| by Jehan Perera
( January 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) One of the outcomes of the visit to Sri Lanka by the Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has been the resurrection of the concept of “13th Amendment Plus.” Speaking to the media at the conclusion of his visit, the Indian Minister said that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had pledged to improve on the devolution of powers presently granted to the provinces in terms of the 13th Amendment. However, when questioned as to whether the Sri Lankan government had given any commitments regarding this improvement or a time frame in which it would do so, Mr Krishna was constrained to admit that no such undertaking had been given. It appears that the Sri Lankan government has once again been able to get itself out of a problem. But this does not mean it is closer to solving the problem.
The Indian government has consistently expressed its interest in a political solution to Tamil grievances. India has a particular interest in the 13th Amendment, as it was formulated in the aftermath of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 of which India was the prime architect. Despite the end of the war more than two and a half years ago, little has been forthcoming so far in terms of an advance towards a political solution that is based on devolution of power. The Sri Lankan governmentannouncement that it is considering a senate or upper house of parliament that would be a bridge between the centre and the provinces may, in fact, be part of a design to offer an alternative to the devolution of power.
The undefined and elusive concept of a post-war solution of “13th Amendment Plus” was first articulated by President Rajapaksa during the height of the war in 2008 when there was mounting pressure on his government to reconsider the military option in view of its very high human cost. On occasion the President seemed to refine the concept further when he said that it would be “13th Amendment Plus One” though little indication was given as to what either the “plus” or the “one” would mean in concrete terms. In the absence of anything concrete, these concepts were taken to mean a commitment to devolve more power to the provinces than existed at that time. The LTTE that was waging war against the government did not accept the 13th Amendment at all.
Ironically, it was not only the LTTE that found the 13th Amendment to be wanting. Even politicians who contested provincial council elections and had become chief ministers of provinces have complained bitterly about the shortcomings in its implementation. A key weakness is the near total dependence of the provincial councils on the central government for finances. The provincial councils are severely restricted in their power to raise their own funds which has made them hopelessly dependent on the central government. Another serious weakness has been the existence of a concurrent list of subjects which are shared by the central and provincial administrations. In practice, where there are such shared powers the central government has had no reservations about monopolizing those powers.
In this context the President’s promise of 13th Amendment Plus at the conclusion of the war was an attractive reassurance to those who were concerned about the high human costs of the war. This promise was most useful to the Indian government in warding off the pressure from its volatile state of Tamil Nadu where there was mass agitation that India was helping the Sri Lankan government to defeat the LTTE. As the 13th Amendment was designed in terms of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, the promise of 13th Amendment Plus was a vindication of India’s role in the elimination of the LTTE. The presidential promise held out the hope that once the LTTE was out of the picture, there would be no obstacle to the government making the 13th Amendment work successfully by strengthening it where it was weak.
However, two and a half years after the elimination of the LTTE the promise of 13th Amendment Plus has not been forthcoming. On the contrary the appearance is of a reversal, in which the powers of the provinces are being further reduced. The passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution which centralized even more powers in the presidency has eroded the autonomy and integrity of all other institutions in the country. In addition, with the elimination of the LTTE, government leaders began to say that no further devolution of powers was necessary. Some have even begun to speak about abolishing the devolution of powers entirely. There are sections of the government who do not wish to have any institutional obstacles that would prevent them from doing whatever they decide.
Despite the visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister bringing the issue of increasing the devolution of powers to the provinces back to the public debate it is not likely to go beyond that. During his recent visit to Sri Lanka, Mr Krishna gave support to the Sri Lankan government’s intention to have a Parliamentary Select Committee work out the modalities of a political solution to the ethnic conflict. The TNA has made a pertinent observation that if they are unable to reach a consensus with the government, it is not likely that they will be able to reach any sort of consensus with the several other political parties in Parliament. The fate of the All Party Representatives Committee which met 128 times over a four year period and whose final report was never released by the President’s office, does not bode well for the outcome of the Parliamentary Select Committee.
In the light of these circumstances, the prospects for political reform, devolution of power and a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the near future looks dim. At best these will remain matters for the future that is still far off. What has been said during the visit of the Indian Minister is in the realm of words and sentiments. The better option for those who seek justice for the war-affected Tamil people, would be to focus on improving their concrete circumstances on the ground. The primary areas of concern are to improve the livelihood of the war displaced people and their housing conditions. The government needs to be supported by the international community in reconstructing the north and east according to the needs of the people. The Indian commitment to build 50,000 houses for the war affected population is an exemplary action in this context.
The other area of importance is that of the role of the military in the North and East. Especially in the north, the military plays a decisive role in day to day matters. Civilians need to feel that military presence in these areas is to support and empower war affected communities and not rule over them but sustain and protect democratic values. The management and oversight of the military forces will need to be changed if it is to become more acceptable to the people. The military must be accountable for their actions in the north at least to a body from civil society consisting of people of the area. Sooner rather than later it is also necessary for the military to return to barracks and the police entrusted with the maintenance of law and order as called for by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. While the dialogue on political reform must go on, the quality of life of the people as manifested in their day to day affairs must be simultaneously improved.