Despite the President’s argument that the police powers should be discussed later, he wittingly or unwittingly proposed to facilitate provincial councils to enjoy those powers during his policy statement in Parliament during the new session of it in February
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution; a subject matter of unending debate for the past thirty-six years since 1987 when the so-called Indo-Lanka Peace Accord that was imposed by India on Sri Lanka was reached. The debate is continuing and seems to continue for another decade or two.
The latest episode of this mega drama is President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s special statement in Parliament on Wednesday in which he invited all political parties representing the Parliament to submit their views on his suggestion to implement the 13th Amendment in full sans Police powers being awarded to Provincial Councils.
He stated that implementing Police Powers under the provincial councils is a sensitive issue and prioritizing such sensitive matters could potentially hinder any mutual agreement. He suggested discussing other issues relating to the devolution of powers to provincial councils first.
He also informed the Parliament that since the power devolution between the Central Government and the Provincial Councils lacks clarity.
“We are currently in the process of establishing a committee, led by the Prime Minister, tasked with re-evaluating the lists of powers held by the Central Government and the Provincial Council as well as the concurrent list outlined in the constitution.”
Re-evaluating the three lists of powers in the 9th Schedule of the Constitution – the Provincial Council List, Reserved List and the Concurrent List under which powers have been shared between the Central Government and the provincial councils – would be a highly complicated, sensitive, difficult protracted task, given the sensitivities of various ethnic communities. It would need a long time, sometimes years to arrive
The United National Party (UNP) led Yahapalana Government in 2017 messed up the Provincial Council election law and made those elections impracticable.
Then the communal clashes and a Constitutional crisis in 2018, the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and the subsequent anti-Muslim campaign in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 and finally the economic crisis last year all pushed the ethnic problem provincial council elections to the back burner. The Tamil political parties too had not been taking up the matter for discussion among themselves.
It was President Wickremesinghe who revived the issue in November last year during the budget debate with a statement that he would solve the ethnic problem before the 75th Independence Day which fell on February 4, this year.
The subsequent statements he made on the issue pose the question if the resolution of the ethnic problem and the implementation of the 13th Amendment in full are the same or different.
He sometimes sets deadlines to solve the ethnic problem while setting different deadlines to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
The President after promising to solve the ethnic issue before February 4 gave another undertaking on January 15 during the National Thai Pongal Day in Jaffna to implement the 13th Amendment during the next two years.
Then at the May Day rally of his party, the UNP, he said the ethnic issue would be resolved by the end of this year. Before his India visit last month, he stated that the 13th Amendment would be implemented without awarding police powers to the provincial councils and later – after his visit convened an ‘All-Party Conference’ (APC) to discuss the Amendment with special emphasis on police powers. Now he says that the sensitive police powers would be taken up at a later date.
The Tamil parties contend that the 13th Amendment is not negotiable as it is a part of the Constitution.
However, this is wrong as anything in the Constitution could be discussed and even changed while adhering to its current provisions of it. They too have the right to insist on sticking to the current provisions of the Constitution or to discuss them to streamline the power devolution, which in fact they do.
Despite the President’s argument that the police powers should be discussed later, he wittingly or unwittingly proposed to facilitate provincial councils to enjoy those powers during his policy statement in Parliament during the new session of it in February. For the provincial councils to enjoy police powers the government has to establish separate provincial police divisions under DIGs. While stressing that there wouldn’t be any change in police powers, the President said “We expect to determine the boundaries of DIG divisions according to the provinces.”
The Tamil parties, by stressing the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment have in fact been concerned thus far about the Government not creating mechanisms for the Provincial Councils to enjoy Police and land powers which are already devolved to those councils by the 13th Amendment.
When the President said that the Police powers would be discussed at a later date they might be at a loss and might see the discussions as futile.
C.V. Wigneswaran, the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province and the leader of the Tamil People’s National Front (TPNF) had suggested to the President to establish the Provincial Police divisions arming them only with batons.
He seems to have lost sight of the fact that the present-day robbers and other miscreants are armed with sophisticated weapons. This is impractical.
However, some Tamil leaders such as Mano Ganesan are of the view that Tamil parties must grab what is offered for the moment. He seems to be citing the fact that the President has not refused to allow the Provincial Councils to enjoy land powers.
Mr. Wickremsinghe in fact suggested during his Wednesday speech in Parliament as well as during his policy statement in February to establish a National Land Commission which is the pending issue for the provincial councils to be empowered with the subject of land.
Tamil parties as well as the Opposition parties are insisting that the provincial council elections which have been tangled in a legal snag for the past six years must be held forthwith, despite the efforts to find a lasting solution to the ethnic problem and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. TNA spokesman M.A.Sumanthiram MP has already presented a private member’s Bill to provide for the holding of those elections under the previous PR system.
Yet, the President who agreed to this demand during the APC on December 13 told Parliament on Wednesday that elections have to be held after making changes to the relevant laws which has to be agreed upon during discussions on the 13th Amendment.
This will take months if not years. This, along with the seeming fear of elections on the part of the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) prompts anyone to suspect whether the motive of these discussions is to further defer provincial council elections.
The debate on Police and land powers might create issues between various parties in the Opposition.
And it also might distract the people from their economic woes. These are also advantages for the government if they are not the purposes of it. Yet, for the Tamil parties or anyone for that matter talks are the only way to resolve issues.