Full implementation of the 13th Amendment in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka requires mutual trust and patience

13 amendmentNotwithstanding whether the model suitable for political devolution in Sri Lanka is what is contained in the 13th Amendment to the 1978 constitution, if it’s proponents wish it to be fully implemented, there is one essential ingredient that is needed to make it happen, and which is either not there now or is in short supply between the Tamil politicians in the North and the rest of the country today. This ingredient is mutual trust.

The success or otherwise of implementation needs to be assessed within the backdrop of what creates mistrust. For the Sinhala Buddhists, whether the TNA and other political groupings and political parties have the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as their ultimate goal or whether they still harbor other objectives beyond the 13th Amendment, and whether their approach is a “hemin, hemin or slowly, slowly” path towards a goal beyond the 13th Amendment, creates mistrust. Different Tamil leaders, in particular from the North, have been voicing opinions that the ultimate political solution has to be more than the 13th Amendment.

This continues to create mistrust as the Sinhalese and the Muslims of Sri Lanka are unsure of the real TNA motives.

One has to admit at this point that even Sri Lankan leaders in power today gave an impression, if not an undertaking to Indian leaders some years back that Sri Lanka would go beyond the 13th Amendment to 13 Plus. A serious mistake and an unfortunate misjudgment of what is possible and not possible in Sri Lanka, which resulted in the souring of Indo Sri Lanka relations during the period of the Congress led government prior to Mr Narendra Modi winning the last general election in India

These statements from the Sri Lankan leadership and the perceived inability of the government even to fully implement the 13th Amendment, let alone 13 Plus, has created mistrust amongst the Tamil political leadership in the Sri Lankan leadership. This, viewed from the backdrop of many abrogated agreements between Sri Lankan leaders and Tamil leaders in the past, have contributed to and aggravated this mistrust.

A way out of this impasse might be for the major political parties (SLFP, UNP, TNA, SLMC) to have an in principle discussion on what is necessary, what is possible, and to agree on a timeline to implement what is agreed as necessary and possible.

Although the 13th Amendment was passed in Parliament in November 1987, the extent of implementation should be assessed from 2009 onwards consequent to the military defeat of the LTTE, especially in the North and the East considering the non-negotiable and armed opposition to it by the LTTE and their ruthless elimination of any Tamil politician who supported it.

Any other approach would be unrealistic and purely academic, and patently unfair as devolution except to the LTTE would not have been possible before 2009.

One can be generous in setting a timeline of 2009 although in practical terms, it would be far more realistic to adjust the timeline to September 2013 when elections were held for the first time to the Northern provincial council.

Although the demographics in the Eastern province is very different to the Northern province, and governance issues have to be considered from a more multiethnic perspective (considering its almost equal percentage of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in the province), the progress of the 13th Amendment in the Eastern province should be assessed from May 2008 onwards when elections were held there for the first time. However, considering the fact that the LTTE military defeat was only in May 2009, it would be fair to take 2009 as the timeline to assess the progress of devolution in the Eastern province.

The entire issue of devolution, whether it should be political devolution or administrative devolution, and whether the unit of devolution should be a provincial council or a local government institution is still a debatable point. While the principal of devolution should revolve around the population and how best they could be served and what avenues are available for them to best participate in political decision making in the country, geographical realities must also be taken into consideration in identifying the units of devolution.

In the small island nation of Sri Lanka, presently with a population of some 20 million people, the geographical reality is that within the next 5 years or so, virtually all major cities of the country could be within a maximum of perhaps 5 hours from one another considering the extensive road network being built in the country. In this context, Sri Lanka is shrinking and Sri Lankans are getting closer.

Besides this, with the dawning of the information age and the sophistication of the communication technology moving very rapidly, one has to consider devolution from a different prism as no one will be too far from each other physically or otherwise in this revolutionary information age.

As much as the notion of self-determination for Tamils cannot ignore historical reality of Tamil domicile especially in the Northern Province and less so in a few parts of today’s Eastern province, one also cannot ignore current demographic realities and the composition of the contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil identity. The fact that more Tamils live outside the North and the East, and the Tamil citizens of more recent Indian origin are also part of the Sri Lankan Tamil identity is a reality that cannot and should not be ignored.

In this context, serious thought should be given to what needs to be devolved and how it should be devolved. While administrative devolution would be beneficial for all citizens so that they are all served better irrespective of where they live, the model for political devolution may have to be considered from the perspective of how the average voter would have a greater say in political decision making than now. Whether this should happen on a geographical basis is a questionable point and alternate models as to how one could give expression to self-determination for Tamils should also be explored.

