The Sinhala adage ‘Hingannage thuwale’ or ‘a beggar’s wound’ that the beggar never wants to heal, carries a significant meaning in the context of the implementation of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka.
Land and Police powers, listed under the provincial list of the 13th Amendment, have remained unimplemented for the past 36 years since the legislation was incorporated into the Constitution under significant pressure from India.
The spotlight is once again on the 13 A, coinciding with the President’s inaugural visit to India in his presidential capacity. India is positioned to advocate for the enactment of the amendment, which addresses the prolonged demands of the Tamil community by endorsing the devolution of authority to provinces. Prior to his India visit, Wickremesinghe engaged with Tamil parties, assuring them of the comprehensive implementation of 13 A, albeit without the inclusion of police powers within the provincial councils.
The ‘beggar’s wound’ adage signifies a situation where a person or entity intentionally keeps a problem or issue unresolved, much like a beggar who doesn’t want a wound to heal because it helps elicit sympathy or support from others. Opponents of the 13 A question why Ranil seeks to implement what seven Presidents ignored. They never say, “Emulate the actions of predecessors, and undermine the economy, health, and education.” Successive governments intentionally avoided the complete implementation of the provisions, despite its potential benefits, in order to manipulate public sentiment, gain political mileage, or maintain control over certain regions.
Police and Land Powers
The issue of power devolution has been a sensitive and complex topic, particularly in provinces where minority communities hold a majority. The 13th Amendment was introduced as a result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 during the presidency of J.R. Jayewardene. It’s essential for citizens, civil society organizations, and policymakers to engage in open and informed discussions to find lasting solutions that address the concerns of all communities. The full implementation, including land and police powers, has been a contentious issue in politics.
President Wickremesinghe, after being elected by the parliament, made a commitment to address the long-standing ethnic conflict and reduce the burden it places on future generations. He also affirmed his dedication to uphold the 13th Amendment and to execute the constitutional provisions related to power devolution. The president stands as the lone proponent of this stance, lacking the backing of a widely supported political party with influential leaders. However, the reconciliation process is primarily led by the president, with minimal contributions from other political or civil society actors, especially concerning the prominent issue of the 13 A, and the delegation of powers. Notably, this matter is not only of national significance but also carries international implications, stemming from the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord—an international treaty.
The Concept of ‘13 Plus’
The concept of “13 Plus,” as promised by Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Indian PM, refers to enhancing the devolution of powers beyond the 13th Amendment. Yet, the practical implementation of such measures has proven complex and politically challenging. Various factors, including political disagreements and ethnic tensions stemming from extremists, have hindered the Sri Lankan government’s ability to fully implement the 13th Amendment. Since its inception, challenges have arisen within the framework of the Provincial Council system, hampering the intended objective of providing self-determination to ethnic minorities.
An obstacle to effective power devolution is the National Government’s authority to legislate on subjects outlined in the Provincial Council List by establishing National Policy. This practice could indirectly legislate on provincial council matters, by-passing the procedure outlined in Article 154G (3), which could have implications for devolution principles.
Presently, all nine Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka are non-functional, reminiscent of a similar incident in 1998 when the CBK government attempted to avoid holding polls. In that instance, an election was scheduled but was later cancelled due to a State of Emergency. Several political activists filed petitions in the Supreme Court, alleging obstruction of voting rights and authority of the Elections Commissioner. The court’s judgement addressed these concerns. There is a school of thought that recommends addressing the forced displacement of Muslims and Tamils during conflict. Resettlement with consent is seen as essential for reconciliation, potentially replacing the Provincial Council system with regional bodies.
The President should fully implement the amendment during his tenure, regardless of appeasing forces that have negatively impacted the nation for decades. Throughout the last three decades, both the security establishment and mainstream political parties in the south have staunchly opposed the devolution of Police powers to the provincial councils. These sentiments persist despite the cessation of the armed conflict in 2009.
The limited commitment exhibited by major political parties in fully implementing the 13th Amendment, coupled with the reluctance of the security establishment to embrace this initiative, highlights profound concerns related to the sensitive fault lines within Sri Lanka’s ethnic makeup. The inability of successive post-war governments to cultivate a unified national identity compounds these anxieties. Moreover, tangible obstacles, particularly those concerning logistical details and the order of authority, have enlarged considerable opposition from within the Police Department. Notably, credible sources suggest that certain senior officers are apprehensive about potential disruptions to their established political networks if these proposed measures are fully implemented.
Recent opposition from key Buddhist religious figures and certain disgruntled politicians to President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for the comprehensive implementation of such powers, specific Police powers should be delegated to the provinces, and the administration of the Police should remain devoid of political motivations; of course with a healthy monitoring and command structure in place. President Wickremesinghe’s assertion that full implementation of the 13th Amendment is imperative reflects a straightforward principle: that the Executive is bound to implement provisions designed for the people’s benefit. The President maintained that this obligation entails giving effect to the provincial list outlined in Schedule Nine of the 13th Amendment, necessitating the establishment of statutes and regulations to activate these provisions and their advantages.
In terms of potential obstacles in conferring Police and land powers to the provinces, the challenges seem to be manageable. The emphasis is on adhering to the stipulations laid out in the Constitution concerning land allocation within provinces. This entails a clear division of responsibilities between the province and the central authority. Notably, the consent of the Governor is a crucial aspect for the approval of provincial awards.
Regarding Police-related issues, a unified process has been established involving the Police Department, IGP, SDIG, and the Governor. It’s worth highlighting that this procedure will persist while maintaining the unitary characteristics of the Constitution intact.
To sum up, despite the prolonged delay in implementing key provisions of the 13th Amendment, discussions around the practical implications and challenges of granting land and Police powers to provinces continue. Amidst ongoing anxieties and disagreements, the current discourse serves to underscore the complex interplay between national and provincial authority within the framework of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.