Devolution dilemmas

As the country witnesses the outbreak of a veritable epidemic of ruling party politicos running rampage in their respective fiefdoms and a senior police officer being investigated in connection with a high profile murder, the ‘miraculously’ recovered Deshamanya R. Duminda Silva re-entered the Chamber of Parliament yesterday.

Silva, a privileged pet of the upper echelons of the country’s political dynasty and a suspect in the murder of SLFP strongman and Presidential Advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was killed in election day violence in October 2011, was released on bail in April this year.

Upon being granted bail, Silva, who was until then unable to so much as attend Court due to the intensity of his injuries, pranced out of the Nawaloka Hospital in Colombo a cured man. Two months later, he returns to the country’s Legislature as a Member in possession of all the privileges and immunities that office holds.Dharisha

Two days previously, Ananda Sarath Kumara, a ruling party North Western Provincial Councillor now in remand who forced a teacher to kneel before him, was unceremoniously booted from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. While it remains unclear whether, like his Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha colleague Sampath Vidanipathirana who is suspected of murdering a British tourist and sexually assaulting his female companion, Kumara too will be reinstated, for the moment at least, Ananda Sarath Kumara might be forgiven for being somewhat put out by the double standards adopted by his party’s High Command in its disciplinary actions against the criminal misbehaviour of its members.

Impunity

Recent events concerning the behaviour of ruling party politicos at the local level indicate that the impunity enjoyed by the likes of Vidanipathirana and Silva have had a galvanising effect. The appalling lack of action by the regime against the murder suspects in their ranks has spurred its lower membership into maximising control through means foul and fair in their respective local jurisdictions.

While President Mahinda Rajapaksa may smile benignly at the increasing violence in the local political sphere, perpetrated largely by his own party men or dismiss it with a fatherly ‘boys will be boys’ attitude, this strategy has proved ineffectual and contributes to the collapse of law and order – the attitude of the authorities to the destructive activities of the hardline Sinhala Buddhists groups like the Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya and Bodu Bala Sena being a case in point.

Earlier this week the Sinhala Ravaya group vandalised a Muslim-owned beef stall in Tangalle during a foot march from Kataragama to Colombo calling for a ban on cattle-slaughter in the island. The violence was perpetrated in full view of police officers on the scene, clearly visible in video footage of the incident. Not unlike the attack on Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana in March or the raid of the Colombo Municipal Council run abattoir in Dematagoda.

Clearly under instructions to refrain from interfering with Buddhist monk-run hardline groups on the rampage, law enforcement is reduced to being passive observers in their campaigns of terror. The fear inspired by such scenes on the off chance they are reported for minority ethnic communities who now live in the shadow of the saffron mobs cannot be overstated.

Minority concerns, however, are hardly a priority for the Rajapaksa regime. On Friday, the Government hopes to dissolve the Central and North Western Provincial Councils, with elections for those two administrations scheduled for the second week of September. Another council was supposed to be on the list for the September polls, but with the Government now dilly-dallying with the revision of the 13th Amendment, the election for the Northern Provincial Council remains as elusive as ever.

Two weeks ago, President Rajapaksa proposed two revisions to the existing provisions of the 13th Amendment – the first to repeal the provisions permitting the merger of two or more adjoining provinces into a single administrative unit and the second to amend the provisions calling for approval from all provincial councils when the central government attempts to pass legislation relating to the powers of those councils.

The Government sought to dilute the powers of the councils by ensuring that only a majority of councils needed to approve the legislation introduced by the centre and reducing the Parliamentary majority required to pass the legislation if there is no approval from two-thirds to a simple majority instead.
One week later, following a stormy cabinet meeting on Thursday (13) during which Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem and the Socialist Alliance leaders Tissa Vitarana, D.E.W. Gunesekara and Vasudeva Nanayakkara locked horns with the JHU and Wimal Weerawansa, the Government backtracked slightly.

Instead of the two amendments, the Government would move just one to prevent the merger of provinces, Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told the weekly Cabinet briefing soon after the lengthy ministerial meeting.
The second proposed revision, Rambukwella said would be put before a Parliamentary Select Committee to be appointed this week, along with several other suggestions for the revision and repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The repeal of the merger provision would be submitted to Parliament on Tuesday (18) as an Urgent Bill and the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, the Cabinet Spokesman said. The PSC meanwhile would be a fast-tracked process that the Government hoped would conclude before the northern poll was declared whether or not the Tamil National Alliance and the UNP participated in the process.

Despite opposition from the SLMC and the Socialist Alliance, which have clearly articulated their position on the issue of diluting the 13th Amendment, Rambukwella said the Government remained confident of its two-thirds majority to get the constitutional amendment passed.

No sign of Urgent Bill

But Tuesday swung around and the ‘Urgent Bill’ to revise the 13th Amendment was not presented in Parliament. No discussion was held on the Parliamentary Select Committee that was also supposed to be set up by Tuesday. Instead JHU MP Athuraliye Rathana Thero submitted a Private Member’s Bill, entitled strangely the ‘21st Amendment to the Constitution,’ seeking the repeal of the 13th Amendment in toto. Seconding the motion by Rathana Thero was UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara who has been suspended from his party for refusing to follow its directives.

Rathana Thero’s bill makes the argument that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is illegal because a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that a referendum of the people were required before its enactment since some of its provisions were deemed inconsistent with the Constitution. It also claims that 13A usurps the executive and legislative power of the people exercised by the President and Parliament and gives it to provincial councils. It is not clear how the Private Member’s Bill will progress in the House and it will be interesting to learn what instructions President Rajapaksa will give his party men about whether they are to support or oppose Rathana Thero’s proposed amendments.

