Both government and the Tamil National Alliance find meeting ground
Positive moves are being made by both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) towards resolving the seven decades-long ethnic issue.
Following the President’s declared resolve to secure an agreement on the broad contours of a settlement by Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on February 4, significant progress has been registered.
The two sides will now discuss the question of fully implementing or improving the 13 th. Amendment (13A) which devolves power to the provinces. By agreeing to do so, both sides have come down significantly from their earlier stands.
Sri Lankan governments have all along stuck to the stand that there is no need to improve the implementation of the 13A. It is contended that the 13A itself is flawed, being an “imposition” by India under the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. In fact, off and on, there have been suggestions from the Lankan leadership that the District or the Grama Sabha should be the unit of devolution rather than the Province. Provinces are seen as being ethnicity-based and therefore divisive.
Additionally, successive governments have muddled the issue of devolution by frequently making moves to change Sri Lanka’s constitution lock, stock and barrel. If fact, the State has used every trick in the book to scuttle a solution acceptable to the Tamil minority.
On the Tamil side too, there has been a tendency to seek the impossible, not as a bargaining chip, but as an end in itself. Before independence, it was 50:50 representation in the legislature. And upon independence the demand was for a federal constitution. Both were rejected by the Sinhala-majoritarian regimes. The 50:50 flew in the face of the population ratio which was heavily in favor of the Sinhalese. And the federalist demand was unacceptable because the task of retaining Sri Lanka as one unit in the absence of British over-lordship was seen as being a primary and critical necessity. Also, those who ruled Sri Lanka in the early years of independence mortally feared a link-up between neighboring India and the Sri Lankan Tamils (both North-East Tamils and Indian Origin Tamils), to the detriment of Lanka’s sovereignty.
Two reasonable pacts entered into to accommodate some of the demands of the Tamils (the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact in 1957 and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pacts in 1965) did not get off the ground because of Sinhalese opposition.
Several factors exacerbated the ethnic divide in the 1970s which led to the growth of Tamil militancy and resulted in the 1983 riots which brought India into the equation as a mediator. The India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 envisaged devolution of power to a united Tamil-speaking North-Eastern Province.
But both Sinhalese nationalists and the Tamils (barring the EPRLF led by Padmanabha) rejected the Accord and the 13A of the Sri Lankan Constitution which concretized devolution of power to elected Provincial Councils. While the moderates said that the 13A was inadequate, the militants led by the LTTE, had set their sights on securing a fully independent Tamil Eelam through force of arms. They did not participate in the elections to the North Eastern Provincial Council. And with the help of President R.Premadasa destroyed the Council itself.
Throughout the war years, when the LTTE was their “sole representative” the Tamils’ demand was for full independence, though the moderate parties responded to efforts by governments in Colombo to draft a new constitution to at least partially meet the Tamils’ demand. But these efforts failed due to a lack of consensus in the majority Sinhalese community.
Once the war ended with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the Tamil parties gave up the demand for an independent Tamil Eelam and revived the demand for a federal constitution. But the Sinhalese majority would not budge from the concept of a “unitary” constitution, though Presidents, under pressure from India, kept talking of going beyond the 13A to give more power to the Provinces.
During elections, promises would be made to devolve more power but these would be reneged upon. As for the Tamils, they would participate in the constitution making process but sticking to the demand for a federal constitution backed by the “right to self-determination”.
But the concept of a federal structure and the right to self-determination were anathema to the Sinhalese majority and governments in Colombo. These were seen as pathways to secession and a possible political link up with Tamil Nadu in India.
That these concepts were huge stumbling blocks in the way to a resolution, was noticed by A.Varadaraja Perumal, EPRLF leader and the first and only Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province. He said to this writer: “The Tamils should never ask for things which will frighten the Sinhalese.” And sure enough, negotiations would fail, crashing on these very demands.
But now, perhaps under India’s subtle prodding, the TNA is ready to discuss the “full implementation” of the 13A. The 13A is no longer an untouchable. Even the TNA Supremo, R.Sampanthan, who seemed irrevocably wedded to the demand for a federal constitution and the right to self determination, has agreed to talks about 13A’s full implementation.
According to sources in the TNA, on January 10, the TNA and President Wickremesinghe will discuss a paper prepared by A.Sumanthiran TNA MP on what the party expects from the President on the implementation of the 13A. This is a very important step on the part of the TNA. As Varadaraja Perumal pointed out in a recent article, the TNA and other Tamil parties, have never clearly stated point by point what they want from a revised 13A, what it lacked and how to rectify the flaws.
President Wickremesinghe has indicated his readiness to discuss improvements in the 13A. He is keen on settling the Tamil issue, at least in terms of some broad contours, by February 4. According to sources, since Wickremesinghe is likely to contest the November 2024 Presidential election. He is therefore keen on cultivating Tamils.
He has told the TNA leaders that he would visit Jaffna in the Northern Province and, sitting with army officials and other officials, settle the issue of releasing private lands taken by the army during the war.
And Justice Minister Dr.Wijedasa Rajapakshe told the TNA that steps would be taken to give a Presidential Pardon to Tamil militants who had served several years as convicted prisoners. As regards prisoners whose cases are still in the courts, they would be pardoned after the conclusion of their cases.
Return of land seized by the army and the release of Tamil prisoners languishing in jail for years, have been long-standing demands of the Tamils. These have also been demands which could be easily solved by a government, unlike the demand to trace and account for persons who went missing during the war. The latter demand is hard to meet and will remain to worry the Tamils and torment governments.