajapaksa is an expert when it comes to cobbling together coalitions, and he may still find a way to get what he wants. The only real hope of keeping the 13th Amendment intact is to go out and actively convince people that it is essential for the future of the country.
*Kath Noble may be contacted at email@example.com.