Government desperate to strip Provincial Council powers before elections
“To be or not to be” is the famous opening phrase of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the soliloquy, Hamlet questions the meaning of life, and whether or not it is worthwhile to stay alive when life contains so many hardships. He comes to the conclusion that the main reason people stay alive is due to a fear of death and uncertainty at what lies beyond life.
Now the news comes that Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya had begun preparations to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections in September, although there is no official confirmation yet. Speaking further, Deshapriya said as of now the status quo regarding the registered voters would remain unless there is legislation to effect change to include a new voter list. On May 23, President’s spokesman Anura PriyadarshanaYapa, the Minister for Petroleum Industries, said that the NPC elections will be held in September and that any changes to 13A could only come after a broad public consultation. We also heard the President has given the go ahead instructing the Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris to hold the provincial elections. It is not understood what Foreign Minister has got to do with Provincial Elections when there is a Minister in charge of Local Government and Provincial Elections Mr. A. L. M. Athaullah. But then in Rajapaksa‘s domain strange things happen with an elephant size cabinet consisting of 54 Ministers, 10 senior Ministers and 2 Project Ministers totalling 66 Ministers (excludes one Deputy Minister who is also a Senior Minister) and 29 Deputy Ministers!
As we know the first election for the merged Northeast Provincial Council was held on 9th December, 1988. It was dissolved on March 01, 1990 by the President following Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal’s declaration of unilateral independence. The merged Northeast Provincial Council elected a total of 71 (36 in the North and 35 in the East) members. The Northern Province is divided into five administrative districts, 33 Divisional Secretary’s Divisions (DS Divisions) and 912 Grama Niladhari Divisions (GN Divisions) as per the Tables below:
The following table shows ethnic wise population of the Northern Province:
The combined Northern and Eastern provinces comprises almost one-fourth of the Island’s total area (18,675 sq.kms) out of 65,610 sq.kms(25,332 sq.kms) and a total coastline of 1,700 kms (1,056 miles). Demography wise the North and East has a combined population of 2,610,143 out of 21,481,334 (2012) or 12.15% After dilly dallying for more than 4 years and after trotting out lame excuses like “land mines not cleared yet” “electoral registers are over 30 years old and are incomplete” and “resettlements will take time” the elections are a near certainty. But, the real reason is the spectre of defeat staring at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face.
There was yet another important reason for the foot dragging; Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to showcase the highways, roads and other infra-structure of which the beneficiaries are not the common people but largely the military. Unfortunately, the government has run out of any more excuses to put off the elections further. Holding the Northern Provincial Council elections in September 2013 was a promise the Sri Lankan government Minister gave at the august assembly of UNHRC. The international community considers Northern Province Council (NPC) elections as an important step towards reconciliation with the Thamil national minority and to hold the elections for the province to restore civil administration. In March, 2013 the Sri Lanka’s Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights and Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe briefed the Council that the Government is actively engaged in removing military involvement in civil administration, demining, and rehabilitation, and had launched national reconciliation and peace-building initiatives. Sri Lanka had accepted 113 out of 204 recommendations received, and had also made 19 voluntary commitments.
Sri Lanka was currently evaluating the implementation of the NAP for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. It is not understood why a government which has managed to get away with gross human rights violations and undermining of media freedom feign a show of compliance with the UNHRC resolution for the international community. However, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister GL Peiris has stated that Sri Lanka will not comply with the resolutions passed at the UN Human Rights Council. Speaking in Parliament, the Minister said, “Sri Lanka cannot acquiesce with the resolution adopted.” (Tamil Guardian 09 April 2013) The holding of the Northern Province elections has generated opposition from far right racist parties who have formed a coalition to fight the abolition of 13 A. The monk-led Sinhala – Buddhist only party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the National Freedom Front led by fire-brand politician Wimal Weerawansa, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Sena and other fringe groups. The JHU last week gave notice by way of a private members’ bill to abolish 13 A. JHU spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe said that the JHU is not against elections being held for the northern provincial council, but those elections should be held once the provincial councils system is abolished. “If the government is unable to abolish the system then we are ready to accept amendments to it. We want the land and police powers removed from the 13th Amendment,” he said. The NFF, a key ally, has launched a campaign to collect 2 million signatures calling for the complete scrapping of the 13th amendment or the separatist provisions therein such as the land and police powers. Not to be left out is the Jathika Vimukti Peramuna, the party of Sinhala – Buddhist extremists masquerading as Marxists. As of now the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), also an ally of the government wants the 13th Amendment to remain as it is. Its General Secretary Hassan Ali has said that they will oppose any changes being made to the 13th Amendment. Going by past experience, the SLMC may finally cave in to save its Ministerial portfolios. The LSSP, CP and NSSP seem to have mustered enough courage to oppose the proposed amendments. 13A entered Sri Lanka’s statutes in 1987 as part of the Indo -Sri Lanka Accord which envisaged devolution of powers to the island’s provinces in an effort to end the Sri Lankan Civil War involving the LTTE and government forces. The current virulent campaign to abolish the provincial councils system will completely make Thamils political orphans, an issue that caused the 37 years war in the island. The Mahanayaka Theros have advised the President that holding the Northern Provincial Council election with land and police powers to the provinces would result in the Southern Sinhalese engaging in protest campaigns and that it would have an adverse impact on the President’s election campaign.
