The Sunday Leader

Constitutional Changes Must Not Fuel Separatism – Sarath N. Silva

By Nadine Mariah

Sarath N. Silva

Sarath N. Silva, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka interrogated the government’s commitment to national reconciliation in light of the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution: specifically commenting on the repealing of the provision for two or more Provincial Councils (PC) to merge, and the need for all (PCs) to approve any legislative changes to the Constitution.

The government faced opposition from the Cabinet last week and failed to obtain the 150 votes needed to implement any substantial change.

Silva spoke to The Sunday Leader and said that there was much unwarranted public concern over the matter, without any real understanding of issues surrounding it.

“The basis of the Indo-Lanka Accord is that there should be devolution of power, and that’s why the concept of the Provincial Council was born. The purpose of this devolution was to create a functionally effective system of government to ultimately, initiate a sense of harmony. It is however becoming apparent that the Provincial system is far too large an entity for a country as small as ours, they are currently mismanaged and it hinders the functional efficiency of central government.”

He continued, “We have three levels of government; local, provincial and central. Local grassroots governance is hugely important to not only ensure that the needs of the people in the provinces are met, but also to ensure that they can elect representatives and so on; that is the point of devolution of power, power to the grassroots. However to then entertain a provincial system, is inconvenient and unnecessary and becomes a territorial warlike system”.

There have also been concerns over how independently Provincial Councils will be able to operate in making decisions relevant to each and every Council. Diluting Provincial powers might lead to all Councils being overlooked as one. What this also assumes is that the Central government is able to cater to the needs of every Province, in addition to managing foreign policy, the economy, military affairs, etc. This would be a highly presumptuous and dismissive way to deal with provinces. However Silva insisted that the provinces were in fact not so esoteric, and do not require specific attention, thereby being completely manageable by the Central government

“The provinces are merely geographical, set up by the British as a means of organising bureaucratic governance, nothing more. The provinces are however vastly different within themselves. As I mentioned earlier, the Province in itself is a large area, too big in comparison to the size of the entire country where the question of governance is concerned. This is why a more localised system, directly working with the Central government would enable these issues to be addressed more effectively,” Silva observed.

Regarding the repeal of provincial powers however, Silva stated it was not a solution to the ethnic problem, and that the issue was in reality quite irrelevant, as was altering how legislative changes to the Constitution were agreed upon; rather, it was a deliberate move to isolate the Northern and Eastern provinces. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was intended to provide an ethnic solution and to invite extremist Tamil groups into democratic politics, although the LTTE remained fundamentally militant, and separatist.

The LTTE threat now abolished, the platter for a united, democratic political system prevails. Therefore any changes to the 13th Amendment prior to the Northern Provincial Council elections, without proper consultation, is further depriving minorities of a right that has been enjoyed by the Singhalese majority thus far, thereby dislocating the Northern and Eastern provinces from the rest of the country and providing separatists groups with further ammunition to undermine the agenda for a one, unified Sri Lanka.

“On principle, it is not right for the government to make such propositions to the Constitution now, especially in light of the Northern Provincial Council elections. It naturally invites division and discord and exerts the view that sole powers will always be maintained by a majoritarian central government. A proper ethnic solution should have been devised and implemented as soon as the war was over. The timing of this proposition therefore, arouses suspicion that it has been deliberately done with the Northern Provincial Council polls in mind,” Silva said.

The changes were challenged by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Communist Party, Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Democratic Left Front, all agreeing the proposals did little if not absolutely nothing to solve the ethnic problem. A parliamentary select committee is to be appointed to discuss reforming the need for all Provincial Councils to approve any legislative changes to the Constitution. Silva noted special accommodation had to be made to include Muslim and Tamil minorities

“The government is currently quite nonchalant of the involvement of minority parties, to simply give them the time to join and then dismiss them if they don’t is not enough. They need to pay special attention to how these parties are reacting, and encourage participation from every conceivable corner to ensure the final decision has been properly, and more importantly, democratically decided upon,” Silva added.

He further stated that the select committee must not be chosen by members of parliament, rather, at a more localised level whereby political parties and provinces nominate representatives who are then reallocated (if need be) by parliament. This would allow fairer, broader, more telling representation.

Whilst some have argued it will solve the national question through the abolishing of ethnic based federalism, further arguing that they hinder post war attempts to unify the country, others have argued to the contrary. Silva maintained that there needs to be a compromise of power between local government and central government, to successfully govern an island of such small size

“We must ultimately find the right balance. Local government must operate without impeding on the consciousness of the Central government. This country is not accustomed to such varying levels of government and is still fragile from Independence. I think Constitutional changes need to be made although I maintain they should have been done far earlier as the proposals now, only fuel a separatist mentality which hinders the unified national progress,” Silva stated.

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