If President Rajapaksa is serious about a political solution to the Tamil question, he should outline his vision and a timetable for constitutional change.

Soon after meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa last month, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna disclosed to the media, “The President assured me that he stands by his commitment to pursuing the 13th Amendment plus approach.” He also claimed that the “government of Sri Lanka has, on many occasions, conveyed to us its commitment to move towards a political settlement based on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and building on it, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers.” In the days that followed, media reports in Sri Lanka and eventually the President himself contradicted this claim. If such contradictions are characteristic of what Sri Lanka claims is its most important bilateral relationship, it should reflect the challenges of any minority party seeking a commitment towards a political solution from the Rajapaksa government.

Divisive colonial policies

The problems requiring this elusive political solution emerged well before the war. It harks back to divisive colonial policies, the rise of Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms and the aggravation of a postcolonial majoritarian democracy. The year after the country gained Independence in 1948, the exploited Up-Country Tamils — indentured labour brought from India to work in the colonial plantations — were disenfranchised, beginning a painful process of repatriation. Sinhala Only language policies, repeated ethnic pogroms culminating in the horrendous July 1983 riots and real and perceived discrimination in employment and education, have constituted the historic grievances of the Tamil community. The ensuing civil war saw mass violence unleashed by both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the state against all communities; the Muslim community suffered ruthless attacks and ethnic cleansing by the LTTE and Sinhala border villages became a buffer for the military and fodder for the LTTE.

It was such devastation during the early years of the war that led to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the attendant 13th Amendment in 1987. However, devolution to the temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, largely populated by the Tamil and Muslim communities, was soon undermined by the LTTE's refusal to accept the terms of the Accord and the eventual collusion of the Premadasa government. The resulting IPKF debacle prolonged the ferocious war by another two decades. The second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprising opposing the Accord met with the ugly face of the state, pummelling the South in the massacres of tens of thousands. All this to say that despite both the limitations of the 13th Amendment and the process of its conception, if the Accord had been given the chance to work and evolve, we may have avoided decades of destruction.

During the 1990s, solid work by committed intellectuals and politicians contributed to identifying the limitations of the 13th Amendment and approaches to go beyond it, constituting what became a vibrant devolution debate led by visionary Tamil intellectuals such as Neelan Tiruchelvam and Kethesh Loganathan. Tragically, although not surprisingly, given the suicidal and fascist politics of the LTTE, such great Tamil thinkers and leaders were assassinated by the outfit, resulting in decimated Tamil politics facing the post-war era.

1995 and 1997 Proposals

Nevertheless, the debate and the political process produced exceptional work on devolution as evident from the 1995 and 1997 Proposals, the Draft Constitution of 2000, the Majority Report of the Experts Committee of 2006 and the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) Report of 2009. Thus viable solutions towards restructuring the state and power-sharing with all communities have already been conceived by Sri Lankan intellectuals. The issue is not the absence of solutions, rather the short-sightedness of the political leadership. The centre stage given to Sinhala nationalism by the Rajapaksa government led to the de-merger of the North-East through a Supreme Court ruling in 2006, as opposed to resolving the issue through negotiations. Though the APRC process was initiated by the President himself, he has now buried the painfully dialogued and crafted APRC Report and its recommendations.

After the war, the Rajapaksa government's solution has singularly focussed on large-scale infrastructure development assisted by regional powers, including China and India, and by attracting global finance capital. This approach has addressed neither the political problems nor the broader economic concerns seen in the protests and strikes now shaking the South. If anything, such centralised development both undermines devolution and is symptomatic of authoritarianism, and it serves the consolidation of an oligarchy consisting of the President, his family and the elite allied to them.

The increasing international pressure on alleged war crimes during the last phase of the war and the absence of a political settlement led to the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) with a limited mandate. The catastrophic end to the war, with devastating consequences for the Tamil community in the North in particular, required a far reaching process of reconciliation. While not addressing accountability for alleged war crimes, the LLRC Report submitted three months ago includes many important recommendations. Specifically, the Commission recommends that the “lessons learnt from the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Councils system be taken into account, in devising an appropriate system of devolution,” and urges the government to have a “structured dialogue with all political parties, and those representing the minorities in particular, based on a proposal containing the Government's own thinking on the form and content of the dialogue process envisaged.” But the government has done little to ensure progress on those recommendations; a timeline of implementation has not been put forward.

Excuses and dithering characterise the President's approach to the issue of devolution with increasing refusal to concede land and police powers already mentioned in the 13th Amendment. Meaningful devolution must include the following: land powers as the historic grievance included alienation of state lands; local police powers to address the security and fears of minorities; and financial powers, necessary to independently develop the local region. Such powers to the war-affected Provinces will give confidence to the Tamil and Muslim minorities that the government intends to empower them and engage them politically.

18th Amendment

For years, the President claimed that the weak parliamentary majority impeded constitutional change, but now he has a two-thirds majority. When it came to consolidating his own power, he quickly pushed through the undemocratic 18th Amendment centralising vast powers and removing the Presidency's two-term limit. The stalling on devolution betrays his Sinhala nationalist leanings, and has set progressive work towards power sharing back by two decades. Despite the limitations of devolution within a unitary Constitution, a solution framed as 13th Amendment Plus — where the shared powers between the Centre and the Provinces are clearly demarcated as devolved powers including land, police and financial powers — will be an important litmus test of the government's stated commitment towards a political solution.

In the months ahead, if the President is serious, he should propose his vision and timeline for constitutional change. Calling on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to work with a new Parliamentary Select Committee, while the President is wavering, will only drag the process indefinitely. If inclusivity is the issue, there are already the APRC recommendations agreed to by most of the political parties. The TNA is not bereft of problems. It needs to go through a process of self-criticism for its past relationship with the LTTE, and rethink its Tamil nationalism. It should chart a realistic strategy, given the political weakness of the Tamil community, and neutralise the pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora, shifting the political terrain to a viable settlement within a united Sri Lanka. It must work towards a minorities' consensus and engage progressive forces in the Sinhalese community. A welcome recent move is the TNA's dialogue with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), with the latter also insisting on land and police powers.

The depressing political trajectory in Colombo signals losing this great post-war opportunity for a political solution. Nevertheless, the devolution debate should be kept alive with the government and the country reminded of the historic problems of the state and minorities' grievances. That is also important for inter-ethnic relations and democracy, given the continued militarisation, worrying ethnic polarisation and increasing authoritarianism. We owe that much to the people who have suffered through Sri Lanka's political tragedy.

(The writer is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum and the South Asia Solidarity Initiative.)

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