In the strongest indication yet that Sri Lanka is having a serious rethink on the India-mediated concept of autonomy for provinces in the country, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, announced in parliament on Thursday that “a change in the prevailing Provincial Council system is necessary to make devolution more meaningful” to people.
His announcement comes a few weeks after two coalition partners of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which rules the country, demanded the scrapping of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. The 13th Amendment, incorporated into the Sri Lankan constitution following the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987, granted limited powers to Sri Lanka’s nine provinces.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (led by Buddhist monks) and National Freedom Front (breakaway group of JVP), both partners of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led UPFA have demanded that the amendment be nullified. The professedly-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has also made a similar demand. Adding to this chorus was the country’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is also a sibling of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was quoted in the Island newspaper as saying that the 13th Amendment should go – and timed it to coincide with the New Delhi visit of leaders of the Tamil National Alliance in October.
The TNA sees the amendment as a ray of hope for limited autonomy for the Tamil dominated Northern Province. President Rajapaksa had announced through The Hindu that the elections to the Northern Province – the only one without an elected council – will be held by September 2013.
“Devolution should not be a political reform that will lead us to separation but instead it should be one that unifies all of us,” in an apparent reference to the events that followed after Varadaraja Perumal was elected Chief Minister. Mr. Perumal declared the creation of Tamil Eelam in the merged North-Eastern province on March 1, 1990. The then President R. Premadasa dissolved the council and imposed direct rule.
“It should not involve high spending and complex governance structures that will impose further burden on people. Everybody who met me from all corners of Sri Lanka whether they were Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese, asked for greater access to education, health, employment opportunities, better living and equal standards across the nation. The elimination of provincial disparities using national standards is the main weapon through which national reconciliation can be promoted. This Government remains committed to ensure that these aspirations of our people will be fulfilled,” he told the parliament, and invited the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, the TNA and the JVP to help in “constructively” solving problems confronted by our people.
Change in Indian stand?
There appears to be a shift in the Indian stand towards Sri Lanka, as seen in Geneva early this week. While in its opening remarks during the Universal Periodic Review on Sri Lanka, India highlighted the need to expand on the 13th Amendment, early Northern Provincial council elections, and related issues, none of this figures in the ‘interactive dialogue and responses by the State under review.’ “India looked forward to speedy resolution of the residual issues in resettlement and rehabilitation. It called for credible investigations into allegations in the LLRC report. It noted the action plan for time-bound implementation of LLRC recommendations,” it said.