On July 26, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe convened the much-hyped All-Party Conference (APC) on reconciliation.
Two days earlier, he had met representatives of Tamil political parties. Following that meeting, Tamil politicians hyped up expectations of the APC claiming that Wickremesinghe would discuss devolving police powers to provinces as per the 13th amendment to the constitution.
Passed in 1987 as a part of the India-Sri 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.
Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani (TMTK) parliamentarian C.V. Wigneswaran, known as a hardline Tamil politician, told The Island newspaper on Tuesday that Wickremesinghe had agreed to the empowerment of the Provincial Councils as per the 13th amendment.
Pointing out that policemen in Puducherry, India, carried only batons and were involved only in traffic control, registering complaints and performing environmental duties, Wigneswaran said: “Maybe, on Wednesday [at the APC], we can talk about a similar arrangement, where policemen without weapons operate at the provincial level.”
However, there was skepticism among most political parties about Wickremesinghe’s intentions.
Wickremesinghe is notorious for diversionary tactics and for using the 13th amendment to distract his opponents. He has ambitions to be elected president next year. In this context, full implementation of the 13th amendment would be political suicide.
Many Sri Lankans view the 13th amendment as an imposition by India. There is strong resistance from Sinhala nationalists, who have long perceived it as likely to undermine the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state, and from Muslims who make up a significant proportion of the Eastern Province and would fight any proposal to re-merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The Northern and Eastern Provinces had been merged as per the 13th amendment in 1987. But the Supreme Court de-merged them in 2006.
As expected, at the APC, Wickremesinghe insisted that the 13th amendment affects the entire country and hence a decision on this matter should involve input from all relevant parties. He added that none of Sri Lanka’s previous executive presidents fully implemented the 13th amendment because there was no consensus in parliament.
Wickremesinghe understands that pushing through an amendment that is opposed by the overwhelming majority of the people of Sri Lanka would not do his electoral ambitions any good. On the contrary, it could revitalize the forces of sectarianism that have been undermined in the last few years.
Getting the Sinhalese and Muslim political parties to support the implementation of the 13th amendment is highly unlikely. If they did agree at all, it would be on a watered-down version that would not be agreeable to the Tamil parties. It seems that the drive toward reconciliation based on the 13th amendment has run into a brick wall, again.
The history of Tamil separatism is complex. Ever since Sri Lanka became independent, it was obvious that the tensions between the three ethnicities — the majority Sinhalese, the Tamils and Muslims — would be a major obstacle in Sri Lanka’s path to development. In the first decades following independence, Tamil and Sinhalese political leaders showed no desire to compromise for a lasting solution to the minority issues. Each side egged on the most militant sections of their communities for political gain and by the 1970s things had taken a life of their own. Militant Tamil youth in the Northern Province decided to arm themselves and fight the state, while government-backed goons attacked Tamils in the South, killing hundreds and displacing thousands in the July 1983 riots.
The civil war, which gathered steam after Black July prevented any real attempt at solving the ethnic problem. The only noteworthy legislation from the war was the 13th amendment and this was an amendment enacted without any discussions with local stakeholders. Wickremesinghe was a minister of the government that was compelled to implement the 13th amendment and to sign the India-Sri Lanka Accord. He may understand that pushing the 13th amendment without building a consensus among the people is the root reason for public opposition to it.
Perhaps the path to reconciliation is a new amendment to the constitution, something most people can agree to. Sri Lanka had a golden opportunity to formulate such legislation following the end of the war in 2009.
There were expectations that the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would mark the start of a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations. Thousands of soldiers, LTTE cadres and civilians had been killed in the protracted conflict. The North and East of the island had been ravaged by the war while the LTTE’s attacks in the South had crippled the country’s economic potential. Surely, some thought, lessons would have been learned by everyone involved.
Following the end of the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that there will no longer be a majority-minority division in the country. Moderate Tamil leaders believed that the time had come for them to return to grassroots politics in the North; during the war, the LTTE had allowed only a few hand-picked parties to operate areas under their control.
However, instead of working toward winning the peace after it had won the war against the LTTE, the Rajapaksa administration rushed into a presidential election campaign to capitalize on his popularity. It began focusing more on strengthening its grip over power and tightening control over institutions. To this end, Rajapaksa appealed to Sinhalese nationalist sentiment to consolidate his base among the majority.
Questions such as what can be done to prevent the Tamils from being marginalized and their role in post-war Sri Lanka were not addressed.
Sri Lanka is once again at crossroads.
The 2022 economic crisis has undermined the chauvinist forces that Sri Lanka’s opportunistic political right, including the Rajapaksas, drew their power. Most people now critically view the propaganda that they were fed by the Rajapaksas and their associates in the mainstream media.
As the economy stabilizes, Wickremesinghe’s prestige has grown. Perhaps, if he truly desires, he can, as he said on July 26, bring all political parties together for a consensus on the national question. However, his past and present political behavior tells us that this is not the path he would take.