13A debate kicks up in Sri Lanka ahead of presidential election

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Colombo, Jun 10 (PTI) The India-mooted 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution as a solution to address the minority Tamil community's long-pending demand for political autonomy is set to figure high in the political debate in the impending presidential election.

Sri Lanka's Elections Commission last month said the presidential election would be conducted between September 17 and October 16.

A statement made by the main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa in the former war-torn district of Kilinochchi in the northern province that a future government under his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party would implement the 13A is being met with criticism.

Premadasa, without elaborating, blamed past leaders for not implementing the 13A. India has been pressing Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment which was brought in after the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1987 made between the then president J R Jayewardena and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The 13A provides for the devolution of power to the Tamil community.

Premadasa, however, did not say whether he would grant police and land powers to the provinces.

“What did he mean? Did he say that police and land powers would be granted to the northern province?,” the ruling SLPP parliamentarian Rohitha Abeygunawardena asked.

The 13A made Sri Lanka create nine provincial councils for nine provinces with a temporary merger of the North and East which the Tamil minority claims is their traditional homeland.

However, seven successors of former president Jayewardena have rejected granting police and land powers to the provinces, claiming it would pave the way for the separatist intent of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The LTTE, which fought for a Tamil homeland for nearly 30 years, had rejected the 13A. They fought the Indian Army that was deployed as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord.

“Over the last 37 years eight presidents did not fully implement the 13A because it was dangerous to do so, Mr Premadasa is ignorant of this fact,” Udaya Gammanpila a nationalist politician who opposes any form of power-sharing with minorities, said.

However, Tissa Attanayake, a party colleague of Premadasa, said what his leader had meant was to reactivate the provincial councils. He said Premadasa if elected to power, would hold the provincial council elections that have been postponed since 2018.

Premadasa is SJB’s presidential candidate.

Incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe has already outlined his policy on 13A. In early 2023, he mooted the idea of reactivating provincial councils by granting all powers other than police powers.

His proposal, however, was shot down by the powerful Buddhist clergy. In a letter to Wickremesinghe, the clergy said granting powers to the provincial councils would pave the way for the separation of the country.

In 2013, the Tamils for the first time voted for their own chief minister for the North. The previous provincial elections were severely hampered by the LTTE’s armed campaign.

The current Tamil political parties stay sceptical of the political will in the majority Sinhala south to fully implement the 13A.

The Tamils put forward their demand for autonomy since gaining independence from Britain in 1948 which from the mid-70s turned into a bloody armed conflict.

Over the years, the Sri Lankan government has been aggressive against Tamilian groups following its war with LTTE which collapsed in 2009 after the Sri Lankan Army killed its supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. PTI CORR SCY AKJ SCY SCY