Colombo, January 8: Positive moves are being made by both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) towards resolving the seven decades-long ethnic issue.
Following the President’s declared resolve to secure an agreement on the broad contours of a settlement by Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on February 4, significant progress has been registered.
According to sources, President Wickremesinghe is trying to woo the Tamils ahead of his bid for the Presidency through an election in 2024. The TNA, on its part, is keen on showing some progress in its fight for Tamils’ rights ahead of the local body elections in 2023.
Full Implementation of 13A
The President and the TNA are due to meet on January 10, to discuss the question of fully implementing or improving the 13 th. Amendment (13A) which devolves power to the provinces. By agreeing to do so, both sides have come down significantly from their earlier stands.
According to sources in the TNA, on January 10, the TNA and President Wickremesinghe will discuss a paper prepared by A.Sumanthiran TNA MP on what the party expects from the President on the implementation of the 13A. This is a very important step on the part of the TNA. As the former North Eastern Province Chief Minister Varadaraja Perumal pointed out in a recent article, the TNA and other Tamil parties, have never clearly stated point by point what they want from a revised 13A, what it lacked and how to rectify the flaws.
Sri Lankan governments have all along stuck to the stand that there is no need to improve the implementation of the 13A. It is contended that the 13A itself is flawed, being an “imposition” by India under the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. In fact, off and on, there have been suggestions from the Lankan leadership that the District or the Grama Sabha (Village Council) should be the unit of devolution rather than the Province. Provinces are seen as being ethnicity-based and therefore divisive.
Additionally, successive governments have muddled the issue of devolution by frequently making moves to change Sri Lanka’s constitution lock, stock and barrel. If fact, the State has used every trick in the book to scuttle a solution acceptable to the Tamil minority.
On the Tamil side too, there has been a tendency to seek the impossible, not as a bargaining chip, but as an end in itself. Before independence, it was 50:50 representation in the legislature. And upon independence the demand was for a federal constitution. Both were rejected by the Sinhala-majoritarian regimes. The 50:50 flew in the face of the population ratio which was heavily in favor of the Sinhalese. And the federalist demand was unacceptable because the task of retaining Sri Lanka as one unit in the absence of British over-lordship was seen as being a primary and critical necessity. Also, those who ruled Sri Lanka in the early years of independence mortally feared a link-up between neighboring India and the Sri Lankan Tamils (both North-East Tamils and Indian Origin Tamils), to the detriment of Lanka’s sovereignty.
Two reasonable pacts entered into to accommodate some of the demands of the Tamils (the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact in 1957 and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pacts in 1965) did not get off the ground because of Sinhalese opposition.
Several factors exacerbated the ethnic divide in the 1970s which led to the growth of Tamil militancy and resulted in the 1983 riots which brought India into the equation as a mediator. The India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 envisaged devolution of power to a united Tamil-speaking North-Eastern Province.
But both Sinhalese nationalists and the Tamils (barring the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front -EPRLF led by Padmanabha) rejected the Accord and the 13A of the Sri Lankan Constitution which concretized devolution of power to elected Provincial Councils. While the moderates said that the 13A was inadequate, the militants led by the LTTE, had set their sights on securing a fully independent Tamil Eelam through the force of arms. They did not participate in the elections to the North Eastern Provincial Council. And with the help of President R.Premadasa destroyed the Council itself.
Throughout the war years, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was their “sole representative”, the Tamils’ demand was for full independence, though the moderate parties responded to efforts by governments in Colombo to draft a new constitution to at least partially meet the Tamils’ demand. But these efforts failed due to a lack of consensus in the majority Sinhalese community.
Once the war ended with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the Tamil parties gave up the demand for an independent Tamil Eelam and revived the demand for a federal constitution. But the Sinhalese majority would not budge from the concept of a “unitary” constitution, though Lankan Presidents, under pressure from India, kept talking of going beyond the 13A to give more power to the Provinces.
During elections, promises would be made to devolve more power but these would be reneged upon. As for the Tamils, they would participate in the constitution-making process but stick to the demand for a federal constitution backed by the “right to self-determination”.
But the concept of a federal structure and the right to self-determination were anathema to the Sinhalese majority and governments in Colombo. These were seen as pathways to secession and a possible political link up with Tamil Nadu in India.
That these concepts were huge stumbling blocks in the way to a resolution. As Varadaraja Perumal said: “The Tamils should never ask for things which will frighten the Sinhalese.”
But now, perhaps under India’s subtle prodding, the TNA is ready to discuss the “full implementation” of the 13A. The 13A is no longer untouchable. Even the TNA Supremo, R.Sampanthan, who seemed irrevocably wedded to the demand for a federal constitution and the right to self-determination, has agreed to talks about 13A’s full implementation.
Issue of Land and Prisoners
The President has told the TNA leaders that he would visit Jaffna in the Northern Province and, sitting with army officials and other officials, settle the issue of releasing private lands taken by the army during the war.
And Justice Minister Dr.Wijedasa Rajapakshe told the TNA that steps would be taken to give a Presidential Pardon to Tamil militants who had served several years as convicted prisoners. As regards prisoners whose cases are still in the courts, they would be pardoned after the conclusion of their cases.
In the matter of pardoning and releasing LTTE prisoners, there have been precedents. In October 2022, three LTTE cadres imprisoned for trying to assassinate former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999 were pardoned with her consent. In January 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned a former LTTE militant, Sibarajah Jenivan, who tried to assassinate him in 2005. In June 2021, 16 LTTE combatants got a presidential pardon.
According to MP Namal Rajapaksa, in 2021, there were 38 LTTE cadres whose cases were pending for over 20 years; 13 were detained without any charges; while 35 were in jail after the final court verdict had come in their case.
The return of land seized by the army and the release of Tamil prisoners could be easily solved by a government. The President is said to be keen to solve issues that could be solved easily.
But the demand to trace and account for persons who went missing during the war is hard to meet and will remain to worry the Tamils and torment governments.