By Dharisha Bastians –
“It is necessary that we give to these people the freedoms that are the right of people in all others parts of our country. Similarly, it is necessary that the political solutions they need should be brought to closer to them faster than any country or government in the world would bring. However, it cannot be an imported solution” – President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a statement to the Parliament of Sri Lanka on 19 May 2009
The one-week cooling-off period offered to members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Cabinet of Ministers to review an urgent bill to dilute the powers of the provincial councils ends today. And yet, in a bizarre twist, a Government that looked well on its way to amending the Constitution of Sri Lanka for the second time in three years appears to have been stopped in its tracks by strong opposition from within its own ranks.
The Rajapaksa regime has long since grown accustomed to getting its way on matters of governance, irrespective of the views of its constituent allies. But the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds majority in Parliament to amend the country’s supreme law means that if it wants to revise the 13th Amendment and dilute the powers of the councils ahead of a promised Northern Provincial Council election this September, it has no choice but to win over its coalition partners in order to make the necessary numbers.
A stormy Cabinet
The Urgent Bill was proposed to Cabinet signed by the hand of External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, who just weeks ago assured his Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid that the Government would not dilute the provisions of the 13th Amendment in a highly-publicised telephone call, created heated debate at last Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
The stiffest resistance to the move to alter the powers of the provincial councils came from Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem, who reportedly openly disagreed with the President on the need to reform the 13th Amendment ahead of the Northern Provincial Council polls in September.
The UPFA’s hardline nationalist constituents, the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Wimal Weerawansa-led National Freedom Front (NFF), were adamant that the amendments be broader to include the removal of the land and police powers granted to the province before a poll was held in north.
Realising consensus would be impossible at the meeting, President Rajapaksa did what he so often does – he deferred a decision for a week, until the Cabinet meets once again, this time having read and reviewed the amendments being proposed by the Government.
Along with the announcement of the amendments proposed to the Cabinet was the President’s decision to go ahead and establish the Parliamentary Select Committee that he has tasked with reaching consensus on a final political settlement to the country’s ethnic conflict, irrespective of the Tamil National Alliance’s conditional refusal to join the process.
Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, announcing the Government’s proposals to amend the powers of the councils, claimed that the time had come to make tough decisions. He said President Rajapaksa had given the TNA enough time to take part in the process to formulate devolution plans. This was what the Government believed it had to do now, Rambukwella claimed.
In the week that followed, reforming the 13th Amendment has been the Government’s primary focus, with the exception of the inter-agency warfare over the death of 47 fishermen off the southern coast due to severe weather conditions and lapses in the early warning system. During the ‘cool off and review’ period, events have unfolded at a hectic pace and the issue of amending the Constitution for the 19th time, this time to clip the wings of the provincial authorities, is beginning to get messy.
A divided coalition
By the weekend, the UPFA constituent parties were making decisions to oppose the regime’s latest move. The parties of the old Left have consistently maintained a pro-devolution position. While their impact on the day-to-day running of the Government remains marginal at best, in the recent past, the old Left has chosen to set themselves apart from some of the regime’s misadventures. Both the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) led by Prof. Tissa Vitarana made party level decisions to abstain from voting to impeach the country’s 43rd Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January this year.
Last Saturday (7), the Central Committee of the Communist Party headed by Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera decided to oppose the Government’s proposals to dilute the 13th Amendment. The next day, the Central Committee of the Vitarana-led LSSP reached a similar decision. Each of the parties has two seats in Parliament.
But the true blow was yet to come.
SLMC throws down the gauntlet
At a parliamentary group meeting held at the residence of Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem in Colpetty on Monday (10), the eight MPs of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress unanimously decided to oppose moves to dilute the powers of the provincial councils as set out in the 13th Amendment. According to the SLMC High Command, the MPs were compelled to act according to decisions reached at a party convention in December 2012, which expressly resolved that the main Muslim party would refrain from acting to derail devolution or dilute the powers of the provincial councils.
It will be recalled that the SLMC councillors supporting the Government in the Eastern Provincial Council voted in favour of the Divi Neguma legislation that also allowed the Central Government take back some powers devolved to the provinces back to the Central Government. According to senior columnist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, Muslim Congress General Secretary Hasan Ali has claimed that the party had initiated disciplinary proceedings against those councillors for endorsing the controversial Divi Neguma law.
The eight members of the SLMC will therefore oppose the Government’s proposed revisions to the 13th Amendment. Together with the MPs from the Communist Party and the LSSP, the number of ruling party parliamentarians unlikely to support the Urgent Bill – bar conviction, intimidation or coercion – had now climbed to 12.
The Government, which has 161 MPs in the 225-seat Legislature, needs 150 votes to pass a constitutional amendment.
