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Rather Than Repealing 13th Amendment a More Rounded Devolution Along Democratic Lines is Needed

by Vihanga Perera

It was freely reported over the media that several stakeholders of the government are lobbying for the repealing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through a further reform to that document.

The Daily Mirror, for instance, in their Tuesday’s edition (October 23rd) had cited the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) among the pressure groups that are geared to push the reform in question. The 13th Amendment, as we know, was legitimized in 1987, in the heat of the Indo-Lanka Accord. The “irksome” issue to the anti-13th group, it seems, is the decentralization of power which the amendment under query entails: A dissolution which has left much to debate over the years.

In the Daily Mirror article, Minister Wimal Weerawansa is quoted as saying that the 13th Amendment is a “hastily prepared piece of legislation” and that Provincial Councils are “useless” and a “waste (of) public funds.” There are others who have often pointed out the shortcomings of the Provincial Council system, including their being mere “symbolic rites,” and are extensions of the central government’s mandate, and are often authors without authority. Before one discards the PC system as a “white elephant” one should be privy to the fact as to why these councils have become redundancies; and who has made them so. Further, the question should also be raised as to whether the PC system, if properly implemented, will be necessarily without meaning to particular regions – such as, for instance, the North and East. The Amendment itself has to be elaborated with greater detail which however, I would not be able to do in this space.

Hampered by the gargoyle shadow

There is little doubt that the Provincial Councils have been sidelined to the ambiguous state they today occupy by the successive central governments that have been elected since 1987. To be fair by the PCs, it is perhaps a tad extreme to state that their function serves no purpose at all. There are many initiatives taken by the PCs in economic, social, educational, vocational and cultural empowerment of the provinces. If at all, the actual output engineered by the PCs is hampered by the gargoyle shadow of the central government that has adapted the PCs as proxy and pawn. This, contrary to practical inevitabilities, is the inverse of what the PCs, on paper, were meant to deliver. In contrast to the devolution of authority and the emphasis on more intense regional representation, the councils have been imploded and contorted to be a whipped slave of the government.

The JHU, NFF and MEP – riding on the back of an ultra-Sinhala quasi-nationalist horse – would obviously not see the meaning of the PCs. The distribution of geo-ethnic patterns makes the PCs more meaningful to the North and East. Anti-PC pundits often argue that the system was initially introduced to facilitate the North and the East; and it was therefore generalized island wide. This form of theorizing further legitimizes that there is a call for democratized devolution in the North and East. The linguistic and cultural singularity of the North (as opposed to the majoritarian Sinhala Southern provinces), the density of the East, in the light of the disproportionate national ratio as a whole, urges exceptions.

The logic behind the 13th Amendment, however, goes beyond a mere linguistic-oriented, North-centered trajectory. If properly implemented – without any ulterior designs or discriminations – the PCs will have a greater say in the development of areas that are relatively under-developed. There are many remote niches in less favoured provinces that, today, have to gape until an ambitious presidential candidate arrives with projects heralded under his or her name. An allowance for decentralization, on the contrary, would have a less interfered, topically understood programme of its own. Rather than to repeal the 13th Amendment, a more rounded devolution along democratic lines is what is needed.

But, the ministerial voices that raise a “no-13th” call have their own logic, too. Their call complements the government’s own all-enveloping, hyperactively hegemonic agenda which, like a whirlpool, is centripetal. State infiltration, the imposing of close state control and surveillance are accentuated to such a pitch that public spaces have today been charged (if not growingly infringed) with politicization and militarization. There is much distrust in democratic processes and in alternatives or oppositions. The spirit of the age has been to crush oppositions, if not to buy them over. With such a backdrop, the battle cry against the 13th Amendment is not anomalous – for, if it is to be and if it is to be improved, it would only facilitate democratic devolution and peripheral representation.

Northern Province is still “under construction.” With its heavy military presence to the many ambiguous “development schemes” it is being subjected to, the Northern situation has to be carefully considered. Sensitive parties to the plight of the Northern Tamils have repeatedly raised concerns regarding land, property and resettlement of that geo-entity.

Repeated fears have been expressed in a governmental attempt at diluting the ethnic density of the Northern Tamils. Attempts at setting up new colonies to upset traditional population patterns, too, have often been raised. In the midst of all, the actual resettlement of the “detainees” and “refugees” of the region have been slow, lethargic and tedious. Being settled under a military siege, the MPs of the JHU, NFF or the MEP cannot really speak for the Northern Tamils. Their voices (MPs) have been decidedly flavoured by the quasi-nationalist rhetoric they savour. In such situations, who are to speak for the marginal? Who is the articulate, the regional and “home” concerns?

Marshalls, knights dictate

This is often considered as an age of openness and outreach. However, the Lankan political frame has often flouted such definitions in its policy and mechanisms. Very little transparency is encouraged and lesser debate or dialogue is facilitated. What is preferred is the medievalist flair, where self-imposition and direct implement are favoured. The process and the method in getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and the complexities such a movement will make are given scant concern. What is normalized (and at times with coercion too) is the prerogative of the warlord. The marshals/knights dictate; and the peasants and plebiens follow.