The elusive political solution in Sri Lanka
March 09, 2023
The deadline that Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe set, to resolve the pending ethnic question, expired a month ago. Having seen several such unkept promises in the past, Tamils contend that the southern Sinhalese establishment does not have the political will to find a just and durable political solution
A group of Buddhist monks take part in a protest against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s plan to implement the 13th amendment, near the parliament in Colombo on February 8. | Photo Credit: AFP
Early February, a group of saffron-clad Buddhist monks gathered near the Sri Lankan Parliament and burnt a copy of the 13th Amendment. They were registering their rage and protest after President Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed to implement the law in full. He had told an all-party conference that it was his “responsibility” as the Executive to carry out the current law.
“For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the Constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it…,” he said. The monks resisted it, despite Mr. Wickremesinghe stressing he was “not ready to divide the country at all” and would not “betray the Sinhalese nation”.
An unfulfilled promise
Neither the pledge made by President Wickremesinghe nor the monks’ reaction is new to Sri Lankans. Past presidents, including Mahinda Rajapaksa, have made the same promise more than once. Monks and other reactionary groups similarly agitated then too. At the same time, Sri Lankan Tamils, who continue to demand equality, dignity, and the right to self-determination, do not know what it might look like, when the promise is indeed kept. Despite power devolution being enshrined in the Constitution for nearly four decades — it was an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 — they have never seen the piece of legislation being implemented in letter and spirit till date.
The 13th Amendment is, and has always been, contentious. For those Sinhalese opposing it, the legislation is an “Indian imposition”, symbolising “too much power” to the Tamils at the provincial level and a threat to the central government in Colombo. The position disregards the fact that the Amendment guarantees the same measure of devolved power to all nine provinces, seven of which are in the Sinhala-majority areas of the island nation. The Tamils, on the other hand, have maintained that the legislation, under Sri Lanka’s unitary Constitution, entails very limited powers that don’t amount to meaningful devolution. All the same, some see it as a “starting point” in negotiating a more wholesome and durable political settlement, for the 13th Amendment is currently the only legislative guarantee of some power sharing, even if widely considered inadequate. Although the Amendment gave provinces legislative power over agriculture, education, health, housing, local government, planning, road transport and social services, the Centre is all-powerful, because of an ambiguous concurrent list and certain overriding clauses in the Constitution.
Months into his unexpected Presidency, Mr. Wickremesinghe announced that he would ensure that the country’s long-pending ethnic question is resolved by February 4, 2023, the day Sri Lanka marked 75 years of its Independence from colonial rule. His unambiguous announcement and the imminent deadline had a “now or never” ring to it.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main grouping of Tamil legislators from the north and east, agreed to engage, although its MPs were sceptical of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s outreach. The Alliance’s rival Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) took a clear position that there was no point in participating in talks, unless the President openly agreed to discuss a solution based on a federal Constitution. The TNA went in for talks with a proposal that instead of reinventing the wheel, the government should take some immediate steps in regard to five actionable points, such as establishing a national land commission and provincial police forces; amending or reversing certain acts to restore power to the provincial councils; and giving provincial councils the necessary administrative powers to run schools and hospitals. With no tangible action on any of the areas, the TNA said it was “pointless” to continue discussions.
In a parliamentary speech in July 2019, TNA Leader and veteran Tamil politician R. Sampanthan elaborated on the many attempts in the past, by different governments, to solve the pending national question, going well past what was envisaged in the 13th Amendment of 1987. He pointed to the proposals of the Mangala Moonasinghe Select Committee set up in 1991, during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s term; the new constitutional proposals that were tabled in Parliament in 2000, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike was in power; the proposals of the Prof. Tissa Vitharana-led All Party Representative Committee (APRC) — set up in 2006 — when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, and efforts taken during the Maithripala Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration’s term to draft a new Constitution.
In an impassioned account of the Tamil community’s long political pursuit Mr. Sampanthan said: “The Tamils are a distinct people with a distinct linguistic and cultural identity. We have historically inhabited the north and the east. We cannot live as second-class citizens. We must live with self-respect and dignity. Maximum possible power-sharing must be effected, power must be devolved within a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka. We must be able to determine our destiny”
“The earlier you do it, the better. If you do not do it and abstain from doing the right thing, I do not think the Tamil people will take it lying down for too long,” he roared in the House.
Regardless, the outcome of each of these exercises remains on paper, or as yet another promise in the long list of upkept ones. The ruling Sinhalese establishment did not follow through on any of the pledges made. The end of the civil war in 2009, which came with enormous human cost and suffering to Tamil civilians, was seen as offering a chance for genuine reconciliation through, among other things, a just political solution.
According to the Tamils, the many missed opportunities make one thing amply clear – that there was, and is, no political will yet, they contend. The bogey of separatism, an idea that the Tamils have given up for years now, is lazily invoked by some Sinhalese politicians even before a conversation on power sharing begins. Or, economic development in the war-battered region is pitched as an alternative, as if it can compensate for the lack of actual decision-making powers, including on the type of developmental activity.
The deadline that President Wickremesinghe set for himself, to solve the national question, expired a month ago. The government held elaborate celebrations to observe its 75th year of Independence, although some Sri Lankans still feel they are treated as “second class” citizens. The President’s promise to implement the 13th Amendment is already fading into oblivion.
The dominant headlines in Sri Lanka today are about the International Monetary Fund’s “bailout package”, that has now come within touching distance after China agreed to restructure Sri Lanka’s loans; and about the new wave of protests from sections who are reeling under the lingering impact of last year’s economic crisis. With supporters of the government adopting an “economic recovery before everything” approach, there is little indication that the country’s unresolved ethnic conflict may be addressed soon.
While India has historically been an arbiter on Sri Lanka’s Tamil national question, many in Tamil polity and community say both New Delhi’s interest in — and influence — on the issue are waning. Critics argue that India, pre-occupied with countering Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, does little more than make customary statements on the need to implement the 13th Amendment.
Where does that leave Sri Lanka’s war-affected Tamil community in the north and east? After decades of relentless agitations, and an armed struggle, they are still demanding justice, equality, and dignity. And the long-pending political solution remains elusive.
This is the second part of a series of articles looking at Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and political course