13th Amendment and the All-Party Conference

Monday, 7 August 2023 00:00 –      – 4

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Over 35 years after the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, its full implementation has been a contentious issue with the main hurdle being the vesting of Police and land powers with Provincial Councils.

The signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987 and the subsequent enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to devolve powers through PCs was done without any public consultation or agreement, and chances are that had a public mandate been sought for the signing of such an Accord or the enactment of 13A, they would have been rejected by the majority of voters. The Accord neither brought about peace nor did the PCs satisfy the demands from the Tamil population for devolution of power to areas where they are a majority but it has provided the basis on which talks have been held by successive governments but such talks have usually taken place at times when an election is around the corner or when neighbouring India reminds Sri Lanka that it’s time to fully implement the law that is now part of the country’s Constitution.

After the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to go beyond the 13A, and grant 13 plus as a concession to Tamils so that they would have more autonomy in the North. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has joined his predecessors in trying to reach a consensus with Tamil parties to work within the PC system to devolve power. The President’s Office has requested party leaders who attended the All-Party Conferee (APC) held on 26 July to submit their proposals and suggestions regarding the 13th Amendment on or before 15 August.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), after participating in the APC insisted on the full implementation of the devolution arrangement currently extant in the constitution and demanded elections to the PCs while adding that its demand for power devolution by way of a federal structure remains unchanged.

Sinhala fringe political parties on the other hand continue to maintain that the 13th Amendment itself is against the unitary structure of the country and warn against devolution of police and land powers to the PCs.

President Wickremesinghe has put the ball in the court of Parliament as well as political parties to decide what they want to do with the 13th Amendment. Do they want the law to remain as it is or want it to be amended or even repealed?

A lot can be easily said than done when it comes to devolving power in the country. Over a decade after the end of hostilities in the North and East, land issues continue to be a major issue of contention. Reports of land grabs to put up Buddhist temples as well as continue occupation of private lands by the military are highlighted regularly. These are issues that have not been addressed by the Government in a forthright manner.

It seems quite certain by now that the President will seek a mandate from the people at the presidential election due next year. He is also aware that the support of the minorities is crucial for him to win an election. Hence it is difficult to determine if there is a genuine attempt on his part to address the grievances of the Tamil people or if the APC is a diversion in the bigger game to consolidate political power.

In reality, President Wickremesinghe is in no position to convince the majority community on devolution but if he is elected President, he will be in a stronger position to push through a devolution package acceptable to all communities. For now, it is unrealistic to expect serious results by talking to different political parties but it’s important to keep the door open for discussions and debate on the full implementation of 13A.

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