Speculation that New Delhi threatens to boycott C’wealth summit if 13 A is diluted Parliamentary Select Committee to study major devolution issues, but likely to become a one-sided affair “Are you moving the constitutional amendments next week,” asked Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, a week ago from Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, [...]


Indian pressure forces Govt. to put off crucial amendments


  • Speculation that New Delhi threatens to boycott C’wealth summit if 13 A is diluted
  • Parliamentary Select Committee to study major devolution issues, but likely to become a one-sided affair

“Are you moving the constitutional amendments next week,” asked Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, a week ago from Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House, in the lobby of the Parliament complex.

“Not immediately,” he replied. The answer meant a lot for the TNA whose parliamentarians wanted to stay behind if indeed the proposed “Urgent Bill” was taken up this week. A Bill which, in the view of the Cabinet of Ministers, is urgent in the national interest, and bears an endorsement to that effect under the hand of the Secretary to the Cabinet, is called an ‘Urgent Bill.’ The President shall, (according to Article 122 of the Constitution) by a written reference addressed to the Chief Justice, require the special determination of the Supreme Court as to whether the Bill or any provision thereof is inconsistent with the Constitution. A copy of such reference is also delivered to the Speaker.

The TNA delegation from Sri Lanka led by Rajavarothayam Sampanthan at their meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi this week.

The Supreme Court is required to provide its determination within twenty-four hours (or such longer period not exceeding three days as the President may specify) of the assembling of the Court, and shall communicate its determination only to the President and the Speaker. Upon the determination being announced to Parliament, it could be forthwith taken up for debate and passed the same day.
In fact some of the TNA parliamentarians wanted to speak, to place on record their strong objections. However, the ‘Urgent Bill’ did not reach the Supreme Court or the Speaker this week despite the post haste decision by ministers to rush it through. Therefore, the six TNA parliamentarians – Sampanthan, Mavai S. Senathirajah, K. (Suresh) Premachandran , P. Selvarajah, Selvam Adaikkalanathan and M. A. Sumanthiran — packed their bags and flew to New Delhi last Sunday.

Step backwards

Those remarks from Minister de Silva coupled with other developments this week make clear the UPFA Government has stepped backwards altogether from rushing through an amendment to the Constitution before the Northern Provincial Council elections in September. A draft 19th Amendment, in the form of an ‘Urgent Bill’ was to be introduced this week. That was aimed at preventing two or more adjoining Provincial Councils to form one single unit with one Chief Minister and one Board of Ministers.

The decision to hurriedly move the amendment was taken by the ministers at their weekly cabinet meeting on Thursday, June 13. This was to become effective before the September NPC poll. It was one of the hotly debated meetings where acrimonious accusations were hurled at each other by ministers, as revealed in these columns last week. Significantly, this decision came after the ministers took a step backwards from introducing another amendment — to change a provision that prohibits a Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List from becoming law unless every council approves it. This was to be changed to acceptance by a majority of Provincial Councils. With no ‘Urgent Bill’ coming, the UPFA Government seems to have returned to square one after all the hemming and hawing.

What caused this about-turn, to allow all matters related to the 13th Amendment to remain as they are at least until the NPC polls are over? Is it the UPFA Government’s inability to muster a two-thirds majority to pass the amendment in Parliament? The answer is a most certain “no.” At the ministerial meeting the previous Thursday, as revealed in these columns last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared he knew how to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He repeated this assertion at the Government Parliamentary Group last Monday at the Presidential Secretariat. For good measure, he also added that if needed he would also be able to get some votes from the main opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians. That is not something unusual. Some former UNPers are now frontline cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. There would be little difficulty in luring a few more by dazzling them with attractive political packages or baffling them more over personal issues.

Why then did the enthusiastic chest-beating fervour to initiate a process this week to make only one change to the 13th Amendment suddenly evaporate? Is it the result of intense diplomatic contacts that have been under way between Colombo and New Delhi for weeks now? Has this prompted the Government to go slow at least until the NPC polls as well as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) are over? Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, it is known, has been visiting the Indian External Affairs Ministry at the South Bloc in New Delhi. During the on-going dialogue, Sri Lanka firmly resisted any moves for a special envoy from India to deal with bilateral issues. This is by expressing unwillingness to accept the credentials of a person holding such office. On the other hand, India also drew attention to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 to make the point that Provincial Councils were the result of that document. Any “unilateral” move to change it, they have opined, would have its own consequences.