Although the reasons can only be guessed at, something is holding the Government back from presenting its own amendments to the 13th Amendment. On most other issues the powerful sections of the regime ride roughshod over the constituent partners in the ruling coalition, but it appears the matter of devolution and the historic roots of the country’s ethnic struggle remains is a horse of a different hue.

Some things are greater even than the authoritarian ambitions of the ruling regime. The ethnic conflict, its origins and the need to find a more lasting solution to the problems faced by the country’s minority ethnic groups rather than just the military defeat of the LTTE remains a priority for some politicians within the ruling coalition, such as the politicians of the Old Left whose positions on the country’s civil war are derived from more than just LTTE terrorism of the last three decades.

The regime’s persistent denials of the history of the conflict in no way influences their perceptions on this one central issue. Rambukwella in fact during the Cabinet briefing last week revealed the Government’s views on the ‘ethnic conflict’ – it does not believe there is one. “Whether there is an ethnic struggle as such remains a question,” he said in response to a question posed by journalists.

New Delhi steps in

Apart from the perhaps unforeseen virulent resistance within its ranks, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also expected to have to brace himself against strong opposition from India regarding his Government’s attempts to dilute the 13th Amendment that came about based on agreements in the Indo Lanka Accord of 1987.

The six-member delegation of the Tamil National Alliance led by its Leader R. Sampanthan met with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh yesterday. India’s Congress Government, which has already lost its constituent ally the Karunanidhi-led DMK over the Sri Lankan Tamil issue and was deferring its statement on Colombo’s moves to dilute the 13th Amendment ahead of the northern elections until it met with the TNA delegation, was quick to react after the meeting.

Indian Premier Manmohan Singh reportedly told the TNA delegation that he was ‘dismayed’ by reports suggesting the Government in Sri Lanka was planning to dilute key provisions of the 13th Amendment and said the proposed changes were incompatible with the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the Indian media reported.
“It was noted that the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment,” Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said. “The changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the Government of Sri Lanka, calling for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces,” he added.

The Ministry said in a statement that the Indian Prime Minister had expressed deep concern about the welfare of the Tamil community living in Sri Lanka and “stressed on the expectation that the Sri Lankan Tamil community would lead a life of dignity, as equal citizens, and reiterated that India would make every effort to ensure the achievement of a future for the community marked by equality, justice and self-respect”.

India and the rest of the international community that are holding President Mahinda Rajapaksa to his promise of elections in the north by September 2013 continue to lose faith in the Government’s commitment to upholding the rights of minorities and a final political settlement to the country’s ethnic struggle. Moves to dilute the 13A are being seen for what they are, blatant attempts to demonise representatives of the Tamil community and revoke any semblance of political autonomy for the country’s minority ethnic groups.

The CHOGM factor

Following the conclusion of the April Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting, which confirmed Sri Lanka as the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013, speculation abounded that the confirmation and the non-inclusion of Sri Lanka in the CMAG agenda despite heavy lobbying from Canada and more covertly Britain, was due to New Delhi using its good offices with the Commonwealth Secretariat and member states to make representations on Colombo’s behalf. Diplomatic circles were buzzing with news of a ‘deal’ in which Colombo got confirmed as the CHOGM venue in exchange for a promise to New Delhi that an election would be held in the north by September.

Needless to say, New Delhi probably did not add the caveat “under the existing provisions of the 13th Amendment” believing it to be self-evident given the numerous proclamations by President Rajapaksa about his commitment to fully implementing the 13A and going beyond it to create a power sharing mechanism in the post-war phase. The Rajapaksa Government in customary form has double-crossed New Delhi by attempting shrewdly to render the Northern council powerless even if it is formed if it has no option but to hold the poll as scheduled.

But CHOGM watchers claim that what New Delhi did for Colombo once in April it can undo come September when another high level meet of the organisation is scheduled to take place. That meeting will occur in conjunction with UN Human Rights Council Sessions at which Sri Lanka will once again be under the microscope if it has not yet declared an election in the north as set out in the second US resolution against Sri Lanka sponsored by the US.

Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma following the CMAG meeting in April expressed confidence that elections would be held in the north and that Sri Lanka would put moves in motion to rectify its process for the removal of judges of the upper courts following the disastrous and unconstitutional impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January.

With five months to go before 54 heads of government converge in the Sri Lankan capital to reinforce and reiterate Commonwealth core values such as electoral democracy, rule of law and human rights, all indications are that Sri Lanka will limit its commitments to the UN and to the Commonwealth to mere words. Some Commonwealth experts say that despite commitments in April by the Secretariat, summit venues have been derailed in the past with just days of notice.

Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, writing a piece entitled ‘Sri Lanka CHOGM 2013: With Whom Does the Decision Lie?’ in April this year argues that despite Secretary General Sharma’s claims that Commonwealth Heads alone have the power to change summit venues, in fact history is replete with examples of Secretary Generals acting proactively in this regard and member states submitting to their opinions. It was in fact speculated that it was with the current Secretary General that India possesses the greatest influence.

Professor Murphy also explains that the Commonwealth postponed a CHOGM scheduled to be held in Brisbane in 6-9 October 2001 on September 28 because of fears many heads of government would not attend. It was also an exceptional year in that on 11 September 2001 the US had been subject to a devastating terrorist attack on its own soil spreading fears of security in other Western states. On the other hand an international community that has been happy to accept those platitudes in place of tangible action may choose to keep looking the other way. That is unless and until New Delhi decides it should be otherwise. (Courtesy Daily FT)

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