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.
RAW misled Mrs Gandi into supporting Tamil militancy
Q: There are, of course, the powerful western nations who have self-appointed themselves as the international community and India with their own agenda adding fuel to the fire. Their hidden agendas are quite clear, for example they wept buckets for the suffering of few thousand IDPs, whose resettlement got delayed, but they hardly say a word about millions of stateless Palestinians living in refugee camps in so many countries since 1948. It is the same with their NGO community or the media.
A: You have to look at India’s role from a historic perspective. I will like to take your memory back to 1980s when India’s spy organisation RAW was highly involved in Sri Lanka and we know India trained and financed the Tamil militancy, provided them with strategic assistance and even logistical support.
Q: In the process the RAW also misled Mrs. Gandhi.
A: They misled Gandhi into supporting the Tamil militancy. Then we were forced into signing the Indo-Lanka Accord and subsequently it failed. India cannot justifiably take a position: ’implement the 13th Amendment, implement the provincial councils system’, if Sri Lanka can come up with a better alternative. Now problem at the moment is that we have a situation, where the provincial councils exist and we are still talking about 13th plus. I do not know what it means. For Sri Lanka, the time has come for its political leaders to look at an alternative model. That is why we are talking about district assemblies and they will provide the necessary framework for us to devise our local government.
We have a parliament and that itself needs reform. I will give you an example: you have parliamentarians who see their position as a stepping stone to becoming a Minister. Just about a year ago four parliamentarians from my own political party (SLFP) wrote to the President requesting that they be upgraded into ministerial ranks. Look at the constitutional requirement of having separation of power and the parliament should be exercising the legislative power, but unfortunately what we have at present is a system where the executive’s cabinet is appointed from parliament. So there is no separation of powers as such and parliamentarians’ sole ambition is to become a minister.
I suggested that the executive, the President should be given the task of appointing 50 cabinet ministers. They should be divided into 25 project ministers like education, health, law and order, so on and 25 district ministers. So what happens is that the 25 subject ministers in the Cabinet will go to parliament. Rather than collecting them from the legislature you will send them there. Then the parliament can scrutinise these 25 ministers. If the executive wishes to appoint a parliamentarian as a cabinet minister, then the parliamentarian should resign his position in parliament and become a cabinet minister so that the legislature will continue to be a mechanism for checks and balances. On the other hand the 25 district ministers, each can go back to their respective district assembly, so there is cohesion between the executive and the district assembly. So you can clearly devise a system from this example and also rather than continue being critical of the executive presidency you are ensuring in it becoming more effective.
Q: Have you exchanged views in this regard with the JHU, NFF and others?
A: As a SLFPer I have not started this debate within our party, but I think the time has come for me to engage with the JHU and others from different political spectrums. I am looking forward to speak with different political factions.
Q: Have you thought of speaking to religious dignitaries and what are your views on religion?
A: My father was a Christian and my mother was a Hindu and I grew up as an ultimate Sri Lankan. I also have lots of time for Buddhism and for various philosophies. Buddhism having such an important position in Sri Lanka I am hoping to see the Mahanayake theras of various sects and discuss these issues. Unfortunately what you have had is that the debate on governance and provincial councils hijacked by a small section of political thinkers and time has come for us to discuss this in a more mature a way and think from a national perspective rather than think from a narrower ethnic mindset.
Q: You noted that the provincial council system will notch 25 years in a few days’ time. Is it time to put a lid on it and move on in a direction that best suits the country?
