Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe informed the All-Party Leaders Conference on Reconciliation on January 27 that the Cabinet was agreeable to fully implementing the 13th amendment to the constitution. Wickremesinghe said that he is bound to implement the laws of the land. The 13th amendment, he pointed out, is part of the constitution. He reiterated this in his address to the nation on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day.
Passed in 1987 as a part of the India-Lanka accord, the 13th amendment created the Provincial Council system in Sri Lanka and devolves powers over land, the police, education, health, agriculture, housing and finances to the provinces.
However, its provisions were not fully implemented as successive governments saw it as an imposition from India. There was strong resistance from Sinhala nationalists, who thought it would undermine the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state, and Muslims, who opposed the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Initially, the Northern and Eastern provinces had been merged as per the 13th amendment. But the Supreme Court de-merged them in 2009.
The 13th amendment has been in Sri Lanka’s rulebooks for over three decades. Now Wickremesinghe says he “must implement it… If anyone is opposed, they can bring in a constitutional amendment to change it, or abolish it,” he said.
Wickremesinghe is stressing that the 13th amendment will not make Sri Lanka a federal state and that former President J.R. Jayawardene and his lawyers took great pains to ensure that it would not lead to a federal state.
“We are still in the bounds of a unitary state. I am against a federal state, but I support the devolution of power to provinces. The provincial councils don’t even have the powers enjoyed by the City of London. So, we can’t call this a federal state,” Wickremesinghe said.
The response of Sri Lankan political parties to Wickremesinghe’s declaration was predictable. The nationalists, now mainly represented by Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), have opposed the implementation of the 13th amendment. The National Freedom Front (NFF), a constituent member of the FPA, said that patriotic Sri Lankans were ready to defeat the full implementation of this amendment, “even at the expense of their lives.” The National People’s Power (NPP), which is expected to make significant gains in the coming local government elections, was ambiguous. NPP parliamentarian Harini Amarasuriya said that while the party has no problem with the 13th amendment, it is unclear whether it could be a tenable solution for the national problem.
“Our standpoint is that a government with genuine intention of addressing the issues of Tamil people must bring about solutions to the national problem,” she told The Island newspaper, adding that “only the only the NPP could do that.”
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil political party, has expressed skepticism.
Meanwhile, the Mahanayaka Theras, the leaders of Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy, wrote to the president on February 2, urging him not to implement the 13th amendment to the constitution. By granting provinces powers over land, the police and historical monuments, the government is encouraging separatism, the prelates said.
“Your predecessors did not implement the 13th amendment to the constitution because they were aware of the devastating impact this would have on the country, you are well aware of that. The executive president is there to enforce the people’s sovereignty. You will face people’s wrath by carrying out activities that weaken the central government,” they warned.
However, one group that is usually at the forefront of the opposition to the implementation of the 13th amendment has been remarkably silent. The Rajapaksas and their allies, who for decades had castigated anyone supporting devolution as traitors, are apparently backing the president.
Back in 1987, when the Tamil insurgency was gathering momentum, the 13th amendment was presented as a solution to the national problem. However, it was not the outcome of discussion or debate over what the relationship between the center and the periphery of Sri Lanka should be. For many Sri Lankans, it was a structural arrangement “unilaterally imposed on the Peoples of Sri Lanka by India, following the Indo-Lanka Accord.”
Yet the 13th amendment is the only center-periphery arrangement in Sri Lanka and as some analysts have pointed out it is in Sri Lanka’s interest to make it work as best as possible, in a suitably modified form, to fit its existing presidential system of government.
Unfortunately, the amendment usually becomes a talking point during the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, when a government attempts to win over Tamil parliamentarians to pass a legislation or shore up support or distract the people from other pressing issues. The amendment has always been a prop for India to show its significant Tamil population that it cares about the Tamil people in Sri Lanka as well.
On Sri Lanka’s 75th Independence Day, Wickremesinghe met India’s junior Minister of External Affairs V. Muraleedharan at the Presidential Secretariat and discussed implementation of the 13th amendment.
Wickremesinghe was not elected president by the Sri Lankan voters. He was elected by 134 members of parliament, who were allied with the Rajapaksa family. His presidency was dogged by questions of legitimacy from the start. Wickremesinghe, an experienced politician who is no stranger to palace intrigues, has often used the 13th amendment as well as the problems of the Tamil community to win the support of Tamil parliamentarians.
The victory of the SLPP at the 2018 local councils undermined the then Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Ironically, Wickremesinghe has teamed up with the SLPP to contest the coming local council election.
The coming election could make it extremely difficult for the Wickremesinghe government to carry out the reforms it has undertaken to procure an IMF aid package. Wickremesinghe has tried to delay and postpone the local council elections for the past two months.
Given that his attempts seem to have failed, he has probably calculated that he needs the support of Tamil MPs to be able to govern in the next two years. What better way to secure their support than dangle the hopes of the full implementation of the 13th amendment?