Taming the east
30 November 2012
In overcoming the Eastern Province’s challenge to their power, the Rajapaksas have browbeaten the judiciary, undermined devolution, and seeded new conflicts.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa does not hesitate to cavort where men less well-connected fear to tread even gingerly. As Defence Secretary and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, he has no need to mind his language. His verbal outbreaks are of the highest political relevance since they provide invaluable glimpses into the opaque mental universe of the Rajapaksas. So when Gotabhaya Rajapaksa repeatedly advocates immediately repealing the 13th Amendment, attention must be paid. Especially so since Rajapaksa equates that Indian-induced legislation (which introduced power-devolution in Sri Lanka) with the Norwegian-brokered Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) of 2002. Says Rajapaksa: “The 13th Amendment and the CFA didn’t serve the people of Sri Lanka. Instead they facilitated interests of various other parties, including the LTTE. Interestingly, both supported the separatist cause.”
Hitherto, only the most diehard Sinhala supremacists decried the 13th Amendment as pro-LTTE and pro-separatist. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s public endorsement of those outré views marks a menacing new turn in Lankan politics. That dangerously fallacious equation repackages the 13th Amendment as a threat to national security, enabling the Rajapaksas to condemn its supporters and defenders as traitors.
Basil Rajapaksa, another Presidential Sibling and the Minister of Economic Development, took the argument a step further by advocating the replacement of provincial-level devolution with village-level decentralisation: “The Janasabha system is the unit of devolution… It is a new village concept…. Now, we have amended the Constitution for the 18th time. We will now do so for the 19th time.” The icing on this anti-devolution confection was provided by President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. In his 2012 Budget speech, the President endorsed his siblings’ depiction of provincial-level devolution as pro-separatist and irrelevant to public wellbeing: “A change in the prevailing Provincial Council system is necessary to make devolution more meaningful to our people. Devolution should not be a political reform that will lead us to separation….”
With all three Rajapaksas ranged against the 13th Amendment, devolution is as good as dead. The 19th Amendment, which would replace limited devolution with minimum decentralisation, is likely to be born as soon as the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike is concluded and a Rajapaksa acolyte placed at the head of the Supreme Court.
The Rajapaksas’ antipathy towards devolution, like their antipathy towards such pillars of democracy as separation of powers, judicial independence and media freedom, is rooted in the Siblings’ project of achieving familial rule and dynastic succession. As Basil Rajapaksa stated recently, power-centralisation is the Siblings’desideratum: “In other countries who are successful, they were successful because immediately one person he takes the decisions. In Sri Lanka, the main problem is that that is not there, more decisions have to be centralised. [sic]”
For the Rajapaksas, countervailing sources of democratic power are either obstacles to be overcome or threats to be defeated. Thus, in 2010, the democratising (and home-grown) 17th Amendment – meant to establish an independent Constitutional Council that would appoint commissions to run the police, public service, election secretariat and judiciary – was replaced with the antipodal 18th Amendment, which enhanced presidential powers and removed presidential term-limits. Without the 18th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have had to retire at the end of his second term, as two of his predecessors did. Thanks to the 18th Amendment he need never retire.
The 13th Amendment, which created the provincial council system, is Sri Lanka’s sole existing political solution to the ethnic problem. The regime would know that if the 13th Amendment is axed, it will ignite a political firestorm in Tamil Nadu and compel India to react. Therefore, a gradual undermining of the 13th Amendment would be the Rajapaksas’ preferred way of escaping the shackles of devolution. But this piecemeal demolition cannot succeed without the full corporation of the judiciary. But in the last few months, the judiciary has indicated clearly that it will be guided by the constitution, and not by the Rajapaksas’ needs. In several landmark rulings, the Supreme Court defended the constitution and resisted efforts at further eroding power-devolution and power-separation.
The breaking point in the contest between the Rajapaksas and the judiciary came when the Supreme Court refused to provide free passage to the Divineguma Bill. Custom-made to transform Basil Rajapaksa into an even more über-powerful minister than he is now, the Divineguma Bill (Bill on Uplifting Lives) is being touted by the regime as a measure of absolute national importance, a panacea for many economic ills, and a bulwark against separatism. Prepared in secrecy, it seeks to create a mega-entity titled the Divineguma Department under Basil Rajapaksa’s exclusive control. The new department will have a gargantuan budget of SLR 80 billion – this in a country which has allotted SLR 65.8 billion to education, SLR 1 billion to child development and women’s affairs, and just SLR 437 million to post-conflict re-settlement.
