ECONOMYNEXT – President Ranil Wickremesinghe reiterated his commitment to devolution of power within a unitary state as a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue even as Buddhist monks intensified protests against the full implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution.
Addressing parliament on Wednesday February 08, President Wickremesinghe said, however, that there will be no division of the country, contrary to fears expressed by sections of the Buddhist clergy.
Wickremesinghe said that both he and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan were elected to parliament in 1977 and both have long dreamed of a sustainable solution to the ethnic problem during their tenure in parliament.
“Ever since, we have been discussing that dream and have been making efforts towards its achievement. All previous attempts have failed, but we wish to succeed this time. We expect your support to this end,” said Wickremesinghe.
TNA MPs were among the only opposition legislators to remain in the House during the president’s “throne speech” on Wednesday’s opening of the new parliamentary session after MPs representing the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the National People’s Power (NPP) staged a walkout.
However, TNA MP M A Sumanthiran has expressed his disappointment with ongoing talks with the government.
“The conflict in the North and East affected the entire nation and many areas were severely damaged. The Northern Province entirely and several areas in the Eastern and North Central Provinces suffered immensely from the war. We are taking steps to put more weight on the development of these areas. A general plan is being implemented in this regard,” said Wickremesinghe.
“We know that there are still unresolved issues related to land in the North. In the Jaffna district, there are 3,300 acres of state land including security camps. The extent of 100 acres that had been taken over for the Palali Camp were recently released. A decision has to be made regarding more land to be released for which discussions are being held with the Army and other parties. Discussions have also been initiated regarding the lands around other security camps,” he said.
Devolving land and police powers to the provinces under the 13th amendment has been controversial, with monks and other nationalist quarters expressing strong opposition.
Wickremesinghe has repeatedly stated that he plans a full implementation of the amendment.
The 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution emerged from the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 as a purported solution to the worsening ethnic conflict, four years after war broke out. Provincial councils came in the wake of this amendment, though land and police powers have yet to be devolved to the provinces as originally envisioned. Both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists have historically opposed the amendment, the former claiming it devolved too much, the latter complaining it didn’t devolve enough.
A full implementation of the amendment will see land and police powers devolved to the provinces, a development that is not likely to garner support from Sri Lanka’s more nationalist-oriented parties including sections of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
The main opposition SJB’s position on this is also unclear. The party boycotted a recent all-party conference (APC) on the ethnic issue and said it supports devolution of power, but the party has yet to articulate its position on the amendment’s full implementation.
President Wickremesinghe in his parliamentary address on Wednesday said the government is streamlining and expediting the process of tracing missing persons. The mechanism of the Office on Missing Persons will be strengthened, he said.
“Our attention has also been focused on the people who have been imprisoned for being involved in terrorist activities. They have been imprisoned for many years without trial. We are taking measures to systematically release these prisoners,” he added.
Drafts are being prepared to establish a National Land Council and a National Land Policy, said the president.
“It is alleged that due to certain practices of the Central Government, the powers of the Provincial Councils have been reduced in the fields of education and health. Therefore, we envision bringing new laws regarding the implementation of powers of the Provincial Councils in these fields.
“Amendment will be introduced to the following Acts in order to regularize and streamline the delegation process. The Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act, No. 58 of 1992, the Provincial Councils (Consequential Provisions) Act, No. 12 of 1989 and Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 28 of 1990.”
The government also expects to establish a modern system for the District Development Councils to streamline the coordination functions between the Provincial Councils and the Central Government, said Wickremesinghe.
“We will present all these Ordinances and Bills to the National Council of the Parliament. The responsibility of making the final decision is assigned to the National Council.”
DIG divisional boundaries are currently not based on provincial boundaries, due to which a number of practical difficulties have arisen and the government plans to determine the boundaries of DIG divisions according to the provinces, the president said.
“There is no change in police powers,” he said.
The report of the Presidential Commission headed by A H M D Nawaz, Supreme Court Judge to investigate the violation of human rights, serious violations of international human rights laws, has now been received. According to Wickremesignhe, its recommendations are currently being studied.
“A separate plan is being implemented for the development of the North, which was the most damaged due to the conflict. Malwatu Oya development project will be commenced. Necessary measures will be taken for the river and water management in the Eastern Province, restoration of Vadamarachchi lake and lagoon, and accordingly, which will provide water for drinking and agricultural purposes.
“The electricity requirement in these areas is expected to be generated through renewable energy. Solar and green hydrogen power are also used for this purpose. More opportunities will be created in the tourism sector. Investment zones will be established. The required technology and facilities will be provided for the modernisation of agriculture.
“The Kankasanthurai Port is being modernised and expanded. Trincomalee is being developed as a modern international city. A special development plan is also being launched for the Eastern and North-Central provinces that have suffered economic and social setbacks during the conflict,” he said.
The president also spoke of plans to resolve issues pertaining to the upcountry Tamil community, adding that plans were underway to develop the plantation industry.
“Soumyamurthy Thondaman, who rendered yeoman service towards the plantation sector and I were in the Cabinet of Ministers together. Both of us worked together for the welfare of the plantation community. We have already granted all their legal rights. However, many problems related to economic and social rights still remain. To solve these problems, we expect to discuss with the MPs representing the plantation sector and take necessary measures. The Plantation community, which has been struggling to feed the Sri Lankan economy for two centuries, should be integrated as a whole in the Sri Lankan community,” he said.
On issues faced by the Muslim community, Wickremesinghe: “When I was elected to the Parliament, my Cabinet Minister was A C S Hamid who made me aware of the unique situations faced by Sri Lankan Muslims. We know that the Muslim community faces various problems from time to time and they have our full support.”
“The Sinhalese community is also facing issues of their own which require open discussion. We expect to recognize the communities that are marginalized in society especially due to caste discrimination.
“Considering all the facts, we expect to devolve power within a Unitary State. However, I wish to reiterate a fact that has been emphasised on many occasions. There will be no division of the country,” he said.
“I will implement all these proposals through the National Assembly of the Parliament. In addition, we regulate the Jana Sabha Act for the function of representing public opinion,” he added. (Colombo/Feb08/2023)