President Chandrika Kumaratunge is not sincere about devolution. She is only too keen to re-gather even the meagre powers devolved to the provinces and keep them concentrated within the executive ambit of the Presidency. She, therefore, practically serves the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state better than the polemics of her opponents. Her sincerity, applauded locally and internationally, seen in this light, boils down to mere lip service to the concept of regional autonomy.
These conclusions suggest themselves powerfully when one considers the manner in which Provincial powers devolved under the 13th amendment have been either arrogated from or undermined by the PA government since Chandrika was elected President, culminating in the establishment of the Co-ordinating Committee for the Northeastern Province under the chairmanship of MHM Ashraff on Wednesday . This Committee, taken in conjunction with the Resettlement and Reconstruction Authority for the North, also tramples on the idea of the Interim Administrative Counci which is the much cherished goal of the president's main Tamil ally in Parliament - Douglas Devananda. (The Resettlement and Reconstruction Authority for the North - RRAN - under Somapala Gunadheera and the Southern Authority for Development under Navin Gunaratne are bodies which foist direct Presidential influence on a substantial area of Provincial Council powers.)
The damage control attempted in Ashraff's statement on Friday following the angry statements made against the setting up of the Co-ordinating Committee by Douglas and Sidarthan to the Tamil press and the BBC, was considered in Tamil party circles lame and somewhat preposterous. However, the President called Douglas and Sidarthan for a meeting to discuss the matter and clarify her position. This was also damage control as afterthought. She informed the two leaders that there was some misunderstanding on the part of Ashraff as to the composition of the Committee and that it was not intented to have the Divisional and district secretaries and Pradeshiya Sabha chairmen. she also told them that the Committee would comprise only the MPs from the northeast with the governor functioning as co-chairman. According to her, a letter clarifying the situation would be soon sent to all the MPs concerned. Sidarthan and Douglas, however, have told her that they would discuss and take decision on the matter after they see the letter. The Interim Council is not dead the President had said. But in her view it had to wait until there is a Tamil consensus on it, the TULF being opposed to such a council. This is nothing but a knee jerk reaction. Despite her assuarances to the two Tamil leaders, the problem of the Committee remains valid.
An Interim Council to supvervise and give political direction to the administration of the northeastern province has been long sought by some ex Tamil militant parties. Of these the EPDP of Douglas Devananda has been the most persistent in demanding the Council since Premadasa's time. The EPDP prepared a document which outlined the reasons as to why an Interim Administrative Council for the northeastern province should be established.
But leaders of the TULF, from the time the idea was first proposed, have not been enthusiastic about it mainly because they, who claim that they shun all violence (!), do not like to officially sit together and do business with ex Tamil militants.
Nevertheless Douglas was quite hopeful after the general elections in 1994 that he could use his power in Parliament to persuade the President to set up the council. At every meeting with the President which generally took place on the eve of the voting on the extension of the emergency, Douglas insisted that she should establish the Council without delay. The President, according to him, had always said Ò We will do it.
The EPDP leader was quite convinced following his last meeting with her that the Interim Council was finally on the verge of becoming reality. What he got instead on Wednesday evening was a rude shock. The President appointed a committee which went against the very essence and purpose of the Interim Council proposed by the EPDP. The Council which Douglas has been agitating for since 1991 was intended to fill the political vacuum created by the dissolution of the illfated northeastern provincial council. And hence the EPDP and other ex Tamil militant parties expected the composition of the Interim Council to reflect politically the ethnic ratio in the northeast province where the Tamils were in the majority. The Interim Council was not envisaged as merely an advisory body to the executive but , according to the EPDP document, as Ò a politically based authority...to give the right political leadership of the (NEPC's) administration. The proposed council was hence aimed at safeguarding and sustaining the political gains of the Thirteenth amendment.
But what the President gave on Wednesday was a body which , in the view of the five party Tamil alliance, is clearly designed to further cripple the administrative effectiveness of the Northeastern Provincial Council which, over the years, has been deliberately shorn of some of the meagre powers which were devolved on it under the 13th amendment.
The Committee's secretary, according to the original plan, was the Governor of the Northeatern Provincial Council. There are in the Committee thirty one MPs, forty chairmen of Pradeshiya Sabhas, seventy Divisional Secretaries and eight District Secretaries (GAs) from the northeast. All these are members of the committee set up by the President on Wednesday. With 150 members, the committee would be too large and cumbersome hampering and impairing its own effectiveness which can give a clear edge to the interests of the centre over the concerns of the Tamil representatives.
The point is that committee is heavily weighted in favour of the central government. The chairman and the secretary represent the centre. Eight of the MPs belong to the PA and the SLMC which the Tamil parties feel would little care for the plight of the Tamils in the province. The six UNP MPs would make no difference.
Then the seventy Divisional Secretaries and the eight District Secretaries would effectively overshadow the forty chairmen of the Pradeshiya Sabhas whose powers they already circumscribe. In addition to this many chairmen of the Pradeshiya Sabhas in the east were candidates nominated and backed by the army, NIB and the STF.
To repeat, this Committee, despite the President's assuarances to Douglas and Sidarthan on Friday, is yet another administrative device established by the President which, by virtue of the powers she has vested in it, undermines the concept and content of devolution. Some Tamil politicians like Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam who continue to tacitly but effectively support her, have argued in the past that the minorities should support Chandrika because she would have greater empathy with the Tamil cause for greater regional autonomy as the first Sinhala politician to grapple with the problems of inadequate devolution in her role as the chief minister of the western province under an unfriendly central government.
But the steady erosion of provincial powers since Chandrika became President which culminated in the setting up of the Co-ordinating Committee for the Northeast has laid bare the illusion of PA leadership's sincere committment to devolution.
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