Since the functions of the Divineguma Department encroach on powers devolved to the provinces, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill must be approved by all nine of Sri Lanka’s provincial councils. This court ruling angered the Rajapaksas beyond measure. It also placed the newly elected Eastern Provincial Council on the centre stage of national politics for one brief – and, as it transpired – inglorious moment.
The Eastern fiasco
Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province is demographically unique; home to all three of the country’s major ethno-religious groups in almost equal measure, the East is Sri Lanka’s real Achilles’ heel. Mishandle the East and the outcome will not be a cleanly bifurcated separatist war. Mishandle the East and the outcome might well be multiple conflicts along fluid lines of demarcation – a bloody kaleidoscope involving Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims (and by extension Buddhists, Christians and Hindus), plus several foreign powers in supportive roles.
The Rajapaksas’ decision to hold elections for the Eastern Provincial Council two years ahead of time may have been made in anticipation of an easy victory. In reality, victory proved to be difficult. The entry of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) into the electoral fray presented the Rajapaksa-led ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with an unfamiliar challenge. That challenge was made even harder when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) – the country’s premier Muslim party and a member of the UPFA – decided to contest the Eastern elections independently and on a largely anti-government platform following its unhappiness with the electoral deal offered by the Rajapaksas.
As the campaign heated up, the UPFA resorted to rampant abuse of state power and resources. In a public letter to President Rajapaksa, TNA leader R Sampanthan claimed that opposition candidates were being attacked, ‘intelligence personnel’ were threatening opposition activists, and members of the Blue Brigade – a shadowy organisation controlled by Namal Rajapaksa, parliamentarian and eldest Presidential Offspring – were harassing voters. Irrational appeals to primordial identities and loyalties added new toxins to this already insalubrious atmosphere. “The UPFA’s election strategy would only contribute to the strengthening of separatist and fundamentalist sentiments not only in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province, but also in the entire country,” cautioned D E W Gunasekara, a government minister.
In the end, demographics decided the election: most Sinhalese voted for the UPFA, most Tamils voted for the TNA, and most Muslims voted for the SLMC. No single party gained enough seats to form a council on its own. And despite its no-holds-barred campaign, the UPFA’s share of the vote declined sharply compared to both the 2008 Provincial Council poll and the 2011 Local Government election.
Table I – UPFA’s Eastern performance
2008 PC poll (%)
2011 LG poll (%)
2012 PC poll (%)
Only one Tamil running on the UPFA ticket was elected. All Muslims elected from the UPFA, barring one, belong to smaller Muslim parties. The Rajapaksas are still popular among the Sinhalese majority, but they have very little minority support.
Had the Rajapaksas been sincerely committed to a Lankan peace and national reconciliation, they would have allowed the TNA and the SLMC to form the new Eastern PC. Such a democratic modus vivendi would have sent a potent message about the regime’s commitment to power-sharing, and would have bolstered the country’s international image. But a provincial council outside its control was something the regime was unwilling to countenance. So the UPFA bulldozed its way to power in the Eastern Province, with scant regard for minority sentiments or voters’ preferences. The TNA publicly accused the regime of attempting to cajole and browbeat its elected members, stating that “suspected military intelligence personnel have approached some newly elected TNA provincial councillors and exerted pressure through a mixture of ‘carrot and stick’ methods to make them extend support to President Rajapaksa and join the ranks of the UPFA.”
It is unknown why the SLMC rejected the very generous offer made by the TNA, who had offered the post of Chief Minister to the SLMC’s nominee, and instead opted for the meagre deal offered by the UPFA – two provincial ministerships and the promise that its nominee would only later be made Chief Minister. When the council was formed, there was not a single Tamil among the new provincial ministers.
The first order of business of this new Eastern PC was the vote on the Divineguma Bill. Since the southern provincial councils are under total UPFA control, that the Bill would pass there was a foregone conclusion. All eyes were focused on the East, where the government needed SLMC consent to pass the Bill. Inexplicably, the SLMC opted not to stand up for devolution. All seven SLMC councillors voted for a piece of legislation which would denude the council of several economic powers and render the minorities more powerless and insecure.