Meeting with the media heads

President Rajapaksa threw more light on the issue on Friday when he fielded questions at a hurriedly arranged breakfast meeting with editors of national newspapers and heads of electronic media outlets. The event was organised to declare that a proposed Code of Ethics for Journalists, promoted by the Secretary of the Media Ministry, was not something President Rajapaksa wanted. He disassociated himself from the move saying such a code should come from journalists themselves. A journalist referred to a Q & A session Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga held on the twitter last week. In response to a query, he described the Provincial Councils system as a “white elephant.” Rajapaksa was asked for his comments. He replied, “We cannot kill the white elephant. There have been some results from it, but we should look at public opinion about this. We cannot abolish it at once. Some will surround Temple Trees saying they have lost their jobs.”

Arguably, at least on grounds that it would cause unemployment, the Provincial Councils system, it is clear, would remain in some form. However, President Rajapaksa was quick to add that a Parliamentary Select Committee, named on Friday, would have to go into all issues.

“I have only seen newspaper reports,” replied Rajapaksa when asked whether the Indian Government has raised issue over provisions related to the 13th Amendment. He added, “there are media reports that we are violating the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.” Then, Rajapaksa went on to cite the same agreement to back up claims of some of his ministers that police powers should be withdrawn from Provincial Councils. “You can do your own analysis by studying Article 2.10 of the agreement,” he said. This provision states: “The Government of Sri Lanka will utilise for the purpose of law enforcement and maintenance of security in the Northern and Eastern Provinces the same organisations and mechanisms of Government as are used in the rest of the country.” Government’s legal advisors argue this proviso allows the national police force to function in Provincial Council areas, a position that overshadows the provincial police.

Rajapaksa said granting police powers to Provincial Councils is not an issue related to the NPC polls. “I will not be able to travel to the South without getting their (Police) permission. The public have expressed concerns. We need to be sensitive to public opinion. Any government responds when public opinion is expressed through the media,” he added. He made clear that the 13th Amendment “was forced on us. I remember the CID recorded my statement for hours. I recall bullets whizzing past as the public protested. The PSC will eventually decide.”

A day earlier, on Thursday, official Government spokesperson and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella at his weekly news conference dodged questions on the ‘Urgent Bill’ to amend the Constitution. “Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has explained the position about the proposed 19th Amendment,” he said. However, at his own news conference a day earlier, (on Wednesday), Minister de Silva also dodged the issue. He declared “the position of the Government with regard to the 13th Amendment is very clear. We will appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).” He was voicing the views of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Both Rambukwella and de Silva thus deftly avoided making any reference to the ‘Urgent Bill’ that was due as the 19th Amendment. Thus, there was no explanation to the public on why an issue of such national importance has been downplayed suddenly. That such a move was akin to applying brakes to the rapidity at which the Government moved after the ministerial decision the previous Thursday was all too obvious. The fallout from the action was all over though no explanations were offered.

To most Sri Lankans at least, it was clear from the statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi. The same statement was also re-issued by the Indian High Commission in Colombo on Wednesday. It said: “A six-member delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka is visiting India from 16-19 June 2013. The delegation is led by Mr. R. Sampanthan, MP, and consists of Mr. Mavai S. Senathirajah, (MP), Mr. K. (Suresh) Premachandran (MP), Mr. P. Selvarajah (MP), Mr. Selvam Adaikkalanathan (MP) and Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran (MP). A TNA delegation had also visited India in October 2012. The TNA delegation called on the Prime Minister today. They had earlier called on the External Affairs Minister and the National Security Adviser.

“The Prime Minister conveyed to the TNA delegation that he was dismayed by reports suggesting that the Government of Sri Lanka planned to dilute certain key provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution ahead of elections to the Northern Provincial Council. It was noted that the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment. The changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the Government of Sri Lanka, calling for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces.

“The Prime Minister stated that he was deeply concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. He stressed on the expectation that the Sri Lankan Tamil community would lead a life of dignity, as equal citizens, and reiterated that India would make every effort to ensure the achievement of a future for the community marked by equality, justice and self-respect.”

Indian hint

There was little doubt that the Indian EAM statement after the TNA-Prime Minister Singh meeting was clearly laying the groundwork for future action. A hint lay in the reference in the statement to “raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment.” It may be recalled that in the resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2009, after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, the Sri Lanka Government offered to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The TNA delegation’s meeting with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid generated some hot air. Khurshid was to note that the TNA had earlier been opposed to the 13th Amendment. In that backdrop, he sought to ascertain how he could reconcile that position now to say they (the TNA) did not want the Sri Lanka Government to seek any changes in it. Delegation members had to explain that they were under “extreme pressure” from the Tiger guerrillas to oppose it. Reports from New Delhi spoke of a possible visit to Sri Lanka by Indian EAM Khurshid. However, a UPFA source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said no visits are to be scheduled until the PSC concludes its task. The only exception, the source said, was a previously scheduled visit by National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. After he met the visiting TNA delegation, Menon had called Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on the telephone. Diplomatic sources said there was a brief chat on the 13th Amendment. India, Maldives and Sri Lanka defence officials meet in early July as part of their regular dialogue on security in the region. Needless to say, Menon is likely use the opportunity to discuss other issues with Secretary Rajapaksa.

