From the sidelines Tensions that have arisen over the 13th amendment (13A) seem to have come to a head at Thursday’s cabinet meeting. The UPFA’s coalition partners were asked to report back with their views on two Government-proposed amendments to this controversial piece of legislation at this meeting. The reportedly stormy discussion resulted in three [...]


Parties need to demonstrate bona fides to resolve differences on 13A


From the sidelines

Tensions that have arisen over the 13th amendment (13A) seem to have come to a head at Thursday’s cabinet meeting. The UPFA’s coalition partners were asked to report back with their views on two Government-proposed amendments to this controversial piece of legislation at this meeting. The reportedly stormy discussion resulted in three positions being adopted by the Government. They will shape the deliberations that lie ahead, in relation to the political aspect of national reconciliation.

Firstly it was decided to remove the provision in the 13A that allowed two or three adjoining provinces to merge and form one administrative unit with one elected provincial council. Briefing the media cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said there was little resistance to this move (although it is understood that SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem was not happy). The Government feels that it has the support of Opposition members as well on this issue, and is confident of getting the two thirds majority that will be needed to pass such a constitutional amendment.

That’s not the case with the other proposed amendment, which seeks to remove the requirement that all provincial councils must give their approval before parliament can pass a bill that affects the PCs’ powers. It was decided to refer this issue, and any others, to a Parliamentary Select Committee. The PSC is to be set up this week and expected to work within a given timeframe.

There was vehement opposition to this proposed amendment not only from the SLMC but also from the Left parties in the UPFA coalition – the CP, the LSSP and the DLF, who along with the SLMC account for 13 MPs. It looked as if the Government could not be sure of securing the two thirds majority it would have needed (150 in the 225-member legislature) to use the parliamentary route to have this amendment adopted. In the ‘conscience vote’ that was being contemplated, the stance of some of the smaller coalition partners was unpredictable. It would have been a tough call for EPDP leader and Jaffna District MP Douglas Devananda for example, a Government loyalist whose party supports the implementation of the 13A.

In this ‘numbers game’ the Government may have had to entice a fair number of UNP converts – a gamble which it seems to have concluded was too risky. So it appears the Government has made a virtue out of necessity, and decided to go the PSC route. This wins it some brownie points for being more democratic.

The third decision was that there would be no postponement of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election. The poll is to be held by the end of September regardless of whether or not the PSC reaches agreement on the disputed issues. The discussions in the PSC would presumably include such matters as the JHU and NFF’s demands that the Northern Council be stripped of police and land powers. The resolve expressed by the Government to hold the NPC election indicates that the 13A has not been ditched altogether. But the debate will continue on how its provisions may be amended. “Nothing is carved in stone” Rambukwella said.

The second change to the 13A proposed by Government – doing away with the requirement that all PCs must give their consent to any bill that affects their powers, and to substitute it with a requirement of consent from a majority of the PCs instead – is problematic on many counts. The question arises as to whether the move would lead to incremental undermining of the PCs’ powers. Theoretically, could it not create a situation where the Northern Council can be stripped, by ‘majority vote,’ of not only land and police powers, but other powers devolved under the Provincial List as well? A cynical interpretation of this move would be that the Government is trying to ‘smuggle in through the back door’ what the JHU sought to bring in from the front.

Analysts have pointed out that this amendment could be used to unfairly circumscribe not only the provincial administration that is to be set up in the North, but Opposition-led councils that may be elected to office in other provinces as well in the future. More generally, it may be asked whether this proposed amendment opens up the possibility that the Provincial Council concept will be systematically gutted, making the whole devolution exercise worthless. Such a trajectory of events would destroy the chances of reaching a political solution to the national question any time soon. It could even lead to renewed conflict.

Now that the disputed issues have been referred to a PSC, it would seem incumbent on the Opposition parties to participate in it in good faith. The earlier bi-partisan talks between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) broke down due to issues of bad faith. The TNA has at various times made statements through the media indicating that they were reluctant to take part in the PSC owing to the intransigence of extreme nationalists on the Government’s side. The recent heated debate over the 13A within the ruling coalition should have demonstrated to the TNA members that there are others in the Government camp, from the majority community, who are equally critical of the extreme nationalist viewpoint. Communist Party chief D. E. W. Gunasekera has himself appealed to TNA leader R Sampanthan to participate in the PSC.

Sampanthan last week reportedly told a visiting delegation from India’s main Opposition Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) about “the Sri Lankan Government’s underlying desire to make the Tamil people ‘extinct’ from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.”

In a comment that appeared in ‘The Pioneer’ Swapan Dasgupta, a member of the team who is a journalist described, in a good humoured way, how a businessman of Indian origin in Colombo nevertheless claimed that ‘about 30% of the city’ were Tamils, who controlled 70% of the business. Dasgupta observed that “Clearly, the noble Sampanthan’s theory of Tamils being an endangered breed in Sri Lanka doesn’t have too many takers south of the Elephant Pass.”

Sampanthan’s comments to the BJP delegation do not sit well alongside his remarks just a few days earlier at an event organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association. Here he expressed the desire of the TNA to put the past behind it and move forward. One would hope that the accommodating stance the TNA leader projected on that occasion in relation to attempts to bring an end to the ongoing bickering was genuine, and not merely tactical.

In the context of a situation where the need to bridge the ‘trust deficit’ is of paramount importance, the leaderships of the main political parties would need to demonstrate their bona fides somewhat better than they have been doing upto now.

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