This is a time when even those who agreed with the LTTE to explore a solution to the ethnic problem within a federal framework are standing even for the abolition of the existing provincial councils. This may be a genuine mind change or swimming with the tide. Whatever it may be, it seems that the notion that the decade old power sharing mechanism should be scrapped is gaining momentum, following the new President and the new SLPP government taking office.
Yet, the government’s stand on devolution of power and the provincial councils is not clear, with ministers expressing diametrically opposite views on the subject, despite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa having expressed his aversion towards power devolution during his first overseas visit to India, on the heels of his assumption of office.
Just twenty four hours into his Presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa met the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishanker who had conveyed him “India’s expectation that the Sri Lankan government take forward the process of national reconciliation to arrive at a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, justice, peace and dignity.” During a joint Press briefing with him on November 29, last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also echoed the same sentence, replacing only the last word dignity with the word respect, while specifically stressing that “it also includes the implementation of the 13th Amendment.”
However, President Rajapaksa said in an interview with Suhasini Haider of “The Hindu” during the same visit “We can discuss political issues, but for 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened. I also believe that you can’t do anything against the wishes and feeling of the majority community.”
Interestingly, following the August 5 Parliamentary election, he appointed Rear Admiral (retired) Sarath Weerasekara, the first Director General of the Civil Security Force as the State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government. It was a well-known fact that Weerasekara has been a determined and uncompromising detractor of devolution of power, its legal form in Sri Lanka, the 13th Amendment and the political manifestation of it, the provincial councils, since 1980s. And he has been continuing his opposition to the existence of provincial councils, which are now under his purview, after he was appointed the State Minister.
It is ironic that former Minister Milinda Moragoda has also joined the campaign against provincial councils. The irony is that Moragoda was one of the members of the UNF government delegation that agreed to explore a solution to the ethnic issue within a federal framework during the 3rd round of peace talks with the LTTE in the Norwegian Capital, Oslo in 2002. President Rajapaksa has appointed him the High Commissioner to India with Cabinet powers. Has the President made this appointment with a view to change the Indian leader’s mind in respect of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which was a direct upshot of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987?
Nevertheless, all top leaders of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) do not seem to be on the same wave length with regard to the devolution of power, 13th Amendment and provincial Councils. Justice Minister Ali Sabri during a recent televised interview said that Provincial councils would not be abolished. Responding to a question on the calls to scrap the system by various people allied to the government, he stated that the 13th Amendment involved international obligations on Sri Lanka, as it was promulgated under the Indo-Lanka Accord. He also said that the government did not want to create a situation that would push the Tamils to the wall which might lead, in the long run to another separatist rebellion.
Meanwhile Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga who is also the 7th Chief Minister of the Western Province had opposed any attempt to do away with the provincial councils, while many prominent members and clergy aligned to the SLPP were expressing views opposed to it.
All provincial councils stand dissolved for more than two years and even the politicians of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces for which the councils were first designed do not seem to be concerned about it. The situation obviously questions the need for them, in spite of the international obligations that were referred to by Minister Ali Sabri. On the other hand, the possibility of holding elections for those councils too hangs in the balance, as follow up actions have not been taken after the mixed electoral system was introduced for those councils as well in September 2017. Against this backdrop it is appropriate that the government leaders speak in one voice on the subject and act accordingly.