National Sections of the L5I:

Sri Lanka: new attacks on Tamil rights

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Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka's increasingly authoritarian president, has announced constitutional changes that will fundamentally alter the rights of Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country.

At present, elections to Provincial Councils, due in September, would be held under the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment was adopted as part of the reforms introduced in 1990 under pressure from India and supposedly designed to resolve conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil communities by granting a degree of regional devolution.

In the aftermath of the barbaric end to the civil war against the Tamil independence movement, which brought widespread international criticism, although no substantial action, Rajapakse presented the prospect of Provincial Council elections as a significant gesture on his part towards reconciliation.

However, the most openly chauvinist Sinhalese parties, such as the National Heritage Party, led by Buddhist monks, and the National Freedom Front, which split away from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People's Liberation Front) when it turned against Rajapakse's government, have campaigned for the terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to be revised before any elections are held. In all probability, this campaign was itself orchestrated by the president's own office - certainly his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who is the Defence Minister, openly supported it.

The main demands of these arch reactionaries are that Provincial Councils should lose control of land distribution - a vital issue given the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Tamils by the war - as well as police powers and the right to merge neighbouring Provinces by mutual agreement. They also want to remove the right of Provincial Councils to veto Constitutional changes that would affect their own powers unless there is a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Clearly, were such changes to be made, the Provincial Councils in the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces would have no defences against government policies such as the resettlement of Tamil land by Sinhalese populations, which is already happening.

Now, the President has announced that changes will be made to the Thirteenth Amendment, specifically to prevent merger of provinces, which Sinhalese chauvinists see as a step towards future secession, and to restrict the economic powers of provinces. Given the fact that, at present, his government has more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament, these proposals are likely to be adopted.

In response, the biggest of the Tamil bourgeois parties, the Tamil National Alliance, TNA, has announced that it will boycott the elections to the Provincial Councils if these “reforms” are indeed enacted. As the party that would normally be expected to win a large majority in the elections, this is intended to remove any legitimacy from whatever Council might be elected. However, such a strategy is much more likely to open the door to a Council of unprincipled politicians willing to collaborate with Rajapakse who will be able to claim that they have an electoral mandate, if only from the tiny minority who would be likely to go to the polls.

What would really create an obstacle to the Rajapakse clan and their cronies would be a campaign of mass mobilisation in defence of the devolved powers of all Provincial Councils and demanding the whole raft of democratic demands that include the release of political prisoners, the return of displaced people to their own lands, the removal of all restrictions on the media and the withdrawal of troops from the Tamil lands.

This latest example of chauvinist discrimination against the Tamils is yet another proof that there can be no stability in Sri Lanka until the National Question is resolved, and the only principled basis for that solution is a recognition of the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, including separation if that is their wish. That has to be written into the programme of any workers' party in Sri Lanka but such a party must also campaign to unite workers of all communities in a common struggle for their common interests against an ever more authoritarian and corrupt government.