Colombo Telegraph

Will Sri Lanka Follow The Example Of Nepal?

By Veluppillai Thangavelu

Veluppillai Thangavelu

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has consistently called for power sharing arrangements in a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure in a manner acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim people. In all the elections held since May, 2009 voters have given a clear  mandate to the TNA’s manifestos calling for a federal form of government giving  Northern and Eastern provinces maximum autonomy.

In the parliamentary elections held in April, 2010 within a year after the war ended and thousands of internally displaced persons confined to camps and  the occupied armed forces and pro-government armed groups calling the shots, the TNA still obtained 233,190 votes (2.90%) nationally and won 14 out of 225 seats in parliament. In the parliamentary elections held in August, 2015 the TNA increased its share of votes as well as seats dramatically by polling 515,067 (4.62%) votes nationally and winning 16 out of 225 seats. This is an increase of 281,967 (54.75%) over votes polled during 2010 elections.

Contesting the second election for the de-merged Eastern province in 2012, the TNA received 193,387 votes (30.59) and won 11 out of 37 seats. It conceded the bonus seats to the UPFA by a narrow margin of 6,217 (0.99) votes.

At the 2013 Northern Provincial Council election, the first since 1988, the TNA secured 78.48% of the votes and won 30 of the 38 seats. C. V. Wigneswaran, TNA Chief Ministerial candidate was sworn in as the first democratically elected Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) on 7th October 2013.

The following Table 1 shows the details of voting in elections held in the Northern and Eastern provinces since May, 2009.

Thus, TNA has steadily increased its vote bank as the grip of the army and para – military groups hold on the people began to diminish.  It may be recalled that both the Northern and Eastern provinces were virtually under military rule with retired Sinhalese army commanders functioning as Governors with executive powers. This situation continued till January, 2015 when civilians replaced the military governors.

The TNA also proved its dominant role in politics when at the 2015 presidential election it decided to support common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Table 2 below shows the results of the voting in the Northern and Eastern provinces in support of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena with comparative figures for the previous elections held in January 2010.

Voting in the Northern and Eastern provinces
 Presidential Elections 2010 and 2015

In all these elections TNA’s election manifesto called for the merger of Northern and Eastern provinces under a federal structure. Outlining its political stance in the run up to the NPC election in September, 2013 the TNA stated that “power sharing arrangements must be established in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure, in a manner also acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim people.”

On a political solution to the ethnic conflict, TNA manifesto stated as follows:

The principles and specific constitutional provisions that the TNA considers to be paramount to the resolution of the national question relates mainly to the sharing of the powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the Peoples who inhabit this island. The following salient features of power sharing are fundamental to achieving genuine reconciliation, lasting peace and development for all the Peoples of Sri Lanka:

• The Tamils are a distinct People and from time immemorial have inhabited this island together with the Sinhalese People and others

• The contiguous preponderantly Tamil Speaking Northern and Eastern provinces is the historical habitation of the Tamil Speaking Peoples

• The Tamil People are entitled to the right to self-determination

• Power sharing arrangements must be established in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure, in a manner also acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim people

• Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty shall necessarily be over land, law and order, socio-economic development including health and education, resources and fiscal powers.

The manifesto further stated “the Thamil People of Sri Lanka are a distinct People in terms of the interpretations maintained in relation to International Conventions and Covenants.  We as a People want to continue to live in our country in peaceful co-existence with others, with dignity and self respect, with freedom and liberty and without fear, as equal citizens not subject to majoritarian hegemony. We as a People would thus be concerned about our historic habitats, our Collective Rights that accrue to us as a Nation and our right to exercise our option to determine what is best for us to ensure self government in the Tamil Speaking North-East of the country within a united Sri Lanka.”

In the parliamentary elections held in August, 2015 the TNA re-iterated almost word to word the manifesto issued during the 2013 provincial elections. For sake of clarity, it is worth quoting in full that part of the TNA’s manifesto that deals with Thamil people and present constitutional arrangements and the stand of the TNA on a political solution.

