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Tamils Get Some Symbolic Power

A woman walks to a polling centre in northern Jaffna in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

DHARMAPURAM, Sri Lanka , Oct 14 2013 (IPS) - True democracy at last or a toothless tiger propped up to appease unfavourable international opinion? As Sri Lanka’s Northern Province got its first council after an election last month, many in this South Asian island nation were mulling this conundrum.

For Tamil people long demanding a say in their affairs and emerging from a bitter and bloody 26-year war where the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought the government, the victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is an encouraging start. The five-party combine won an overwhelming 30 seats in the 38-member Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in the Sep. 21 election.

“We need to live with our rights,” Christine, a voter from Dharmapuram in Kilinochchi district told IPS. “That was the only thing on my mind when I went to cast my vote.”
How desperate the people are for democracy and normalcy was reflected in the 68 percent turnout among the 719,000 registered voters in the area. But will the NPC live up to Tamil expectations?

Sri Lanka’s existing councils are widely considered to be a drain on its national resources. The government spent 17 percent or about 1.03 billion dollars of its GDP of 5.9 billion dollars on the maintenance of provincial councils in 2012, according to central bank figures.

“Provincial councils have not achieved anything anywhere in this country,” Subramanium Sudhaharan, a voter from Dharmapuram, told IPS as he walked out of the polling booth. “To me all this voting is symbolic.”

“It is no secret that most become provincial council members to use their position as a stepping stone to enter parliament and hence they hardly get involved in development activities,” an editorial in the journal of the Organisation of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka stated.

The NPC could turn out to be different, as it is the only council which is held by the opposition. “For the Tamils, the election means the full implementation of the 13th Amendment,” declared Abraham Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian.

Sri Lanka’s provincial councils were a result of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan accord which led to the 13th Amendment to the constitution providing for devolution of power to provincial councils. While they came into existence in seven of Sri Lanka’s other provinces, the Northeastern council for the merged Eastern and the predominantly Tamil Northern Province proved to be a short-lived experiment.

On their part, the TNA leaders have said they will seek maximum devolution of powers, among them control over land and the police. Though included in the 13th Amendment, the Centre has never really parted with these functions. And President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has maintained it is unwilling to do so now.

“Security and land powers must remain with the Centre given the delicate political situation in the NPC,” defeated government candidate Sinnathurai Thavarajah told IPS.

The office of the governor is another curb on the council’s powers. Appointed by the president and the only official with executive powers, the governor can exercise his power through the council’s ministers, but can sidestep them and act through “officers subordinate to him” if he so wishes.

Without the governor’s approval, the council will be ineffective. Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a lecturer at the department of law in the University of Jaffna, told IPS, “The new chief minister has no significant fiscal powers to initiate any resettlement or livelihood programmes of his own. He will not even have control over the provincial public service which is legally firmly under the governor.”

The TNA’s avowed desire to go beyond the 13th Amendment is also likely to be opposed by India, which faces an election in 2014. Any compromise on the issue, Ramani Hariharan, a former intelligence head with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka told IPS, will be perceived there as a sign of weakness. The IPKF was stationed in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1991.

In any case, Hariharan asks, “What is the guarantee that [a new amendment] will be more liberal than the 13th Amendment? Logically, the TNA should play down devolution beyond the 13th Amendment.”

Sudhaharan too feels that the TNA is unlikely to get anywhere with its demand for more devolution, and should focus instead on trying to improve living conditions in the province.

The Northern Province remains one of the poorest, despite four years of peace and massive development projects estimated by the central bank to be worth over three billion dollars.

An evaluation of the province carried out by the office of the U.N. Refugee Agency in July this year found that over 40 percent of the 917 households surveyed in the province’s five districts had a monthly household income of 9,010 rupees (70 dollars), only about a quarter of the national average monthly income of 36,000 rupees (275 dollars).

“Even with its limited financial resources, the NPC can do quite a lot in terms of economic and social development, governance, establishing institutions that promote equal opportunities,” Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna, told IPS.

The councils collectively received 1.1 billion dollars as funds from the central government in 2012, according to central bank data.

TNA stalwarts like Rajavarotiam Sampanthan have indicated that they will try to raise funds from the global Tamil diaspora. But even if they manage to do so, it is unclear how the TNA can spend such money bypassing the central government which controls all development and reconstruction work here through a special presidential task force set up in 2009.

All that the people of the province now want is for the council to help develop traditional income sources like agriculture, build new houses, and create new jobs. “We have suffered so long and got so little,” Janoshini Kadrigamapillai, a young woman from Kilinochchi, told IPS. “First let’s get the people to live a better life, and then we can talk of other things like devolution. We deserve to live better.”

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  • srivanamoth

    The whole purpose of devolution is to bring government down to the local level to serve the needs of the communities. If it has not served its purpose then the problem lies with either the highly centralized government as in SL or inefficiencies of the decentralised system. No government has closely examined why it is not working properly and enabled it because it is well known central governments have not parted with decentralized functions properly. Rather highly centralized powers gives the ministers power to feel important rather than enablers and more avenues for increased corruption! From the local peoples point of view they have to travel all the way from the remotest areas to Colombo involving much expense and trouble. Besides how many villagers can afford to stay in Colombo? Very few indeed. I billion $ is still 1/40th of the total GDP to be spent on the population who reside mainly in the villages, not in Colombo. No wonder the people of the north have experienced power from Colombo ruling over them rather than servers. No wonder the disconnect and the way they were ruled colonial style from Colombo created the Tamil Tigers! It’s time for the Sinhala
    Lions to think about their ways and treat all people, irrespective of race and religion, alike as equal citizens. To continue colonial style is to re-ignite old flames of discord and all that went with it.

