Professor Tissa Vitharana, whose name is synonymous with the hitherto elusive quest for a constitutional framework that would satisfy both the LTTE and the Sinhalese, speaks to C. A. Chandraprema on the accusations leveled at him by the JVP, and the bona fides of President Rajapakse on the question of actually desiring a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict.
Q. In the leaflet the JVP distributed island wide on Monday last week, you had been mentioned by name as one of the main reasons for their decision to disassociate themselves from the PA government. The accusation was that you were preparing schemes to turn Sri Lanka into a federal state. What do you have to say about that?
A. What I have to say is that I don’t use the term federal because the terms ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ have lost their original meaning. Today you have states which are called unitary but which have federal characteristics and federal states that have unitary characteristics. Therefore, to quibble over words when we are faced with a grave situation which affects the future of our country, I think is a waste of time. Dr Vasantha Bandara participated in all sessions of the All Party Representatives’ Committee as the official representative of the JVP. The discussions were acrimonious at first but gradually the mood changed and we had a very friendly atmosphere where an attempt was made to listen to what the other side has to say and then to understand why different viewpoints were being held. Right throughout, the JVP participated fully in these discussions. When it came to the stage where we had to come to a decision on power sharing and devolution, we had a very free discussion within the APRC and we came to an agreement. Every word of what every delegate said is recorded and the proceedings are available. The gist of what Dr Vasantha Bandara said was that they would agree to devolution, provided the devolution of power benefited the people. The issue was raised that the 13th amendment had hitherto not been effective in benefiting the people and that therefore it was worthless trying to have that type of devolution. That is what the JVP representative said. I too hold the view that the process of devolution that we have had under the 13th amendment is in no way adequate. Too much power is concentrated in the centre and tight control has been kept on funds.
Q. Now when you say that the powers devolved under the 13th amendment were ‘not adequate’ and when the JVP representative says that the power devolved under the 13th amendment did not ‘benefit the people’, even though it may superficially seem that you are both on the same track, each of you are saying that for different reasons…
A. I didn’t get that feeling. I would think there is only one common reason. If you are not satisfied with the devolution that has already been put into effect through the 13th amendment, it does not mean that you are against devolution in principle, but rather that you want effective devolution.
Q. Isn’t it the case that the JVP is against devolution and they want to retain the unitary state?
A. All I can say is what transpired at the APRC. I went from delegate to delegate, each representative of the political parties in turn, and said that we have studied this whole issue, and that we have to take a decision as to whether we are agreeable to power sharing at the centre and devolution to the periphery, and that I would like each member to express their views. And they expressed their views individually. The common position taken by the JVP, MEP and JHU representatives was that they would agree to devolution within the unitary framework. The JVP representative added that in addition, he would want the devolution to benefit the people. All these are recorded. Representatives of several political parties said that we were all very happy that we had reached a consensus and they actually congratulated me as Chairman, for having brought the discussion to this point.
Q. Did the JVP and JHU representatives also congratulate you?
A. Well I can’t remember, but all I can say is that there were three or four people who congratulated me. After reaching consensus, we agreed on a media conference. My practice has been that before media conferences, I tell the APRC what I am going to say. If I remember correctly, they were all present at the conference where I made this statement. The next day, the JVP spokesman made a statement to the effect that they had not agreed to devolution. The next stage was to decide how we were going to implement it. I suggested that instead of our going through the same process, the expert panel of the APRC (Which was appointed by the President) has come to some position and it would be useful to get their input to our discussions and we agreed to have a joint meeting. At the meeting where it was decided to have that joint meeting, the JVP was present and they agreed on that. When we did have that joint meeting the JVP representative participated. During that meeting, it so happened, that there were two main reports one by group A and the other by group B, and after those reports, two individuals, one of them being the chairman, gave their individual reports because they felt they couldn’t sign either of the other two and they indicated why. Then we had a one and a half hour discussion between the members of the two committees to clarify issues and if I recollect correctly, the JVP representative also posed questions, to the members of the experts’ panel who were there to clarify certain issues. The experts’ panel was not to dictate to the APRC but to assist it. We were completely free to accept or reject any of the proposals.
We were hopeful that there would be a single report but the fact that this didn’t materialise doesn’t in any way lessen the value of those reports. And I feel very sorry that thereafter the JVP made the report of one group their target and the reason for their leaving the APRC. Just to give an example, the report of group A which was their target, had with regard to the north east issue, four options. One of the options was that in the event of the north and the east being kept separate, there should be an apex body for cooperation on cultural and other matters of common interest. It is unfortunate that certain newspapers played a very unfair role and only reported the most extreme positions and made that the focus of attack. The whole process which we agreed to following our discussions would be kept confidential and not revealed to the public because these are sensitive issues and when we are engaged in a discussion of this nature, before we come to a decision, there are so many angles that have to be looked into. Making this an item for public debate is not going to achieve anything other than being divisive and bringing unnecessary pressure to bear on the representatives of the political parties. Everyone agreed that this would not be divulged to the public. The whole matter was going to be discussed within the APRC.
