Colombo, January 9 (Daily Mirror): Positive moves are being made by both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to resolve the seven decades-long ethnic issue. Following Wickremesinghe’s declared resolve to secure an agreement on the broad contours of a settlement by Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on February 4, the two sides have agreed on an agenda in which priority is given to issues on which decisions could be taken and implemented quickly.
The political setting for such a move is apt. While Wickremesinghe is keen on wooing the Tamils with an eye on the 2024 Presidential election in which he will need the Tamil vote, the TNA is keen on showing its constituency noticeable progress in its fight for the Tamils’ rights ahead of the local body elections in 2023.
Full Implementation of 13A
The first issue to be taken up is the full implementation of the 13th.Amendment (13A) which devolves power to the provinces. On January 10, the TNA and the President will discuss a paper prepared by M.A.Sumanthiran TNA MP on what the party expects from the President on the implementation of the 13A. This is a very important step. 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.
By agreeing to discuss the implementation of the 13A, both sides have come down from their earlier stands.
Successive Sri Lankan governments have stuck to the stand that there is no need to improve the implementation of the 13A as the 13A is itself flawed having been an “imposition” by India under the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Off and on, there would 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 have been seen as being ethnicity-based and therefore potentially divisive.
Additionally, successive governments have muddled the issue of devolution or full implementing the 13A by frequently making moves to change the constitution lock, stock and barrel and opening the Pandora’s box.
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, G.G.Ponnambalam demanded perfectly balanced representation of the majority and the minorities (the 50:50 formula). Upon independence, the demand was for a federal constitution. Both 50:50 and federalism were rejected by the Sinhalese majority. The 50:50 formula 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 were afraid of a possible link-up between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and neighboring India.
However, there were two eminently reasonable pacts to accommodate some of the demands of the Tamils, namely the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact of 1957 and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact of 1965. But these did not get off the ground because of majoritarian opposition.
The ethnic divide widened in the 1970s which led to the growth of Tamil militancy and the 1983 riots, the latter bringing 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. While the Sinhalese nationalists rejected the Accord, the Tamils (barring the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front –EPRLF) had reservations about the 13 th constitutional Amendment which concretized devolution of power to elected Provincial Councils.
While the Tamil moderates said that the 13A was inadequate, the militants led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had set their sights on a fully independent ‘Tamil Eelam’ through the force of arms. With the help of President R.Premadasa, the Tamil radicals destroyed the North Eastern Council headed by the EPRLF.
Throughout the war years, when the LTTE was the Tamils’ “sole representative”, the Tamils’ aspiration was for full independence, though the moderate parties responded to efforts by governments in Colombo to draft a new constitution. But these efforts failed due to a lack of consensus in the majority Sinhalese community.
Following the elimination of the LTTE in 2009, the Tamil parties gave up the demand for an independent Tamil Eelam and revived the demand for federalism with the “right of self-determination”. But the Sinhalese majority would not budge from the concept of a “unitary” constitution, though 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 routinely. 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 concepts such as “federalism” and the “right to self-determination” were anathema to the Sinhalese majority. 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 ethnic reconciliation, was noticed by Varadaraja Perumal, former Chief Minister of the united North Eastern Province. He told this writer that the Tamils should eschew demands that “frighten the Sinhalese.”
However, now, perhaps under India’s subtle prodding, the TNA has come a few notches down and is ready to discuss the “full implementation” of the 13A. 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 will visit Jaffna in the Northern Province on January 15, and, sitting with army officials, settle the issue of releasing private lands taken by the army during the war. This is a manageable issue as according to MP Sumanthiran, most of the private lands have already been released.
On the issue of releasing Tamil militants in jail for years, Justice Minister Dr.Wijedasa Rajapakshe had apparently said that a Presidential Pardon could be considered for those who had served long years as convicted prisoners. As regards prisoners whose cases are still in the courts, pardon could be considered after the conclusion of their cases.
There are precedents for such releases. 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.
MP Namal Rajapaksa said in parliament in 2021, that 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 conviction.
The return of private lands seized by the army and the release of Tamil prisoners could be easily solved by a government. But there would still be another huge issue to be resolved – tracing and accounting for Tamils who went missing during the war. This demand is hard to meet and will remain to agitate the Tamils and challenge governments.