The challenge facing post–war Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE is to move to a post –conflict situation defined as one in which at a basic minimum, the causes of conflict are not sustained and certainly not re-produced. This requires the prioritisation of establishing a democratic peace with governance and reconciliation between the peoples of Sri Lanka, which will cement national unity amongst them. Accordingly a political settlement of the ethnic conflict is a necessary condition for this and given the focus of current debate on the Thirteenth Amendment, the system of provincial devolution it provides for is particularly pertinent to Sri Lanka overcoming this challenge.
In recognition of this, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in its research on constitutional reform and peace has focused on provincial councils with the objective of recording the experience of devolution and of identifying ways in which it can be strengthened, if it is to be the basis for a durable and democratic peace in Sri Lanka. In 2008, CPA published a study titled Strengthening the Provincial Council System, which recorded the views and suggestions of key provincial actors including Chief Ministers, Leaders of the Opposition and Chief Secretaries. This study expands on it through a legal and constitutional analysis of provincial devolution with reference to the Eastern Province by Asanga Welikala, Senior Researcher in the Legal and Constitutional Unit of CPA. Part 2 of the study presents the views and perspectives of elected officials, the bureaucracy and public of the Eastern Province on their experience of devolution.
The Eastern Provincial Council is significant for a number of reasons in the context of the challenge of moving to a post-conflict situation. The Thirteenth Amendment and the devolution it provided for was meant fundamentally as a mechanism to resolve the ethnic conflict within the unitary state of Sri Lanka. It was established throughout the country in 1988, including in the merged Northeastern Province. The experience of provincial devolution there resulted in the Council unilaterally declaring independence and as a consequence being dismissed by the President. For years the Northeastern Province did not have an elected Council and the province itself was de-merged by a decision of the Supreme Court in 2006. Following the defeat of the LTTE in the East in 2007, elections to the Eastern Provincial Council were held in 2008, giving rise to expectations that provincial devolution in the post-LTTE and significantly multi-ethnic East would prove to be a show case of provincial devolution and democratic governance in a post-war, post-LTTE Sri Lanka set firmly on the path of peace, reconciliation and unity.
This has yet to be demonstrated. In the East as elsewhere in the country, the experience of devolution has had mixed results, largely on account of the political culture of centralisation and its impact on the political commitment to devolution – its design and operation. There are particular problems in the East compounding this generic challenge to devolution in Sri Lanka, resulting in a sense of frustration. This frustration has to be addressed and prevented from compounding in turn, the post-conflict challenge delineated above. A repetition of this in the North where elections are widely expected to be held over the course of the next year, will result in the two provinces of the North and East being politically unsettled and adversely impact on reconciliation and unity.
The CPA studies on the provincial council system are presented as constructive contributions to the ongoing debate on constitutional reform and peace in Sri Lanka in the firm belief that the present post-war situation provides an unprecedented opportunity for the honest and unbiased appraisal of our structures of governance and their reform that is necessary if we are to realise the post-conflict promise.
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu