Sri Lanka Prez Wikremesinghe, Sri Lanka, Tamils, Provincial Council, 13th Amendment
President Ranil Wickremesinghe's attempt to implement the 13th Amendment faces opposition from Sinhalese hardliners. I Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Sri Lankan President’s bid to devolve powers to Tamils runs into trouble

“Considering all the facts, we expect to devolve power within a Unitary State. However, I wish to reiterate a fact emphasized on many occasions. There will be no division of the country,” Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament on February 8. He was making the traditional “policy statement” of the government at the opening of a new session.

Wickremesinghe’s address mainly dealt with what his government was doing to take the country out of its worst economic crisis since independence. He, however, also spoke at length on the country’s lingering ethnic problem; one that remains unresolved nearly 14 years after the end of its brutal civil war.

As dignitaries, including senior government officials and foreign diplomats, looked on from the gallery, Wickremesinghe noted how both he and R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil political alliance in Parliament, had both first been elected to the legislature in 1977.

The President stated that he and Sampanthan shared a common dream, which was to provide a sustainable solution to the ethnic problem. “Ever since, we have been discussing that dream and have been making efforts towards its achievement. All previous attempts have failed, but we wish to succeed this time. We expect your support to this end,” he stressed.

Way out

Yet the “solution” to the ethnic problem is far from clear-cut. On January 26, the President convened an All-Party Conference (APC) at his office to find a solution to the ethnic problem, where he told party representatives of his intention to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Passed in 1987 as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord, the amendment created the Provincial Council system that devolved power to the provinces.

Also read: Sri Lanka Prez Wikremesinghe calls for ethnic reconciliation with Tamils

However, successive governments have never fully implemented its provisions due to strong resistance, mainly from the country’s powerful Buddhist clergy and Sinhala nationalists, who say the full implementation of the amendment will undermine the unitary nature of the state. However, provincial councils have thrived in Sinhalese areas since then, and even parties like the JVP which once stridently opposed provincial councils have changed their thinking.

Addressing the APC on January 26, Wickremesinghe pointed out that the 13th Amendment had been part of the constitution for 37 years. He said he was bound to implement the existing law in accordance with the executive powers of the President. As such, the amendment should either be implemented or Parliament should abolish it.

Jaishankar trip

The President’s comments at the APC followed a visit to Sri Lanka earlier in January by Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar. At a press conference flanked by President Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry in Colombo, Dr. Jaishankar briefed journalists on the wide-ranging talks he had with the President.

“The President briefed me on the question of political devolution and his thinking. I shared with him our considered view that the full implementation of the 13th amendment and early conduct of provincial elections are critical in this regard,” stated the Indian Minister.

India has long been pushing Sri Lanka to fully implement the amendment, which it sees as the best possible solution to the ethnic problem.

Yet, it is clear that any attempt to fully implement 13A will be met with strong resistance. Days after President Wickremesinghe’s statement to the APC, the four chief prelates of the main Buddhist sects handed a joint letter to Wickremesinghe expressing strong opposition to fully implementing the amendment.

Also read: India backs Sri Lanka’s recovery, wants provincial autonomy

The prelates stated that granting land and police powers, among others, to the Provincial Councils would pave the way for the re-emergence of separatism in the country. The letter further pointed out to Wickremesinghe that his predecessors did not fully implement the 13th Amendment because they were aware of the harm and uncertainty it would cause in the country.

Buddhist clergy’s opposition to the 13th Amendment

On February 8, whilst the President was addressing Parliament, a large group of Buddhist monks and civil activists attempted to march on Parliament calling on the President to stop the full implementation of 13A. They were blocked by riot police. A group of monks also set fire to a copy of the amendment.

The opposition from the Buddhist clergy, political parties, and sections of society may well have affected Wickremesinghe’s plans already. In his address to Parliament, he never referred to the 13th Amendment by name. Instead, he spoke of “unresolved issues related to land in the North.” He noted that 100 acres of private land that had been taken over for the sprawling Palali military base in Jaffna were recently released, and said discussions had been initiated on releasing more land held by the military. He revealed that drafts were being prepared to establish a National Land Council and a National Land Policy. The government would also bring in new laws to strengthen the powers of Provincial Councils in the fields of education and health, he added.

Wickremesinghe though told Parliament that there would be “no change in police powers”.

The President ended his speech by calling on all parties to unite to support the nation’s recovery from the current crisis, but it was clear even before his address began that such unity would be an illusion. Most opposition parties, including the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, chose to boycott the President’s speech.

Tripping the President

Others, including the more hardline Sinhala nationalist elements who have now flocked under a newly-formed alliance called the “Freedom People’s Alliance” (FPA) heckled the President and walked out of the Parliament chamber in protest before the speech began, though only the SJB chose to also boycott the subsequent two-day parliamentary debate on the President’s speech.

Speaking during the parliamentary debate, Udaya Gammanpila, Leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya party, which is part of the FPA, claimed that full implementation of the 13th Amendment could result in the destruction of Sinhala Buddhist archaeological sites in the North and East as well as create an armed police force under the control of a “separatist” chief minister.

Tamil political parties meanwhile also criticized the President, accusing him of going back on earlier pledges to fully implement 13A. “You cannot have maximum devolution of power within a Unitary State. The President knows that more than anyone else,” said TNA lawmaker M A Sumanthiran, attacking the President’s comments that he would devolve power within a “Unitary State.”

He noted that Wickremesinghe campaigned on the platform of a federal state in 2005 when he contested for the executive presidency. During the last parliament from 2015 to 2019, when Wickremesinghe was Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly that convened in an unsuccessful attempt to draft a new constitution, he “very specifically” said that he stood for a federal state, though he had now done a somersault, the MP added.

Tamil objection to the unitary model

“We are for a united, undivided, even indivisible country. Don’t divide the country, but share power in a meaningful way. Maximum devolution of power cannot happen in a unitary model and, therefore, we reject this throne speech on that account alone,” Sumanthiran stressed.

Both sides – the parties supportive of devolution such as the SJB and the nationalist elements opposed to it – have accused President Wickremesinghe of attempting to use the issue of 13A as a ploy to divert attention from the fact that his government has no clear plan to resolve the economic crisis.

Also read: ‘It’s a joke’: Sri Lanka dismisses claims that LTTE leader Prabhakaran is alive

Buddhist monks that protested during the President’s speech insist they will continue their agitations against 13A.

“The President has no mandate from the people to talk about implementing the 13th Amendment,” Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara, one of the monks who led the February 8 protest, told The Federal. “He was elected by Parliament, which itself no longer reflects the people’s mandate. If he wants to talk about fully implementing the 13th Amendment, let him go before the people and win their mandate in a presidential election.”

Ananda Sagara said the monks rejected the 13th Amendment in its entirety. “The Provincial Council system was imposed on us through the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987. That was more than 30 years ago. The situation on the ground is now completely different. The Provincial Councils make no meaningful contribution to the economy. In fact, they are a drain on the country and should be abolished. Rather than trying to implement an outdated solution, we need to work on a solution acceptable to all communities within a unitary structure,” he argued.

He said they were not opposed to devolving power at the much smaller local council level, a measure Tamil politicians have strongly rejected as being inadequate.

Read More
Next Story