Sri Lanka literally stands at a history-making threshold. Its bloody and protracted quarter-century civil conflict effectively ended in May when the Government forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers). When the Tigers died, so did any real chance for the Tamils to achieve a separate state. However, just hours before the military confirmed the death of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on 18 May, President Mahinda Rajapakse struck a reconciliatory tone as he addressed Parliament. He said that the defeat of the Tigers did not mean the marginalization of the Tamil minority.
The Tigers were the self-appointed sole representatives of the Tamils who violently eliminated their political or military rivals over the last 30 years in their struggle for a separate Tamil State. Until now the bloody war with the Tigers has crushed any chance of dialogue about political power-sharing between the Sinhalese-dominated Government and the provinces, particularly in the Tamil areas in the north and east. With the annihilation of the Tigers that dialogue has been renewed.
‘We are a small country. If we divide powers on lines of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, we will only be a dividing the country more’
There is already a Constitutional Amendment to achieve devolution of power from the Central Government to the provinces, which would give Tamil provinces some level of autonomy. Referred to as the 13th Amendment, it has not been fully implemented. Whilst Provincial Councils were set up through the Amendment, political parties are disagreeing about the level of power-sharing arrangements that can and should be achieved.
Tamil politicians such as the leader of Tamil United Liberation Front, V Anandasangaree, are calling for wider powers, arguing that the two-decade-old Amendment does not fit current political and social needs. Former Tiger cadre, Sivasuntharai Chanthrakanthan – the chief minister of eastern province – wants the devolution of police and land powers.
These are two concessions that parties based on the support of the southern-Sinhala vote base are loath to make. ‘If you grant police powers and land powers (beyond the amendment) it can lead to separatism,’ warns Vijitha Herath, spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Front. The Jathika Hela Urumaya, a Sinhala-nationalist party takes a similar line. ‘We are a small country. If we divide powers on lines of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, we will only be a dividing the country more,’ JHU Leader Ellawala Medananda Thero, a Buddhist monk, recently said.
If the Tamil parties form a common front, their bargaining power could be high. But at present the Tamil parties are divided among themselves. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the party with the largest Tamil representation in Parliament (with 22 out of the 225 members) – has long been accused of merely being a pro-Tiger proxy. One veteran Tamil politician has called for them to be sacked. With the defeat of the Tigers, there are signs that the TNA could split with some members aligning with the Government or pro-Government Tamil parties.
As yet, the Rajapaksa Government has not committed itself on whether it would stick with the 13th Amendment or move beyond that. ‘What is now important is not whether the provincial councils need more powers, but to accelerate the development of the war ravaged areas: that is our main focus,’ says Susil Premjayantha, the secretary of the ruling United People Freedom Alliance.