The Sunday Leader

Devolution With De-merger?

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

  • De-merger of the merged North-East Province, too, has come and gone, after the Supreme Court ruled thus in 2006
  • The Tamils, be it the TULF, the LTTE or the TNA, now, has not bothered about the Muslims, especially of the East, who are also Tamil-speaking
  • If a referendum has to take place, all Muslims in the North would have to be rehabilitated. So should be the Sinhalas, who had to flee the North and the LTTE-controlled parts of the East, as well

President Maithripala Sirisena meets Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in Colombo

In Colombo recently, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar reportedly told the TNA leadership to look for ‘alternate’ solutions instead of sticking on to the re-merger of the North and the East. A sage advice this, considering not only the majority Sinhala sensitivity and the Sri Lankan State sensibilities, but also of the larger Tamil cohesiveness and that of the Tamil-speaking people in the East in particular.

To be fair to ‘moderate Tamils’ whose numbers are in a majority and whose concerns, interests and aspirations the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) continues to project and politicise, ‘merger’ was a part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. India did participate in the tripartite negotiations involving the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), as it stood then.

The TULF could be said to be the precursor to the present-day TNA. It should not be confused with the skeletal outfit that still remains with the traditional ‘Rising Sun’ symbol under the care of V. Anandasangaree, in turn a contemporary of TNA leader R. Sampanthan. That has also been a part of the continuing Tamil problem in the country.

To be fair to the Tamil moderates from the Accord era, India was the one that had signed on their behalf, so to say. The Sri Lankan Government was the other signatory. The historic 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, conferring power-devolution on the nation’s Provinces, was a product of the Accord. So was the Provincial Council Act, which alone facilitated the merger of the ‘Tamil-speaking’ North and the East.

The irony of the two Sri Lankan products flowing out of the Accord is that merger came almost immediately, but 13-A remains to be implemented, whether in toto or even otherwise. De-merger of the merged North-East Province, too, has come and gone, after the Supreme Court ruled thus in 2006. Yet, 13-A remains where it was not meant to be, but has been consigned, too, nonetheless, for decades now.

Post-war peace negotiations, between the government, then represented by the Rajapaksa regime, and the Tamils, represented by the post-LTTE TNA, did talk about devolution. It also talked about implementation and/or improvements upon 13-A. Re-merger was not being talked about. So were war-crimes and ‘accountability probe’ and an ‘international mechanisms’ for the purpose.


Competitive politics

The irony of the Sri Lankan negotiations between the Sinhala polity, represented by the government of the day and the Tamil-speaking people, represented by only the ‘Tamils’ among them, is also precisely that. The Sinhala Opposition (united or divided) was/is never on board. The Tamils, be it the TULF, the LTTE or the TNA, now, has not bothered about the Muslims, especially of the East, who are also Tamil-speaking.

They negotiate settlements that are not acceptable to those that are left out – mostly for this reason, though there might be other justification, too. After a point, the government side gets frightened about the electoral possibilities on the Sinhala political end. It becomes more competitive than they themselves might have bargained at the commencement of a ‘rosy beginning’ to the negotiations.

On the ‘Tamil side’, time used to be when political moderates and hard-liners used to fight it out, and were afraid of yielding ground to the government, and get blamed for yet another ‘sell-out’. The LTTE changed the idiom and diction of it all. Today, the TNA too faces the same music from within the community.

Worse still, the political hard-liners too are from within. They are led by Northern Province Chief Minister, C. V. Wigneswaran. The fact is that by negotiating only with the TNA leadership, governments in Colombo or other nations and agencies facilitating such negotiations cannot arrive at a solution that is acceptable to different and differentiated stake-holders from each grouping, leave alone those from outside.


Imaginative initiative

For inter-ethnic political negotiations leading to a permanent solution to the ‘national problem’ to succeed, there has to be intra-ethnic consensus, built not on competitive politics but on common interests and concerns on the communities involved. At present, all such efforts on intra-ethnic consensus of any kind are seen through the prism of parliamentary committees, and nothing more.

The incumbent government’s ‘imaginative’ initiative, converting Parliament into a Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing a whole new Constitution for the nation, is also yet another attempt of the kind. It’s nothing more, nothing less. If a small grouping of parliamentary committee members could not agree on anything, how come anyone could have imagined that a larger Parliament, where the members are very conscious of their own electoral fate from the past and into the future, be seen as agreeing on anything?

A new Constitution is not unlikely fated to face the same end as those preceding the same. Instead, at least this government, purportedly commencing on a clean slate, should have started off with a bottom-up approach. Such a course should be much different from the so-called ‘civic society’ initiatives, which have their origins and possibly funding too from outside the country. They were bound to fail, despite the tall hopes that they are inherently capable of igniting initially.

Could a religion-centric approach to problem-solving have helped the Sinhala polity in any avoidance of shifting the blame on to each other, or apprehending that the other might ‘score’ a debating point at the end of each day? It’s true that Sinhala-Buddhist ‘majoritarianism’ is at the core of the ‘ethnic issue’, but give the problem to the religious leadership to help resolve, and it might have produced some result, after all.

If nothing else, the religious leadership would have been the ones to market their own product, which of course needs to be agreeable to the other ethnic stake-holder or stake-holders. Alternatively, they would at least have known where exactly the shoes would pinch, and stay away from trouble, and let the politicos take the bouquets as much as the brick-bats, which alone seems to have been the case.