Did India hint of an official boycott of the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) prompting Sri Lanka not to make any changes to the 13th Amendment immediately? There was no confirmation of claims in some quarters in New Delhi. A delay in effecting amendments, however, has its advantages to the Government. Its move to allow a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to study all issues related to the 13th Amendment will ensure that the TNA, the major stakeholder, will take part in the NPC polls rather than boycott it if an amendment was carried through. That is salutary for the UPFA Government in many ways. It would enable the Government to claim both in Sri Lanka and abroad that the first PC election in the north, that too after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, has taken place with major players participating. However, there remain a few questions when it comes to the PSC. It is highly unlikely the Committee’s findings and recommendations would be given legal effect before the conclusion of the CHOGM. That would create a backdrop where sections of the Government believe there would be less international attention on the issue. Is this a reality?

Making matters worse is the fact that the proposed 31-member Committee, of which 19 nominees from the ruling party, has already been named may turn out to be a one-sided affair. Unless there is a last minute change, the United National Party is not likely to serve on it. The UNP’s stated position is that the Government should first come up with its own proposals. In the alternative, the country’s main opposition wants the Government to formulate a blueprint on how to address Tamil grievances and reconciliation issues after talks with the TNA. The alliance itself will not take part. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has declared its non-participation.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on Friday announced the names of 19 UPFA members who will serve in the PSC. Significant enough, it has left out three cabinet ministers who are in favour of retaining the 13th Amendment. They are Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) General Secretary Tissa Vitharana, who has chaired a similar PSC before and Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who has vowed that he, would support the 13th Amendment even if he loses his portfolio. Hakeem lodged a strong protest on Friday with his ministerial colleague de Silva. On Friday, he addressed a late night rally in Kalmunai where he declared that the SLMC, a key stakeholder when it came to welfare of the Muslim community, has been left out of the PSC. He said as a result, a vast number of Muslims who voted for their MPs to return to Parliament have been ignored. He said he would make his displeasure known to President Rajapaksa.

The PSC has been given a broader mandate “to recommend and report on political and constitutional measures to empower the people of Sri Lanka to live as one nation.” It will be chaired by Nimal Siripala de Silva and include Maithripala Sirisena, W.D.J. Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Douglas Devananda, Susil Premajayantha, A.L.M. Athaulla, D.E.W. Gunasekera, Rishad Badhiutheen, G.L. Peiris, Patali Champila Ranawaka, Wimal Weerawansa, Basil Rajapaksa, Lakshman Seneviratne, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Muthu Sivalingam, Sudarshani Fernandopulle and Janaka Bandara.

In the event no other political party represented in Parliament nominates persons to the PSC, its composition would be akin to a virtual Cabinet Sub Committee. Barring one Deputy Minister (Muthu Sivalingam, Economic Development), all others are cabinet ministers. Thus, it would be a section of the cabinet itself that would hear public representations among others and make recommendations as a PSC. In character it would be a Cabinet Sub Committee though the PSC is governed by parliamentary privileges. PSC Chairman Minister de Silva is to announce a time frame at the inaugural meeting. Such a time frame, according to Government sources, was three months or more from the date the sittings begin.

Buddhist clergy to protest

However, notwithstanding the PSC, the clock is ticking away for the Government since the issues related to the 13th Amendment became the focal point. Almost at the same time as moves to change the 13th Amendment were initiated, a meeting of representatives of several leading Buddhist organisations including the clergy met at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute at Wijerama Mawatha to discuss what was then the proposed constitutional amendments before the Government. They decided to form a National Collective to abolish the Provincial Council system. The Collective is to mobilise the Buddhist clergy to stage a countrywide campaign calling upon the Government to repeal the 13th Amendment.

Buddhist organisations and members of the clergy in leading temples in the country have begun receiving appeals signed by representatives of some prominent bodies. This is what the letter says: Invitation for the National convention to campaign for the abolition of the Provincial Council – July 2, 2013 at 2.00 p.m. at Maharagama town.

“We believe that you may have understood that the provincial council system which was created as a result of the Indo-Lanka Agreement signed on July 29, 1987 after being forcibly thrust upon by India has brought about a series of administrative and political problems.

