Power Sharing Quest of Sri Lankan Tamils After Independence -2

13 02 2016 

Power Sharing Quest of Sri Lankan Tamils After Independence -2

Threatening Spectre of Separatism

The overall situation was gloomy with the threatening spectre of separatism dominating Tamil politics. Any visionary Govt would have adopted political means to contain this trend and through political concessions and tried to pull back the Tamils from a secessionist precipice. No such attempt was made though at the tail end of her rule Mrs. B held informal talks with the ITAK about getting support in a situation where further extension of Parliament was being explored. This came to naught.

There was however a silver lining. The need to de – centralise administration for greater equity, productivity and efficiency was beginning to be felt. The district was becoming the unit of de- centralization.The Dudley Senanayake Govt had started this process by setting up co-ordination committees at district level to boost agriculture and food production. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s UF govt introduced a special de – centralised budget for districts. Divisional development councils were set up. A district political authority for each district was also appointed. Thus de-centralised activity at district and grassroots level became official. The UNP under Junius Richard Jayewardene won 141 seats out of 168 in 1977. The SLFP was reduced to 8 and the TULF with 18 sears became chief opposition. Amirthalingam was leader of opposition. The Tamil people who voted overwhelmingly for the separatist TULF were unaware that backroom negotiations had been on before polls with the UNP. JR then expected only to win 70 seats and through Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had met TULF leaders to arrive at an understanding. The UNP manifesto had several progressive clauses regarding solutions to Tamil grievances.

However the massive majority acquired by the UNP removed the need for the party to depend on the TULF to form a Govt. JR brought in the executive presidency through the 2nd amendment and also appointed a Parliamentary select committee to draft a new Constitution. The TULF did not participate but Thondaman did so and was able to restore lost rights in the spheres of language and citizenship. But the question of devolution to the regions remained elusive as Thondaman was not concerned too much about power – sharing at the periphery. The UNP’s democratic socialist Constitution made the unitary clause an entrenched one. It required two – thirds majority and a referendum victory to change the Constitution’s unitary character.

The UNP also enacted progressive measures to plan, coordinate and implement developmental activity at a district level. The de – centralised budget was enhanced further with each MP being allocated 25 lakhs per year for projects. A Plan implementation ministry was set up and integrated district development plans were formulated. Unfortunately the Tamil districts were ignored for a long time. Finally integrated plans were formulated for Mannar and Vavuniya but by then events of 1983 had transformed the situation. JR also appointed district ministers. Under the executive Presidency all executive power was concentrated in the President and the district minister system was more of a delegation rather than devolution of powers.. The district minister chaired district development committees comprising MP”s from each district.The Government Agents became District secretaries.

Adopted a “Carrot and Stick” Policy

Meanwhile violent activity by armed Tamil youths began increasing. JR adopted a “carrot and stick” policy. The stick had two items. One was the promulgation of emergency for Jaffna and sending Brigadier “Bull” Weeratunga with instructions to eliminate terrorism in all its forms. The other was the introduction of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism act.The carrot was Devolution. A Commission on Devolution was appointed under former Chief Justice Victor Tennekoon.Prof AJ Wilson and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam were also Devolution Commission members.Tiruchelvam was the TULF nominee. The Commission after protracted sittings came out with a report. Neelan wrote a dissenting report. A bill to set up elected district development councils was passed in Parliament in 1980.Many of the clauses were similiar to Tiruchelvam’s dissenting report. Elections were held to DDC’s in 1981. The TULF won Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitheevu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. TULF Members were chairpersons of all these councils. For the first time Devolution of powers to the regions (district level) had taken place. There was hope in the air.

Unfortunately two developments occurred. The Councils found themselves powerless in a functional capacity. For example the Trincomalee DDC found it unable to impose taxes on tourist projects in the district. The DDC’s were strapped for cash and Colombo did not allocate special funds. Moreover it was found that powers could not be effectively devolved to the DDC’s under an executive presidency. Negotiations to make the DDC’s work properly kept dragging on and on. The other development was increasing Tamil militancy. Events began to overtake and July 1983 exploded in frenzy. The Country’s history changed drastically. The sixth amendment to the Constitution disallowed separatism and the TULF went out of Parliament.India stepped in with its good offices. Indian efforts succeeded in an all party conference (APC)in 1984. Discussions began on annexure C. The CWC on behalf of the TULF submitted a proposal to set up a linguistic region of the Tamil speaking North and Eastern provinces. The final outcome of the APC was disappointing with the district being promoted as unit of devolution. The TULF demanded a unified North – East with Amirthalingam emphasising the “security of our people” and “integrity of our homeland”.

