‘The words federal and unitary have lost their meaning over the passage of time’
Science and Technology Minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana, Chairman of the All Party Representatives Committee, outlines the progress made by the APRC and stresses the need for a power sharing mechanism to resolve the present conflict, in an interview with Manjula Fernando of the Daily News:
Q: The All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) is reportedly close to submitting its proposals. When will it be forthcoming?
A: The APRC has had 24 meetings for over a period of six months and based on the views expressed there I produced a document a month ago. It also included some of the suggestions made by a panel of experts appointed by the President. Members of the APRC accepted this document and agreed to submit their parties’ amendments in writing.
Already 10 of the parties including the UNP have sent in their written proposals. The JHU and the CWC said they were ready with the proposals, but they want to study the SLFP proposals before handing them over.
I heard that the SLFP committee appointed to finalise their suggestions and also approve the amendments, have put together their report and it was on the way to the SLFP’s Central committee for approval. Hopefully it will be submitted next week.
I have been circulating the individual amendments among all the parties. Once we receive the SLFP proposals it will be circulated. Then we will restart our discussions. We should try to conclude the discussions on amendments in about two months.
The minimum consensus I have indicated is that the two main political parties, SLFP and the UNP should be in agreement on whatever positions accepted. If any other party disagrees a particular section their dissent will be recorded.
At which point will the LTTE and TNA come into the picture ?
At the moment the TNA is not part of the process, though from the inception I have stated I would like them to be a part of the process but unfortunately they are not. The LTTE will come into the process only after peace talks begins. That is of course will be left to the President to decide.
Q: The JVP is boycotting APRC meetings. How has this affected your deliberations? Without their active contribution can you claim this to be a legitimate southern consensus? Any hard attempts to get them back?
A: I’m disappointed that the JVP which participated in 21 meetings for over four months decided to withdraw. I met the Leader of the JVP Somawansa Amarasinghe, about a month ago, and prevailed on him to come back into the process.
I stated that they are free to suggest any position and we are ready to listen to them. But so far I have not received any response.
The fact that they are carrying out a campaign against the whole process would indicate they are not likely to come back. Their staying off does not prevent us from striving to reach a consensus between the 13 parties that are in the process now.
Q: Will the JVP continue to be a spoiler?
A: That is a question you must ask the JVP. The main argument of the LTTE against any type of negotiated settlement with the government was on the basis that opposition was not involved in the process and therefore any agreement reached with the Government in power will not be honoured by the next Government. This has carried weight with the Tamil community and the International community.
Now for the first time the President has set up an All Party Conference which has brought together the political parties represented in the parliament except the TNA. It has brought together the UNP and the SLFP, which are the parties that form successive governments. If we reach a consensus accepted by these two along with others then both the Tamil people as well as the international community will be convinced.
By opposing the APRC process, they are, in reality, helping the LTTE, because the LTTE does not want to have serious talks to solve the problems. They want to embark on a military cum terrorist road to achieve a separate state.
Q: Has the feud between the UNP and the SLFP been reflected at the APRC?
A: Because of the collapse of the MoU the UNP wanted to withdraw from the APRC. Then I met UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and said it was not a very rational position to take because the APRC has not been appointed by the SLFP or the Government, but it was a creation of the APC of which the UNP is still a member. Therefore, the MOU had no bearing.
The UNP Leader accepted this position and then he tried to convince his party to stay on in the process.
But there had been differences of opinion and now the ultimate position they have taken is that they will see what the SLFP comes up with and decide to continue or not.
My earnest hope is that they will continue. Here, I must record the very positive contribution the UNP Representative K.N.Choksy has made during the meetings he was present.
Q: What is the reaction of the other parties to the UNP reformist group’s participation?
A: Minister Karu Jayasuriya met me and indicated that they would like to see my document and also submit their proposals. I have agreed to accept any proposal they submit. Their participation poses a problem because they are not a recognised political party. I will have to consult the President on that matter.
Q: How has the UNP reacted?
A: The position they took on their first document on the North and the East that there should be a merger for six to eight years followed by a referendum was changed in the subsequent document to accept my position that this matter should not be discussed at this point. But the question of a merger should be raised only during peace talks where Muslims will also have representation.
Q: Is there a common consensus among parties with regard to main issues?
A: On different issues parties have expressed their desire for some change but the majority have accepted my document as a suitable basis for discussion and developing a consensus document. The only party that has not stated that is the MEP. And they have sent in their changes.
Q: You yourself have been described as a federalist. Has the APRC decided on a unit of devolution? Is Federalism the best answer for Lanka?
A: Labels have no meanings. Here we are trying to work out a solution that will enable sufficient power to be given to appropriate levels for people to take decisions on matters relevant to their living and working existence.
The crux of the matter is that in a system where the central Government is taking decisions the minorities have lost faith in the desire of majority to do justice to them . They appeal for necessary power so that they can fulfil their needs which is not being satisfactorily done by the centre now.
Power sharing has risen as a result of this. Therefore, working out an arrangement where people can have necessary power to meet their own needs is what we are doing.
