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SL Govt distances from 'devolution' report

Expersts say the Govt's decision stems from an anxiety not to alienate the Sinhalas, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2006 13:22 IST

The Sri Lankan government has formally distanced itself from the report submitted by an overwhelming majority of the members of the experts committee on devolution of power to solve the ethnic conflict in the island.
 
Denying that the government backed the recommendations made by 11 out of the 17 members of the panel set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cabinet spokesman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said on Sunday that reports describing the recommendations as embodying the government’s views were mere “speculation”.
 
More significantly, he also saw mischief in such an interpretation. He said that these reports could be an attempt to belittle the steps taken by the government to battle the "fascist designs of the LTTE."
 
The 17 member panel stood divided, with 11 members making radical recommendations on the devolution which could satisfy the Tamils while politically neutralising the LTTE, four members submitting a conservative Sinhala majoritarian view, and two members criticising both these groups but voicing conservative views all the same.
 
Political observers say that the government’s eagerness to distance itself from the "majority report" stems from an anxiety not to alienate the majority Sinhala community, which has consistently opposed substantial devolution of power to the Tamil majority North-East, seeing it as a stepping stone to secession.
 
It is noteworthy that the government thinks it fit to distance itself from the Majority Report despite the fact that 6 of the 11 members of the Majority Group are Sinhalas.
 
Key differences 
 
The majority report had recommended the retention of the present unit of devolution, namely, the provinces. But the "minority report" had recommended that the "village" be the unit of devolution, thus denying to the minority Tamils, the right to an autonomous North Eastern Province.
 
The minority report was not against the retention of the provinces, but it said that key strategic areas like ports and airports should be with the Centre.
 
The majority report supported the creation of autonomous enclaves for Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalas and Indian origin Tamils in some areas. But the minority report said that ethnic enclaves would only tear the national fabric.
 
North-East unification
 
The Majority Report favoured the continued unification of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to give the Tamils a unified place of habitation, though the unification effected in 1988 had been annulled by the Supreme Court.

But as a concession to the Sinhalas and Muslims, it wanted the unification to be subjected to a referendum in 10 years. 
 
The minority report, on the other hand, was totally opposed to the unification.  
The majority Sinhalas fear a Tamil consolidation which could lead to secession of one third of Sri Lanka’s landmass and two thirds of its coastline.
 
Concurrent List
 
The majority report said that any new constitution should do away with the Concurrent List in the case of the Tamil-majority Northeastern province. But the minority report said that the concurrent list, which allows the Centre to legislate on some devolved subjects, should be retained to prevent the provinces from breaking away from the national mainstream.
 
Presidential powers
 
The majority report asked for the reduction of the powers of the President of Sri Lanka, especially the power to declare an emergency and take over a province. But the minority report would want no dilution of the President’s powers.
 
The majority wanted two Vice Presidents to be appointed, one each from the minority Tamil and Muslim communities. But the Minority said that it would be enough if key cabinet portfolios were given to the minorities.
 
Law and Order 
 
The majority wanted autonomy for the provincial police, but the Minority, afraid of the LTTE taking over the police in the North-East, said that police powers should not be given before the LTTE had laid down arms.
 
Power over State Lands
 
On the crucial issue of State land too, the two reports differed widely. 
While the majority wanted all State Land in the provinces to be vested with the provincial government, the Minority wanted all such land to continue to be vested with the Centre.
 
Secularism
 
The majority wanted Sri Lanka not to have a state religion or any religion to be given the "foremost" position. But the Minority wanted the present system wherein Buddhism enjoys "foremost position" to continue.
 
The Tamils and Muslims like the State to be secular and not identified with one religion because religion in Sri Lanka is mixed up with ethnicity.
 
Most Sinhalas are Buddhist,  while most Tamils are Hindus. And the Muslims see themselves as a distinct religio-ethnic group with an Arab origin.
 
Language
 
The majority report wanted language rights for the Tamils and recommended that English be the link language. But the minority said that the link language should be both Sinhala and Tamil, and for this, all Sri Lankans should be taught both the languages.