Then in 1985 came the India sponsored talks held in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. The Thimphu talks saw five militant groups the LTTE, PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and EROS also being brought in along with the TULF. The Tamils presented four principles demanding self – determination, nationhood, homeland and citizenship for Up Country Tamils. The talks broke down.

District as Unit of Devolution

Following the break-down Sri Lankan Govt negotiators along with Indian officials drafted a working paper in New Delhi outlining the district as unit of devolution and providing for districts to join together.At India’s behest the TULF engaged in negotiations with the Govt in Colombo and increased the substance of devolution further. The unit however remained a stumbling block. A visit by then Indian ministers K.Natwar Singh and P. Chidamparam in December 1986 saw new ideas emerge.The December 19th 1986 proposals envisaged the excising of Amparai electorate from the East and setting up of two separate provincial councils for North and East. Both provinces could have common institutions. This proposal also failed to gain wide acceptance.

Then came the Indo – Lanka accord of July 29th 1987. The Indo – Lanka accord provided the greatest benefits to the Tamils.As a result the13th amendment to the Constitution was brought in. This ushered in the Provincial Councils. The North and East were temporarily merged. A referendum was to be held in the East to make the merger permanent.Three lists of devolved subjects – central, provincial and concurrent – were formulated. The Substance of devolution was inadequate in many respects. JR gave a written assurance to New Delhi that he would rectify matters in due course.

War erupted between India and the tigers. New Delhi held a rigged election to the North – Eastern provincial council and propped up Annamalai Varatharajapperumal of the EPRLF as chief minister. Ranasinghe Premadasa was now president. He promised “Ellam” (all) if Tamils gave up “Eelam”. But when the N- E Council tried to extract structural and functional powers Colombo did not budge.Furthermore Premadasa did a deal with the LTTE and got the Indian army out. He set up a round table conference to come up with proposals through the three stage process of “consultation, compromise and consensus”. The tigers also had observer status at this conference which gradually petered out. With the LTTE demanding it, Premadasa enacted a law enabling him to dissolve provincial councils. When Perumal got a resolution passed, expressing intent of making an unilateral declaration of independence, Premadasa promptly dissolved the N- E council. Thus the LTTE and EPRLF played into Premadasa’s hands in negating a major gain made through the Indo – Lanka accord.

The provincial Councils were brought in mainly to remedy Tamil grievances and satisfy Tamil aspirations. It was a landmark in the long, long road towards power sharing.But the N- E council remained defunct from 1989 while the seven councils were functioning in Sinhala majority provinces. It was an ironical situation where the people who wanted to share power at the provincial level were denied it while those who were not so keen were having it. Premadasa also appointed a Parliamentary select committee under Mangala Moonesinghe’s chairmanship. The committee recommended enhanced devolution through removal of concurrent lists. It envisaged separate councils for North and East but provided for an apex council to link both provinces in some aspects. Though the UNP and SLFP agreed on this the Tamil parties rejected it.

Prof G.L.Peiris-Dr.Neelan

Tiruchelvam Package Then came Chandrika Kumaratunga who captured the nation’s imagination as an angel of peace. A devolution package to make Sri Lanka a union of regions was drafted by Prof – GL Peiris and Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam and dubbed the GL-Neelan package was presented in 1995. It was dismissed by the LTTE. Years later Anton Balasingham was to praise Tiruchelvam’s package as “acceptable”. The GL – Neelan package lost its potency to some extent when presented as the SLFP proposals in 1996. It was further eroded during Parliamentary select committee proceedings. When tabled as a white paper in 1997 powers had been further reduced but still remained a vast improvement on the existing Provincial Councils scheme. Separate negotiations between the TULF and Muslim Congress had seen an understanding on the N- E unit. Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts were to be linked to the North to form a Tamil majority province. The electoral divisions of Pottuvil. Sammanthurai and Kalmunai were to form a Muslim majority South – Eastern province. The Amparai division would form another Sinhala majority province or merge with Uva province.

Neelan was brutally murdered in 1999 by a tiger suicide bomber. With his death the Country in general and the Tamils in particular, lost an ardent advocate of the Federal idea. That vacuum is yet to be filled. In 2000 Kumaratunga tabled in Parliament a draft Constitution bill with many progressive provisions for power sharing. The draft had been formulated in consultation with the UNP. Yet the UNP refused to support it in Parliament saying Kumaratunga was trying to prolong her presidency. The TULF under R. Sampanthan also opposed it saying it was too little. The draft bill was abandoned.The march towards greater devolution suffered a tremendous set back.

The next phase was the advent of Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime minister in 2001. A ceasefire agreement came into force with the LTTE in Feb 2002. Direct talks between the Govt and LTTE commenced in September in Thailand. A tremendous breakthrough was made during the third round of talks in Oslo in December. Both sides agreed to explore a federal solution. This was a historic event for two important reasons. This was the first time a Sri Lankan Government had openly agreed to explore federalism; This was the first time the LTTE had agreed to explore federalism as an alternative to secession. The Federal idea had once again bounced back into Lankan political discourse.

