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Sri Lanka: Protests, devolution and solidarity - A Discussion with Jayampathy Wickramaratne

11 March 2012

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The Island

March 10, 2012

by Prachi Patankar and Jinee Lokaneeta

On March 4, Sunday evening, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne spoke at a public meeting titled, ‘Post-war Sri Lanka: The Political Solution and its Historical Context’, organised by the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) at the Brecht Forum in New York City. We were fortunate to engage Wickramaratne, a long-time member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a former senior advisor to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs, and a member of the team that drafted the 2000 Constitution Bill and signatory to the Majority Report of Experts Committee to the All Party Representative Committee in 2006. Wickramaratne gave us a fascinating account of how the story of devolution – sharing of power with the minorities particularly Tamils and Muslims – has repeatedly come up in the context of Sri Lanka and unfortunately remains an elusive goal at the current moment under the present Government.

While the major international stories on Sri Lanka have been about the war between the LTTE and the Government, and since the end of the war, the demand for war crimes investigation; Wickramaratne’s talk challenged the audience to look at a strong tradition of constitutionalism and the piecemeal way in which the question of devolution has been brought to the centre stage of Sri Lankan politics. Focusing on some of the key phases in which devolution became an issue, Wickramaratne suggested a remarkable story of how in recent years there has been much more of an acceptance of the need for power sharing by the dominant political parties.

Solidarity and the Recent Protests

This was not the first event that SASI has organised on Sri Lanka. As the war came to an end in 2009, SASI organised a number of events in New York raising concerns about the civilian predicament. At that time, activists and dissidents, and strong critics of the LTTE, including Ragavan, a founding member of LTTE and Nirmala Rajasingam offered excellent analysis that gave much needed exposure to the abuses of both the Government and the LTTE. Over the last two years, SASI has organised cultural and political discussions on Sri Lanka by engaging translations of literature from Sri Lanka and film screenings, including Dharmasena Pathiraja’s ‘In Search of a Road’.

Our interest in this discussion with Wickramaratne was in part influenced by recent developments in Sri Lanka, as SASI aspires to be in solidarity with social movements and progressive protests throughout South Asia. We have heard of the mounting mobilisations by university teachers, staff and students protesting the Government’s move to militarise and privatise higher education and the demands for pay increases. Last year, we heard about the garment sector workers who rose up against the Government’s proposed pension scheme that went against the interest of the workers. In January there was the major prison uprising in Colombo. In February, fishermen and many other sections of society protested fuel prices hikes; where police firing killed one fisherman and wounded many others.

These events reflect the deep chasm between the needs and the grievances of the people, especially the poor and the working classes and the increasing neoliberal trend in the Government’s economic policies. Although the war has been over for almost three years, the militarization of the Northern and Eastern Provinces continues. How do we understand the relationship between the post-war debates over devolution of power to the regions that ethnic minorities inhabit and the economic discontent and the rise in protests across the country? The only major constitutional change in recent years has been the 18th Amendment with further concentration of power in the President. Is there a connection between the Government’s policies and the waves of protests by a diversity of working people, nurses and teachers, fishermen and bus drivers, students and prisoners? Are these protests similar to the Arab uprisings? After all, militarized police repression including tear gas has been used by governments all over the world. But what is the historical context in Sri Lanka and how do we understand these protests in relation to a political solution to the ethnic conflict? Those are the questions that motivated us to organise this discussion with Wickramaratne.

Constitutional History and the 13th Amendment

In Wickramaratne’s rendering of history, he pointed out that the demand for devolution also gradually emerged in Sri Lankan politics. Perhaps the early enfranchisement of all sections of society in the pre-independence period in 1931 had precluded the need to demand for an actual federal system. It was only when the Citizenship Act in 1948 systematically disenfranchised the Up-Country Tamils, followed soon after by the language policy change in 1956, making Sinhalese the only official language in place of English, that different articulation of the demands for Tamils through a variety of methods came into being. While the demands for a separate nation eventually leading to the decades of war is well known, what Wickramaratne reminded us was that there were simultaneous attempts by politicians, constitutional scholars, and activists to come up with a constitutional framework compatible with the idea of devolution.

To some extent the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was a result of such efforts. However, Wickramaratne pointed to how even this Amendment – while allowing for Provincial Councils and acknowledging some rights such as accepting Tamil also as an official language – continues to be in favour of the central government. He spoke extensively of the experiences of the Provincial Councils in different parts of the country, and how they lacked specific statutes and their work was circumscribed by undue intervention by the central government, thus making the 13th Amendment a flawed document.

Wickramaratne’s main point, however, was that there was no dearth of adequate proposals for devolution given the 1987, 1994, 1997 initiatives and more recently in the 2000 Constitution Bill and 2006 Expert Committee Majority Report. Rather, the main problem lies in the absence of political will to really follow through with a political solution to the minority problem.

Questions of Devolution and Democratisation

There were some very provocative questions from the Brecht Forum audience at the end of his talk. An audience member asked whether the inability of these constitutional proposals to bring forth the issue of devolution into reality points to the limits of constitutionalism in Sri Lanka and whether one should perhaps focus on mass movements instead for change. Wickramaratne’s answer was to point to the gradual acceptance of the idea of devolution by the dominant parties such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party which was not the case earlier, suggesting the significance of pursuing these amendments, proposals, and constitutional efforts.

In response to whether he thought that devolution was supported by people in the south, given the public celebration of the end of the war, Wickramaratne made an important point about being able to distinguish between celebrations of the end of the LTTE versus the suffering of the broader Tamil population, and that there is much greater support on the ground to accept power-sharing with the Tamil community which is at issue today. Another audience member added that the celebrations were also not as spontaneous as they seemed and were led and organised by the more right-wing Sinhalese leadership. Wickramaratne contended that there is not much opposition to the idea of devolution among the broader Sinhalese population today. Although, some may say that the lack of opposition to the idea of devolution may not signal an overall acceptance, it still signifies a hope in a country where many issues are still defined through the lens of the ethnic question. In the post-war country, many democratic minded people are hoping for a future where alliances and solidarities will be formed across ethnic boundaries that have separated them for so many years. As the recent protests have shown, the hopes for these alliances are ripe as the poor and the working class people join across ethnic communities in challenging the Government’s neoliberal policies.

During the talk, questions were also raised about the role of neoliberal reforms today in creating inequalities in Sri Lanka to which the speaker readily agreed and mentioned that more political parties and leaders are also starting to recognise this as a problem with the Government. Furthermore, another challenging comment was whether one can think of devolution in separation to the general question of democratisation. Wickramaratne responded that devolution is not just linked to the minority question but rather has to be about challenging the unitary state, the executive presidency that has allowed for centralisation of powers, violation of fundamental rights, and measures affecting the independence of the judiciary – all of which could be engaged by demands for democratisation. The uniqueness of this talk was that it reminded us that the war crimes issue – while it has to be addressed for closure and preferably through a domestic mechanism – should not be allowed to drown out the voices of devolution, the tradition of constitutional reform and the existing frameworks for power sharing between the different communities alongside a general demand for democratisation.

Prachi Patankar is a board member of the War Resisters League. Jinee Lokaneeta teaches political science at Drew University. They are both activists with the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI), New York.


The above article from The Island is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use