Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Background On Federalism Proposals

Published: Wed 25 Jun 2003 09:21 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Sri Lanka: Background on federalism proposals
Refs: Colombo 1107, and previous
1. (U) Despite the serious problems that the peace
process has faced of late (see Reftels), there is still
much talk of federalist-related solutions to the
conflict between the GSL and the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At this point, the current
positions of the government and the LTTE on federalism
remain vague, with the two sides currently focused more
on the related issue of how to form an interim
administrative structure in the north/east. That said,
in terms of a longer range solution to the conflict,
both sides have said they support the implementation of
federalist arrangements in the north/east within a
unified Sri Lanka.
2. (U) As background on the complex issues involved in
any discussion of this subject in the context of Sri
Lanka, Mission provides the attached briefer on previous
federalism proposals that have been made in the course
of the conflict. These proposals stretch back to those
made during the Thimpu talks in 1985 and include those
contained in the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, as well as
more recent constitutional devolution proposals made by
President Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance party.
3. (U) Mission's background piece on previous Sri
Lankan federalism proposals follows:
Begin text:
>> (A) 1985 - THIMPU: In 1985, peace talks were held in
Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. The Thimpu talks were
the first set of peace talks held since the advent of
the ethnic conflict in 1983. India sponsored the talks.
Four principles were placed before the GSL by six Tamil
organizations, including the LTTE. The Tamil groups
wanted to amend the 1978 Sri Lanka Constitution and its
"unitary state" provisions to encompass the following
four points:
Sri Lanka must:
- Recognize Sri Lankan Tamils as a distinct entity;
- Recognize an identified Tamil homeland and guarantee
its territorial integrity;
- Recognize the inalienable right of self-determination
of the Tamil entity within this homeland; and,
-Recognize the right to full citizenship and other
fundamental democratic rights of all Tamils.
The first three principles were rejected by the GSL on
the grounds that they undermined the "unitary" character
of the Sri Lankan state.
The 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution gave
effect to the devolution provisions of the Indo-Sri
Lankan Accord signed in July 1987 by President J. R.
Jayawardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Once it signed the accord, the GSL pushed the 13th
amendment through Parliament.
The 13th Amendment sought to devolve power to newly
instituted provincial councils throughout Sri Lanka,
including a newly amalgamated northern and eastern
provincial council. It contained three lists detailing
the following matters: the areas of government devolved
to the provinces (List I); the powers retained at the
center (the Reserved List, or List II); and a Concurrent
List (List III) of shared functions which were
ultimately controlled by Parliament. The 13th Amendment
included the following key provisions:
- In addition to Sinhala, Tamil would also be an
official language of Sri Lanka with English as a link
- The north and east would be merged into one province
subject to a referendum.
- Provincial councils would be elected every five
- The president would appoint an executive-type
governor for each province.
- Provincial high courts would be established.
- Financial provisions would be directed by Parliament.
- Decisions of the provincial councils could be
superseded by regulations promulgated by the President
under the Public Security Ordinance.
Soon after the Indo-Sri Lankan accord was signed, the
LTTE made clear that it would not cooperate with the
Indian government. The situation degenerated as fierce
fighting erupted in the north and east between the LTTE
and the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), and between
the GSL and the radical JVP in the south. In this
situation, the proposed national referendum providing
for a merged north and east never took place. Councils
in other provinces, however, were elected in November
>> (C) 1991 - PREMADASA PROPOSALS: In August 1991,
under President Premadasa's guidance, a joint
parliamentary select committee was established to
explore ways of achieving peace and political stability
in Sri Lanka. Mangala Moonesinghe, the current Sri
Lankan high commissioner to India and then-Sri Lanka
Freedom Party (SLFP) MP, was appointed to chair the
The interim report of the select committee was released
in January 1993. The report included the following main
- The establishment of two separate units of
administration for the northern and eastern provinces;
- The adoption of a scheme of devolution on lines
similar to those of the Indian constitution;
- The devolution of more powers in List III (Concurrent
List of shared functions) of the 13th Amendment.
The Tamil parties, including the LTTE, did not endorse
the report, complaining that it did not devolve enough
powers to a north/east unit. Due to such criticism, the
report was never put before Parliament as a bill.
new People's Alliance (PA) government led by President
Kumaratunga held peace talks with the LTTE from late
1994 through early 1995. The government used the talks
to discuss confidence-building measures such as the
lifting of embargoes, the rehabilitation of the north
and east, including the restoration of electricity
supplies. The GSL said it was also keen to move forward
on the framework of a political solution that provided
that elections would be held in the north and east on
whether the two areas should be merged. The
government's devolution proposals were never fleshed out
fully, but it was leaning toward giving a north/east
unit at least as many rights, if not more, than were to
be given under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord
and the 13th amendment. In the end, the talks failed,
with the LTTE re-commencing the war in April 1995.
After several trial balloons, the PA went on to propose
a new devolution package in 1999-2000.
Under the devolution proposals, a new constitution was
to replace the existing 1978 constitution. The key
features of the proposal were the deletion from the 1978
Constitution of the following key points:
- (i) Article 2, which states that Sri Lanka is a
unitary state; and,
- (ii) Article 76, which prohibits Parliament from
abdicating its legislative powers and from setting up
any authority with any legislative powers.
Consequent to the deletion of the clause referred to at
"i" above, the existing unitary state was to be replaced
by a federation described as an "indissoluble union of
Also, consequent to the deletion of the clause referred
to at "ii" above, Sri Lanka was to be divided into an
unspecified number of regions (believed to be 8 or 9) to
which Parliament would abdicate major legislative powers
plus executive and judicial powers. Two of these
regions, the northern and eastern, were to be merged.
Article 5 of the proposed constitution (in contrast to
the 1978 Constitution) would include a Tamil-language
translation of the national anthem.
In addition, the government proposed that Sri Lanka
would have two vice presidents from different
communities with each such community being different
from the community of which the president was a member.
In August 2000, President Kumaratunga's People's
Alliance party presented these proposals to Parliament
in a bill. Despite a favorable response from the
minority parties, the new constitution was heavily
criticized by the then-Opposition United National Party
(UNP). (Note: The UNP won the December 2001
parliamentary elections and is now in power.) Never
approved, the bill automatically lapsed when the
Parliament was dissolved in August 2000, a few days
prior to the expiry of its six-year term.
End text.
4. (U) Minimize considered.
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