In the run-up to Independence Day 2015, we must thank God for Sumanthiran. He is indubitably a moderate and an intellectual. Let us give thanks also for the Sunday Observer, which is a State-run newspaper not given to running stories or distorting them in a manner inimical or embarrassing to the Government of the day.
Therefore, when Sumanthiran says something to the Sunday Observer, I take it seriously because I know I am on safe ground. Sumanthiran tells the newspaper that the TNA doesn’t expect much movement on addressing the Tamil political question during the 100-day program. That is realistic – and anyway, who’d want to affect the UNP’s chances at the general election by pressing home Tamil political demands?
He also says that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment would be a good first step. Then comes the bottom-line: “The PM said that devolution will now be given under the 13th Amendment which the previous Government was blocking. But we have clearly said that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution.” (‘Current political trend signals harmony among communities’ – M.A. Sumanthiran MP, by P. Krishnaswamy, Sunday Observer, 25 January)
Full implementation of 13th Amendment is no lasting solution
There’s always that ‘but’ isn’t there? There’s always that ‘but’ even for a moderate Tamil nationalist intellectual. The truth as disclosed or rather, reiterated by the cosmopolitan, Colombo-based Sumanthiran is that the proposed removal of the roadblocks to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment just isn’t enough. This is because “full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution”.
Some readers may think I am making something of a mountain out of a molehill, but interestingly and appropriately the caption of the interview when reproduced on the website of veteran (expatriate) journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj reflected what was most newsworthy about the story: ‘Full Implementation of the 13th Amendment is No Lasting Solution – M.A. Sumanthiran, MP’.
Now this also goes some way in explaining why the 13th Amendment was never fully implemented. That’s because successive southern leaders understood that if it was fully implemented, matters would not stop there. That would not put a cap on it. The full implementation of the 13th Amendment would be but a stepping stone for more.
Why? Because “we have clearly said that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution” and therefore “we” would strive to push beyond it. Worse still, that “we” would not try our very best to make the 13th Amendment work because if it did, “we” would not be able to prove “our” dogmatic, politically fundamentalist point that “the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution”.
Consistent stand of democratic Tamil nationalism
This shows that even on the morning after a democratic renovation, the most moderate of Tamil nationalists isn’t willing to settle for what the most moderate Sinhalese political leader is willing to implement. The deficit or gap still exists as far as the desirable goal; the final status agreement goes.
Why so? What is at the root of this? To answer this we have to ask ourselves what Sri Lanka would be if the 13th Amendment were fully implemented under the existing system. To my mind it would be a unitary system with full devolution or, to put it slightly differently, it would amount to the maximum devolution possible within a unitary system at full stretch. Why then does the moderate Sumanthiran reiterate the consistent stand of democratic Tamil nationalism, namely that even “the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution?”
This is simply because Tamil nationalism has never accepted that a lasting solution could be arrived at through full devolution within a unitary state. It has always held that a lasting solution is not possible within a state that remains basically unitary. Even moderate Tamil nationalism holds the view that a lasting solution lies somewhere beyond the unitary state; even one endowed with the most generous devolution.
Sumanthiran’s answer may be that Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to consider going beyond the 13th Amendment. He did, but the distance he was willing to go even in theory was a quantitative, not a qualitative one; it was for a Second Chamber and another look at the concurrent list for the purpose of redistribution of powers between centre and periphery. It would not have entailed a referendum.
In any event, going quantitatively and incrementally beyond the 13th Amendment within a strong presidential system and explicitly unitary framework is drastically different from going qualitatively beyond the 13th Amendment within a system divested of a strong executive presidency.
Desirability aside, the debate on feasibility
Quite apart from the debate on desirability, there is one of feasibility. Any such “lasting solution”, indeed anything beyond the 13th Amendment, would require an island-wide referendum. How does the TNA propose to win a referendum for a qualitative shift beyond the 13th Amendment? Not even the help of its current political partners in the south would be able to secure such an outcome.
So far, so bad—but it is about to get worse. There is a brand new element in the mix. While the old element remains, namely that the TNA envisages the full implementation of the 13th Amendment only as a first step which it intends to push beyond in its striving for a lasting settlement, the new element that arises is the proposed downsizing and downshifting of the executive presidency. So, while the Tamil nationalists hope to stretch the relationship between centre and periphery by means of a settlement beyond the full implementation of 13A, the centre itself is about to diminish.
The TNA is not unaware of this. Indeed the TNA presented this as the main reason for its support for the common candidate of the Opposition. Now we have the hitherto un-contradicted Tamilnet report that the abolition of the executive presidency and its replacement by a Parliamentary system of government was agreed upon in 2013 at a meeting in Singapore, organised by a South African peace NGO and attended by, among others, Mangala Samaraweera and M.A. Sumanthiran. The abolition of the executive presidency was, according to the report, point 4 of the agreement. (‘Singapore Principles of 2013’, TamilNet, January 22, 2015).
