’50-50′ to Regionalism

The country’s new Opposition Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan (82), the oldest Opposition Leader the island has seen in its 68-year-old Parliamentary history, speaking in Parliament on Thursday made reference to power devolution.

Sampanthan, who’s also as old as Sri Lanka’s first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene when he retired from politics in 1988, is the Leader of the TNA and a member of the Federal Party (FP). He belongs to the minority Tamil community living in the North and the East (NE) of Sri Lanka and is the oldest legislator in the current Parliament.
Tamils, through their leaders in the NE have been espousing power devolution from pre-independence times. It began with G.G. Ponnambalam’s (senior) request for ’50-50′ parity status in parliamentary representation to the pre-independence Soulbury Commission on Constitutional Reforms.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance lawmaker Rajavarothayam Sambanthan speaks during a press conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, March 26, 2009. Ethnic Tamil lawmakers rejected a government invitation for talks Thursday, urging the government to first ensure the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance lawmaker Rajavarothayam Sambanthan speaks during a press conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, March 26, 2009. Ethnic Tamil lawmakers rejected a government invitation for talks Thursday, urging the government to first ensure the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

That request was shot down by Lord Soulbury as being undemocratic. Ponnambalam who was the Leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) which spawned the FP suggested that the 77% Sinhala majority should be limited to 50% political representation and the balance to the minorities, ipso facto, led by representatives of the Tamils in the NE.
FP, formed in 1949, a spin-off from the ACTC, was begun as a protest over the disenfranchisement of plantation Tamils by the UNP-led D.S. Senanayake Government in 1948. Its founder Leader S. J.V. Chelvanayakam espoused federalism to the Tamils in the NE. This was opposed by successive Sinhala Governments led by either the UNP or the SLFP; though at least two attempts of such devolution was successfully opposed by one of two of those major parties sitting in Opposition at one time or another, beginning in 1957 and ending in 1968.
The passing of the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution in 1987 spelt out power devolution to the provinces. 13A also propounded a merged NE, until such time a referendum was held, asking the voter in the Eastern Province (EP) whether he/she would want their province permanently merged with the North or not?
The first of such elections to the merged NE Province was held in 1988 which was won by the EPRLF. It was subsequently dissolved by Colombo under powers vested in the President when it declared independence from the Central Government.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court (SC) on a petition submitted by the JVP, declared the NE merger null and void in 2006. In the interim, the proposed referendum in the EP didn’t take place.
In 2013, the first elections to the Northern Province were held, i.e. 26 years after the passing of 13A. Nonetheless, a bone of contention was the non devolvement of police and land powers, though espoused in 13A. As expected, the TNA won that poll.
Polls to the balance seven provinces have been held regularly since 1988, with the East joining the fray after the 2006 SC order.
In relation to the recently held general election, the TNA, led by Sampanthan campaigned for federalism under a merged NE Province.
Nonetheless, Sampanthan, in his ‘Opposition Leader acceptance speech’ avoided speaking of power devolution to the NE. Instead, he spoke of devolving power to the regions, which he ‘broke down’ to three or five, as opposed to power devolution to the nine provinces as spelt out in 13A.
The essence of 13A was power devolution to the NE as a solution to the Tamil question which Sampanthan also referred to in his speech. (See this newspaper’s yesterday’s editorial).
Probably due to a legalistic quirk, 13A was applicable to all of the country’s nine provinces and not to the NE only. The Provincial Council (PC) system coupled with the prevailing local government system is a burden on the exchequer.
Sampanthan’s concept of regionalism may have been a fact that existed during the ‘Mahawansa’ period of ancient Lanka where the country was broken in to three regions vis-à-vis Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti Rata.
His suggestion was that the Young Turks in Parliament would be of better use to the country by governing such regions. The essence of Sampanthan’s message was decentralized power. ‘Three to five regions’ as opposed to nine PCs are also a less of a burden on the taxpayer.
The purpose of a National Government comprising the SLFP and the UNP as proposed and being implemented by UNP Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is to have that two thirds majority to pass contentious Bills such as the stalled 20A which has as its objective of implementing a hybrid electoral system.
In that context, it may also be well worth for Wickremesinghe to give ear to Sampanthan’s ‘regionalism’ proposal.