13A conundrum: A shared legacy of SJB



 

As some politicians in the North are vigorously debating whether to boycott the forthcoming presidential election or to field a common Tamil candidate the interest among the main presidential contenders in the Northern voters seems to be growing.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe who seems to be undecided on his candidature has toured the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula thrice this year, in his capacity as the President but with an ostensible electoral message.
Tours of leaders of the two “Jana Balawegayas” – Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (National People’s Power – NPP) were clearly a part of their presidential campaign which they have commenced last year, despite the election still in the balance.

Two incidents 

Both SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake were in Jaffna this week apart from another visit by Dissanayake in April. However, only the tour by Opposition Leader Premadasa had drawn the attention and the interest of the Southern people due to two incidents that took place there. One was his casual discussion on cricket with a group of civilians where he innocently inquired from them if there was a floodlit test cricket ground in Jaffna. He also drew attention by promising at a public meeting that he would implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full, if he was voted into power. Unfortunately, none of the incidents was in his favour.
The 13th Amendment is already a part of the Constitution, despite it being not implemented fully, as none of the presidents who came to power since it was enacted in 1987 have created mechanisms to implement police and land powers that have been devolved to the provincial councils. Needless to say, these powers are very sensitive in an ethnic context and the intricacy of these subjects has been heightened by their none-implementation over the years.

Inconsistency 

President Wickremesinghe has also occasionally promised to implement the 13th Amendment in full, but his statements have lost their seriousness due to their inconsistency in them.  Premadasa rarely speaks about ethnic issues, apparently due to its complexity and sensitivity apart from it always carrying a risk of provoking communal feelings.
Nevertheless, some of the leaders of his party sensing the possible repercussions of his statement on the 13th Amendment resorted to damage control immediately. They would have hardly forgotten the statement issued by the Mahanayake Theras in February last year protesting against the professed preparedness on the part of President Wickremesinghe to implement the 13th Amendment. Parliamentarian Tissa Attanayake, while Premadasa was still in the North told media that his leaders meant only full implementation of the provincial council system facilitating the holding of provincial council elections.

Provincial council elections 

Premadasa spoke about the current impasse in holding provincial council elections during his tour of the North, but also clearly said that he would implement the 13th Amendment “without pluses or minuses,” an insinuation of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s famous “Thirteen Plus” formula which always comes up during elections but never sees the light of the day.
Another Premadasa stalwart, Parliamentarian S.M.Marikkar also hurriedly came forward in defence of his leader claiming that Premadasa did not promise to grant police powers to provincial councils.
Tamil politicians and Media seem to have taken the Opposition Leader’s statement with a pinch of salt. Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda had said that Premadasa had made his statement without a clear idea about the powers devolved to the provincial councils while Spokesman of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Parliamentarian M.A.Sumanthiran had requested the SJB leader to present an unambiguous stance on power devolution that would be equally understood by both the people in the South as well as North.

Defensive statement 

Meanwhile, the Tamil Guardian website citing Tissa Attanayake’s defensive statement accused the SJB of backtracking on Premadasa’s promise following criticism by Southern politicians such as Udaya Gammanpila and Gamini Lokuge.
This shows the complexity and the sensitivity of the issue at hand. In most cases, any person who chooses to comment on this matter would end up being called a traitor by nationalists in the North as well as the South. Only those who want to appear as radicals or patriots have been able to offer solutions to this problem, as they are not concerned about the practicality of their solutions. Nobody has succeeded for the past several decades in finding a solution that would satisfy the people in the South as well as the North. It would be more difficult for those political parties that had been in power in the past.

Precarious situation 

That is the precarious situation the Opposition Leader is also in. In spite of the SJB being a new political entity, it represents the majority of UNP supporters who broke away from that party in 2020. Hence, in a practical sense, the SJB is the real UNP, since only the party headquarters, its signboard and a small number of supporters are still remaining with its leader, Wickremesinghe. Therefore, the history of the UNP is a shared legacy of the UNP and the SJB. Neither party can disown any blunders that the UNP committed in the past.
Irrespective of whether the Indo-Lanka Accord solved the ethnic problem or not and despite the fact that it was imposed on Sri Lanka by the Indian government in 1987, it was the only solution that has thus far been put in practice. On the other hand, it was the UNP government of the day that provoked the Indian government to impose it on Sri Lanka by its failure to prevent the anti-Tamil riots in the island in 1977, 1981 and 1983 and by siding with the anti-Soviet bloc which India was then associated with. Incensed by the UNP government’s pro-US policy during that Cold- War era India chose to penalise its Southern neighbour by arming, training and funding the Tamil separatist groups in the North.

Devolution of power 

Finally, the Indo-Lanka Accord was imposed on Sri Lanka and a package of devolution of power dictated by India came in the form of the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act. Police and the land powers were also devolved under the 13th Amendment and the Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged under the Provincial Councils Act. Although ministers of the J.R.Jayewardene government such as Ranasinghe Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali were initially said to have been against the Accord, they gave their whole-hearted support to enact the two pieces of legislation. UNP, thus earned the wrath of the South.
Two months after the Accord was signed the LTTE reneged on it and started war against the Indian and Sri Lankan armed forces. President Ranasinghe Premadasa who initiated talks with them in 1989 and was committed to finding a peaceful solution gave into the demands by the LTTE to provide them with weapons, cement and money to “fight against the Indian forces.” He also trusted the LTTE so much that he is said to have ordered the personnel in police stations in the East to surrender to the LTTE in June 1990 to salvage the peace process which by then had hit a snag. The LTTE killed over 600 of those personnel.
Although the next peace process of the UNP-led government in 2002 weakened the LTTE considerably, the government dangerously agreed to discuss an LTTE formula called “Interim Self-Governing Authority” (ISGA) which was in fact a blueprint for a separate state. It suggested the removal of all political, economic, and administrative powers of the government from the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Persuaded by the JVP, President Chandrika Kumaratunga scuttled the process in 2004 by dissolving the UNP government where Sajith Premadasa was a deputy minister.
Public opinion on the peace processes and reconciliation has been shaped by this history and the response in the South to the implementation of the 13th Amendment in full has also to be understood accordingly.  Although the people never become agitated by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “Thirteen Plus” formula, their concerns over the promises in respect of the ethnic problem by the SJB which has a shared legacy of the UNP’s history have also been understood accordingly.
CAPTION: Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa during his recent visit to the North promised that he would implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full if he was voted into power.

 

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