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North-Eatsern Provincial Council and Chief Minister Varatharajapperumal

Oct 9, 2010 6:46:55 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The LTTE opposed the 13th amendment. However, the LTTE could not stop the formation of provincial councils...The provincial council was formed and Varatharaja Perumal was appointed chief minister. Everything changed when he declared the North and East as an independent state in November 1989... This declaration paved the way for the then government to abolish the provincial council.” - Vinyagamoorthy Muralidaran, ‘Karuna’, the Nation on Sunday, Sept 12, 2010

Second thoughts within the State and society regarding devolution (and the degree of devolution) to the Northern Provincial Council stem from the collective memory of the political adventurism and brinkmanship of Varatharaja Perumal and the North Eastern Provincial Council (NEPC). That NEPC was dissolved 20 years ago. Despite having two decades to reflect self-critically, the former chief minister placed his position on the record last Sunday: “The 13th amendment is not a good law; it prevents proper devolution and leads to more centralization”. (Sunday Lakbimanews, Oct 3, 2010) This is also the TNA’s stance. Perumal expresses this in the post-war moment in which the Tamil parties will be lucky if they are able to defend and preserve the 13th amendment.

The North-East Provincial Council (NEPC) was set up in November 1988. What is of paramount importance is that which occurred the very next month, on 17 December 1988: the EPRLF led NEPC issued its first Policy Declaration upon assuming office. Note the date. It was two days later on 19 December that Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President of Sri Lanka. The wording of the maiden Policy Declaration proves that Varatharaja Perumal, the Chief Minister of the Council, was not engaging in a defensive reaction to any behavior on the part of the Sri Lankan government (Premadasa had not even won the Presidential election) but was intent from the outset on a provocative political agenda which attempted to go well beyond the powers granted to Provincial Councils through the 13th amendment to the 1978 constitution.

The opening policy statement of the NEPC presented to the Provincial Assembly on 17 December 1988 read as follows:

“The Provincial Government is of the view that the devolved powers offered under the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution hardly satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people of the North-East Province. Hence it will commence negotiations with the Central Government and the Government of India with a view to working out a satisfactory package of devolution.”

What were the context and the implications of this statement?

1) It showed no ‘clarity of vision’, no appreciation of the prevailing balance of forces, a grasp of which was imperative for survival and success. The combination of an aggressive, invasive diplomacy on the part of the Third World’s most powerful state, the strongest ally the Tamil cause had and was likely to for some time, could not push beyond the 13th amendment-and that too required a two-thirds majority on the part of its local ally the UNP. There was no way to go further than this.

2) The 13th Amendment itself narrowly squeaked past the Supreme Court. Nothing with augmented powers could have got through at that stage of the evolution of Southern consciousness, which in turn had to be taken as a given if the strategy were to be one of structural reform rather than rupture.

3) The attempt to stretch the contours of the State was fuelling or at the very least was being instrumentalised by a serious Southern insurrection and therefore, expecting more-and faster as well-was tantamount to asking the mainstream democratic political forces occupying the centre-space, to commit hara-kiri.

In such a context, to publicly express, dissatisfaction at the sufficiency of the devolution contained in the 13th amendment and furthermore to threaten to reopen discussions on the subject not only with Colombo (referred to as ‘the Central Government’ in a country which did not have a federal system) but also with the Government of India, betrays an attitude that was far from positive, constructive and open minded. More importantly, it implied that a confrontation was inevitable between the NEPC parties and any Sri Lankan Government whatsoever. It just happened to take place on Premadasa’s watch.

The points in that Opening Policy statement of December 17th 1988, were buttressed by the First Status Report issued a few weeks later by the Varatharaja Perumal administration, which while escalating its expressions of dissatisfaction, put forward two documents: a draft to replace the 13th amendment and another draft to replace the Provincial Councils Law of 1987!

It is vital to recall the political backdrop against which all this was taking place and the context in which the ‘tardiness’ on the devolution front that the NEPC was complaining of arose. R Premadasa won the presidential election on 19 December. When he took his oaths on 2 January 1988 he faced a raging insurgency.

Premadasa had to focus on a Parliamentary election that was to be held in February, which meant not only concerning himself with winning an election over a strong opposition, but also on how to handle the firestorm of violence that the JVP was directing against candidates and organizers of the UNP. One could hardly imagine a fuller plate. Yet, he did make time for Varatharaja Perumal and moved as expeditiously as was possible to have the essential administrative infrastructure set up. I was present at the meeting.

All this had to be pushed through a state apparatus which not only contained a fair share of personnel hostile to the Provincial Councils (PCs) and sympathetic to the SLFP (which, was widely expected to win the parliamentary election), but was also ducking JVP bullets at the time!

None of this was of any concern to Perumal and the NEPC which demonstrated a combination of tunnel vision and arrogance that was truly self-destructive. Dissatisfied with the progress on the devolution front made during this period i.e. between the presidential and parliamentary elections held in an unprecedented context of system- threatening violence, and ill-disposed towards the 13th Amendment and the PCs from the very outset (as revealed by the initial Policy Statement of Dec 17th, ‘88, the Status Report and the draft laws) Perumal continued to escalate. In March 1989 the joint NEPC/EPRLF leadership visited India, where they went public with their request to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to use pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for ‘a more advanced form of devolution’.

