Photo courtesy of NP

In the final part of this seven part article, let us focus on certain fundamental changes required to implement serious political and social reforms for the greater good of the country. If we are clear-eyed about the complexities and challenges we face and put emotions to one side, these reforms are achievable with conviction and determination. But in the long term, even such reforms could be reversed when the political stability of the ruling elite is under threat unless critical police reform is also undertaken. Such reforms, if undertaken parallelly, would help improve subjective conditions for a plural society that is inclusive, equitable and empathetic towards diversity.

In pluralistic societies like Sri Lanka and India, a lack of understanding regarding policing non-majority communities have caused serious consequences. It has not only diminished confidence in the police but also disempowered them as a force in effectively engaging with all members of society, particularly during times of conflict. Some examples are the 1983 Black July pogrom in Sri Lanka; the 2020 reign of terror against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, India; and the police behavior that ended the spontaneous people’s revolution in Sri Lanka last year demanding accountability for economic mismanagement, corruption, and authoritarianism that bankrupted the nation. These situations have eroded confidence in the ability of police to fulfill their duties and responsibilities justly and effectively. In countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, awareness about the diverse nature of society is created on an ongoing basis through providing education, training and development programs regarding non-majority community groups. This enables police to perform better and professionally.

Globally, there are many governance systems with devolutionary experiences with land and police powers devolved to the periphery. These systems have generated sufficient political stability in their respective countries. In Sri Lanka, too, it will be beneficial to fully implement the 13th Amendment by granting the hitherto not devolved police and land powers to the provincial councils with the enactment of statutes as required. The political establishment needs to initiate a consultative fact finding process, focusing on establishing the causes of the ineffectiveness of provincial councils. A body needs to be established to constantly monitor the efficiency of provincial councils or the lack of it under the existing structural arrangements and recommend what measures the political establishment ought to take to make the system more effective.

Impediments and unfair perceptions

Sri Lanka is a plural society comprising 19 communities of which four are major, i.e., Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils. The devolution of power is a process designed to assure participative democratic governance for all peoples of the country. However, the executive presidential system has consistently paved the way for popular authoritarianism through undue consolidation of power. This is inconsistent with the objectives of devolution, which is to enable the various communities to have a say in making decisions on matters that affect their lives.

Despite overwhelming evidence, pro-Sinhala lobbies maintain that the sufferings Tamil people endure are nothing but common grievances that all communities in Sri Lanka are subjected to. This view is erroneous and hurtful and its political consequences have been tragic. We need to recognize that we can live in harmony if, and only if, we understand the existential experiences Tamil-speaking people face day in day out.

Many argue that because the 13th Amendment is a legislative construct India imposed on Sri Lanka, the resultant provincial councils are corrupt, ineffective, wasteful and mismanaged white elephants and therefore they need to be abolished. Could we extend the very same argument to the functioning of the central government in a similar vein? As it is corrupt, ineffective, wasteful and mismanaged, do we call for the abolition of the central government?

Under the current unitarist executive presidential system in Sri Lanka, non-majority communities have always been at the receiving end of chauvinist political and bureaucratic manoeuvring. The devolution of power under the 13th Amendment is marred by the fact that the balance of power is weighted heavily in favour of the centre. The centre uses the Concurrent List to stymie the aims of devolution. Despite the judicial determination that the 13th Amendment is consistent with Article 2, which refers to the unitary state provision in the constitution, devolution has not been fully implemented due to a lack of political will to devolve land and police powers to the provinces.

Different types of devolution

Autonomy comprises diverse instruments of devolution that allow a group of certain distinct identities to exercise direct control over their own special affairs while simultaneously allowing the majority community to exercise governance over the whole society’s universal interests. It could take the form of federalism, where all regions enjoy equal powers (symmetrical) with an identical relationship to the central government. This is the case in Australia and the US. However, the territories of Australia, such as the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory (NT) are autonomous divisions with devolved powers, yet subordinate to federal governance. In the US certain areas directly come under the federal government but with various degrees of autonomy, for example, Columbia. In most pluralistic countries there are situations where all regions do not enjoy equal powers (asymmetrical), for example, Canada, Switzerland, India, Spain, Russia and Malaysia.

