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Sri Lanka government recoils from 'devolution' report

The Sri Lankan government has formally distanced itself from a ‘majority’ report submitted by a divided experts committee on devolution of power set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to solve the island’s ethnic conflict, the Hindustan Times reported.

The move came as the ultra-Sinhala nationalist JVP, Sri Lanka’s third largest party and an ideological ally of President Rajapakse walked out of the all-party committee the report was commissioned for, in protest at suggestions power should be shared with the Tamils.

Denying that the government backed the recommendations made by 11 out of the 17 members of the panel, 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, saying that these reports could be an attempt to belittle the steps taken by the government to battle the "fascist designs of the LTTE."

But on Tuesday, the JVP said it was withdrawing from the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), saying it was going off the track by taking into consideration ‘undemocratic’ recommendations.

Eleven of the seventeen experts had agreed on a common report though individual members had noted reservations on certain points. This is presented as the ‘majority’ report.

But the main ‘minority’ report reflecting a conservative Sinhala majoritarian view comes from four other members, all Sinhalese, including the top lawyer and doyen of Sinhala nationalists, H. L. De Silva, PC.

There will also be two dissenting reports presented by two other members, also Sinhalese.

Political observers say that the rightwing Rajapakse 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.

The Hindustan Times’ correspondent, PK Balachandran, says it is noteworthy that the government thinks it fit to distance itself from the majority report despite the fact that 6 of the 11 who wrote it are Sinhala.

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 favoured the continued unification of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to give the Tamils a unified place of habitation, though the unification effected in 1987 had been annulled this year 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 Sinhalese fear a Tamil reconsolidation of the Northeast which could lead to secession of the traditional Tamil homeland which comprises one third of Sri Lanka’s landmass and two thirds of its coastline.

The majority report supported the creation of autonomous enclaves for Muslims and Sinhalese in the merged Northeast.

But the minority report said that ethnic enclaves would only tear the national fabric.

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.

The majority report wanted two Vice Presidents to be appointed, one each from the minority Tamil and Muslim communities.

But the minority report said that it would be enough if key cabinet portfolios were given to the minorities.

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.

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.

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