This act commenced the stage of the political confrontation between the NEPC and Colombo (which provided the opening for the LTTE to exploit). There was exactly one year between the EPRLF’s Delhi trip and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence

by the NEPC; one year in which the NEPC was like a runaway locomotive headed inexorably for a crash.

Perumal’s NEPC embarked upon forced conscription. That single measure caused a meltdown of whatever support the NEPC had among the Tamil people. Thus in the second half of 1989, the NEPC was hated by both the majority of the majority Sinhalese and the majority of the minority Tamils. It was quite an achievement!

Premadasa summoned an All Parties Conference (APC) in mid September 1989. There were 90 delegates from 22 political parties. The APC was the last chance for the NEPC to have saved itself. It was an opportunity for constructive engagement. It was also the proper platform to press its case for more effective devolution. If it could make its case stick, the All Party Conference was the place to be, to make alliances which would support this cause. Indeed the Southern Provincial Councils contained many SLMP leaders of the newly emergent Provincial Opposition and even UNP Chief Ministers who were dissatisfied with the way in which the bureaucracy was impeding, even hamstringing devolution.

These were potential allies-only if, however, one’s agenda was of constructive, moderate reforms and improvements. This was clearly not the stance of the NEPC and Chief Minister Perumal. On 19 September 1989, after the opening of the All Party Conference, the EPRLF delegate and chief spokesman made a statement threatening a “Tamil resistance war” against the Colombo government.

The escalation continued. The NEPC/EPRLF put forward in December 1989 a wish list referred to by them as the 19 Point Charter. It followed this up with a resolution on 1 March 1990. These demands were presented as conditions sine qua non for the rescinding of the UDI-and presented the Sri Lankan state with an ultimatum of a year for compliance. The resolution was moved in Council by chief minister Varatharaja Perumal.

Just as the contents of a ransom note provide at the least some inkling as to the motivations and felt grievances of a kidnapper, so too does the list of demands presented by the NEPC at the moment of their Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in March of 1990, reveal the true motivations of Perumal’s political behavior.

The key passages were those referring to the Sri Lankan armed forces: “Bases of the three forces [were] to be limited to the following places in the North-East: a) Palali Army Camp b) Karainagar Naval Base c) Thalladi Army Camp d) Vavuniya Joseph Camp c) Trincomalee Naval Base f) Trincomalee Air Force Base g) Ampara Kondaivedduvan Army Camp.

All other bases other than those mentioned above [were] to be dismantled. The Army should be removed from Fort Frederick in Trincomalee where the Koneswar Temple is situated. This area should be declared a sacred area for Hindus and it should be brought under the administration of the North-East Provincial Government. Similarly the Army and the prison should be removed from the Jaffna Fort and the Kayts Sea Fort and these forts should be declared as museums where rare articles of value should be exhibited to the public. The administration of the forts should also come under the North-East Provincial Government.” (Points 7 and 10 of the 1 March 1990 Resolution of the NEPC)

Do the demands presented by Varatharaja Perumal give credence to the revisionist version of a sincere, eager, reformism, thwarted by the duplicitous Premadasa administration? If so the list of demands on the ultimatum should amount, in the main, to that of the implementation of promises made but observed in the breach, perhaps with a layer of further guarantees added on to prevent renewed backsliding. Is that the picture that emerges? Rather, is it one of a slide into or unveiling of a separatist paradigm despite a reformist option being in place?

I had strongly counseled both the Indian policy makers and the EPRLF leader Pathmanabha against the appointment of Varatharaja Perumal as Chief Minister. In an interview given to Kendall Hopman and published in the Sunday Times Plus (p.9) as early as 20th November 1988 - the very month the NEPC was set up— I broke publicly from the line of ‘permanent merger of the North and East/no referendum’ and was quoted as saying “I think the Referendum is a good idea”.

Within months I followed this up with my open letter (of resignation) to Perumal and Pathmanabha which also appeared in the English and Sinhala language mainstream press in the first quarter of 1989. In these instances I presented pragmatic alternatives to the continued IPKF presence, the permanent merger and the NEPC’s opposition to a referendum.

However, Perumal long conspired to create a quagmire for and entrench the IPKF presence, hoping for a confrontation between it and the Sri Lankan armed forces. His game-plan was to trigger a ‘Cyprusization’ of the island or a Bangladesh scenario. The reaction from NEPC/EPRLF to my constructive suggestions was coldly hostile, implicitly confrontational and not devoid of veiled threats.

As Karuna points out, Tamil politics and the Tamil polity have had to pay the price of Perumal’s folly. Postwar Sri Lanka can never leave room structurally, for a repetition of Perumal’s challenge to and blackmail of the State, or space for the temptation of soliciting external support for similar adventurism.