If a country has to accommodate only a few specific concerns, the federal model may be considered unnecessary. In such circumstances, regional autonomy is granted. For example, the Aland Islands in Finland, South Tyrol in Italy, Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, Cordillera and Mindanao in the Philippines, Puerto Rico in the US, Zanzibar in Tanzania, Hong Kong and Macao in China, Greenland and the Faroes in Denmark, New Caledonia in France and Scotland in the UK.

However, where devolution of powers cannot be legally and adequately protected, other arrangements are used such as regionalism (in Italy), decentralization (in France), and constitutional protection of local government as a third tier of government (in Nigeria, Spain, Finland, and Germany). Many other arrangements are also used elsewhere in addressing similar issues, for example, reserves in Australia, Africa and some parts of Asia. Another version was the Bantustans of South Africa. Indigenous peoples’ aspirations and historical claims have been recognized recently by transforming reserves into self-governing areas, for example in Canada and the Philippines.


Nation building cannot be accomplished by a top down approach with the government dictating the rules. It requires the active participation of ordinary citizens in the shaping of a common political will and the pursuit of policies that promote national integration. Governance institutions need to be more responsive to local needs and aspirations. “Nation-building further presupposes a socio-cultural structuring and integration process leading to shared characteristics of identity, values and goals. It is not so much the homogeneity of these characteristics that is crucial, rather it is the acceptance and toleration of heterogeneity and the facilitation of inclusion.” (ANU Briefing Note – No.1 / 2007, The Twin Processes of Nation Building and State Building).

Even after 14 years since the end of the armed conflict, no serious consensus on the scope of the 13th Amendment has been reached except for the oscillation between the 13 minus and 13 plus rhetoric. The discussion spectrum ranges from those who want to go back to the unitary system of governance that the colonialists left us with to those who favour an improved 13th Amendment with its deficiencies addressed, those who advocate a federal solution and those who demand separation by holding a referendum in the North and East.

Full devolution is undermined by the executive power the central government wields. Not only does this stand against but also contradicts the spirit of devolution. This power conflict allows the president and the central government to intervene in substantive to trivial matters pertaining to a Province. (Sections 11 and 15 (2) of the Provincial Councils Act, No. 42 of 1987, the Provincial Councils (Payment of Salaries and Allowances) Act, No. 37 of 1988, and Provincial Councils Pensions Act, No. 17 of 1993). Also, in provinces, the prevalent political culture and structures mirror the centralized system. This structural mindset needs to change. Empowering provincial councils to be fully functional will attract significant contributions from high achievers and investors from the wealthy diaspora community. Its potential to resurrect the country from the present economic ills cannot be underestimated.

Another significant issue that needs to be addressed is the power of provincial councils to raise adequate revenue, which is one of the weakest facets of the 13th Amendment (See the reports of the respective Provincial Councils in CPA (2008) Strengthening the Provincial Council System, where a prominent ground of complaint is with regard to the fiscal and financial aspects of the 13th Amendment). Not a single political establishment has been willing to look at the causes for the ineffectiveness of the provincial council system and to have the commitment to review and restructure the governance protocols at the centre to follow the extent of devolution as provided under the 13th Amendment.

A logical start to overcome this impasse is for the country to acknowledge our cultural diversity as a valuable heritage that can be utilized to reap the benefits of power sharing so that as a multi ethnic nation we can achieve a better, fairer and equitable Sri Lanka. For this, we need to make some difficult choices by questioning our own value systems and our understanding of the “other”. Only then can we find pathways to building unity in diversity and harmonizing diversity with unity. Each of us could play a vital role in this by being creative and constructive. Only then can we hope to achieve our common aims of justice, equity, and peace and find ways to celebrate life sustainably, collectively and inclusively. Then, the task of nation building will be a lot easier.

Read Part 6 here: