A Sri Lankan constitutional amendment done with Indian backing to devolve autonomy to provinces remains “historically significant and
indispensable”, says a new book by a well known political scientist from the island nation.
The 13th amendment, as it is popularly known, provides “a basis for the reconciliation of the Sinhanese and Tamil communities within a united and unitary Sri Lanka,” says Dayan Jayatilleka in his “Long War, Cold Peace” (Vijitha Yapa Publications).
A former activist and later a diplomat, Jayatilleka says the 13th amendment should not be seen as a negation of the military victory scored over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a protracted conflict that left thousands dead.
“The 13th amendment is historically significant and currently indispensable because is the only structural reform of the centralized Sri Lankan state which devolves power, makes for some measure of autonomy and thereby provides a basis for the reconciliation of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities,” Jayatilleka says in the rich and well-argued 508-page book.
The book has come out when the Sri Lankan regime seems to be wanting to abrogate or dilute the 13th amendment due to fears that limited autonomy could give oxygen for a new round of Tamil separatism.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed dismay over the Sri Lankan moves. Sri Lankan minister Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, visited India recently for talks with Indian leaders amid the controversy.
The amendment was carried out when India deployed troops in Sri Lanka’s northeast in 1987-90 to end Tamil separatism by devolving powers to the provinces, and thereby provide autonomy to Tamils who populate the north.
Jayatilleka warns that the Tamil diaspora, which supported the now vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), wants to see fissures between Sri Lanka and India. “The non-implementation of the 13th amendment will open up such a gap.”
He points out that Sri Lanka had already weakened the amendment by de-merging the northern and eastern provinces. But “the carefully negotiated arrangements on land cannot be deleted or diluted” – as sought by some.
According to the author, while the LTTE can never re-emerge, “Tamil nationalism cannot be stamped out and if there is a perceived threat to their collective identity, we shall face (a) blowback”.
He added: “While Tamil separatism must be overcome, Sinhala and Tamil nationalism have to be contained if the country is to build a Sri Lankan national identity and consciousness. They can only be contained by being accommodated to some degree…
“I cannot think of any state in the world, and at the UN in Geneva I worked among 193, that does not hold that Sri Lanka’s Tamils deserve and require equal rights in practice, as well as some autonomous political space, be it devolution of power to autonomous regions or provinces or something more.”
It is time, Jayatilleka says, for Sri Lanka to show “generosity, flexibility, enlightenment and wisdom… to expeditiously remove the discrimination, frustration and alienation felt by the Tamil minority”.
On India-Sri Lanka relations, he says that either Colombo “was and is the guarantor of the safety, security and rights of the Sri Lankan Tamil people or India will become that guarantor, whether the LTTE exists or not. The weight of Tamil Nadu makes it impossible for India to do otherwise.
“India is not what it was in 1987. It is far more powerful and has earned far greater respect in the world.”
Some in Sri Lanka, he says, “cherish the illusion they can play China off against India… If Sri Lanka allows any force or factor to estrange it from India, even its friends and sources of support/supply would begin to back off.”