A: I think that is correct. Let’s take the arguments of people like Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka; they have raised some points, which we have to take into consideration from a national security perspective. As I mentioned earlier the TNA and the Tamil nationalists are hell bent on creating their ultimate goal. There are people who question why the government cannot have a northern provincial election and why cannot you continue with that. The bottom line is there are still security concerns. For instance there are external forces who are financing, who are supporting the separatist tendency of the Tamil national movement. The Tamil national movement rightly or wrongly has significant support among the Tamil population in the north and especially those who are war weary and coming to terms after years of LTTE indoctrination. In this context you have a northern provincial council election and let’s assume the TNA repeats its success in the east in the north and forms a government. And if you do have a northern provincial government led by the TNA, which has publicly declared its separatist credentials, what would be the risk and danger to Sri Lanka’s security and territorial integrity? This is an issue on which the people are not speaking and unfortunately only been spoken by those described as Sinhala hardliners, but this should be a concern for any citizen who loves this country and wishes it to remain as one unitary state. If that is the case we should really look at the potential risk of having a large devolved unit such as a province, where I am not just speaking in terms of practicality and pragmatism, but I am also rightly pointing out that the risks are greatest for having such a unit. And that unit is an artificial unit, I want to remind you that. There was no time in history, where the northern main province has stayed as a one historic unit. You have had Jaffna kingdom, kingdoms of Wanni and Anuradhapura, and Anuradhapura was once part of the northern region, but at no time did you have a historic Tamil unit called the Northern Province. The Indo-Lanka Accord created this, which the British of course for reasons of their own originally devised.
Therefore it is time for the Sri Lankan state to ask whether the provinces have a meaning. Mind you until the Indo-Lanka Accord the provinces were an obsolete geographic entity. Today since their revival we have this stalemate for 25 years. If there are legitimate concerns that the northern provincial council may prove to become, through debate, a problem for the security and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, then the country by all means should look at devising a better administrative system that will make sure, not just in terms of being an efficient model of democracy, but also ensure that its territorial integrity is protected through those institutions.
Q: Even though India is a federal state it has plenty of safety valves to keep the states in check.
A: Exactly right. For instance states have no right to secede from the Indian union. They can impose any laws on the states and they can in fact dissolve any state assembly. I think India or for that matter any other foreign nation will have to understand that Sri Lanka will develop a pragmatic system of government. The problem at the moment is that we are just speaking as if the provincial council is the only thing and there is nothing else. Time has come for us to think of an alternative and make it workable. We have to look at the presidency, how it can be strengthened as a responsible executive system. We have to look at the function of parliament and we also have to look at the possibility of making even a consultative assembly, here the executive can obtain advice and consult a body that is more representative of the minorities. Like I said earlier it is much wiser for us to look at the concerns of ethnic minorities from a national point of view, than from a regional point of view.
Q: Of course in order to ensure that the minorities are guaranteed a share we can also ensure quotas, especially to prevent discrimination.
A: That is possible. I for one believe in meritocracy, but you are right. All the mechanisms are there for us to look at. Let me give an example: now we have in Sri Lanka 61 cabinet ministers, out of that number there is only one Sri Lankan Tamil from the north or the eastern part of the country. That of course is not representative. This is where we need to look at. Unfortunately the Tamil community by and large has supported ethnic political parties therefore they are in the opposition. We still have to find ways to make our governance more representative and that is why I suggested that executive presidency is relieved of the restriction that he/she must pick the cabinet from parliament. We also should strengthen the parliamentary democracy by ensuring that individuals who are entering parliament know that the role of parliament is not to govern but rather to keep checks and balances on the executive and you will have a different calibre of people entering parliament. Today it is a public secret that to become a parliamentarian on requires as much as one million rupees. Do you think they can repay Rs 50 million from their parliamentary salary? You get all the unsavoury elements entering parliament because you have a situation where you force the executive to choose from a very small group of people his Cabinet. If you take the American system for example, the President of the US has the power the best people he considers to run his cabinet from a pool of 350 million Americans. Unfortunately we are not allowing our chief executive to choose from 20 million Sri Lankans.
There is also an argument that we should go back to the prime ministerial system of government, but I ask you in the current context, where horse trading take place do you really believe that we can afford a prime ministerial form of government. He will be at the mercy of his ministers. At least today the people know that their president is universally elected by the voters of this country. This is where when we talk of reforms we also have to look at ways to bring specialists into the fold. This is the need of the hour for Sri Lanka to look at a very holistic approach.