The regime has maintained a tight rein on the Muslim Congress and Justice Minister Hakeem, the latter coming in for strong criticism over his backing of the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and his party’s support to the UPFA to form the Government in the Eastern Provincial Council. Since it joined the Government, after having contested elections under the UNF banner in 2010, the SLMC has played meek and mild within the UPFA coalition, even going so far as to back the blatantly autocratic 18th Amendment to the Constitution that repealed the 17th Amendment, which established independent commissions and removed presidential term limits. Needless to say the SLMC decision to oppose revisions to the 13th Amendment did not go down well with President Rajapaksa and his inner circle.
In fact, President Rajapaksa’s coalition headaches were set to intensify.On Monday, the President also held meetings with the JHU and the Douglas Devananda-led EPDP. The Buddhist party wanted broader revisions of the 13th Amendment and put forward five conditions to be met by the Government ahead of an election in the north. Devananda, who holds a further three seats in the UPFA coalition, believes that dilution of the 13th Amendment is not in the interest of the Tamil people.
Devananda has long been an advocate of the 13th Amendment. Last December, when the regime was sowing the seeds for the war against the 13th Amendment, Devananda together with seven other parties – many of them coalition partners in Government – convened a meeting in Parliament to protect the 13th Amendment and attempt to persuade the TNA to join the Select Committee proposed by the President for consensus on power sharing.
The CWC, the SLMC, the Athaullah faction, Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s Democratic Left Front and the Mano Ganesan-led Democratic People’s Front also participated in the meetings and pledged to work to retain the 13th Amendment. The Arumugam Thondaman-led CWC has four seats in Parliament but it is not clear what position the party would take on the Government’s latest moves to dilute the 13th Amendment. Whether the CWC will in this regard take its instructions from New Delhi or Temple Trees will be a crucial deciding factor.
With potential increasing for its plans to be thwarted, the regime characteristically switched to high gear and waged a campaign by proxy in support of its proposed amendments. The first salvo was launched against the SLMC. The very next day, Deputy Minister of Investment Promotion and Sri Lanka Freedom Party Central Committee Member Faiszer Mustapha joined SLFP Batticaloa District Organiser Arun Thambimuttu at a media briefing on the 25th floor of West Tower of the World Trade Centre in Colombo Fort to express the viewpoints of the ‘other minorities’ about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Thambimuttu, who is the son of EPRLF MP for the Batticaloa District Sam Thambimuttu who was assassinated outside the Canadian High Commission in Colombo in 1990, charged that the Tamil National Alliance which was likely to win any poll held in the Northern Province was yet to renounce separatism and warned that the party was not to be trusted with police powers granted to the provincial councils by the 13th Amendment.
Thambimuttu led the charge against the bona fides of the TNA, saying the party had openly touted the provincial councils as a stepping stone to achieving its true aspiration of internal self-determination. Harking back to history, the SLFP Organiser said the last time the North East Council had been constituted, the Chief Minister of the then merged provinces Vartharajah Perumal had declared Eelam and set up a civil voluntary force that later became the Tamil National Army.
Mustapha meanwhile criticised the Muslim Congress for refusing to back the Government’s proposed amendments to the Provincial Councils Act, saying it was the Muslims who would suffer worst under a Tamil political leadership with separatist aspirations with police powers and the authority to merge provinces.
In remarks laced with thinly-veiled mistrust of the Tamil populace of the north, the Deputy Minister claimed the amendments to land and police powers and the merger clauses were crucial ahead of the northern poll because the north was the ‘birthplace of terrorism’ and the “ethnic composition” was different in the north than in other parts of the island in which provincial governments had been set up, including the Eastern Province.
Mustapha’s assertion was that the police powers in the hands of the TNA could result in a resurgence of terrorism and a subjugation of the Muslim community in the north and the east, while the merger clause in the 13th Amendment could tilt the ethnic balance in the North-Eastern Province if it was re-merged, creating Tamil hegemony. For these reasons, Mustapha asserted, the SLMC should back the Government’s proposals to dilute 13A.
Also on Tuesday, a Collective for the Abolition of the Provincial Council System was launched raising the decibel level in war against the 13th Amendment. Interestingly, the collective comprised the usual suspects, the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya – both organisations that have displayed certain affiliations to sections of the ruling regime, particularly those sections virulently opposed to the 13th Amendment and devolution – and the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya and civil activists including Attorney-at-Law S.L. Gunesekera and Prof. Nalin De Silva. The collective is calling for the complete repeal of the 13th Amendment and an end to the provincial council system.
BBS steps into the fray
Speaking for the Tamil people at the collective’s first press conference, BBS General Secretary and outspoken monk Galabodaththe Gnanasara said the Tamil people were “least bothered about the provincial council system and only want to live happily in their areas”. The monk claimed that the BBS that preached ‘Halal’ sermons would not begin to preach about provincial councils at every opportunity.
