Despite India’s efforts to persuade Sri Lanka to fully implement the 13th Amendment in the island’s northern province, the Rajapaksa government appears firm about not handing over some powers, including those related to police and law enforcement, to the Tamil minority.
Revealing the extent to which absence of trust remains an obstacle to ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka, Basil Rajapaksa — brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister for Economic Development — who visited New Delhi last week, told The Hindu that Sri Lanka would never risk a provincial government forming its own “army” through devolved police powers.
Referring to the Tamil National Army — a militant outfit raised by the beleaguered 1988 EPRLF government in the North-Eastern Province in a futile attempt to protect itself against the LTTE that had rejected the Amendment and boycotted the election — he said there was no ruling out that a future Northern provincial government would not do the same: “If [the NPC] form another army, can we afford another war now?”
He dismissed arguments that armed struggle by the Tamils was now a thing of the past, and that the 13th Amendment in any case gave the President overriding powers over the province.
As Sri Lanka moves to hold elections for the first time in the Tamil-majority Northern province, there is a raging debate in the country over the pros and cons of the 13th Amendment, including the proposed changes by the Rajapaksa government to strip it of clauses that it perceives to be inimical to national and territorial integrity; and the reported insistence by India on its full implementation.
Both Mr. Rajapakasa’s trip to New Delhi, and quickly after, India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon’s visit to Colombo, seem to have focussed on this issue; for weeks, the Sri Lankan media has been debating it threadbare.
Sri Lanka’s other provinces, which have functioning governments, do not have their own police forces despite the constitutional provision for this. But the Tamil National Alliance believes the North should have control over law enforcement in the province.
The TNA is widely expected to win the Northern election, to be held in September, two months before the country is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet. The alliance has nominated a respected Colombo-based former judge of the Supreme Court, C. V. Wigneswaran, as its chief ministerial candidate.
Mr. Rajapaksa, however, questioned TNA’s choice, describing Mr.Wigneswaran as a candidate of “external forces” who did not represent the people of the North.
Well ahead of the elections, the minister, an important political figure in the Sri Lankan government, who is regarded as the most restrained and diplomatic member of the Rajapaksa clan, was already certain that a TNA government in the North would be on collision course with the Centre.
The Rajapaksa government, he said, had given the Tamil people, “everything” — roads, railways, water, electricity, schools and hospitals. With nothing left to promise, the minister said, a TNA provincial government would whip up other “emotional issues” that neither it nor the government would be able to deliver.
Giving a new twist to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 which gave birth to the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, Mr. Rajapaksa said devolving police powers would actually amount to going against Accord.
He pointed to section 2.10 of the Accord which calls for the government to use the “same organisations and mechanisms” for law enforcement and security in the Northern and Eastern provinces as in the rest of the country, saying this meant that there could not be more than one police force for the whole country.
“It is very clear in the Accord. It says police powers have to be with one police, there is no separate mechanism. So you can’t have a separate police force in the provinces,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.
The government recently set up a parliamentary select committee to revisit the 13th amendment. Mr. Rajapaksa defended the move, saying no constitutional provision was permanent, and all over the world, it was the practice to make changes in the statute.
He declined to say if the changes would come before or after the election, calling it an ongoing process. Sometimes, he said, such processes took years.
The committee has been boycotted by the TNA and the main opposition United National Party (UNP). Moreover, dissenters on the issue within the ruling coalition, such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, are not included in the Committee.
Mr. Rajapaksa sought to explain questions about the credibility of the incomplete panel by saying it would solicit wider opinion by inviting public testimonies.
Asked if India-Sri Lanka relations had been affected as a result, Mr. Rajapaksa said both countries “understand each other’s point of view. It is Sri Lanka’s problem, and Sri Lanka must find a solution from Sri Lanka itself”.
India’s vote against Colombo two years in a row at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, he said, had “very badly hurt our relationship” but Sri Lanka had “managed it very well”, understanding that it was due to “internal pressure”.
Nor had Sri Lanka reacted adversely when Sri Lankan pilgrims and Buddhist priests were attacked in Tamil Nadu.
“So as two sovereign countries and countries who have been friends for a long time we have to understand each other. Our people have been very understanding of India. India must understand that.”
India’s Sri Lanka-playing-the China card theory was hardly reasonable, he said, pointing to a recently formed Indian CEO’s forum in Colombo, and the absence of a similar platform for Chinese businessmen in Sri Lanka.
Rather, said the Minister, it was India that was “playing for America”. As evidence, he pulled out a 2011 visit to Chennai by then U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as linked to the Tamil question in Sri Lanka.
A peaceful environment in Sri Lanka was good for India and the people of India, not just for the governments but also for the business community, including those from Tamil Nadu, Mr. Rajapaksa said.