Political devolution based on a geographical demarcation has been the singularly sought (and fought) after demand of Northern Tamils, and to a lesser extent, Eastern Tamils. Their claim for devolution based on the concept of a Tamil homeland in the North and Eastern parts of the country has bedeviled the country and the extreme position of this demand had been the armed occupation of vast tracks of land in these two provinces by the LTTE. The LTTE did not consider this as an occupation as they claimed they were regaining territory rightfully belonging to the Tamils.

The LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009, although the concept of devolution based on a “homeland” concept is still very much the long term objective of most Northern and Eastern Tamil politicians, whereas the Sinhala community regards the entire island as the homeland of all Sri Lankans.

This then is the crux of the conflict of ideology between the Sinhala community and the Northern and Eastern Tamil community.

The claim for a Tamil homeland in the present day Northern and the Eastern provinces is shrouded in controversy. Firstly, these provincial boundaries came into being in 1833 when the British Colonialists decided on a demarcation of provinces and provincial boundaries.

The combined Northern and Eastern provinces accounting for nearly one third of the land mass of Sri Lanka, and five fourth of the coast line of the country although the population density of these two provinces was less than 10 % of the total population density of the country.

The demarcation of the two provinces was based on ethnic grounds and the premise that the area was inhabited at the time primarily by Tamils, who claimed then and continue to claim now that the North Eastern provinces are the traditional homeland of the Tamils, although the corroborating evidence presented by many Tamil historians has been hotly disputed by others.

This division has been the subject of intense debate and disputation, and has been regarded as another example of arbitrary decision making by British colonialists which has led to years of conflict amongst the Sinhala and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka.

The Sinhala community as well as the Northern and Eastern Tamil communities continue to defend their claims, with the former presenting ancient archeological evidence of Sinhala civilisations in all parts of the country including the North and the East, while the Tamil community has quoted historical records although these have been disputed by the Sinhala community.

Both sides of the divide seem to ignore the antecedents and the influence of foreign invasions on what has now evolved as a Sri Lankan identity (Sinhala or Tamil). Sri Lankan historical records show several foreign invasions and several foreign rulers governing parts of the country from time to time. Their influence in religion, art and culture and what today constitutes Sri Lankan art and culture are closely intertwined and often confused as traditional and unique Sri Lankan art and culture. The invaders influence is often not recognized especially by the Tamils who claim uniqueness of their art and culture and civilization in the Northern and Eastern provinces and by the Sinhalese in all parts of the country.

While Indian Prince Vijaya’s arrival and setting up a Kingdom in Sri Lanka should also be regarded as an invasion considering that the island was inhabited at the time, what is recorded is that Sri Lanka first experienced a foreign invasion during the reign of King Suratissa who was defeated by two horse traders named Sena and Guttika from South India. The next invasion came immediately in 205 BC by a Chola king named Elara, who overthrew King Asela and ruled the country for 44 years.

Contrary to the erroneous information that is publicized by a section of the Tamil community, Dutugemunu the eldest son of the southern regional sub-king Kavan Tissa, defeated Elara, a Chola invader and not a Tamil King from Sri Lanka in the battle of Vijithapura. During its two and a half millennia of existence, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka was invaded at least eight times by neighbouring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola, Pandya, Chera and Pallava. There also were incursions by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and from the Malay Penninsula as well.

The point of all this is to show that Sri Lankans should not look for a solution to their ethnic issues based on historical grounds as the resolution of disputed historical accounts would take another millennia and conflicts would get further aggravated in the meanwhile.

Unfortunately, rather than looking at contemporary realities and associated problems, and a solution to address these, the Tamil politicians have continued to pursue their long term objective of a Tamil geographic area based on the much disputed historical homeland concept, in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka as their idea of a solution, although the Sinhalese, have opposed this and have instead indicated their readiness discuss political power sharing options at central level coupled with administrative devolution at the periphery, and preventing a geographic division based on ethnicity.

Unless the leadership amongst the Tamils and the Sinhala Buddhist community recognizes that the paramount need is to move on and embrace the much changed world from what it was in the 1950s or sixties, and before, and look for a solution based on contemporary realities, and genuine grievances of both communities, it is likely that a solution will never be found.

Sri Lankan politicians, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims have not done enough to build trust building measures that would provide opportunities for an objective discussion on devolution, how it should be achieved and how whatever model of devolution is chosen, would unify rather than divide communities.

Instead, Tamil politicians continue to push for a model that was not even a model designed by them, but one imposed on Sri Lanka by India, and the Sinhala politicians continue to not taking the leadership to articulate an alternate devolution model that would enable a degree of self-determination for all Sri Lanka Tamils, and provide more effective political devolution that will enable all citizens to have a greater voice in political decision making. (Asian Tribune)

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