As the debate heats up locally, the Government’s sudden moves has also caused serious concern across the Palk Straits, with no less than the Prime Minister of India reportedly expressing irritation with Colombo’s double-speak on the issue of the 13th Amendment.
Over the last four years, Indian officials, including its Premier have been assured by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister Peiris that the Government in Colombo was committed to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. The last such commitment came just three weeks ago when, alarmed by reports about the Rajapaksa administration’s plans to curtail the powers of the provincial councils, Indian External Affairs Minister Khurshid telephoned his counterpart in Colombo to obtain an assurance that the Government would not move to revise the 13th Amendment ahead of the promised poll in the north in September. The high-level telephone call that was widely publicised in the Indian media was an indication of how seriously New Delhi took Colombo’s threats to dilute the powers granted to the provinces through the 13th Amendment.
Following last Thursday’s official announcement, the Indian Government has issued an urgent summons on the TNA. The TNA has been invited to New Delhi next week for high-level talks with Indian officials about the Government’s latest move. TNA Leader R. Sampanthan and at least four other TNA members are expected to fly to India next week for discussions. It is widely expected that Indian officials will strongly advise the TNA to opt into the PSC process in order to ensure the Government is prevented from taking any further unilateral action on the devolution issue. The TNA which has repeatedly questioned the Rajapaksa Government’s bona fides in granting genuine devolution and reaching a credible political solution to the Tamil problem will no doubt cite the regime’s unabashed U-turn on 13A as being proof of these claims.
In light of Colombo’s trail of broken promises to New Delhi since the end of the war in 2009, analysts say Indian officials could be realising discussions with and assurances from Colombo are empty shells and President Rajapaksa will in the end pander to his ultra-nationalist support base and his own ideological compulsions regardless of New Delhi’s views on the issues.
Concerned by Beijing’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, New Delhi cannot afford to overly ruffle Rajapaksa feathers, but it is likely Indian experts say that the South Asian power may no longer offer Colombo even covert support in the international arena, if it continues to renege on its international commitments and its post war promises to the Tamil people. Closely entwined with New Delhi’s concerns are those of Washington and the rest of the Western lobby pushing for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, whose diplomats in Colombo are reportedly carefully studying the proposed legislation and watching its debate closely in Parliament.
US officials in Washington are more forthright. In New York on Tuesday, US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Stephen J. Rapp said the US was looking for Sri Lanka to proceed with accountability and genuine reconciliation and will be watching “very carefully” to decide what steps may be necessary to be taken again at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Rapp said that the US has spoken “loud and clear” on the Sri Lankan issue by its sponsorship of the resolutions, which he says had expressed disappointment that the provisions of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had not been implemented. The US-sponsored resolution in March this year was also ‘loud and clear’ on the issue of a political settlement to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and holds President Rajapaksa to his commitment to hold elections in the North by September 2013.
With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting now secured for Colombo in November, the regime is likely able to cast aside the concerns raised by India and the international community on the issue of the 13th Amendment. But if its coalition partners prove difficult and it cannot muster the support it needs to pass a constitutional amendment, the contingency plan may come in the form of a Parliamentary Select Committee to study devolution proposals and recommend the elusive final solution. That process could take months and the likely victim in the time buying manoeuvre is the Northern Provincial Council election that must be declared before the end of this month, according to an Elections Department deadline.
But President Rajapaksa will insist upon the process running its course for the sake of reaching consensus on the issue of devolution. It must be noted that consensus has been reached before, in 2007 under the Rajapaksa regime, when the Tissa Vitarana-led All Party Representative Committee put forward progressive recommendations on devolution. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission established by President Rajapaksa in 2010 also recommended the full implementation of the provisions of the 13th Amendment as a path to reconciling the ethnic question. The LLRC report was also accepted by the Government, although it balked at some of its recommendations as time wore on.
Undoubtedly, any ‘consensus’ reached by the freshly-constituted Select Committee will be cast aside in due course because, plainly put, devolution is simply not on the Rajapaksa post-war agenda.
The ruling regime believes the ethnic problem was a creation of Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The problem therefore ended with his death on the banks of the Nandikadal lagoon on 18 May 2009. It believes that any perceived and residual discrimination by the Tamils will be eliminated in the glow of economic prosperity that will surely come to the people of the north and east under the Government’s hyper-development drive.
The regime’s persistent denial of the historic roots of the country’s ethnic struggle defines its rhetoric. It will put development ahead of devolution, reconstruction over reconciliation and collective good and national security over individual freedoms and democracy.
Courtesy Daily FT