Q. Who leaked the majority report to the press?
A. I have no idea.
Q. People say you leaked it.
A. Why should I leak it? Can you tell me one valid reason?
Q. Well the JVP says that you leaked out the majority report in order to put pressure on the government to go in for a devolution package.
A. Anyone can say anything they want. In this particular instance, I outlined the procedure which we should follow. I said very clearly, please keep everything confidential. I also said that if there was anything that we felt should be rejected in the expert panel reports, we are free to do that as members of the political parties.
Q. Soon after the majority report of the experts committee was leaked out, I discussed it with Victor Ivan, and one of the things that he said was “Meka abhyasayak” In other words, saying that it was a kind of intellectual exercise, where people sit and talk and formulate plans which are not accepted by the LTTE and not accepted by the Sinhlaese, or even the Muslims.
A. I wouldn’t agree. This was a group of people who gave of their time without any payment, they got together in the interests of finding a solution. They are not peoples’ representatives, but individuals who have some expertise in the relevant areas. I wouldn’t expect them to be conscious of the political imperatives because they are not politicians. It is up to us as politicians, as representatives of the various political parties, to accept or reject their proposals. The report of the experts’ panel in my view would be a useful basis for working out a solution.
Q. Soon after this experts’ committee report was publicized, I was at a gathering where Suresh Premachandran of the TNA and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne was present. Suresh Premachancdran spoke very dismissively about the experts’ panel report. I can’t remember everything that he said, but one thing was, “Why can’t they use the word federal? They have refrained from using the word federal in order to appease Sinhala opinion. Why can’t they look at Tamil opinion also..,” and more to that effect. Rajitha Senaratne had to argue with him, saying that the majority report can provide a beginning for dialogue. What Victor Ivan said was right. It was rejected by the Tamils, and rejected by the Sinhalese as well.
A. As we know, the TNA s under duress. Their leaders who held independent opinions have been killed. They will not say anything that will lead to losing their lives. One thing that the JVP should realize is that the argument that the LTTE has always brought up hitherto has been that there is no point in negotiating with the government because when the government changes, the new government will not honour the agreement. But here for the first time, the two main political parties, that form the core of governments are represented. The issues that were brought up at the APRC were all relevant to achieving peace through negotiations.
Q. The point that Victor Ivan made was that we are sitting here in Colombo and churning out solutions on paper whereas what would have been necessary would be to get the agreement of both sides to the conflict to adhere to this kind of solution. In other words, the LTTE will first have to agree to a non-separatist political solution.
A. One of the main arguments that have been advanced by the LTTE for not participating in the peace talks, is that the government has not offered anything. This has been echoed by all the international stakeholders. We are trying to fill that lacuna, with a consensual approach.
Q. The consensus is here in Colombo. But what about the most important party to the conflict, the LTTE?
A. When the LTTE asks, “what are you offering us?” we have to put something on the table, and that is what we are in the process of fashioning.
Q. Some people think you are compiling documents for the consumption of the international community. When you have some sort of a proposal for devolution, that would keep the international community happy. Are you simply trying to keep the international community happy on behalf of the government?
A. In the very first briefing that the President gave the APRC, he made it very clear that he wanted to work out a home grown solution to our own internal problem.
Q. Do you think this President is actually interested in a political settlement?
A. In the Mahinda Chintanaya, it s very clearly stated that he will get all the parties together to work out a settlement. The image that the world had of him at the time of the Presidential election, was that he was a hawk intent on a military solution. That in my view is why the LTTE assisted in his victory. They did that in the expectation that he would play the part of a hawk so that the military objectives of the LTTE could be justified in the eyes of the world. Unfortunately for them, he turned out to be different. Before the first round of peace talks that took place in Geneva in February last year, seventy four armed forces personnel were killed by the LTTE. Despite that provocation, there was no retaliation. And progressively, with the attacks directed at the Army chief and the Defense secretary among others, the retaliatory approach has come to the fore. This is something the LTTE brought on itself. They were trying to justify their course of action and to put the blame on the government and the President. They have failed in that exercise. The world has seen that the President is serious about having talks, By setting up the APRC process, he has actually taken concrete action to work out a consensus document. [island.lk]