Sri Lanka stalls giving autonomy to its provinces

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While minority communities like the Tamils and the Muslims want provincial autonomy, political parties in the country are against it.

The Sri Lankan government has decided to indefinitely postpone provincial elections that were supposed to be held in early 2022. The 13th amendment which guarantees autonomy to the provinces has also not yet been implemented. The last provincial polls were held in 2014.

The 13th amendment made as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was formulated to give greater autonomy to all provinces in Sri Lanka. It was passed to create a provincial council system for the country’s nine provinces that devolves powers over land, the police, education, health, agriculture, housing and finances. This ensured that all nine provinces could self-govern. The current President, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that he will implement the 13th amendment, but so far has not. “President Wickremasinghe is not the first to promise full implementation of the 13th Amendment and procrastinate; in fact he is only the latest in a list of politicians. To be honest, the current state of non-implementation suits all sides in the picture. Because implementation goes too far for the Sinhalas and is inadequate to the Tamils,” said Dattesh D. Prabhu-Parulekar, Assistant Professor, International and Area Studies, University of Goa.  

But many political parties in the country have also opposed decentralizing power to the provinces. Niranjan Marjani, Political Analyst and Researcher, Savitribai Phule Pune University,said, “Most political parties are unwilling to upset the Buddhist monks who are opposed to the amendment and who have a hold over the mainly Buddhist population. There is hesitation to give greater powers to Tamil majority provinces. They want a very centralized government.”

Similarly, Skandha Gunasekara, , a writer based in Sri Lanka, said, “Even if President Wickremesignhe genuinely wants to implement the 13th amendment, he will be hard pressed to find the support in parliament to do so, from either side of the aisle. Nationalist parties such as Rajapaksa led SLPP are against it on the argument that it gives autonomy to minorities and could split the country while leftist, conservative parties dislike it due to India’s involvement in the introduction of the 13th amendment as seen as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.”
Tamil parties in the country have little hope of the amendment being implemented

Another reason for opposing greater decentralization of powers is because many in the country see this as an imposition by the Indian government. “The Sinhalese nationalist always saw it this way. The point is that the Sri Lankan government has committed to it. The Tamils are a reality in Sri Lanka and cannot be ignored. Local governments also know issues better and can handle political problems better. How does it matter if India is involved? Sri Lanka signed an agreement and they should fulfill their commitment,” said Dhananjay Tripathi, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University.

Experts say that implementing the 13th amendment will be the first step in the Tamils in Sri Lanka getting greater autonomy. “The minority communities, particularly the Muslims and the Tamils are in favor implementing the 13th amendment as it will give their communities more administrative freedom in regions where they have a numerical majority,” said Gunasekara.

But some think that this issue may not be of priority to the government at the moment. “It has been a political aspiration for the Tamils for a long time. The amendment will definitely help them. But there are a lot of critical issues in Sri Lanka so this might not be a thing that will come up for a wide discussion at this juncture,” said Tripathi.

The votes garnered by the Tamil National Alliance in parliamentary elections over the years

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main group representing Tamils in the north and east provinces in Sri Lanka’s parliament has held four rounds of discussions with the president since December 2022, according to an article in The Hindu. But the outcome may not be fruitful, said Parulekar. “It’s unlikely that dialogue with Tamil outfits would bear fruit. Since the Tamil demographic is filled with internal rivalries; the divisions with Tamils will serve the President Wickremasinghe, a convenient alibi. Also, full implementation would be rupturing of the Sinhala-Tamil axis and the last thing that Sri Lanka needs at present, is an ethnic conflict.”

The TNA has presented a document with five specific actions that they want to be implemented immediately such as setting up land commissions and giving provincial councils administrative power to run hospitals and schools, according to The Hindu.

Citizens say that the ongoing financial crisis and political instability are interconnected and you cannot ignore one and solve the other. “Both are connected. Without sound, just and incorrupt leaders at all levels of government, economic recovery and reform cannot successfully take place. For the severity of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, various economic and political reforms are needed to overcome it. As such the people must have trust in the government and leaders to do these reforms in a transparent manner that benefits the country and people. For such trust to be there the people must be allowed to choose their representatives at all levels of government. For this, elections need to be mandatory,” said Gunasekara.

Results of the provincial elections last conducted in 2014

On the other hand, experts like Parulekar said, “It’s a no brainer that the economic situation weighs heavily on the minds of the politicians. Addressing such a political hot potato, which is necessary to be done but is divisive, is imperative. But, it would jeopardize the social fabric and fuel a relapse to popular protests. Hence, the two are sequential in the minds of policy makers.”