Sri Lanka’s Tamils –How to bring them on board
The realistic step forward in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan President Mahindra Rajapaksa has reaffirmed his willingness to sit with the Tamil political parties for ensuring some forward movement of the normalization process. Declaration of such intent by the Sri Lankan head of state is indeed welcome. That he is still committed to the idea of devolution of political powers to the Tamils is quite heartening. After the capitulation of the LTTE and its virtual wiping out from the military- political scene, hopes about an early political settlement had soared. Many had thought that the victor Sinhalese (majority) and the vanquished Tamils (minority) would bury the hatchet and quickly proceed to forge friendly ties quickly. This, sadly, has not happened.
A framework for devolution was worked out as early as 1987. It was the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Yet, after the war, politicians in both sides have failed to follow through on the main promises made in the 13th Amendment. As a result, it has remained frozen. Complicating the issue of reconciliation is the vexed war crimes and human rights issue which still burn alight in the Tamil hearts.
Among the issues that impede a quick resolution of the political stand-off is the matter of control over police in the Northern Province. President Rajapaksa is averse to the idea of police administration remaining with the Tamil provincial government. The hesitation is because of the huge trust deficit between the two sides. It is pertinent here to point out that the Sri Lankan constitution permits the control of state police to remain with the state government.
The other contentious issue is the powers relating to land rights. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has ruled last year that the centre owns the lands, not the states.
The Tamil parties appear to take an intransigent stand over their participation in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The Tamil members fear that the Sinhalese members, using their numbers, might push for a dilution of the provisions of the 13th Amendment. Clearly, given the animosity that still bedevils Tamil-Sinhalese relations, such fear may not be quite misplaced.
The main Opposition parties have boycotted the PSC. Sensing the political mood, the dominant Tamil outfit —Tamil National Alliance — has stayed away from the proceedings of the PSC. The TNA wants concessions in excess of what is given in the 13th Amendment, where as the Sinhalese members want the stipulations of the 13th Amendment to be curtailed. This gulf of perception divides the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. When the Tamils aspire is a move towards an agreement that would be 13th Amendment-plus, not anything that looks like 13th Amendment-minus. To add some stridency to their stand, they have made it clear that they will join PSC deliberations only if the Sinhalese agree to their views broadly.
The issue has been mired in acrimonious exchanges due to the central government’s reluctance to scale down military presence in Tamil areas in the North. Here again, trust deficit is the underlying clause. The Governor of the Tamil majority province is a former Army General. Logically, he should have been a civilian political person. The Governor enjoys considerable authority and clout. Hence an astute politician will inspire more confidence than a military man. Almost in a chorus, the Tamil politicians demand ‘maximum devolution’ of powers. They do not spell out what this ‘maximum’ means. Such rhetoric complicates the negotiation process. Some TNA constituents have gone to the extent of complete nullifying of the 13th Amendment. Such stridency, borne mostly out of political considerations, widens the gulf between the majority and the minority.
The devolution process is thus caught in a limbo. The longer the impasse continues, the more will be the bad blood between the two sides. To break the ice, both sides have to step back and seriously ponder ways to push the political process forward. There should be vigorous and un-equivocal reaffirmation of the need for the country’s unity. Within the framework of a solidly woven federal structure, maximum devolution of power has to take place. Both sides have to aim and work for this.
The issue that refuses to get erased is the culpability of a few army officers in brutal acts of repression against innocent civilians. They have to be brought to book for the war wounds to be healed. The earlier efforts of the Sri Lankan government in this direction have been insincere and opaque. Understandably, the Tamils have treated the findings with scorn. A UN-sponsored human rights violation investigation is under way. Hopefully, they will do a professional job and pin the guilty military officers down. The central government must ensure that these guilty men are brought to book. This step, although unpalatable to many Sinhalese, is the right panacea for the festering ethnic wound that refuses to heal.