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30 Years Later, Sri Lanka at a Political Crossroads

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Thirty years on since Sri Lanka's infamous Black July riots, the country has reached a political crossroads. In those three decades ethnic violence has engulfed the country, leaving its society divided. With the war having ended in 2009, the country and its leaders have the opportunity to pursue the path of reconciliation. The efforts, however, are being thwarted by all involved, neither party is willing to compromise, leaving the country's future looking bleak.

On July 23 1983, rioting spread across the country with mobs of Sinhalese targeting Tamil homes and businesses. The violence was in response to a deadly ambush in Jaffna by the LTTE which killed 13 soldiers. In the space of one week it is estimated that hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamils were killed, thousands fled the country and numerous Tamil youth in the North and East joined separatist groups.

This was but a precursor to the 26-year civil war that would follow, which saw greater violence against all ethnic groups and a further division of an already volatile country.

Now, with the opportunity to build a lasting peace on the doorsteps of the country, political turmoil is threatening to once again plunge Sri Lanka in to a greater ethnic crisis.

Sri Lanka's coalition government has been unable to restart the stalled reconciliation efforts with the country's minorities. Proposed constitutional change in the wake of what has been a delayed announcement of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections has left domestic and international observers questioning the regime's dedication to the process.

The announcement this year that the Northern Province would vote in its first ever Provincial council was greeted with guarded enthusiasm. For the minority Tamils living in the Jaffna peninsula, the creation of a Provincial Council would give them their first taste of self-governance.

The creation of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka followed the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987. Through the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the constitution, the rule of provincial councils (PCs) was written in to law. This was an initiative to devolve certain powers to the provinces, in hope that it would end the ongoing civil war in the country. By 1988 eight provincial councils had been elected, with the Northern and Eastern provinces being administered by a single provincial council (the North-East Provincial Council).

In 1990, the chief minister of the North-East Provincial Council (NEPC), Annamalai Varatharajah Perumal, moved a motion in the council to declare the region independent of the central government.

Sri Lanka's President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, dissolved the PC and imposed direct rule of the region from the capital. It was not until 2008 that the Eastern Province was demerged from the NEPC and allowed to hold its own provincial council elections.

Now, in 2013, Sri Lanka will see the first ever North Provincial Council elections in the country. On the surface this a step forward after 26 years of ethnic unrest that saw the region isolated from the rest of the country.

Yet the nationalist parties have expressed reservation about holding an election in the North until alterations have been made to the 13th Amendment. As has been expected the fallout from these demands has been widespread. Locally, members of the opposition and senior Ministers of the ruling coalition have both voiced concerns over these attempts to dilute the amendment. Internationally, Sri Lanka's big brother to the north, India, has warned the government that unless they implement the 13th Amendment fully, and go further, Sri Lanka could not rely on their further support.

While India's support for the ruling regime has been sparse in the recent past, as seen through their decision to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC summit this year, further isolation would be disastrous.

The government will be under heavy scrutiny in the lead up to the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which Sri Lanka is to host in November. Any further show of disapproval by India towards their neighbor at this event will result in Sri Lanka dropping further in its international standings.

While the ruling coalition continues to maintain a comfortable 2/3rd majority in Parliament, those in the opposition who have voiced their dissatisfaction have been left screaming at a wall. However, it is the dissent from within the government, with the leaders of the Leftist parties and senior ministers contesting the government's intentions, that poses the largest threat.

These individuals have claimed that the government is threatening to repeat the mistakes of the past by not effectively devolving power to the minorities through the Provincial Councils. According to the constitution land, police and taxation powers will all fall under the purview of these Councils.

Supporters of the devolution of power have argued that only when police powers are governed by a local council that law and order can prevail. The language barrier that exists in the country, the majority in the North and East speak Tamil while the rest of the country converses in Sinhala, has led to concerns that a centrally controlled police force would not be able to confer in the locally spoken dialect.

However, opposition to the 13th Amendment has arisen from fears that any separation from the central government would encourage fresh demands for a separate state. Those who have made demands for a dilution of the amendment accept devolution of power can take place, provided it is done in a closely monitored and limited manner.

While these concerns may be justified, skepticism arises from the fact that several Provincial Council elections have been held since the conclusion of the war without any similar arguments being aired.

Sri Lanka has paid the highest price to achieve the peace it now enjoys. Yet the state of affairs in the country does not allow for the justification of such a price. The inability of politicians to do what has been asked of them by the people has left the country threatening to squander the bloodied peace that was achieved.