Abolition of the executive presidency and devolution
The story is prefaced in DBS Jeyaraj.com in the following manner:
‘The ‘Tamilnet’ website, long regarded as the mouthpiece of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organisation, has in a news report revealed details of an alleged “understanding” involving among others the current Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) National List Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran that was arrived at in Singapore in the year 2013. The ‘Tamilnet’ website claims that the understanding reached in 2013 formulated a conceptual framework on abolishing the executive presidency based on 10 basic principles described as the “Singapore principles”. The news report further states that current Presidential adviser Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Colombo University Law Professor V.T. Thamilmaran and unnamed representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) along with a lawyer from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also participated in the conclave. The conference was organised by South Africa and funded by two European countries, alleges the ‘Tamilnet’. Quoting an unnamed participant in the meeting the ‘TamilNet’ says Mangala Samaraweera came as a ‘beggar’ urging Tamil support for regime change and abolition of the executive presidency. It was 2013. The Tamilnet report also outlines the 10 ‘Singapore principles’ described as “hitherto unrevealed Singapore Principles of 2013”.’ (‘Tamilnet Reveals 10-Point Accord for Regime Change and Executive Presidency abolition reached in 2013 at Meeting in Singapore Involving Mangala Samaraweera,’ http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/37635).
Sumanthiran is fully conscious of the relationship between the executive presidency and the issue of devolution. In his Sunday Observer interview he states as follows: “…the governor is a chief executive officer possessing executive powers. This means that there is no power devolution. The governor is appointed by the President and holds powers during his tenure. The President in the centre nominates him and gives powers and says I have devolved powers. That is no devolution. Practically it is the president who is exercising power through the governor. We want that radically changed so that power is actually given to a body or people who have been elected by the people. So that is the arrangement that we will seek to go beyond the 13th Amendment and make it meaningful.” (Ibid.)
What is the TNA’s real problem with the 13th Amendment?
This brings us to the question – what is the TNA’s real problem with the 13th Amendment? Is it the less than full implementation? No, because if that were the case, it would not take the view that full implementation is not a lasting solution. Is it perhaps that the concurrent list is too thick and that the provincial unit should have some of the powers listed therein? Not really because that is not mentioned. The real problem the TNA has is elsewhere—with the role and powers of the governor, and inter alia, those of the executive president.
What does the existing arrangement as critically described by TNA moderate Sumanthiran mean? It means that the executive presidency, as that office which rests on the elected consent of a majority of voters on the island taken as a single unit, is the repository of the sovereign power of the citizenry and is the fount from which from which power is devolved to the periphery. Thus the TNA’s objection is to the fundamental principle that power is devolved to the periphery from a strong centre resting upon the broadest possible basis; a presidency that represents the nation as a whole.
The TNA’s problem is with the mediatory role of the governor, who acts as the elevator between the devolved peripheral unit and the presidential apex of the system. The TNA objects to a strong presidency representing the totality of the nation, which is raised above the peripheral unit. The Tamil moderate Sumanthiran’s underlying objection is to the very principle that the institution that represents the totality, the whole, should be raised above the part; that the centre should be above the periphery and that power should be devolved, i.e. flow downward.
In the TNA’s vision, power should flow from a centre outward to the periphery, but not from an apex, downward to the unit. No wonder then that the TNA wants the executive presidency abolished. This means that the system is transformed—I would say debauched—from a pyramid to a flat circle, with the parliament at its centre. This means the minority parties are able to influence government formation at the centre, through coalitions in parliament, as well as push beyond the unitary framework which would have been weakened by the decapitation of the executive presidency and the severance of the “neck” that links the executive head with the devolved peripheral unit, i.e. the governor.
Who will appoint the governor under the arrangement the TNA seeks: The Parliament, the Cabinet, the PM, or the enfeebled essentially non-executive president? Or will there be no governor at all? Or will there only be a ceremonial governor, representing a largely nominal presidency?
Future power relations within Sri Lanka
With the TNA intent on moving beyond the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, and pushing together with its southern allies (now in power) for the abolition or radical weakening of the executive presidency, what will the future power relations within Sri Lanka be like, especially between the weaker centre and a stronger periphery historically and currently subject to the ideological and politico-strategic pulls and emotional-psychological osmosis from their 70 million co-ethnics across a narrow strip of water in neighbouring Tamil Nadu?
The TNA is strategically very lucid about what it is about. It is pushing for something beyond even the full implementation of the 13th Amendment while it has simultaneously advocated and agreed upon the abolition of the executive presidency and thereby the radical diminution of the strong centre.
The division of labour is clear: The governing Sinhala elite (fronted by a non-elite political leader) weakens the centre by dismantling or eroding the centripetal executive presidency, thereby loosening the systemic ties between centre and periphery, while the Tamil elite for its part, presses on far beyond the parameters of the unitary state.