Desultory Search For A Solution To The Sri Lankan Ethnic Issue – Analysis


President to meet the Tamil parties on December 11

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe will be meeting the Tamil parties of the North and Eastern Provinces on December 11 to find a solution to the longstanding Tamil issue.

Perhaps due to pressure from India and the West, plus the grave economic crisis in the country, the government and the Tamil parties are going for talks once again, despite the utter failure of past attempts. But the chances of reaching an understanding this time round appear as dim as before. 

While the Tamil parties insist that they will not agree to anything other than a federal setup, preferably in the form of a new constitution, President Wickremesinghe has indicated that he is only willing to consider something less than a federal setup. He has also indicated that he prefers devolution to districts rather than the provinces. 

Devolution to provinces is anathema for the majority Sinhalese. But it is a must for the Tamils because they see consolidation of their places of habitation as essential for their survival as a political entity. Devolution to districts will break Tamil unity, they fear.  The Tamils also see the Sinhalese as a political “block” and would like to face them as a “block”. Therefore, if Wickremesinghe proposes the District as the unit of devolution and offers District Councils in place of the present Provincial Councils, the Tamil parties will reject it. 

But still, there is sense in keeping the dialogue going. And that is for two reasons: Firstly, the Western nations and India consider dialogue as necessary for geopolitical stability and keep pressing for it. While India is interested in keeping its southern flank peaceful and secure, the West is interested in co-opting Sri Lanka into its anti-China Indo-Pacific axis. This is besides the West’s human rights predilections in regard to Sri Lanka.                        

Secondly, in the past, talks had brought good and workable ideas to the table. But these were abandoned due to an ensemble of primordial ethnic fears, crass political competition, the rise of Tamil militancy and the hardening Sinhalese majoritarian ethos. If these factors are moderated, and if commitment on the part of the leadership to find a solution is shown, talks could end in ethnic reconciliation.

B-C Pact

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact (B-C Pact) of July 1957 had provided for “Regional Councils” (RCs) with delegated power over a wide range of subjects like agriculture, co-operatives, lands and land development, colonization, health, education, industries and fisheries, housing and social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. The RCs were given powers to tax and borrow. The Northern Province would constitute one region and the Eastern Province would contain two or more regions. 

Tamil was recognized as a ‘national minority language’ with provision for its use as the language of administration and courts in the North and East. Colonization would not be used to convert the Northern and Eastern Provinces into Sinhalese-majority areas. Regional Councils were to have powers of land alienation, and to select personnel to work on such schemes. 

The Federal Party responded positively to RCs idea, but the opposition United National Party (UNP) agitated against it on the grounds that it would destroy the unity of Sri Lanka. As a consequence, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike tore-up the pact.


In 1980, the J.R.Jayewardene government introduced the District Development Councils (DDC) Act to devolve powers to Districts instead of the Provinces.  Though not satisfied, the Tamils accepted the DDCs because it was a step forward in devolution.  The DDC consisted of Members of Parliament from the District and members elected directly to the DDCs. Each DDC had an Executive Committee consisting of the District Minister, the Chairman of the DDC, and not more than two other members appointed by the District Minister in consultation with the Chairman. 

Elections to the DDCs in Jaffna were scheduled to be held on June 4, 1981. But on March 31, a Tamil militant group fired at a TULF meeting at Nachimarkoviladi in Jaffna, in which two policemen were killed. Supported by the ruling UNP, the army went on a rampage. Nevertheless, the elections were held and the TULF won.

But the TULF found that the DDC had little or no power.     Whatever there was, was in the hands of the District Minster and the Finance Minister in Colombo. The DDCs collapsed like a house of cards.

Indo-Lanka Accord

Then came the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 negotiated not by the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Lankan government, but by the governments of Sri Lanka and India. The Accord devolved powers to elected Provincial Councils through the 13 th. Amendment (13A) of the Constitution. The Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged temporarily.  

But the Accord was signed amidst stiff all-round opposition. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had signed the Accord, with President Jayewardene, was assaulted during a Guard of Honor.

However, the Tamil moderates and militants other than the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) accepted the Accord even if only as an ‘interim solution’. While the armed uprising by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in South Sri Lanka was put down with force, the LTTE could not be put down, even by the Indian Peace Keeping Force.   

However, despite the turmoil and violence, the 13 th. Amendment (13A) was enacted devolving a modicum of powers to elected Provincial Councils. There were ‘Reserved’ and ‘Provincial’ lists of powers. A ‘Concurrent’ list outlined shared powers, though ultimate authority over the concurrent subjects was given to parliament. Financial provisions for the Provinces were also to be allocated by Parliament. The Provincial Councils could be over-ruled by the President under the Public Security Ordinance.

Experts point out that the powers of Provincial Councils could be “controlled, reduced or abolished by the Central government unilaterally.” There was no subject over which Provincial Council could claim exclusive jurisdiction, they point out.

The Sinhalese majority and the LTTE opposed the Accord and the 13A tooth and nail. For the Sinhalese, the 13A amounted to dividing the country as per the diktat of a foreign power. The LTTE opposed it as it was already engaged in a full-scale war to establish an independent Tamil Eelam. 

The 13A was implemented but only partially because of a lack of commitment on the part of the majority Sinhalese, the government and also the Tamils.  While the Sinhalese considered the Provincial Council to be a White Elephant and divisive, the Tamils considered the devolution grossly inadequate. Their aim, since 1948, has been a federal constitution. But for the Sinhalese, federalism is a stepping stone to secession. 

However, in the 1990s, President Chandrika Kumaratunga took up the threads of constitutional reform even as she continued the war against the LTTE. She was keen on winning over the Tamil moderates.  She went through the process of drafting an entirely new constitution. But the draft, devolving power to the Provinces, was opposed by hardline Sinhalese and the opposition UNP. The exercise was abandoned.   

Another attempt was made by Kumaratunga in 2000. The government’s proposal said that legislative and executive powers be distributed between the Centre and the Regions, while keeping the “unitary” character of the Constitution. But hardline Tamil and Sinhalese opinion prevailed over the moderates and the idea of constitutional reform was again abandoned.  

When a government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came into being in 2015, work began on a new constitution. The Public Representations Committee, the Subcommittees of the Constitutional Assembly, and the Steering Committee, were productive. But the process had to be abandoned because of a lack of commitment on the government’s part.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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