Witch-hunting, and the 13th Amendment
Under Rajapaksa rule, there have been two provincial council polls in the East, but none in the North. Consequently Sri Lanka’s only Tamil-majority province has no elected council, with just a retired Sinhala General as the presidentially appointed governor. The regime argued that this governor’s approval would suffice to pass the Divineguma Bill. Inevitably the matter came up for resolution before the Supreme Court.
As the country’s apex court pondered the constitutionality of the Divineguma Bill, events took a menacing turn. On 7 October 2012, Manjula Tilakeratne, the Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) and a High Court judge, was pistol-whipped by four unidentified men. A few weeks previously, Tilakeratne had issued a public statement on behalf of the JSC warning about attempts to undermine judicial independence. A few weeks after Tilakeratne was assaulted, a minister tabled an ‘anonymous letter’ in parliament casting vicious aspersions on top judicial officers, including Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The state media raved against the judiciary. Finally, 118 UPFA parliamentarians presented an impeachment motion against the Chief Justice to the Speaker, Presidential Sibling Chamal Rajapaksa.
The charges against the Chief Justice will be heard by a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) consisting of seven parliamentarians from the UPFA and four from the opposition. Since the Rajapaksas want to be rid of the Bandaranayake, the UPFA majority in the PSC will find her guilty, and the UPFA majority in parliament will vote to remove her. Once Bandaranaike is replaced with a more amenable chief justice, the Rajapaksas will bring in the 19th Amendment, and the provincial councils will either cease to exist or be rendered totally impotent. The 13th Amendment will join the 17th Amendment in irrelevance and oblivion.
By pursuing their project of absolute power with myopic obsession, the Rajapaksas are indulging in what Eric Hobsbawm called “strategically blind maximalism”. Not only are they destroying judicial independence and credibility, they are also sowing the seeds of new ethnic and ethno-religious dissension.
Whatever its imperfections, the 13th Amendment is the only guarantee Sri Lanka’s minorities have of any modicum of power. Decapitating it would prove conclusively that the Rajapaksas have no intention of ensuring minority rights. Vellupillai Prabhakaran maintained that in the absence of the LTTE, Colombo will render Tamils powerless and reduce them to their pre-1987 status of second-class citizens. If the 13th Amendment is axed – or becomes a dead letter – Prabhakaran’s warnings will resonate amongst hapless Lankan Tamils, providing separatism with a new relevance and a second life.
By bending the SLMC to their will over the Divineguma Bill just days after forcing it to its knees over the formation of the Eastern PC, the Rajapaksas sent an equally dangerous message to Lankan Muslims. By succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure, the SLMC demonstrated a worrying incapacity to defend the interests of Eastern Muslims. The situation will become worse if the SLMC is compelled to back the 19th Amendment. Internal schisms may result from the SLMC’s humiliating inability to defend its mandate, propelling it along the path towards politico-electoral irrelevance.
For all its shortcomings, the SLMC is a democratic party firmly committed to peaceful methods. What sort of entity will inherit its place of political primacy among Eastern Muslims? The SLMC’s inability to defend devolution will widen the Tamil-Muslim gulf in the East. Do the Rajapaksas think that by setting Tamils and Muslims at loggerheads, they can endlessly evade a political solution to the ethnic question? An ethno-religious enemy may benefit the Rajapaksas – a ‘threat’ to national security can be invaluable in justifying the despotism and tyranny needed to bolster familial rule and ensure dynastic succession. Any whiff of Islamic fundamentalism of the political variety may even get India and the West off Colombo’s back. But while another alienated minority may suit the Rajapaksas’ purposes, it is the last thing Sri Lanka needs.
Lankan history teaches us that ethno-religious conflicts cannot be stage-managed. Once ignited, they assume a life of their own, untameable by those who fathered them for political gain. Because of the province’s complex demographics, an Eastern conflict will be a labyrinthine one, involving both ethnicity and religion. Given the depths of brutality, irrationality and degradation that religious fanaticism can reduce humans to, a warring East might well come to make the Eelam War seem lukewarm by comparison.
~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan columnist based in Colombo.