The declaration by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an interview to The Hindu that he is prepared to talk to Tamil political parties on a meaningful process of devolution is a welcome step forward. After the Sri Lankan military’s defeat of the LTTE, it was expected that the political aspects of reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils would be easy to settle. A framework for devolution has existed since 1987 under the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Yet post-war, the political question has been as difficult to resolve as the human rights issues that have since surfaced. For one, as reiterated by President Rajapaksa in the interview, the government refuses to share police powers with the province, even though these are provided for by the Constitution. Powers over land have been another bone of contention, with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruling last year that they are vested in the central government, and not the province. Tamil parties have understandably felt that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in which the ruling coalition has overwhelming representation will end up diluting the 13th Amendment further. The main Opposition parties have boycotted it. This is why the Tamil National Alliance, which is the main Tamil political grouping, has stayed away from it. What it wants as a precondition for joining the PSC is a commitment from the government that the 13th Amendment will be the starting point for deliberations, which will also take into account the recommendations of previous government-appointed committees on the Tamil political question.
The issue has been further hobbled by the looming military presence in the Tamil-dominated North. The Governor of the province, in whom much authority is vested, is a former Army General, hardly the kind of figure to inspire trust in a post-conflict situation. As well, the Tamil demand for “maximum devolution” without being specific on its idea of a lasting solution is problematic, especially as some TNA constituents are of the view that the 13th Amendment should be scratched as it is too limited in scope. What is required to break out of the impasse is an honest commitment from both sides to the possibilities for maximum power-sharing within a united Sri Lanka. What is needed equally is an unequivocal commitment by the Rajapaksa government that it is prepared to conduct a fair and credible internal enquiry against those in the military responsible for the alleged war crimes, including disappearances. An international inquiry will be definitely intrusive, but thus far the measures taken by the Sri Lankan government seem aimed more at window-dressing for the international community than at providing the healing touch.