By Dayan Jayatilleka –
On December 18th, the evening’s television newscasts showed the Minister for Public Security and the State Minister for Provincial Councils addressing a packed hall of uniformed Civil Defense Force personnel in the sensitive, Sinhala-majority district of Ampara in the multiethnic Eastern Province and swearing a solemn oath (“sapatha kara kiyanawa”) that the “system of Provincial Councils” (“Palaath Sabha kramaya”) will be done away with, not least because its very existence, with the capacity of nine Provincial Councils to legislate on certain subjects, flies in the face of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy and mandate of ‘One Country, One Law’—which, incidentally, sounds very much like “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer!’
The Minister, Rear-Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekara went on to inform the Civil Defense Force personnel that the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was invalid because India had not held up its end of the agreement, and since the Accord was invalid, so too were the 13th amendment and the system of Provincial Councils.
The Minister of Public Security making these rousing declarations to an audience of uniformed officers belonging to the local self-defense militia drawn from the populace of the strategically sensitive Sinhala majority district in the Eastern Province which has a Tamil-speaking, i.e., Tamil and Muslim majority, has the most serious implications.
I was immediately reminded of a question raised in print by my father Mervyn de Silva (in the pages of the Lanka Guardian and other forums): “Will the East be Sri Lanka’s Bosnia?” What cue would these Civil Defense Force officers have got, and how would they conduct themselves, if the Northern and Eastern Provincial Council elections are held? How will they act during the process? How will they regard the Council and its functioning? This speech could be seen by future historians as the commencement of the priming of the largely Sinhala Civil Defense Force to function as the equivalent of the Bosnian Serb militia.
Given that the Governor of the Eastern Province is a co-thinker of the Minister and fellow member of the same networks (Viyathmaga/Eliya) and given also that the Eastern Heritage Presidential Task Force, with its ex-military, plus Police plus Bhikkhu axis, is already active on the ground in the Eastern Province, there is a stockpiling of incendiary material. Now the obvious personalities are auditioning for the roles of Radovan Karadzic and/or Ratko Mladic.
The Minister’s speech didn’t limit itself to the Eastern Province. He said that “the system of Provincial Councils” will be abolished, which also includes the Northern Province.
The inflammatory speech was not an isolated incident nor is it explicable as the unrepresentative views of a notorious hawk. Days earlier, Minister Weerawansa’s party, the Sihala Ravaya monks, Jathika Chinthanaya Godfather Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara and its ideologue, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Myanmar, Dr Nalin de Silva, had criticized the Cabinet’s effort to expedite the long-delayed elections to the Provincial Councils. More recently, the Chief Prelate of the Amarapura Nikaya joined in.
In this context comes the broadside by Cambridge-educated Professor Emeritus G.H. (Gerald) Peiris, leading geographer and member of the Experts Committee headed by Romesh de Silva, PC, drafting the new Constitution.
In a series of articles in The Island, Prof Gerry Peiris attacked the governing coalition for preparing to hold PC elections instead of abolishing the institution itself. In his Preamble, Prof Peiris writes pointedly as follows:
“This article is prompted by the recent announcement that the Cabinet will soon consider a proposal to conduct Provincial Council (PC) elections without delay. The article is intended to urge that the PC system should be abolished…The article is also intended to stimulate the memory of those who appear to have forgotten the circumstances that culminated in the enactment of legislation in 1987 to establish PCs. There appears to prevail a measure of complacency among some of our present political stalwarts based on the notion that, with their two-thirds majority in Parliament, and with the 20th Amendment in place, they ought to let the status quo remain intact. This, I think, is quite silly. Apart from the fact that landslide electoral victories tend often to be brittle, those who were in the forefront of empowering the present regime are already reacting with dismay to the decision to re-establish the PCs.” (Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique – The Island)
At the end of Part 2, Prof Peiris concludes his essay by clearly reiterating his objective, namely nothing other and nothing less than the abolition of the PC system:
“The antecedents of the PC system sketched above constitute only two sets of reasons that justify the appeal for its abolition.” (Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique – The Island)
Not only does Prof Peiris’ series of articles show that he is hardly open-minded and unlikely to seek consensus about the content of the new Constitution, but he also thinks it ‘silly’ to hold elections to the existing Provincial Councils under the existing Constitutional provisions until a new Constitution comes along, whenever that may be.
Those “political stalwarts” with their “two-thirds majority” and their “silly” thinking, doubtless wish to revive a dormant institution which may afford them an expanded electoral power-base while giving the Government’s Tamil and Muslim allies some representation in the North and East which provides an economic-developmental shareholding and enhanced political legitimacy. It would also help the equation with India.
In effect, what the “political stalwarts” seek has nothing whatsoever to do with the new Constitution and in no way impedes it. Why then does a member of the drafting committee of the new Constitution take time off from that task, step outside the usual norms, and attack an initiative of the PM, Asia’s most experienced politician (now that Mahathir Mohamed has stepped down)?
The answer can only be that the central task of the new Constitution project as understood by Prof GH Peiris (an indisputably learned man) is to “abolish” not merely the 13th amendment but also “the PC system” (his words) and that holding elections to the PCs before that, may somehow delay, dilute, or deflect that project.
Having just appointed a ‘Sinhala Only’ board (no Tamils or Muslims) chaired by a former Minister, for the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, thereby ensuring its international downgrading and further depleting domestic justice mechanisms of legitimacy, will President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instruct the new Constitution to be produced at “warp speed” to pre-empt his brother the PM’s pragmatic effort to hold elections to the PCs?
What will be the fate of the Tamil and Muslim allies of the Government? Already, given what has happened and is happening– the ‘burning questions’ of the day, so to speak– they may have begun to be viewed by their educated youth in much the same way that Malcolm X depicted the collaborationist old elite of the black community in his legendary “We Sick, Massa?” speech. (Malcolm X: The House Negro And The Field Negro Speech – YouTube)
How will India and the world community as a whole respond to the abolition of the PC system which grants a measure of provincial semi-autonomy to the Tamils? It is exceedingly unlikely that against the backdrop of the peasant agitation in India, not to mention the competition with China, Prime Minister Modi would leave open space for his opponents to charge that the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the strategic achievement of Rajiv Gandhi and a Congress government were traded back to China’s ally President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in exchange for gains by the Adani Group.
Furthermore, how would world opinion view India if a hawkish Sinhala-Buddhist militarist regime unimpeded by India, stripped the Sri Lanka’s Tamils (who have more soft power globally than do the Kashmiris) of their provincial semi-autonomy earlier obtained for them by India?
How would political elites and legislators in the USA and the Quad as a whole, view India’s capacity to manage China within the South Asian subsystem, traditionally India’s sphere of influence? India’s action/inaction could tilt the balance between appeasement and contention/containment.