Tambimuttu drops bombshell Says provinces must go as they are impractical and security threat

Sri Lanka Freedom Party organiser for the Batticaloa District Arun Tambimuttu like his late father, assassinated TULF parliamentarian Sam Tambimuttu stands up for his convictions and does not mince his words when he says that the 13th Amendment and the provincial councils need to go as the time has come to evolve a more practical system of devolution and administration in their place.

He notes that the British who devised the provinces in the first place abandoned it as it was not practical and instead settled for the district level administration with easy access to most people, which continues to this day. These are not the ideas of a fanatic, but of a thoughtful man in his mid-30s. He points to the district as the base for the new system and if it could be shown how workable and fair it would be for everybody, the international community would also have to automatically accept it.

Q: Politicians like Wimal Weerawansa or Champika Ranawaka critics can say are arguing on the basis of their fears or from their nationalistic thinking alone, but in your case despite being a Tamil you look at things from a wider picture and you also see that the 13th Amendment is not the answer. So can you explain in your opinion what the answer should be?

A: The 13th Amendment has two parts to it; the Tamil language being made an official language of Sri Lanka and the setting up of the provincial councils. Making the Tamil language an official language is a right thing and that has made Tamils feel that at least now there is constitutional recognition to their language. On the other hand the provincial councils were set up in a very controversial circumstance. We all know the Indo-Lanka accord came through India’s intervention at a time when militancy was at its worse from the mid-80s when the country was brought to a virtual halt and in that context the provincial councils emerged. The PC s are supposed to have dealt with two major issues, one is the Tamil question which was brewing in the North and East of the country and secondly dealing with the issue of lack of regional development. In post-independence Sri Lanka most of the development was centred on Colombo and the western province. So there was a feeling that the provincial councils system will bring the development and give that necessary impetus to bring up Sri Lanka to live up to its potential. However, we are now on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the provincial councils and the 13th Amendment. In 25 years, of course we know, at first the North and East were merged into one council and it became defunct after the adventures of Varathraja Perumal after his party created a clandestine army, the Tamil National Army and subsequently declared a unilateral declaration of independence. And quite a lot of children who were conscripted into that army were massacred by the LTTE, while Perumal and some of its other leaders escaped. Then the war took its own path and we saw President Premadasa being assassinated. Many parliamentarians were also assassinated. What you were left with was 20 years of calamity. From that history we also saw the Supreme Court rule that the merger of the two provinces was unconstitutional and it formally demerged the two and we had the Eastern Provincial Council election where former LTTE fighter Sivanesaturai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan became the Chief Minister. He administered the province for four years and after four years we recently had the second provincial council election there, in which his administration was rejected. Now today the current Eastern province administration doesn’t have a single Tamil in its rank, throwing the whole concept of sorting the Tamil question into utter chaos.

We also have to look at what it means to the common man. If I were to speak in the context of the eastern province, the Council is centred in Trincomalee and someone living in Ampara has to travel four hours to visit it and deal with their problems. So how has it solved the issue of decentralisation of power? On the contrary these provincial councils have become another form of bureaucracy and people regard them as wastage of valuable resources. This is the context in which we should see the provincial councils. The replacement of these councils, I feel is a must. I think the time has come for us to rethink and come to make a sober decision on our form of governance and if we do not learn from the past quarter century of difficulties we will only be repeating history. The status quo cannot continue.

Q: The problem is yours is like a voice in the wilderness. Many in the so-called intelligentsia have been brainwashed to blindly harp on the words 13th Amendment and the provincial councils like a mantra. Even retired top diplomats or religious dignitaries at various forums are mouthing what the foreign interests want. They could very well be singing for their supper. But how can a few individuals like you turn the tide?

A: My father was an advocate of this provincial council system. He also thought the provincial council system will provide the answer to the concerns of the Tamil communities, but my thought is that we have to look at this in a very careful manner, where the Tamil question i.e. if the Tamils have equal status or any concerns of the Tamil community or any other minority community may have. You should look at that from a national context. It cannot be isolated to any regions of Sri Lanka. For instance if you take the Nuwara Eliya District in the Central Province, the Sinhalese are the minority. So every district in Sri Lanka has its own demographic difference, however if we are to look at the provincial councils, it was thrust upon us. It was hurried through.