Alas! hopes were dashed as further progress on federalism discussions stalled. The LTTE dropped out of talks and demanded an Interim Self – Governing Authority (ISGA) Before any progress could be made Kumaratunga dissolved the Wickremasinghe government and called for elections. The UNP was defeated and with that the peace process reached an impasse. In 2005 Mahinda Rajapakse became President aided by Sinhala and Tamil extremists. The war escalated.

Motions of Constitutional Reform

Mahinda Rajapakse too went through the motions of Constitutional reform as president. He convened an All Party representative Conference minus the Tamil National alliance and also appointed an expert panel to assist it. A majority group of the experts consisting of six Sinhala , four Tamil and One Muslim submitted a highly commendable report Other experts also submitted three reports. The APRC chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharane compiled all reports and drafted a working paper that inculcated the bulk of majority report recommendations. The UNP also backed the majority report. Later on the APRC submitted an interim report

Political parties also submitted respective reports.The SLFP report sent shock waves. It was a climb down from the SLFP position of 2000 when a draft bill was presented in Parliament. The SLFP report emphasised a unitary state in unambiguous terms.It also reduced the substance of devolution.The unit was reduced from the present provincial level to district and village level. The SLFP stance came in for heavy criticism from academic circles. Despite the best efforts of Prof. Vitharana who was s saddled with the unenviable task of reconciling different perspectives regarding devolution into a coherent and acceptable whole, the APRC exercise was doomed.

A Supreme court ruling in 2007 resulted in the Northern and Eastern Provinces being de-merged. In 2008 elections were held to the Eastern provincial council. The chief Tamil party TNA boycotted the Eastern province poll in 2008 protesting the North – eastern demerger. The ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)won the polls and ex – LTTE militant Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan contesting from Batticaloa district became chief minister. Elections were held again in 2012. This time the TNA contested in the east and did very well. However the UPFA with support from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) formed an administration with Najeeb A Majeed becoming chief minister.

A political re-configuration took place in the country after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential elections of January 8th 2015. In Fenruary 2015 the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was able to form an eastern provincial administration with the support of the TNA and UNP. Zainulabdeen Ahamed Nazeer of the SLMC Became chief minister. The TNA now joined the eastern administration and was given two provincial minister portfolios in March 2015. TNA provincial councillors S. Thandayuthapani from Trinco district and K. Thurairajasingham from Batticaloa district became eastern province ministers. Meanwhile elections were held to the Northern provincial council in September 2013. Retired Supreme Court Judge Canagasabapathy Visvalingam Wigneswaran contested on the Tamil National Alliance ticket under the house symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi and won with a thumping number of preference votes. Wigneswaran was sworn in as Northern chief minister in October 2013. Four provincial ministers were appointed. They were P. Ayngaranesan, B.Deniswaran,T.Kurukularajah and P. Sathiyalingam.

Laughing Stock of the Country

The long quest for power sharing achieved partial results in the form of the India sponsored 13th Constitutional amendment and consequent setting up of provincial councils. Common sense decrees that the Tamils and Muslims of the North and East welcome it and then build upon it incrementally. This however has not taken place so far.The Tamil political parties continue to clamour for something more without utilising the provincial powers positively and productively. The Northern province council under chief minister Wigneswaran has created a record for under performance among all provincial councils in the country. Sadly the NPC from which much was expected has become the laughing stock of the country with an ex –judge of the supreme court turning into a virtual court jester.

After the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)in May 2009 there were some expectations that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would now win the peace as he had won the war by addressing the Tamil national question politically. Mahinda himself told Indian leaders that he would go beyond the 13th amendment. He promised 13 A plus. This pledge was honoured in the breach. Fruitless talks were conducted with the TNA at different levels but they were all deadlocked. Hard as it may be for hawkish tamils to accept,it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who liberated the Tamils of Sri Lanka from the oppressive LTTE. Sadly Mahinda failed to strike a responsive chord in their heart and minds by failing to address redress their political grievances and address their political aspirations. By doing so Rajapaksa violated the cardinal principle that a military victory must be followed by a political solution.

This then is the intermittent tale of the post – Independence quest for the elusive goal of power sharing by Tamils in Sri Lanka. Ultimately there can be a durable political settlement only on the basis of equitable power sharing. The sooner this is realised the better it is for the Country and all its people. The country is now embarking on another constitutional journey in which the Tamils yearn for their rightful place under the Sri Lankan sun. It is to be hoped that this long thirst of the Tamils for equality in an undivided Sri Lanka would be quenched at last!

dbsjeyaraj.com 04 02 2016