Can the President replace devolution with development?

20 December 2019 12:19 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



  • ‘13+ formula’ nothing but reinstitution of bicameral legislature including senate 
  • Gota’s statement logical despite concerns over practicability
  • Tamils who rooted for SLPP  at prez poll flabbergasted by Gota’s stance as MR assured them something diametrically opposed 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent statements that he would replace devolution with development as a solution to the problems facing the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces might run counter to his wishes to win over the Tamil people. It also counteracts with the pledges made by his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to Tamils prior to the presidential poll.

 While speaking to newspaper editors and heads of electronic media outlets last Monday, the President said he did not believe in devolution as a solution to the problems encountered by Tamil people. “For the past 70 years, people have been hoodwinked by politicos who have promised devolution and federalism and this cannot be continued. While knowing nothing that is opposed to by the majority community could be implemented, politicians have continued to deceive people. It is only through development that unity and peace among communities could be brought about,” he had said.   

This was the third time he publicly stressed this point after assuming presidency on November 18. The previous occasions were the interviews he had on November 25 in Colombo and on November 30 in New Delhi with two senior Indian journalists Nitin A. Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief of Bharat and SNI and Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu respectively.   
As he had told during the interview with Suhasini, he has been “frank” in this regard -- unlike previous leaders who were hesitant in directly saying no to devolution, even while some of them were vehemently opposed to the concept of devolution as a solution to the ethnic problem. Other leaders were not as frank as he was to say they were not prepared to do anything against the wishes of the majority community, possibly in fear of being accused of siding with that community.   

However, the Tamil leaders who supported the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the just concluded presidential election might have been flabbergasted by the President’s stance on devolution as they had been promised something diametrically opposed to it by none other than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa before the election. The former President told the Tamil leaders that his famous ‘13+ formula’ would be implemented subsequent to the presidential poll. 

The formula was first put forward in 2012 and later during an interview with The Hindu Editor N. Ram.Mr. Rajapaksa explained that what he meant by 13+ was nothing but reinstitution of the bicameral legislature including a senate. The former Chief Minister of the once merged North-East Provincial Council Varatharaja Perumal and former LTTE Special Commander for Ampara and Batticaloa Districts Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman who had relayed the promise to the Tamils might have been embarrassed by the new turn of events.   
Whether the President’s stance on the resolution of the Tamil ethnic issue is valid or not, it might run counter to his plea for the minority community’s support -- especially of the Tamils -- at least during the forthcoming parliamentary elections, as the notion that a higher degree of devolution will solve the issues facing Tamils is in their blood. Yet, the President’s statement was logical despite concerns over its practicability.   

The rationale behind the demand for devolution has been that minority communities have been discriminated against in respect of development, predominantly in the fields of education, employment and land use. Hence, the Tamil leaders have been demanding authority to look into the affairs of their people. The Tamil armed groups went to the extreme of it and attempted to carve out a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka. Therefore, one can come to the logical conclusion that if development took place without discrimination, the need for devolution would not arise.   

On the other hand, one cannot deny or underestimate the nationalistic sentiments of a community -- majority or minority. Also, it will take time for people who had witnessed a war for over three decades to forget the past.   

In spite of the President having rejected the devolution phenomenon, it is already in force to some extent in the form of provincial councils. Will he then take apt measures to scrap the provincial council system? If he were to do so, he would have to unilaterally abrogate the Indo-Lanka Accord inked in 1987 under which the provincial council system was introduced or it would amount to him having done so.   

Nevertheless, Muslims in the North and the East do not seem to be concerned over the President’s statements as they have almost abandoned the idea of devolution since 2006 when the Supreme Court annulled the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces that had been effected by the Indo-Lanka Accord. Earlier, they demanded various forms of devolution such as a Muslim Provincial Council in the East, a Provincial Council for noncontiguous Muslim areas in the North and East and a Southeastern Provincial Council. The rationale behind their demand was that they would be a minority within a minority if the North-East merger remained effective.   

In fact, the attitude of both the Sinhalese and Tamils towards devolution in most occasions had been incomprehensible. It was Sinhala leaders such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who had first mooted the idea of devolution and even federalism for Sri Lanka as far back as in 1926. Tamils were not interested in it then. However, when the Tamils started to demand devolution after independence, the Sinhalese opposed it.   

When the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed  the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the predecessor of the SLPP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) protested against it thereby leaving hundreds of people dead at the hands of the armed forces and the police. Later, the same protesters not only contested the elections to Provincial Councils that were brought about by the same accord but also agitated during the last regime demanding those elections, forgetting those who sacrificed their lives against the introduction of provincial councils.   
On the other hand, Tamils were demanding devolution first and then in 1976 wanted total separation from Sri Lankan polity. With signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord, all Tamil groups except for the LTTE accepted the provincial council system as the solution to their problems with non-LTTE Tamil armed groups even laying down their arms. Surprisingly, they started to seek a fresh political solution in place of provincial councils within a year, soon after the LTTE resumed its armed struggle for a separate State called Tamil Eelam. 

Again, they, except for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) led by V. Anandasangaree and Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), accepted LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil people. Most Tamil leaders rejected the Constitutional Amendment, commonly called the “package” proposed in 1995 by the  Chandrika Kumaratunga Government but later in 2003, even Anton Balasingham, advisor to the LTTE, said the organisation should have accepted it.   

Then, the TNA joined the last government to prepare a set of proposals on ethnic issues under the proposed Constitution which was not a far cry from the current PC system. Other Tamil parties in the North demanded the word federal without making any suggestion to the contents of the proposals. All these point to the fact that they are not clear in their own demands.   
One can argue for and against President Rajapaksa’s stance on development versus devolution in the contemporary world. There are instances where demands for higher degree of devolution have faded away while there are regions such as Catalonia in Spain where demands for devolution have recently transformed into secessionist struggles despite development not being an issue there. Hence, only time would attest to the success of the President’s formula.     

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