Q: Is it not making the country more divisive?

A: You raised an important point. In the eastern province, the provincial council has in fact undermined the social cohesion that existed between the Muslim and the Tamil community. Today it is very divisive with every as every representative in the administration come from either the Muslim or the Sinhala background and the Tamils feel left behind. In the previous administration you had Pillaiyan as Chief Minister, who is from the Tamil community.

Yes, everyone is highly emotive about the 13th Amendment, but what we have to see is its impact on governance and have the provincial councils provided the necessary framework for Sri Lanka to move forward?

Q: Now as you say for example a person in Batticaloa feels alienated when he has to go to Trincomalee to get anything done, so the unit of government has also to be small enough for people to feel they are part of it.

A: The name devolution has become a by-product for various different interpretations, but the bottom line is our political leaders have to remind ourselves that sovereignty in Sri Lanka resides in the people and it is the people who exercise their sovereignty through the parliament, President and judiciary, but unfortunately the people whose sovereignty this system is supposed to have enhanced is actually doing the opposite. That is where the problem lies. So in terms of regional governance and bringing governance closer to the people, the provincial councils have proved to be ineffective. India may have its own views on the 13th Amendment, but the bottom line is that Sri Lanka has to evolve an indigenous form of governance without aping a system that exists in any other part of the world. It is about time the state and the various political actors come to a non-partisan arena and think about the future of this country. We are now 65 years since the country won independence. The country is supposed to mature into a nation that is at ease with itself, but far from it. Out of the 65 years of independence most of the period was spent going from one turmoil to another. It is about time that we get the bull by the horn and try to identify a way for this country to move forward.

Q: As you said the other day the British who formulated the provinces, abandoned it for the more manageable district unit of administration.

A: There are 25 districts in Sri Lanka. They are what I call natural units because to this day the administration of this country is being carried out through the districts. We have a district administrative unit and through the Government Agent or the District Secretary that it is administered going down to divisional secretariats and they are the most effective administrators in the country. The provincial system the British invented to break up the Kandyan kingdom, they soon realised that provinces were far too big and far too unmanageable in the Sri Lankan context. So they devolved the district system and it continues to this day as the system closest to the people and they are comfortable with it.

When I say it is time to move away from the provincial council system, we need to find a better system to replace it and I argue a district assembly would be a better model than the provincial council. So we can have 25 district assemblies governing close to the people and also what we need to do is to ensure that these district assemblies are complementary to the whole national government. We cannot just look at the local government and say we are going to ignore the national government. There has to be cohesion and integration of all forms of governance in the country.

Q: Shouldn’t Tamil leaders like Sambandan, Senathirajah and others realise that it is better to have the whole country opened out to everyone equally, rather than to have fortresses in each area. As things stand it is an open house for Tamils to live anywhere and progress. Even during the war Tamils invested heavily in the south, especially in the real estate sector. But, if they blindly continue to think in terms of 13 and 13 plus on parochial lines, the rest of the country will follow suit and there will be barriers everywhere.

A: Unfortunately, there are those who are hell bent in continuing with their ideological line; whether it is Mr. Sambandan, Mr. Senathrajah or Mr. Suresh Premachandran, they are all focused on their ideology, which is to create a Tamil homeland. They may call it a province, a state or an independent republic or whatever the form of government they are hoping for. They are hell bent since 1977 in ensuring that they carry on with their path, even after destruction and death of many, many, many of their kith and kin. Sri Lanka on its part cannot continue, cannot accept this extreme ideology. We have to move away from ethnic homelands. We can’t have a Tamil homeland nor can we have a Sinhala homeland or a Muslim homeland. You have to move away from that ideology, without which the people of this country will not get their potential rewards for which they rightly deserve.

by Rohan Abeywardena

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