The losing battle for devolution by M S M Ayub

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Unlike the efforts by the previous government to bring in a new Constitution, public opinion was not sought under the current effort. Therefore the Tamil and Muslim political parties too did not have an opportunity to express their views in this regard to the drafters of the country’s new supreme law

 

Twelve Tamil and Muslim political parties have on Tuesday finalized a common proposal on devolution of power that is to be presented to Sri Lankan and Indian governments and the international community. It was reported that they are going to demand through this proposal a devolution package that would go beyond the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. 

 

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan, Tamil Progressive Allaiance (TPA) leader Mano Ganesan, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) leader Mavai Senadhirajah, Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK) leader C.V.Vigneswaran, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) leader Selvam Adaikkalanathan, Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF) leader D. Siddharthan, Up-Country People’s Front (UPF) leader S. Radhakrishnan, National Union of Workers (NUW) leader P. Digambaram, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) leader Suresh Premachandran, Tamil National Party (TNP) leader N. Srikanthan, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen are to sign the document soon, according to reports.

Timing of this move can presumably be attributed to the government’s reported move to replace the current Second Republican Constitution with a new Constitution the draft of which is said to have been finalized.  A nine-member experts committee headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva had been appointed by the Justice Ministry in September last year to formulate the new Constitution and its report is expected to be presented early next year.

Although earlier in April the then Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris had stated that the committee report would be finalized in July, he as the Foreign Affairs Minister told media on October 18 that the new draft Constitution would be ready for the Parliamentary perusal in January next year. Confirming his prediction Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also informed the Parliament on November 10 that the draft would be ready by the end of the year. Unlike the efforts by the previous government to bring in a new Constitution, public opinion was not sought under the current effort. Therefore the Tamil and Muslim political parties too did not have an opportunity to express their views in this regard to the drafters of the country’s new supreme law. They would have to do so when it comes to the Parliament, which may be next month, according to the Foreign Affairs Minister. Hence, the timing of the move by the Tamil and Muslim parties seems to be opportune.

The current political environment must be the worst situation the champions of devolution concept in this country ever encountered as the pressure now on the government on the matter seems to be least in the history. In early eighties when the concept was initially debated pressure came from within and the outside of the country, compelling a hesitant President J. R. Jayewardene to submit. An armed insurrection was in the making then with dozens of Tamil armed groups having resorted to violence against the government machinery in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. At the same time JR’s foreign policy had provoked India to use these Tamil groups against the Sri Lankan government.

These two pressure factors prevailed in varying degrees throughout thereafter until the end of the war between the armed forces and the LTTE in 2009.  With the decimation of the LTTE leadership which had been the main bargaining power of the Tamils, the internal pressure on the government for finding a solution to the ethnic problem is currently at a low ebb. Similarly, with India aligning with the West following the end of the Cold War in nineties, the Tamil question in Sri Lanka became a matter less important than earlier to it. Yet, one cannot rule out the possibility of India utilizing the issue in the light of the mounting grip of China on Sri Lanka.

Along with the fast declining local and outside pressures on the government to pacify the Tamils in the north and the east, the country currently has a leadership with toughest opposition to the concept of devolution. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa never minces words in expressing his aversion towards the concept. Having well known about the Indian leaders’ stance on the subject he, during his visit to India ten days after he assumed office in November 2019 was very blunt in rejecting the devolution concept.  

The message he had given by appointing Sarath Weerasekara, a die-hard opponent of devolution in general and provincial councils in particular as the State minister in charge of provincial councils was very clear. It is not clear how independent has the experts committee that prepared the report on the new Constitution been and whether it was influenced by the statements made by the President on devolution.

It is against such a highly unfavorable backdrop that the Tamil and Muslim leaders have decided to make their collective voice heard. Nevertheless, going by the statements by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister that the formulation of the proposed new Constitution is already done, the chances for the Tamil and Muslim leaders or any other group to make amends in it are very little. The only opportunity for them to do so would be during the committee stage of the Parliamentary debate on it where normally the opinion of the government is carried. 

Do the minority leaders, especially the Tamil leaders have a clear cut demand that specify their basic requirement, vis-à-vis the subjects to be devolved and the unit of devolution? These issues are very important as they have been the bone of contention not between the minorities and the government but also between Tamil and Muslim leaders. Tamil leaders who have been in the forefront in demanding devolution have always been vague in this regard and have never put forward such a programme except for the Tamil Eelam demand, presumably to avert criticism from their rivals that they have betrayed the cause.   

There is a limit up to which Tamil and Muslim leaders can travel towards devolution of power, given the two main aspects in devolution of power – the degree of power that is devolved and the geographical unit where the devolved subjects are implemented. Tamil and Muslim leaders would be able to agree upon the former but not upon the latter.  

Under the current circumstances including the ethnic composition in the Eastern Province and the recently soured relationship between the Muslims and the Sinhalese, it would be very difficult for the Muslim leaders to agree with the Tamil leaders’ demand for the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces. The late leaders of the SLMC and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), M. H. M. Ashraff and Kumar Ponnambalam had agreed upon a plan in 1988 where there would be a provincial council for the non-contiguous Muslim areas in the two provinces and another council for the Tamils in the rest of the areas in those provinces. 

Around eight Tamil parties and the SLMC again arrived at the same conclusion in 1990 and 1997 but the talks collapsed when it came to the borders of the two councils. In fact only the Tamil leaders are really concerned about devolution now as Muslim leaders, in practical sense have almost abandoned the matter in 2006 when the two provinces were de-merged through a Supreme Court ruling. Their participation in the recent talks might have been prompted by other compulsions. Therefore, the battle for devolution seems largely to be losing. 

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