Devolution to minorities the key issue

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena with an ex-Tamil Tiger, Sivaraja Jenivan, during a function to mark the first anniversary of his election. —PHOTO: AP

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena with an ex-Tamil Tiger, Sivaraja Jenivan, during a function to mark the first anniversary of his election. —PHOTO: AP  

Both Tamils and Muslims are keen that the government makes progress on the issue this year

Even as Maithiripala Sirisena (64) begins on Saturday his second year of office as President, the focus is on the much-awaited settlement of the Tamil question.

Both Mr. Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have, on a number of occasions in the recent months, spoken of the need for finding a meaningful answer to the question. Minorities, both Tamils and Muslims, are keen that the government makes substantial progress during the course of 2016.

Pointing out that enough work has been done on the Tamil question in the last 25 years, R. Sampanthan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief and Leader of Opposition in Parliament, says “I do not want the problem to be dragged endlessly. I expect there must be a fair and reasonable resolution by September.”

Naseer Ahmed, Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and a leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, says greater devolution of powers to Provinces is another issue that has to be given utmost importance. Expressing dissatisfaction over the present arrangement, he says the Central government can make a beginning.

In fact, devolution is linked to the larger issue concerning Tamils. Despite the stipulation in the 13th Amendment, the non-transfer of powers on land and police to the Provinces has been bothering Tamil groups and parties. Last month, in a talk, Mr Wickremesinghe too identified devolution as the first issue to be tackled as part of the Constitution-making process.

While indicating his preference to retain the unitary character of the existing Constitution, he said the “impending task” was to identify the additional powers to be devolved to the Provincial Councils. As part of the implementation of a resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council in October last year on reconciliation and accountability, the government would have to put in place mechanisms to, as Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera put it the other day, “deal with the past.”

Judicial and administrative mechanisms are being thought of and the government has planned to initiate discussions shortly.

Even though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation, in the last one year, has released hundreds of acres of private land from the control of security forces and the religious and ethnic minorities feel that they now enjoy greater freedom, there is still criticism that there has been no qualitative change with regard to “excesses of the security forces.” Pulling up the government for its “all-round failure,” Lanka Sama Samaja Party chief and Minister in the previous Rajapaksa regime, Tissa Vitharana, says the present government’s foreign policy is creating the impression that Sri Lanka is becoming a “satellite” of the West.

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