President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to be finding victory more problematic than war. On the one hand, he is under pressure to fully implement the 13th Amendment (13-A) in keeping with the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and, on the other, he has had to quell a mutiny onboard of sorts and make some coalition allies averse to his devolution project fall in line.
President Rajapaksa is in an unenviable position. The UNP-led UNF government committed the country to a federal solution by being a signatory to the so-called Oslo Declaration and thereby giving the hounds of separatism a chance to taste blood. Ever since, they have, ably assisted by some members of the international community, been clamouring for federalism not as the final solution but as a starting point! They have even gone to the extent of establishing a government in exile! On the other extreme of the political spectrum is a coterie of President Rajapaksa`s coalition partners to whom devolution in any form is nothing but anathema. Now that war is over and the once mighty Tigers are resting in peace, these elements are calling for zero devolution.
The President`s attempt to find a via-media by enhancing devolved powers under the 13-A on the lines of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, too, has run into stiff resistance from his allies like the JHU and the NFF, which backed him to the hilt in war. These two parties which have thrown in their lot with the UPFA should have known better than to play to the gallery by striking a discordant note only to eat humble pie in the palace.
President Rajapaksa`s knee-jerk reaction to the JHU`s threat to pull out in case of the full implementation of the 13th Amendment was to tell the outfit in no uncertain terms that it must either comply or depart. Yesterday, we quoted Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene as having told the media that the President would not tolerate any dissent in implementing the 13-A project the way he had prosecuted war. The President may know better than anyone else how to handle his allies but any attempt to railroad dissenters into falling in line or to ram a fait accompli down their resentful throats will be counterproductive. It behoves President Rajapaksa to act with restraint in handling so serious a matter.
The 13-A is part of the basic law of this country and has the blessings the main Opposition party, the UNP, which was responsible for slapping it on us in 1987. The Provincial Council system has come to stay and it has not led to the division of the country. It has only become a white elephant. Therefore, it may be claimed that 13-A is time-tested and poses no danger. However, it is being argued that it has not yet been fully implemented and granting police and land powers to the provinces will be a journey into the unknown, which might lead to disaster. Hence, there is fear in some quarters that enhanced devolution will negate the positive outcome of the war for which thousands of troops sacrificed their lives.
If it is a consensual approach that the President seeks, his task is to allay this fear which is being compounded by an anti-Sri Lanka campaign by expatriate LTTE activists, Tamil Nadu politicians and some members of the international community. They are only perpetuating the siege mentality of Sri Lanka and providing some justification for resistance to devolution.
It may be a mistake for anyone to believe that devolution will be a panacea for Sri Lanka`s strained ethnic relations. It is only one strand of a solution to be adopted. More than one half of Tamil people live outside the North and the East and therefore the question being asked is whether they would benefit from devolution of state power to that part of the country: How would devolution solve the problems of Tamils living among the majority community as well as in the central hills? Sri Lanka`s problem is far too complex to be solved through devolution alone and our preoccupation with only that aspect of the solution in trying to eliminate the causes of the conflict has led to many other unwanted problems including a bloody insurgency in the late 1980s.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore India`s sensitivities and in 13-A India has spelt out the degree of devolution Sri Lanka should grant to the provinces. It is being argued by the anti-devolution lobby that though India has prescribed devolution as a solution to Sri Lanka`s problem, even quasi federalism has not worked in India if the number of secessionist movements operating on her soil and ethnic violence are any indication. None of the Indian states has spun out of orbit in spite of the various centrifugal forces including secessionism, it is said, as the centre remains militarily powerful and economically strong thus exerting a tremendous pull on the periphery besides the constitutional safeguards: Sri Lanka is without such a strong centre and it is feared that if the 13th A is fully implemented, separatist forces waiting in suspended animation in the aftermath of the LTTE`s defeat will have some political space to resume their sinister campaign. This fear, too, needs to be allayed.
New Delhi ought to act cautiously without imposing its will on her neighbour recovering from a painful war to appease its Tamil Nadu allies who are struggling to shore up their crumbling images and dwindling political fortunes at Sri Lanka`s expense. The Sri Lankan democracy is a frail patient in the intensive care unit and it must not be made to perform devolution gymnastics at this juncture. It is too early for experiments with devolution. Wounds of war are still fresh and bleeding. What is needed urgently is a humanitarian offensive of the same magnitude as the successfully concluded war to help the war displaced return to their homes, put their traumatic experience behind them and rebuild their lives.
The cart must not be put before the horse!