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The Merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces-issues to be considered

North - East

By: Ana Pararajasingham


A major demand of the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka is that the Northern and Eastern Provinces are merged into a single entity. From the Tamil perspective, such an arrangement is necessary to preserve the contiguity of the Tamil Homeland.From the Muslim point of view, there is ambiguity about such a merger with many Muslims openly hostile to the idea. The Sinhalese population of the Eastern Province is vehemently opposed to such a merger.

The Merger

In 1987, India intervened directly in Sri Lanka’s civil war, this was ostensibly to thwart Sri Lanka’s military assault on the Tamil rebels and rescue the Tamil population under siege.In reality, however, New Delhi’s intervention was driven by the perception that Sri Lanka was striking an independent and provocative position at variance with India in respect to a number of issues. These included: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; India’s declaration of the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, the use of Trincomalee harbour and Colombo ’s readiness to offer broadcast facilities for the Voice of America. [1] However, in an attempt to justify its stated reason for direct intervention, New Delhi persuaded Colombo to grant self-rule for the Tamils by introducing an amendment to its constitution. This was the contentious 13thamendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. The self-rule provided under the 13thamendment was illusory because, in reality, political power stayed with Colombo via a Governor appointed by the president with veto powers over the Provincial Council to be established under the 13thamendment. Colombo, in turn, was persuaded to permit a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the island to create the Northeastern Province which was to be the recipient of devolved power, albeit, subject to the governor’s veto powers. Although the 13thamendment was rejected by the Tamil polity at large, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was seen as a positive attribute. Indeed, the Needs Assessment report prepared jointly by the multilateral agencies comprising the UN, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in May 2003 during the Cease-Fire between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) included a separate report for the Northeast comprising the eight districts of the Northeastern province- Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara,[2] reiterating the Northeast Province as a distinct entity.

The de-Merger

However, in 2006, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was deemed ultra vires by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court which ordered that the provinces be demerged into a Northern and Eastern Province.

The call for re-merger

The Tamil demand for the re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is opposed by sections of the Tamil-speaking Muslim community and the entire Sinhalese community residing in the Eastern Province on the grounds that such an arrangement would reduce them to minorities in a merged Northeastern Province. At present, in the Eastern province, the Tamil, and Muslim populations are almost equal in size making up 75% of the population. The Sinhalese make up the balance quarter.However, in 1946, Tamils comprised 52% of the population, Muslims 39% and Sinhalese 9%. This profound change in demography is primarily due to Sri Lanka’s state-aided settlement schemes carried out over several decades. Whilst, Sinhala sentiments are to be expected, the Muslim community’s stance requires careful consideration by leaders of both Tamil-speaking communities i.e. those who consider themselves to be Tamils irrespective of their religious identities (Tamil speaking Hindus and Christians) and the Tamil –speaking Muslims who derive their identity from their Islamic faith.

On the one hand, there needs to be an honest acknowledgement by the Tamil leadership that the Tamil-speaking Muslims are a distinct people and their needs and aspirations revolve around their self-identification as a separate community. As such, the dialogue between the Tamil and Muslim leadership should address the following: autonomy or self-rule for the Muslim people in the East either within a merged Northeast or through the establishment of a separate province or region, the need for constitutional arrangements to safeguard the Muslim people’s rights as a ‘minority’ within a merged Northeast and consideration of issues that impact the Muslims most like equitable access to land. On the other, Muslim leaders need to be wary of conflating their distinct needs with that of their co-religionists living outside the Northeast. This is in keeping with the interpretation by Professor Amir Ali that “ terms of economic and linguistic interests, the Muslims of these two provinces are different from their counterparts in the other seven.”

Muslim leaders considering the question of a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces while cognisant of their reduction to around eighteen percent of the population in a ‘merged ‘Northeastern province in comparison to almost a third in a ‘stand-alone’ Eastern Province,need to take into account that this will, at the same time, help them counter in solidarity with the Tamils, the aggressive Sinhala nationalism they currently face in the Eastern province.


Then there is the matter how New Delhi which projects itself as the regional hegemon will look upon the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. On the one hand, New Delhi may be supportive of such a move as it can result in political power residing with the Tamil polity, regarded in some quarters in New Delhi as a party with whom they have some leverage. On the other, should a merger also involve the establishment of a Muslim majority region/province within the Northeast, it may well cause  New Delhi concerns in view of the prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism rooted in Wahhabism in some pockets in the Eastern province-particularly in places such as the densely populated Muslim town of Kathankudy.


It is vital that Tamil and Muslim leaders address the issues identified above to ensure that neither community is adversely impacted through a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. As noted by Ameer Ali, ‘their (Tamils and Muslims)  future survival, dignity and development cannot be achieved through mutual suspicion and mistrust but through unity built on a frank admission of past mistakes, openness in dialogue and justice in objectives.

It is equally vital that both  Tamils and Muslims make themselves aware of the crucial role played by the Sri Lankan government in creating enmity between the two communities. Kenneth D Bush[3] in The Intra-Group Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka-learning to read between the Lines provides an illuminating account of this role. According to Bush, the Sri Lankan government, well aware that a coalition of Muslim and Tamils on the East coast could effectively challenge Colombo’s authority had employed a two-pronged strategy to lessen this possibility. First, by altering the demographic composition of the East coast by increasing Sinhalese settlement, the so-called ‘west Bank scheme’.The second, by encouraging the separate articulation of Muslim and  Tamil interests and identities.As part of this strategy, during, the mid-1980’s Lalith Athulatmudali, Minister of National Security created and armed a Muslim civilian militia (‘the Muslim Home guard’) ostensibly for community protection but in order to perpetuate a cycle of violence between the Tamils and the Muslims. These policies and actions have served to harden and antagonize the relationship between East Coast Tamil and Muslim communities.

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher. He Was Director Programmes with Switzerland based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) between 2007 and 2009.


[1] Sankara Krishna, “India’s Role in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict”, Marga Institute, Colombo,2001,p 4-5

[2] Assessment of the Needs in the Conflict-affected Areas, May 2003.

[3] Kenneth Bush, The Intragroup Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Laka, PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, New York, 2003p42-43