“The more serious consequences will be faced after the northern Provincial Council is established. The government has planned to have the elections for the northern provincial council in September. The chances of the Tamil National Alliance which is sympathetic towards the Tigers (LTTE) and dreaming of a separate state forming the provincial council in the North are high. This would amount to sacrificing the motherland which was safeguarded by the sacrifice of the lives of the war heroes to ‘Tamil communalism.’

“The patriotic public and those protecting the nation cannot remain silent when the country’s unitary status and the Buddhist heritage in the north are under threat. Therefore several national organisations are meeting in Maharagama town at 2.00 p.m. for a ‘National Convention with the aim of pressuring all political parties to agree to scrap the Provincial Council system. We wish to extend the kind invitation to attend the above event.”

The appeal has been signed by Venerable Kirama Wimalajothi, Chief of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Professor Induragare Dhammaratana, Head of the Cultural Studies Section, University of Kelaniya, Ven. Galagodaatte Ganasara, General Secretary, Bodu Bala Sena, Venerable Rajawatte Chappa, President, Jathika Sangha Sammalenaya, Venerable Medagoda Abhayatissa, Senior Lecturer, Sri Jayawardenapura University and Jagath Sumathipala, President, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC). The National Collective also has the support of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). On Thursday, ACBC President Sumathipala addressed a meeting at its headquarters at Bauddhaloka Mawatha on why the 13th Amendment should be repealed. A critique on the same subject was delivered on the same evening by senior lawyer Gomin Dayasiri at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute. It drew three cabinet ministers — Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka.

SLMC for 13 A

However, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) members in the Eastern Provincial Council are preparing to move a resolution urging the Government not to make any changes to the 13th Amendment. The support of seven SLMC members is sustaining a majority in the EPC where the UPFA holds seven, National Congress (of Minister A.L.M. Athaulla) three, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress three and the National Freedom Front one seat. The proposed SLMC resolution, together with the support of eleven members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could be carried through in the 37 member Council. Plans are also afoot for the SLMC to field its own candidates at the upcoming NPC polls, a senior member said yesterday.

Vasu’s proposal

In marked contrast to the previous week’s weekly ministerial (cabinet) meeting, last Thursday’s session lasted only some 20 minutes. There was no discussion on the 13th Amendment or related issues. Strong advocates like Ministers Weerawansa and Ranawaka who sought constitutional changes were conspicuous by their silence. However, the ministers took up for discussion a proposal by National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

Noting that the Government has embarked on a vigorous development initiative to become the ‘Wonder of Asia’ after ending a three decade long separatist war, Nanayakkara told his ministerial colleagues, “It is very important to maintain social cohesion among all ethnic categories and ethnic groups, to make every effort to mobilise the citizens to support this initiative. The responsibility is therefore with the Government to take appropriate measures….”

Nanayakkara wanted provisions contained in (section 2(1) (g) of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No 48 of 1979, be brought in as section 291 (c) in Chapter XV of the Penal Code. This, he said, was to “prevent, enmity by signs or otherwise between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste, community or other ground and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony and disturbing public tranquility between different religious groups, castes or communities.”

After a discussion, the ministers decided to place Minister Nanayakkara’s proposal before the Cabinet subcommittee on Legislative Matters. This sub committee is chaired by Susil Premajayantha and includes Rauff Hakeem, John Seneviratne, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Pavithra Wanniaratchchi and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.

Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka was one of the ministers who intervened to make observations. He sought to be co-opted into the committee. However, President Rajapaksa advised that he make all the representations to the subcommittee. It came to light during the discussion that Justice Minister Hakeem has also made a recommendation similar to the one by Minister Nanayakkara. This was based on recommendations by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). It was decided that the subcommittee would also examine the Justice Minister’s proposals and formulate a joint document for approval by the cabinet.

Barring last minute changes, President Rajapaksa is expected to issue a proclamation on Wednesday constituting the Northern Provincial Council. He will also issue a directive to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya to conduct a poll. The Polls Chief is expected to issue a Gazette notification on July 5 calling for nominations from July 19 to 25. Thereafter, the NPC polls are expected to be held on September 21, two weeks later than earlier scheduled.

This week’s events reveal how a Government, that was blowing hot and cold, has literally put off for a later date the issues which it lost no time in trying to rush through. The main lesson from this situation is that the Government has no clear strategy or a cohesive plan of action to proceed with what it describes as national issues.

The External Affairs Ministry which has a key role to play in this situation is virtually nonfunctional. Thus ad-hocism has become not only the order of the day but also a source of periodic embarrassment. The more they try to cover up, the more it shows.

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