The opponents of the 13th Amendment believe holding the elections in the Northern Province without amending it will be a serious threat to the ‘national security and territorial integrity’ of Sri Lanka. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently said that he would never agree to granting police powers to provincial councils as it would be a serious challenge and a danger to the security of the country. He claimed that Sri Lanka is facing an international conspiracy, saying “powerful external elements are trying to undermine peace and stability here through local pawns.” He insisted that “the positioning of armed forces shouldn’t be a political issue or a topic for discussions with any external players.” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s words count, though he is nominally the Defence Secretary, he is the real power behind the throne wielding enormous powers.
To stem the tide of opposition from its own ranks, the government has started proposing two significant changes to 13A rather than its wholesale removal. 1) The annulment of the provision that enables two or more adjoining Provincial Councils to merge with one another; 2) The abolition of the provision which required the consent of ALL Provincial Councils for bills and acts to get passed in parliament. The proposed amendment will make it much easier for the government to override Provincial Councils. At present, if the government wishes to pass a law on a matter in the Provincial Council List, the Bill must be referred to all Provincial Councils for them to express their views. If all Provincial Councils agree, the Bill may be passed by a simple majority. If one or more Councils do not agree, a two-thirds majority is needed to make the law applicable to the Councils that did not agree, but if passed only by a simple majority, the law will apply only in the provinces that agreed. According news reports, members of the ruling party and the party leaders have agreed to amend 13th A.
Obviously, Mahinda Rajapaksa is reneging on his promise that he will offer a political solution 13A + including the creation of a senate to accommodate the political interests of national minorities. Instead, he is stripping even the meagre devolution provisions found in the 13th Amendment. He is walking away from not only democracy; he is also abandoning all attempts at reconciliation. A silver lining among dark clouds is the statement by the Friday Forum which has urged political parties and civil society groups to oppose government moves to dilute the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and to make every effort to ensure free and fair northern provincial council elections under the present constitution. Notwithstanding the proposed amendments, the coalition of racist parties continues with their campaign against 13A. The battle cry is on the following lines:
- Sri Lanka should not be divided along ethnic boundaries – there can be no more arguments on this.
- Sri Lanka is a predominately Buddhist nation and the subtle and insidious ploys to undermine the status of Buddhism as articulated in Article 9 of the Constitution should be defeated.
- The unitary constitution, security and territorial integrity are paramount and should be safeguarded at all costs.
Thus a bogey is created that a system of provincial government will negate the principles of a unitary state and lead to separation eventually. It is condemnable the government is denying basic democratic rights of the Thamil people that borders on fascism. Fascism is a philosophy that exalts racial superiority, centralized autocratic government and use of terror as a tool to suppress opposition. Although the TNA is predicted to win (see Tables below) the elections, it will not be easy going. Government will use all the resources at its command to rig the elections with the help of a subservient army and police force.
The government control 8 out of the 9 provinces and the Northern Province is the only thorn in the flesh. There is an attempt to bring in thousands of artificial voters into Northern Province who are supposed to have been displaced between 1983 and 2009. A Bill for this purpose has been initiated by Rauff Hakeem who is the Minister of Justice. Appointments to graduate teachers and Samurdhi workers have already begun in earnest. More carrots will be dangled before the voters as the campaign gathers momentum. The entire cabinet will be brought down to the North like in the previous parliamentary and presidential elections. The TNA faces an uphill task to win the elections in the face of heavy odds. TNA and the Diaspora must insist on international monitors to ensure fair and free elections. EPDP control of the islands should be brought to an end before the elections. The 13th Amendment is not the panacea for our ills. It is a fact that executive power is vested in the Governor appointed by the President. In the Eastern Provincial Council there is a tug-of – war between the Governor and the Cabinet of Ministers, except the subservient Chief Minister. Yet, strategic control of the Northern Province is a must for many reasons, notably to prevent Thamil Quislings taking over power.