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Understanding the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution

Relevance : GS paper 2, International Relations

Introduction:

  • The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was passed in 1987, as an attempt to resolve the country’s ethnic conflict and civil war.
  • The amendment led to the creation of Provincial Councils, which aimed to assure a power sharing arrangement for all nine provinces in Sri Lanka, including Sinhala majority areas, to self-govern.

What is the legislation?

  • The 13th Amendment is an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, signed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayawardene.
  • The amendment aimed to resolve the ethnic conflict between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were seeking a separate state for Tamils.
  • The 13th Amendment led to the creation of Provincial Councils, where subjects such as education, health, agriculture, housing, land, and police were devolved to the provincial administrations.
  • However, due to restrictions on financial powers and overriding powers given to the President, the provincial administrations have not made much progress.
  • In particular, the provisions relating to police and land have never been implemented.
  • The north and eastern provinces were initially merged and had a North-Eastern Provincial Council, but the two were de-merged in 2007 following a Supreme Court verdict.

Click Here To Read More About : India Sri-Lanka Relations

Why Is It Contentious?

  • The 13th Amendment carries considerable baggage from the country’s civil war years.
  • It was opposed by both Sinhala nationalist parties and the LTTE, with the former thinking it was too much power to share and the latter thinking it was too little.
  • A large section of the Sinhala polity, including the leftist-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), saw the Accord and the consequent legislation as an imprint of Indian intervention.
  • The Tamil polity, especially its dominant nationalist strain, does not find the 13th Amendment sufficient in its ambit or substance.
  • However, some, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), see it as an important starting point, something to build upon.

Why Is the 13th Amendment Significant?

  • The 13th Amendment represents the only constitutional provision on the settlement of the long-pending Tamil question.
  • In addition to assuring a measure of devolution, it is considered part of the few significant gains since the 1980s, in the face of growing Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948.

Who Wants It Abolished And Why?

  • Many influential Cabinet ministers in the current government, as well as state ministers, have openly called for the abolition of provincial councils after the new government took charge.
  • They deem the councils “white elephants” and argue that in a small country the provinces could be effectively controlled by the Centre.
  • The opposition camp also includes those fundamentally opposed to sharing any political power with the Tamil minority.
  • However, all political camps that vehemently oppose the system have themselves contested in provincial council elections.
  • The councils have over time also helped national parties strengthen their grassroots presence and organisational structures.

Recent Developments:

  • The Sri Lankan government, under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has pledged to “fully implement” the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
  • President Wickremesinghe made this promise at a Pongal event organized in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province.
  • The government is currently engaged in talks with the Tamil political leadership to find a durable political solution to the country’s long-pending national question.
  • The President has pledged to resolve the ethnic conflict before February 4, 2023, when Sri Lanka marks its 75th anniversary of Independence.

Tamil National Alliance’s Position:

  • The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main grouping representing Tamils in the north and east in Parliament, has participated in four rounds of discussions with the President since December 2022.
  • The Alliance has urged the government to fully implement the 13th Amendment as a necessary first step while negotiating a final political settlement.
  • However, with no movement on it so far and little tangible action on its other urgent demands pertaining to land grabs in the north and east, prolonged detention of political prisoners, and answers to enforced disappearances, the TNA said it has little hope left in the process.
  • TNA spokesman and Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran stated that several Presidents have “threatened to implement” the 13th Amendment in the past.
  • In the last meeting, the TNA presented a document of five specific actions that can be taken immediately in this regard, such as setting up a national land commission and provincial police forces; amending or reversing certain acts to restore power to the provincial councils; and giving provincial councils the necessary administrative powers to run schools and hospitals.

Conclusion:

  • The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka is a contentious issue, with different political parties and groups having different opinions on its implementation and effectiveness.
  • The government’s recent pledge to fully implement the amendment and the ongoing talks with the Tamil political leadership may provide some insight into the future of the amendment and the resolution of the country’s ethnic conflict.

February 2023
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