By Dr. S. Narapalasingam
The significance of the set of proposals for settling Sri Lanka’s internal conflict and ensuring lasting peace announced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on April 30 (2007 Labour Day) has to seen from the following factors:
As the Head of State and the Leader of the SLFP, the main constituent party in the UPFA coalition government; he promised at the start of his six-year term a political settlement within three months and often reiterated his commitment to ‘honourable peace’ based on ‘maximum’ devolution and negotiated political settlement. He had also conveyed to the Indian Prime Minister and other leaders during his visits to New Delhi that ’maximum’ devolution would be the basis of a political solution to Sri Lanka’s protracted ‘ethnic conflict’. He set up the All Party Council (APC), All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and the Expert Panel to assist the latter in the task of formulating proposals for constitutional reform that will meet the aspirations of all ethnic communities and safeguard the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The present leader of the SLFP one of the two main ‘national’ parties, before becoming the Executive President of Sri Lanka supported the devolution proposals of the (SLFP-led) PA coalition government in the draft Constitutional Reform Bill submitted to the Parliament in August 2000 by the then party leader President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Previous SLFP proposals
The devolution of powers in the 2000 draft Bill was considerably more than granted under the thirteenth Amendment and moreover the structure of the State was based on the principle ‘the sovereign, legislative, executive and judicial powers of the People shall be exercised by the Central Government and by the Regions’ as provided by the Constitution. The legislative powers were to be exercised by the Parliament, People at a Referendum and by the Regional Councils according to the manner specified in the Constitution. There was the bipartisan (PA-UNP) consensus on the proposed system of Regional Councils entrusted with specified legislative and executive powers. SLFP’s earlier portrayal of Sri Lanka as “Union of Regions” was dropped because of UNP’s objection. The devolution proposals in the draft Bill were derived from President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s earlier proposals which were watered down by the Parliamentary Select Committee after long drawn out deliberations. Although there was bipartisan (SLFP-UNP) consensus on the watered down proposals at the eleventh hour the UNP opposed the August 2000 draft Bill in the Parliament.
Since then the international community, especially India expected Sri Lanka to make fresh efforts towards structural changes that will result in meaningful power sharing and devolution to enable the ethnic minorities to safeguard their interests and promote their well-being according to their needs and priorities within one united country. While a section of the Tamil community was willing to accept a just and fair settlement within undivided Sri Lanka, another believed the Sinhala polity would never agree to share power with the minorities and only by establishing a separate Tamil state, the safety, security and future well-being of Tamils in Sri Lanka could be assured. The conditions needed for peaceful co-existence of the different ethnic communities which is essential for lasting peace in the Island were not the main concern of the Tamil separatists and the Sinhala ultra nationalists.
Parochialism or playing safe
Any change in the current power structure by tampering with the unitary system that has supported Sinhala majority rule throughout the Island is anathema to the Sinhala supremacists. It is debatable whether this affection is due to the belief that overruling powers are needed to safeguard the future of the Sinhalese race (although the world is not as it was during medieval period) or simply to retain dominant power for parochial gains. The fanaticism of the supremacists also influences them to object and obstruct any change that would undermine their aspired supreme status. Right from the beginning of Eelam war I, the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has had no qualms about the illusion of southern (Sinhalese) consensus on the resolution of the ethnic issue from the point of meeting the aspirations of the Tamils. In many of his annual Heroes’ Day addresses, he had stressed this point to justify the ongoing struggle for separate Tamil Eelam.
SD Muni Executive Director, Observer Research Foundation Delhi in his recent article has pointed out that the Rajapaksa government’s response to international pressures has been “a calculated rhetoric: that a political package is being prepared to accommodate the demands of the Tamil community”. The SLFP proposals have confirmed this statement as deceptive. This has serious implication to any set of proposals based on decentralization/devolution of power where the overriding power to govern the country rests with the center as at present (despite the 13th Amendment). Trust in the majority community is vital for the success of even a quasi federal or federal system. The high risk in a final solution proposed by EPDP based on ‘power sharing at the centre and autonomy in the province through a three stage pragmatic approach’ is also underlined by the current SLFP approach. There is little chance for the second and third stages to emerge, if the Sinhala political leaders continue to play the same deceptive game.
President Rajapaksa, after revealing his party’s proposals for constitutional reform has taken refuge by stressing that these are not the UPFA Government’s proposals and are meant only for consideration by the APRC along with those submitted by other parties. He also said it is the recommendation of the APC that will be included in the draft Bill for constitutional reform. Only the naïve persons unaware of the past failures of All Party Conventions would have believed that the country’s political culture has changed dramatically for an All Party Consensus this time or the country has a bold leader who could convince others the rightness of the chosen change for lasting peace, security and future well-being of all communities in the island nation.
Paradoxically, the Government expects this initiative to be taken by the Opposition leader. The state-owned Daily News reported the following statement of Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa. ‘‘It is the responsibility of Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe to support the Government’s efforts to reach a political solution acceptable to all political parties and to guide his party towards the same goal’’. It seems the SLFP is playing a game, where there are several scapegoats of different sorts to be blamed for the failure of the dubious free-for-all process started to seek peace with justice and dignity to all citizens.