The words Federal and unitary have lost their meaning over the passage of time. For example Britain, which is considered to be a unitary state has, today, given Scotland and Wales a separate Parliamentary unit and devolved most of the power that was enjoyed by London, giving them not only executive power but also legislative power. It is only in a few areas, Britain as a whole, the power is retained in Westminster.
India is considered to be a federal government. But it has very clearly stated powers given to the Centre to dissolve any state government under specified circumstances.
I think it is senseless to argue on words like federal and unitary. What we have to ensure is that we have a system to meet aspirations of all our people satisfactorily, within a framework of one country and one state.
For instance there is a movement in Canada for the French speaking province of Quebec to separate from Canada. There are two main political formations, one is the separatist and the other is federal. The federal movement is considered to be against separatism.
There 24 countries which have purely federal constitutions. These include large states like USA, Australia, India and China and smaller states like Belgium and Switzerland.
There about 27 other countries which have veered away from unitary status towards federal states to prevent separation.
The whole idea is to remain as one country but if the minorities don’t get the powers they need, the only solution is separation.
The unit of devolution will be the existing nine provinces. There will be no change either within those nine provinces or between those nine provinces, meaning no merger, in my document. These decisions will be taken at the peace talks with adequate representation of all the stakeholders. Without doubt there has to be a Muslim representation.
Q: Should any solution go beyond Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 2000 proposals?
A: There are a number of features in the 2000 constitutional proposals which met the aspirations of the minorities, in particular Tamils. But at the same time there are certain features they were not completely happy with. In my document we have tried to overcome these. It will help reduce the fears of the majority community on a separatist point of view while satisfying the minority needs for an adequate share of power.
Q: Do you think India’s Panchayat or Grama Rajya system will fit into a complex system like ours?
A: I have adopted that system to suit our conditions. It is an important part because a lot of problems of governance or lack of governance, flow from the gap between the governed and the governing. It is very wide.
What I have suggested at village level is to form a Jana Sabha (JS) for a unit of 100 families. You can elect one member from the JS area (a ward) to Gam Sabha (village committee).
About 2/3 Grama Sevaka Wasamas will form one Gam Sabha area. There will be ten elected members in the GS and a Chairperson/CEO will be elected among them. They will be given adequate funding through the Constitution itself to carry out economic and infrastructure development activities.
The Chairperson of the Gam Sabha will be the representative of that area at the Pradeshiya Sabha (PS). There will be no need for a separate election for PSs.
In the present system, Divisional Secretariats and the Pradeshiya Sabhas are divorced. The divisional secretariats come under district secretariats.
Pradeshiya Sabhas are usually at loggerheads with the Divisional secretariats if they want to get things done for their people. I have proposed divisional secretariats to come under the purview of Pradeshiya Sabhas.
They can’t legislate but they can pass by-laws for functions allocated to them. This system will enable the pockets of various groupings like Muslim communities living in Sinhalese dominant areas or Sinhalese in Tamil dominant areas, etc to have adequate powers and funding to attend to their needs. The system is to apply to the whole country.
Q: How do you plan to convince the LTTE and TNA to accept your proposals of power sharing? Do you think it will be easy?
A: I would like to emphasise this, I have been misrepresented by JVP in particular and media in general that I have said our objective in the APRC is to satisfy the LTTE. I have never said that. What I have expressed is that we are meeting here as representatives of people to work out a solution acceptable to the people of our country, be they Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil.
If we present a document which adequately satisfies the aspirations of the Tamils and it is accepted by the two main political parties, then there is no need for Tamils to support the LTTE to form a separate state.
Besides EPDP and the parties representing the plantation sector Tamils, there have been inputs from the EPRLF, PLOTE and also possibly from TULF Leader V. Anandasangaree. They represent Tamil aspirations.
In this situation, the LTTE will be forced to come to serious talks and try to fulfil the real needs of Tamils or else they will be alienated by the community they claim to represent. If that happens the LTTE will be very vulnerable because history has shown that any military group which loses the support of the people cannot survive.
Q: The air attack on the Katunayake SLAF base clearly shows the LTTE at the moment is not into peace. The Government is also continuing limited military operations. In this backdrop how optimistic are you that the process to find a political solution will see the light of day?
A: As I have always maintained the LTTE’s military and terrorist campaign has developed because of the grievances of the Tamil people. If they had no grievances there won’t be a need for the LTTE. They have made use of the people’s grievances to further their own objectives. Weakening the LTTE and undermining their separatist campaign could only be done by satisfying the Tamils’ needs.
Therefore by having the APC process going on we will be sending the message both to the Tamil people and the International Community that the Government is moving towards a peaceful resolution to the dispute and the blame for the escalation of violence lies with the LTTE.
Q: No peaceful settlement will be possible if you do not ‘sell’ the idea of power sharing to the South. How do you plan to do this ?
A: Power sharing has already been experienced under the 13th amendment. The idea is already there. What we try to do is to show that you can make it more effective by ensuring the benefits really flow to the grassroots level.
But on the other hand we have to show that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent the formation of a separate state. If there is any moves towards this the President can deploy the army and if that is inadequate it can dissolve the province and take over administration.
Under these circumstances I see no reason why people in the South should not accept devolution. Further there will be no separate treatment to the North. Whatever will be proposed will apply to the entire country.