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13th Amendment Revisited

By Carlo Fonseka

(September 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 25 August 2009 I attended the launch of Prof. Lakshman Marasinghe’s latest book titled ‘Provincial Governor – Rights and Duties under the 13th Amendment’. On that occasion, an assessment of the 13th Amendment was made by Mr. V. Anandasangaree, Hon. Rauff Hakeem, Mr. Manohara de Silva PC and my erstwhile university colleague and friend Rohan Edirisinghe. They are all experts in the field and much more knowledgeable about constitutional matters than I can ever hope to be. Before the formal meeting began I told Rohan Edirisinghe that it was his brilliant advocacy several years ago that had induced me to support the 13th Amendment. I reminded him how he had cogently argued that given the balance of political and social forces inside and outside parliament at that time, implementing the 13th Amendment which was already law, was the only way open to the government to show tangibly that it respected the human rights of our Tamil citizens. To my dismay, Rohan could not, and would not, concede that he had ever advocated implementation of the 13th Amendment. He was too polite to tell me to my face that I am manifestly losing my memory, if not hallucinating.

However that may be, the simple truth that emerged on that occasion was that all four experts, for various reasons, unequivocally rejected the 13th Amendment. In particular, when I heard Mr. Anandasangaree, for whom I have great respect, gently but firmly rejecting the 13th Amendment, I realized that as a supporter of the 13th Amendment, I had a problem. What should I do when the legal and political experts were unanimous that the 13th Amendment should be ditched? My automatic response was to retreat to intellectual territory with which I was more familiar.
Paradigm Shifts

The history of science shows that the major advances in science (paradigm shifts) have occurred only when some bold individual armed with solid evidence defies the conventional wisdom of acknowledged experts in the field. Thus, Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, led to a shift from the earth-centered (geocentric) view of the solar system to the sun-centered (heliocentric) view. The numerous careful observations of Charles Darwin especially during his visit to the Galapagos Islands led to a decisive shift from creationism to evolution. The failure to detect ether, that is to say the medium in which light waves were assumed to travel, led to a shift from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics. These examples prove that even when all the experts agree they could still be wrong. However ridiculous it might sound, for a moment I wondered whether the experts were wrong to reject the 13th Amendment and I was right to support it. If so, was it sensible for me boldly to support the mundane hastily enacted 13th Amendment even in the teeth of strong opposition to it by the experts? I quickly realized that the 13th Amendment was not a paradigm shifting historical issue. I therefore asked myself what was the reasonable course of action for me to take.


At that point, I remembered three simple guidelines that Bertrand Russell had proposed for dealing with such situations.
1. When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.
2. When experts are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert.
3. When the experts all hold that no sufficient ground for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

Acting in accordance with those guidelines I therefore decided to suspend judgment about the desirability of implementing the 13th Amendment. About one matter, however, I remain utterly convinced. Our Tamil brethren who have inhabited the northern parts of this country for centuries and have preserved a language, religion and culture of their own, have a right to a measure of self-governance and a safe haven in the land of their birth. And I believe that if any current leader in our country has the desire, will, capacity and the public support essential to work out a constitutional arrangement for the maximum feasible sharing of power with our Tamil compatriots, that leader is H.E. President Mahinda Rajapakse.

-Sri Lanka Guardian

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