Confrontation, not conciliation

The re-merger issue is all about this and more. For any solution to become law, it has to be backed by Sinhala consensus of a genuine kind. The fate of 13-A is a marker. JRJ as then UNP President had all the support that anyone in his place could have hoped for in the nation’s Parliament. But his own party Prime Minister and presidential successor in Ranasinghe Premadasa would have none of it. The rest is history.

Even Premadasa or rival SLFP’s later-day successor in Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, CBK, did not have problem, continuing with the merged North-East. It might have also been because there was no Provincial Government worth the name after the sudden exit of merged NE Chief Minister Varadaraja Perumal. His elevation earlier had been equally dramatic.

With the result, the Colombo government and the military were ruling the N-E, what with LTTE antagonism and attacks only growing by the day. Pending the referendum in the East for a merger with the North, Premadasa and his successors in D. B. Wijetunga and CBK, would sign off an annual extension for the merger.

The government was in no position to hold a referendum, where non-Tamils, including the Tamil-speaking Muslims dominated the demography. So, when Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, and the Supreme Court ordered de-merger, no tears were shed. The LTTE would have only been happier, as it wanted a confrontationist Colombo, and not a conciliatory leadership. It suited Rajapaksa’s politics, too.


Referendum, but…

The Provincial Council Act laid down that the LTTE put down their arms before merger could be effected. Prabhkaran’s symbolic handing over of his pistol to an Indian official was seen as much. But war and terrorism raged on for another 22 years, hence the question of merger became as a year-on-year incremental affair. The Supreme Court nullified both the product and process in 2006.

Today, there is no war, and no LTTE, hence no need for anyone to surrender any arm to anyone else, yes. But there was a second clause to the merger question. The law provided for a referendum in the Province which is deemed to be merged with another – in this case, the East was seen and sought to be merged with the North. It was not definitely a merger of the North and the East, as is being sought to be made out, since.

The Act then provided for a referendum in the ‘merging’ Province, not the other. Nor did it dictate a referendum in two or more Provinces sought to be merged, either. It meant, and still means that there need to be a referendum in the East, now or ever, if re-merger has to take place under the existing Provincial Council Act. Another possibility could be a need to get the Supreme Court’s nod, if post facto, the Judiciary were not to nullify it another time.

It was not without reason. At the time of merger, the Tamils argued that the Tamil-speaking Muslims in both the North and the East were with them. There was still a significant ‘minority’ of Sinhalas in the two Provinces at the time, and hence in the merged entity, too. Especially after the LTTE killing of Tamil-speaking Muslims in the East, and the forced exit of counterparts in the North, the situation has changed, still beyond redemption.

If a referendum has to take place, all Muslims in the North would have to be rehabilitated. So should be the Sinhalas, who had to flee the North and the LTTE-controlled parts of the East, as well. The referendum itself was thought of as in a merged North-East of those days, the Muslim presence would have come down drastically to around 17 per cent than close to 40 in the East especially.

Today, when the Muslim polity is divided worse than the Tamils, the chances of the TNA carrying off a merger referendum with the support of friends in the other community, look remote. The ‘Karuna rebellion’ itself flagged the inherent differences within the Tamil communities in the two Provinces, which could erupt if a referendum were to be on cards. Even without it, a Muslim-Sinhala vote in the East against re-merger could still be a possibility.

Any re-merger of the North and the East in the context of a new Constitution could well imply relevant provisions, both in the proposed statute and/or the Provincial Council Act. For it to have a safe and unimpaired passage in a referendum, the very process too might have to be done away with. Leave aside the referendum part, it is highly unlikely that either the Sinhala community or the Muslim polity would readily agree to re-merger.


TNA ‘optics’

Overall, the TNA lost a political solution fairly acceptable to their people when their listened to the Diaspora voices for re-merger and more so on war-crimes probe. The Rajapaksa regime failed the nation when it too began to drag along the negotiations, with both sides promptly leaking the ‘unpalatable parts’ to the media, getting the process ultimately stalled.

Unlike on most occasions of the kind, the TNA has promptly issued a news statement, indicating India’s revived suggestion for the Tamils to go beyond the merger plan. It could well imply that the party leadership (too) wants a public discourse on the same even before the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala polity could come up with their own views on what essentially could be considered an Indian suggestion, at best.

Independent of the talks with the Indian visitor, the TNA has been talking to its supporters about the ‘optics’ attaching to their politics. Recently in Jaffna, the capital of the party-ruled Northern Province, TNA parliamentarian, M. A. Sumanthiran, talked about ‘optics’ and said that they had not visited India for months now, or discussed the ethnic issue with India.

Sumanthiran explained that they did not want to be seen in India’s company lest the Sinhala polity nearer home should misread and misconstrue that they were only seeking to implement the agenda of foreign powers, the Indian neighbour in this case. Expanding on the theme, it could also well imply that the TNA did not want the Diaspora Tamils and also the party hard-liners under CM Wigneswaran to mis-read them.

In context, their post-meet statement on Secretary Jaishankar’s suggestion does not seem to be as simple and straight as they look. Instead, it could well be a sure-fire way for the TNA to disclaim ownership for the Indian proposal on the one hand, and also for that of the Tamil public opinion, which Wigneswaran recently indicated would be formed through the forum of the Tamil People’s Council, of which he is the patron.


(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

2 Comments for “Devolution With De-merger?”

  1. Raja Senanayake

    Cant we leave the status quo as it is since there seems to be some tacit acceptance of it. What we need is a meaningful fiscal devolution so that each devolved unit can finance itself with supplementary support from the Center divided per capita.

  2. Sira

    Got me $@#*^% how this traitor end up where he is.

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