Sri Lanka’s SJB supports devolution but position on full 13A still unclear

Sri Lanka’s main opposition the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which boycotted a recent all-party conference (APC) on the ethnic issue, says it supports devolution of power, but the party has yet to articulate its position on the full implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution.

SJB general secretary MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara told EconomyNext on Monday January 30 that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who convened the APC, must first present the government’s proposals on devolution of power.

“We expressed our consent to power sharing at the first meeting. Instead of talking about this every day, present the government’s set of proposals,” said the MP.

Speaking at the APC, President Wickremesinghe said he wished to fully implement the 13th amendment to the constitution, which was aimed at giving more autonomy to provinces in a bid to solve the island nation’s decades-long ethnic conflict.

The solution is backed by India, which has expressed its support for Sri Lanka’s debt re-structuring plans.

Wickremesinghe, flanked by former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, told party leaders that, as executive president, he is required to fully implement the amendment.

“If it is not implemented, someone should bring another amendment and abolish it. We cannot stay on the fence saying we will not abolish it and we will not implement it,” he said.

The SJB was conspicuous by its absence at the APC, save for its MP Rajitha Senaratne who had been speculated to join the Wickremesinghe administration but so far remains an opposition legislator. He was heard speaking supportively of the president’s plan to fully implement the 13th amendment.

MP Madduma Bandara, however, insists that the president must present its proposals for devolution.

“We cannot sign a blank document,” he said.

President Wickremesinghe has reiterated his commitment to finding a permanent solution to Sri Lanka’s enduring ethnic issue. He recently told a gathering at the National Thai Pongal Festival in Jaffna that the amendment will be fully implemented and a Social Justice Commission will be established to “build a country where everyone can live in harmony, by solving the problems of the people belonging to all sections of the population.”

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).

SLPP MPs Gevindu Kumaratunga and Sarath Weerasekara said at the APC that the president lacke the mandate to go that far, a claim that Wickremesinghe defiantly refuted, arguing that as executive president elected by parliament he has the authority to fully implement the constitution.

However, the president said he does not support federalism, a solution which the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has indicated that it is open to.

Federalism has been a highly controversial and politically inflammable idea in Sri Lanka over the years, with many nationalist or even some moderate parties in the south vehemently opposing the very suggestion of it. It is unclear whether this stance has softened over the 13 years since the end of the war, but to date no Sinhalese-dominated party – the SJB and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) included – has come out in support for it.

Asked if the SJB is open to devolving land and police powers, the party’s general secretary reiterated to EconomyNext that the government hasn’t clearly articulated its proposals.

“[President Wickremesinghe says full 13. [Ex president] Mahinda Rajapaksa said 13 Plus. We need to have some kind of note to look at and discuss,” said Madduma Bandara.

“Tell us what will be implemented in the 13th amendment. DIscussions can only take place around those proposals,” he said.

However, he stressed that the party does support devolution of power.

Does it support full devolution, however?

“Let’s see what the government has to say.”

Asked what form devolution of power would take under an SJB government, the opposition legislator said: “If we had a government, we would inform what form it would take.

Madduma Bandara repeated that the government, which holds parliamentary majority and has the president on its side, must release its proposals.

“No point us asking about our proposals now. Ask after we have been given power,” he said.