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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1588

Constitutional change should be the responsibility of Sri Lanka and not of India or any other country

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The TNA (Mr Saravanpavan) has hit the nail on the head in saying the 13th Amendment was India’s baby. It raises the question why Sri Lanka should take responsibility for someone else’s baby and why we should not develop our own baby, a home grown solution to the ethnic conflict. It also raises the question whether India gave birth to this baby for their benefit or that of Sri Lanka. This will be examined later in this article.

Constitutional changes to abolish or amend the 13th Amendment are afoot judging by the statement made by the President during his budget speech. Although it appears that the worst kept secret today is that the prime catalyst to rush changes to the structure of devolution besides filing an impeachment motion against the Chief Justice is the Divineguma Bill, it cannot be denied that changes are needed to the 13th Amendment to address its flaws.

“The 13th Amendment was India’s baby and, therefore, it should play a role in convincing the Sri Lankan government not to repeal it” said Mr. Saravanapavan of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), questioning the silence of India on the rift within the government of Sri Lanka over the attempt to abolish the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

However, what some analysts seem to be saying is that it does not appear that the repealing or amending the 13th Amendment or the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice is seen as a natural evolutionary stride in good governance as both initiatives have apparently been prompted by reasons other than the desire for good governance; more likely because of pique masked in a good governance cloak.

Notwithstanding this, it is heartening to note that the government is considering an alternative to the 13th Amendment , possibly the 19th Amendment, to identify how power should be devolved in the country.

The fact that the 13th amendment was virtually forced on the people of Sri Lanka by India in 1987 without a broad based discussion amongst the people of Sri Lanka, makes a revision necessary and credible.

However, the spirit of the 13th Amendment, devolution, and meaningful devolution as a means to address some of the aspirations of the Northern and Eastern Tamil people should not be overlooked in saying the 13th Amendment should be revoked.

Although some constituent parties of the UPFA have reportedly called for revocation without mention of an alternative, the President and the government has wisely chartered a course to propose an alternative that will include devolution and its parameters. These proposals are expected to be presented to the Parliamentary Select Committee proposed by the President to find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

It is therefore imperative that the TNA and the UNP participates in this committee as it will be considering the proposed 19th Amendment, the report of the All Party Committee, and representations that will be made by political parties as well as the civil society.

News reports indicate that the provincial council system will be reconsidered in the 19th Amendment. By itself, this may alarm the Tamil political lobby. However, the alternative devolution mechanism proposed has to be considered before being alarmed as it may be a more effective mode of devolution than the present provincial council system.

No doubt the government will be attempting to consolidate and clearly define the powers of the centre, and removing any type of concurrent powers in whatever form of devolution that will be proposed. This itself is not a bad thing as concurrent powers have only confused and created unnecessary conflicts where none existed.

The unit of devolution needs to be realistic within the context of Sri Lanka’s geography and it should be able to bring services closer to the people. Other than empowering some who promoted provincial councils just for that reason, power and the benefits, mostly personal benefits that come with it, it is debatable whether provincial councils have served the objective of bringing services closer to the people.

It cannot be ignored however that this is not the only objective when it comes to the Tamil people in the North and the East, and possibly at some point in the future, that of Sri Lankan Tamils of more recent Indian origin in the Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa areas.

While the LTTE fought for outright separatism, and the TNA at the time supported them overtly and covertly, some of their recent utterances, combined with the very active and well-funded campaign being carried out by a section of the Tamil Diaspora for a structure that is all but a separate State, does raise concerns about the possibility that the current provincial councils are only the building blocks of a Separate State.

What will be worse for the stability of Sri Lanka in the longer term will be any emerging aspirations for self-determination amongst the Tamils of more recent Indian origin. One can imagine what unrest in the estate sector will do to the economic and social wellbeing of the country should this happen.

In this context, the expression “a degree of self-determination to meet the legitimate aspirations of Tamils” as it is understood and interpreted today, cannot be in the longer term interests of the country and all its citizens, including the Tamil people themselves.

Irrespective of the reasons why the current government is making haste to repeal or amend the 13th Amendment, President Rajapaksa and the Opposition, as well as the TNA have to think not just of today or the next 10 years, but much much longer, and not just their future in the positions they hold, but of many future generations to come. Sri Lanka therefore has to consider its own long term self- interest even if its current stand on the 13th Amendment does not satisfy India or the TNA.

Much has been said about the role played by India regarding the birth and growth of the LTTE in the late seventies and early eighties and one can only surmise that a good friend did that in their self-interest as a country, hopefully with a heavy heart considering their betrayal of a neighbour and good friend. What is unfortunate is that this self- interest appeared directed towards the destabilization of Sri Lanka, and they achieved that although down the track they also paid a heavy price for it.

As mentioned earlier, the 13th Amendment and what it portends for the future has the potential to perpetrate instability in Sri Lanka from a longer term perspective, and it is possible, though not certain, that India had foreseen this when they forced Sri Lanka to sign the Indo Lanka Accord in 1987 and force the 13th Amendment on Sri Lanka. As they did under Indira Gandhi, it is not beyond the pale that the leadership in 1987, under none other than Mrs Gandhi’s son, was advised to lay the foundation for another even more destructive destabilization of the country.

In saying the country needs a constitutional structure that unites rather than divides, and reaffirms its unitary status in absolute terms without any ambiguity, many fair minded moderates on both sides of the divide, very likely a majority of people, would not be advocating Sinhala supremacy. They would be thinking strategically as to how one may avoid conflicts that could be even far worse than what we witnessed with the LTTE.

Neither would this mostly silent majority turn a blind eye to the many differences, mostly cultural, that exist amongst Sinhalese and Tamils, and the importance of finding ways and means of giving a different interpretation to the expression “legitimate aspirations of Tamils” and how it may be realized through unity rather than disunity.

To this silent majority, it is clear that such aspirations cannot be realized through a constitution that divides, and leaves a huge potential to divide from a strategic sense. They would welcome measures that promote unity such as power sharing at the centre that promotes ownership of the whole and not some parts of it.

The fact that Tamils are a minority means that as things are, they can never have effective central power to promote the realization of their legitimate aspirations. Some structural changes have to be made to make this possible.

A meaningful second chamber with minority representation, a dilution of the powers of the Executive President, restoration of Parliamentary powers, a very clear and unambiguous delineation of the powers of the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary, restoring the independence of the Police commission are some measures that may promote and encourage the possibility of Tamils and other minorities developing a degree of confidence that their place as equal citizens will be assured in a unitary Sri Lanka.

This coupled with the several initiatives taken by this government like the language policy and its full implementation will provide the building blocks for unity rather than division.

- Asian Tribune -

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