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19th Amendment Will Undermine Reconciliation Process

2013 Jun 29

By Dr Jehan Perera

The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been a long standing demand of the Tamil political parties

Shortly after the war ended President Mahinda Rajapaksa on behalf of the government promised that a political solution would be found that had the backing of all communities. This position was reiterated this week in a media interview given by the President’s brother and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“When it was pointed out that President Rajapaksa had assured India as well as other countries that his government would offer 13th Amendment Plus, the Defense Secretary said that what the President had meant was that he would give a better solution acceptable to all communities”.  This provides the right understanding that any change in the Constitution relevant to the ethnic conflict would be taken in consensus and not unilaterally

The government now appears to be reconsidering the proposed 19th Constitutional Amendment due to the opposition to it expressed by both its ethnic minority and left party allies in the government coalition.  The government has decided to shed the earlier plan of removing police and land powers from the Provincial Councils.  Instead it has restricted itself to prohibiting the merger of any two or more provinces to form a larger entity.  The only two provinces likely to do so are the Northern and Eastern provinces.  The other important clause in the proposed amendment would do away with the need for getting the consent of all provincial councils to amend the 13th Amendment.

The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been a long standing demand of the Tamil political parties.  It was also a demand of the Tamil militant organizations that engaged in violence for an independent state of Tamil Eelam.  Even today the EPDP which is a close ally in the government coalition continues to stand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The merger is akin to an article of faith amongst most of the Tamil electorate in those provinces.  In these circumstances, the prohibition on any two more provinces to merge in the future will not be a consensual decision as promised by the government.

On the other hand, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is seen as dangerous by the government and most Sinhalese people, as paving the way for the creation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam.  Due to this factor, the proposed 19th Amendment will be a popular one with the majority of the Sinhalese people.  Neither will it be opposed by any of the seven Sinhalese-dominated provincial councils, as none of them have shown any interest in merging with each other. Therefore the passage of the 19th Amendment will be politically advantageous to the government in consolidating its support amongst the Sinhalese majority.

The Muslim position in relation to the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is an ambiguous one.  They would not wish to be dominated by the Tamil majority in a merged North East Province.  The SLMC has insisted that in the event of a merger, the Muslim majority areas within the province should be given the status of a separate Muslim-dominated provincial council.  They have also stipulated that event those areas in the Northern and Eastern provinces that are not geographically connected should be brought under the ambit of the Muslim-dominated provincial council.

By implication, closing the door on the merger of the Northern and Eastern provincial councils will also preclude the possibility of a Muslim-dominated provincial council.  Although a member of the government coalition, the SLMC has expressed its opposition to the 19th Amendment and its provision to prohibit the merger of any two or more provinces.  Therefore both the main political parties representing the ethnic minorities even within the government are in opposition to the 19th Amendment.  If the 19th Amendment is passed it will be in opposition to the wishes of the ethnic minorities.

At the root of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war is the existence of an ethnic conflict in which the political representatives of the three major ethnic communities (Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim) took up conflicting positions on important political issues, such as language, public sector employment and land settlement.  As the Sinhalese people constitute over 75 percent of the population, their representatives have a permanent majority in Parliament to overcome ethnic minority dissent whenever the vote divided on ethnic lines.   It is the imposition of the will of the ethnic majority over the ethnic minorities that fuelled the demand for ethnic separatism and eventually for an independent Tamil Eelam.

After the conclusion of the war, the government appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to assess what went wrong in the past, and to make recommendations for the future.  In its 388 page report, the LLRC which was appointed by the President warned that after more than five decades of conflict Sri Lanka was back to Square 1, which is that it is still trying to create a united Sri Lankan nation.  With the proposed 19th Amendment, Sri Lanka is once again taking the road of unilateral Sinhalese decision making over the objections of the country’s ethnic minorities.  The government should heed the words of the President and Defense Secretary and instead forge a solution that is acceptable to all communities.

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