“We, the Tamil People of Sri Lanka are a distinct People in terms of relevant International Conventions and Covenants. We as a People want to continue to live in our country in peaceful co-existence with others, with dignity and self-respect, with freedom and liberty and without fear, as equal citizens free from majoritarian hegemony.

“We as a People are thus concerned about our historical habitats, our Collective Rights that accrue to us as a People and as a Nation and our entitlement to exercise our right to determine our destiny to ensure self-government in the Tamil Speaking North-East of the country within a united and undivided Sri Lanka.

“The present constitutional arrangements in this regard have proved to be inadequate and unsatisfactory. They favour the majority and impose majoritarian hegemony on the Tamil People. Democracy in a plural society cannot function effectively without a constitutional framework that provides for equity, equality, justice, peace and security. It is in this context that we face the forthcoming Parliamentary Election.

“The TNA firmly believes that sovereignty lies with the People and not with the State. It is not the government in Colombo that holds the right to govern the Tamil People, but the People themselves. In this regard the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka is flawed in that power is concentrated at the Centre and its Agent, the Governor.

Our political philosophy is rooted in a fundamental democratic challenge to the authoritarian state. We made a significant contribution towards the achievement of these objectives on the 8th of January 2015 in the whole country. Our political programme is therefore rooted in the needs and aspirations of all people including the Tamil Speaking Peoples for justice and equality.

The principles and specific constitutional provisions that the TNA considers to be paramount to the resolution of the national question relate mainly to the sharing of the powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the Peoples who inhabit this island. The following salient features of power sharing are fundamental to achieving genuine reconciliation, lasting peace and development for all the Peoples of Sri Lanka:

* The Tamils are a distinct People with their own culture, civilization, language and heritage and from time immemorial have inhabited this island together with the Sinhalese People and others;

* The contiguous preponderantly Tamil Speaking Northern and Eastern provinces are the historical habitation of the Tamil People and the Tamil Speaking Peoples;

* The Thamil People are entitled to the right to self-determination in keeping with United Nations International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Sri Lanka has accepted and acceded to Power sharing arrangements must continue to be established as it existed earlier in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure.

*The Tamil speaking Muslim historical inhabitants shall be entitled to be beneficiaries of all power-sharing arrangements in the North-East. This will no way inflict any disability on any People.”

It is very clear Thamil people have given up the demand for a separate state, but demand only a federal structure for the combined North and East their traditional homeland. TNA leader R. Sampanthan has also repeatedly said that the TNA is seeking self-government in the Thamil Speaking North-East of the country within a united and undivided Sri Lanka.

On March 09, Parliament adopted unanimously a resolution to convert itself into a Constitutional Assembly. The earlier resolution introduced by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in January under went a number of changes on the basis of amendments proposed by the Joint Opposition and the Janata Vimukti Peramuna.

According to Jayampathy Wickramaratne, MP who heads a committee at the Prime Minister’s Office to provide technical support to the Constitution-making process has asserted that the essence of the original resolution introduced in January has not been affected. Though the preamble of the original resolution, which talked of providing a Constitutional resolution of the Thamil question, has been removed Dr. Wickramaratne said “everything would be on the table for discussion”. The abolition of executive presidency and the introduction of electoral reforms are among the subjects which were likely to be covered during the process.

Unlike the constitutions enacted in 1972 by Srimavo Bandaranaike and 1978 by J.R. Jayewardene without the participation  of  Thamil representatives, this time around  there is adequate representation by Thamils as well as Muslims.

Karu Jayasuriya was appointed the Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly and 6 other Deputy Chairmen which includes one Thamil and one Muslim. Likewise, there are 4 Thamils and 2 Muslims in the 21 member strong Steering Committee chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Unlike in the past, on February 21 the government has appointed a 20 – member Public Representations Committee with Lal Wijenayake as Chairman to obtain the views of the public on Constitutional Reforms.

Billed as the first in the history of constitution-making in Sri Lanka, the process of seeking views of the public district-wise on constitutional reforms commenced on February 01, 2016.

In each district, the panel held sittings at least for two days, according to Lal Wijenayake, Chairman of the Committee. The Committee concluded its sittings in Ratnapura and Amparai on February 29th. This is in contrast to the earlier two constitutions, the inputs came only from Parliamentarians.