  • Sinniah Sivagnanasun

    Apparant RULING Vs SERVING compitition should end up in the latter for the sake of UNIFIED SRILANKA .Otherwise….

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan

    his two sons married Sinhala ladies

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan

    If Srilanka cannot trust the Tamils with Devolution within united island, HOW CAN ONE ASK THE TAMILS TO TRUST the Srilanka?? As soon as the British left the island, Srilanka started ETHNIC CLEANSING of minorities in the East in 48 and unleashed mass killing, raping and burning Tamils’ properties with 100% IMPUNITY and IMMUNITY to those who did the Gross BARBARIC Human rights abuses against Tamils and Muslims since 1948, Like the TNA, Tamil leaders tried each and every PEACEFUL and DEMOCRATIC way to get a limited AUTONOMY to the North and East where Tamils( Muslims also Tamils) had been living even before the Sinhalese arrived by boats as refugees from Indian mainland but Srilanka unleashed mass violence, killing, raping and burning Tamils’ own properties in 1956, 58, 67 and 77 until the Tamils frustrated and started armed struggle against the Srilannkan SIN-HELLa racist terrorism unleashed against them 30 years ago in 1948.
    In 2009, the Srilanka successfully HOODWINKED the willing victims such as India and USA and carried out GENOCIDE in 2009 against Tamils and eliminated the LTTE.
    Srilanka know the will of Tamils and that is why Srilanka very reluctant to hold election in the NORTH but now held the election due to international pressure and for the CHOGM conference not for Tamils. After the CHOGM conference and coming MARCH UNHCR meeting, Srilanka will resume atrocities against Tamils in as 300,000 SIN-HELLa racist military sill occupy Tamil areas — That is Every FOUR TAMILS are being threatened by a SIN-HELLa racist Military troop.

    As per the powers for the ILL FATED Indian UNLUCKY 13 amendment, Srilanka already sabotaged the accord signed with India by dividing TAMILS of the North and East and also took the LAND and POLICE powers out of Provincial councils after just one week after the TNA victory.

    Now TNA have a TALKING SHOP as the provincial council who cannot even raise TAXES in their province nor from the foreign countries as all money MUST COME THROUGH Srilankan state itself.

    The JUDGE CV WIgneswaran and Sampanthan are SO GULIBLE in trusting the same Genocidal Srilanka and RACIST INDIA even after more than 65 years of BLOODY HISTORY of the SIN-HELLa racist Srilanka.

  • Obamasal

    US and other countries have been preaching about non-violent campaign to regain the lost rights of minorities in countries that persecute minorities. US crippled the rebels, called LTTE by imprisoning its supporters who collected money and tried to buy arms and on top of them gave intelligence informations to the Sri Lankan Airforce to bomb and destroy the ships belong to it. Now the Sri Lankan leaders are going back on their promise of devolution (13A plus) because rebels were destroyed. What will US, EU countries and India will tell those who may take up arms in future against the government in frustration of it’s obstinacy?

  • ram2009

    Thank you for the correction.

  • Darshi

    I see lots of baseless rhetoric in this article, e.g.:

    “For Tamil
    people long demanding a say in their affairs …” More than 75% of
    Tamil people in Sri Lanka live outside the Northern Province. They live
    mingled with other races in other provinces while LTTE had ethnic
    cleansed the Northern Province of Sinhalese and Muslims who constituted

    “How desperate the people are for democracy and normalcy was
    reflected in the 68% turnout …” In Sri Lanka voters usually turnout
    in the order of 80% for most elections. 68% is nothing significant.

    I agree with the author that the provincial councils are a waste; in fact imposed on us by India.

    members with LTTE mindset can do very little other than creating more
    misery for the populace they purport to represent and “protect”. Time
    will tell what all the beautiful rhetoric of so called international
    journalists meant … yes, “nonsense”.

  • United

    “What will US, EU countries and India will tell those who may take up
    arms in future against the government in frustration of it’s obstinacy?”–How about, DON’T take up arms. No matter what you say, you will never convincingly excuse criminal, militant organizations like the LTTE, or FARC, who claim to be these grand “freedom fighters” but in reality are terrorists. The extreme poverty in these areas are due to LTTE activities, not the government, and the government’s fault now is not trying hard enough to alleviate these conditions. Plus, SL government never “promised” devolution, the whole thing fell apart after the Eastern province was declared a “separate state” two hours after the amendment passed. Take US for example–Why do they have a biracial president today? And more and more Blacks in prominent levels of society? Where would the US be if militant Black nationalism had taken hold? (However, it’s dangerous to compare the Tamils to Blacks, because the situations were quite different. If you take different points in history, you can compare both Tamils and the Sinhalese to the situation African Americans used to face.)

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