Will the current positions taken by Sajith Premadasa and Anura Dissanayake Regarding the 13th Amendment help bring about a positive change in the misconceptions among Sinhalese society about devolution of power?

By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

Although many amendments have been brought to the Sri Lankan Constitution during a period of more than four-and-a-half decades, which were detrimental to democratic governance, no major controversy has been raised against them.

However, the 13th Amendment (13A), which has a relatively democratic dimension, has been in the Constitution for more than three-and-a-half decades but has been controversial for a long time.
The 13A, introduced following the July 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord to introduce the system of Provincial Councils (PCs) has not been properly implemented by any government in office so far. Political controversies arise from time to time regarding that amendment. As the country looks ahead to the Presidential Election, there is another possibility of controversy raging regarding the 13A.

Last week in Jaffna, the two main candidates in the upcoming Presidential Election, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, announced that their future governments would implement the 13A.

Sajith courts northern leaders

Opposition Leader Premadasa, who was on a four-day visit to the north last week, promised to implement the 13A while addressing a function in Kilinochchi in the Vanni region. Earlier also, while addressing the SJB rally in Colombo, he said that efforts would be made to resolve the problems of the minority communities with the support of the Sinhalese people and that the 13A would be implemented. He had never taken a strong stand against the amendment before.

At a meeting in Jaffna on Monday (10) with the leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), popularly known in English as the Federal Party, Premadasa reiterated his current position on the 13A. After the meeting, Premadasa, who met journalists outside the ITAK office, was asked if he would give Police and land powers to the PCs. In response, he avoided directly answering that those powers would be given to the PCs, adding that the 13A to the Constitution would be fully implemented and there will be no 13-plus or minus.

Anura follows suit

Meanwhile, the next day, Dissanayake also met the leaders of the ITAK in Jaffna and assured them that a future NPP government would take steps to solve the national ethnic problem through a new constitution and before that the PC system would be properly implemented.

Dissanayake also reminded the Tamil leaders of the pledge given in the 2019 Presidential Election manifesto of the NPP to ensure that the PC system continued to be in place. It was mentioned in the first paragraph of the section titled ‘National Peace and Reconciliation’ that the PCs would continue to function effectively until a permanent solution was found within a new constitution based on the principles of equality and democracy through the devolution of political and administrative powers.

However, during the controversies that ensued later over the 13A, the NPP undoubtedly did not present a clear stand on it. It must be noted that the proper functioning of the PC system can be nothing but the full implementation of the 13A. Based on Dissanayake’s comments to ITAK leaders, it can be surmised that the NPP currently supports the full implementation of the 13A.
At the same time, Dissanayake has also taken the position that the 13A is not a solution to the ethnic problem, as Tamil political parties have been saying.

Dissanayake, who had visited the north two months ago and said that he was not prepared to engage in bargaining to get Tamil votes by promising solutions based on a federal system or implementation of the 13A, has now reversed his stand. However, he did not say anything specifically about Police and land powers.

Ranil and 13A

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke last year about implementing the 13A well ahead of Premadasa and Dissanayake, hard-line Sinhalese nationalist forces and Buddhist monks expressed strong opposition.

Addressing the 2023 National Thai Pongal Festival in Jaffna, the President announced that his Government would take phased steps to fully implement the 13A in two years. Outraged Buddhist monks staged a demonstration outside Parliament and set fire to copies of the 13A, when the President ceremonially opened the new session of Parliament to deliver his Government’s policy statement on 8 February 2023.

During a session of the All-Party Conference at the Presidential Secretariat, the President said in a stern tone that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should be implemented or abolished, also suggesting that a new constitutional amendment could be introduced by any Member of Parliament (MP) as a private member bill to repeal the 13A. However, no one has yet come forward to do so.

A few days before going to New Delhi on an official visit to India in July last year, the President also floated the idea of implementing the 13A without Police powers for the provinces during a meeting with Tamil parties. They rejected it outright.
A few weeks ago, when President Wickremesinghe met former Chief Minister of the Northern Province and current MP Justice C.V. Wigneswaran in Jaffna, it was pointed out to him that Premadasa had assured that his future government would implement the 13A during an address at a May Day rally.

The President had promptly urged Wigneswaran to ask Premadasa whether he could implement it with Police and land powers. It seems that the President expressed his belief that it was impossible for any government to implement the 13A with Police and land powers.

The Sinhalese nationalist electorate

Due to the protests against the 13A in the south of Sri Lanka following the President’s announcement last year, it was widely believed that in the run-up to the Presidential Election, it would be impossible for any of the major candidates to publicly mention a political solution to the national problem in their election manifestos.

However, it is now inevitable that Premadasa and Dissanayake should mention their current positions in the election manifestos. The important question is how they will behave amid possible opposition from Sinhalese nationalists in the south over their announcement in Jaffna.

Before Premadasa returned to Colombo from Jaffna, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader, MP Udaya Gammanpila had condemned Premadasa and said that the Leader of the Opposition would not have made that pledge in Jaffna if he had understood the consequences of giving Police and land powers to the provinces under the Indian-imposed 13A.

As the national elections approach, many more Sinhalese nationalist political parties and Sinhala Buddhist organisations will no doubt come out against Premadasa and Dissanayake for their ‘Jaffna declarations’ in order to win over the Sinhalese nationalist electorate. However, Tamil people have doubts about whether either of them will stand firm in their position amid such opposition.
An SJB Colombo District MP, while addressing reporters in Colombo last week, said that their Leader would not have spoken in Jaffna about the full devolution of Police powers to the provinces and that there was no problem in devolving social and environmental Police powers to the provinces.

Karu Jayasuriya’s request

Meanwhile, former Speaker of Parliament and National Movement for Social Justice Leader Karu Jayasuriya has appealed to the Government and political parties, especially the Tamil political parties, to take advantage of the opportunity given by Premadasa’s assurance in the north and also asked the Government to convene a roundtable conference to explore ways of finding solutions to post-war problems.

As the Presidential Election approaches, the question arises as to how far the Government or the political parties will consider his reasonable request.

There has been no response from the political parties to Jayasuriya’s request a few weeks ago that the main presidential candidates should proclaim their stand in the election manifestos regarding the abolition of the executive presidential system.
If the main political parties and their leaders stand firm in their positions and do not succumb to the vicious propaganda of the Sinhalese hardline nationalist forces, they can definitely prevent the Presidential Election campaign from going in a communal direction.

According to ITAK leaders, Premadasa and Dissanayake have said that it is necessary to take advantage of the current situation where the Sinhalese nationalist forces have been weakened in the south. Tamil politicians can decide which position to take in the Presidential Election depending on whether or not the Leaders of the SJB and NPP will mention the pledge to implement the 13A in their manifestos. On the other hand, most Tamil politicians are struggling to take a firm stand on the proposal of fielding a common Tamil candidate.

There is no guarantee that Premadasa and Dissanayake will implement what they mention in their election manifestos. The experiences of the Tamil people over time with promises made by southern Sinhalese leaders are bitter. But when a future government comes forward to fully implement the 13A, they will not be able to resist it.

It would be a great thing if the current positions taken by Premadasa and Dissanayake help bring about a positive change in the misconceptions among Sinhalese society about devolution of power.
In this context, it is important to note a pertinent point made by MP M.A. Sumanthiran during his address at a political symposium in Jaffna last week.

He said that instead of coming to the Tamil people and giving promises, the main presidential candidates should explain their plans to find a political solution to the national ethnic problem to the Sinhalese people in the south.

Courtesy:Sunday Morning