In the North and East individuals and organizations appeared before the Committee and gave oral as well as written submissions, including e-mails. According to reports, there is unanimity on the part of the Thamil people demanding autonomy for the North and East under a federal structure.

The NPC has proposed that  a separate parliament be formed by merging the two provinces within a federal mechanism. And one or more regional parliament for the rest of the provinces. In a merged Northern and Eastern provinces, Muslim-areas therein be declared autonomous regions in the proposed new constitution.

It also proposed that the upcountry Thamils be treated as a separate unit with self-governing powers similar to the Northeast, including full police powers. .

The word federal has in the past, even at present, is a dreaded “F- word” in Sri Lankan politics. Even devolution is being turned into a “dirty” word by some extreme elements in the South.

However, no one needs to fear the F-word any more and move to a fair and just federal Sri Lanka. The constitutional debate after the regime change has focused on federalism, which is in itself a significant development. Many agree any solution to the National Question must be based on federal lines. Some government Ministers and Members of Parliament have spoken in favour of a federal constitution.

There is no compelling reason for a unitary model of government. The unitary model only helped to create a great divide between the Sinhalese and Thamils. The Soulbury Constitution contained no label, which is the norm in most constitutions in Western democracies. As a matter of fact, it was not the Thamils but S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who first proposed a federal constitution for Sri Lanka. He did so in six articles he wrote for the Ceylon Morning Leader and in a public lecture in Jaffna, all in 1926. When the Donoughmore Commission visited the country, it was the Kandyan Sinhalese who proposed a federal arrangement, claiming that they were a separate ‘nation’. They wanted 3 federal units, one for the Kandyans, one for the coastal Sinhalese and one for the Thamil people living in the North and East. Had the country adopted a federal model right from the beginning in 1947, the country would have avoided a costly war lasting 3 decades.

It took another 22 years after W.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for S.J.V. Chelvanayakam to demand a federal constitution. Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the ITAK on 18 December 1949, Chelvanayakam said:

‘This is then the solution that we ask for: a Federal constitution for Ceylon consisting of an Autonomous Tamil speaking province and an autonomous Singhalese province with a Central Government common to both. This is the minimum provision necessary to prevent the smaller Tamil-speaking nation from extinction, or of being absorbed by the larger nation. (…) A federal constitution is an ideal worthy of being achieved and works no injustice to anybody and certainly not to the Sinhalese people.

True to form Mahinda Rajapaksa is opposing constitutional changes in respect of Provincial Councils beyond 13A.  He has backed tracked on his pledge to the Secretary-General Ban Ki moon on May 19, 2009 his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment plus as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Thamil parties to further enhance the process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.

In an article published in Colombo Telegraph on January 17, 2016 Mahinda Rajapaksa performed a summersault stating” The devolution of power in the new constitution should not exceed the provisions of the 13th Amendment that have been implemented at present. There should also be no merging of provinces.  The police and land powers accorded to the provincial councils through the 13th Amendment need to be re-examined.”

It is obvious Rajapaksa in on the wrong side of history and had not learnt any lessons from his historic defeat at the polls in January 2015 and August 2015.   He still entertains dreams of coming back to power by raising pseudo-nationalist and anti-Thamil slogans which serves the interests of communal and religious forces. He is now destined to spend the remainder of his life in the political wasteland.

A rare historic opportunity now presents to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for a complete break with the past and usher in an era of amity, modernity, prosperity and peace for all. Opposition leader R.Sampanthan, a moderate who represents the Thamil people has expressed his willingness to participate in the constitutional process in good faith.

It will be an unmitigated disaster if politicians of all hues fail the Nation for the fourth time since independence. They can learn a lesson from Nepal’s recent success in enacting a federal and secular Constitution consisting of 7 states to govern its multi-lingual (100 languages) and multi-ethnic society. The present constitution defines secularism as “religious and cultural freedom including protection of religion and culture prevalent since ancient time.” Until the abolition of the monarchy in 2008, Nepal was a Hindu kingdom with a unitary constitutional monarch.

Will Sri Lanka follow the example of Nepal?

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