The APC – APRC move was also the direct response to the international community’s appeal for a political settlement that would meet the aspirations of all ethnic communities, while respecting democracy, pluralism and human rights and safeguarding the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The idealistic call for negotiated political settlement was also answered positively, while intensifying the war effort. The assertion that there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict has fallen on deaf ears. Violation of human rights and the terrible suffering of civilians caught up in the war with tens of thousands of families languishing in temporary shelters without adequate food and other basic necessities, jobs for men and schools for children have not touched the conscience of the leaders prosecuting the destructive war.
According to Sri Lanka Democratic Forum (SLDF), since January 2006 there have been over 1,000 disappearances, over 4,000 killings, over 250,000 displacements and over 18,000 new refugees have arrived in India from the war-torn North-East. Tamil children in the North-East have also been severely affected by the conflict. The vulnerability of children has increased as both the LTTE and the breakaway Karuna faction have been competing with each other to recruit children. (www.lankademocracy.org). Insensitive and carefree ways public funds have been spent recently at the expense of ignoring humanitarian needs of the displaced people are also disquieting.
Stubborn Sinhala nationalists
The nationalists too have expressed their dissatisfaction with the SLFP proposals, as the unitary character of the State has not been adequately emphasized in the proposals, although some analysts have said the proposals have been drafted so as to ensure they are coherent with the interests of Sinhala nationalist parties like the JVP and JHU. These parties want to retain the supremacy of the majority ethnic community for asserting their own dominance in national politics. Addressing a press briefing 3 May, JVP propaganda secretary and MP, Wimal Weerawansa slammed the Government for varying from the “Mahinda Chinthanaya” policies and “presenting proposals to satisfy the International Community and the LTTE.”! The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in a press release 8 May said as a party committed to preserve the country’s unitary State and the longevity of the Buddhasasana by sacrifice of their own lives, it can no way agree with the SLFP proposals in principle. “The SLFP has breached the mandate given to it by the public as per the Mahinda Chinthanaya”. Moreover, the General Secretary of JHU, Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera said “the proposals of the SLFP had violated the people’s mandate for preserving a unitary State in as much they had breached the Dalada Consensus, reached between the President and the Jathika Hela Urumaya”.
A glimmer of hope
It is not those wielding power but other Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim leaders in the Society concerned about the extra-judicial killings, abductions and forced disappearances, who are clamouring for intense law enforcement and preventive actions to end the deplorable practices. Turning a blind eye to these occurrences even in the capital Colombo where tight security arrangements have been put in place is puzzling. This is of particular concern as the victims are mainly Tamils. These unlawful happenings have been a bonanza to those interested in seeing the Tamil civilians being robbed and tormented by their brethren. It is in this backdrop the long-awaited SLFP proposals were announced by the President on April 30.
Many have expressed their strong disapproval of the SLFP proposals since then. Military operations under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism’ have helped to buy time, while adding to the confusion and uncertainty among those genuinely concerned about permanent peace, peaceful co-existence of the different ethnic communities, political stability and conducive climate for speedy economic development. In fact, the facade of seeking permanent solution to the national question including the frequently declared commitment to ‘negotiated political settlement’ and abandoning without abrogating the 2002 truce (CFA) seem part of a hidden agenda to retain the status quo.
The silver lining in this gloomy milieu is the fact that the majority of the critics of the SLFP proposals are the liberal Sinhalese. This is something that gives hope Sri Lanka will not be dumped by the civilized world as another failed state. With the breakdown of law and order and political infighting and victimization, the country was also heading towards becoming ungovernable. The forthright reactions of some concerned citizens are given below.
Some enlightened views
Sumanasiri Liyanage (Senior lecturer, University of Peradeniya) promptly expressed his utter disappointment in his swift (1 May) comments on the proposals (Tamil Week 29 April – 5 May 2007). He said: “The SLFP proposals are totally disproportionate to the questions at hand. Not only are they a retreat from the earlier positions of the SLFP, they cannot be a basis for a long-lasting solution to the ethno-political conflict in the country. The drafting of the proposal, which took so much time, reminded me of an old Sinhala saying: “kandak vili la meeyek veduwa vage”. Two fundamental points worth emphasizing here are: – (i) “SLFP’s so-called ‘indigenous model based on the idea of Grama Rajaya’ is based on complete ignorance/ negligence of the Indian model and the complex nature of the Sri Lankan problem. The SLFP leadership seems to reject the national or ethno-political question in Sri Lanka by arguing for devolved smaller unit”. He has also drawn attention to the inevitable need for constitutional change. “The whole question of constitutional change arose because of the failure of the two autochthonous constitutions as they were prepared according to the needs and requirements of the numerically large nation, the Sinhalese. SLFP proposals attempt the same once again”. And (ii) “The SLFP proposals give justification to the demand of the LTTE for a separate state”.
Raj Gonsalkorale in his comments (Asian Tribune 3 May) said, ”Well, the SLFP has managed to live up to the pithy Sinhala phrase – “Koheda Yanne, Malle Pol” – by coming out with proposals that has no relationship to the problem in hand. It is not even worth the time and effort and space in this valued journal to comment on a document that borders on or is a joke coming from the current ruling party in Sri Lanka”. He has also questioned the purpose of ‘devolution’ as seen from the SLFP proposals. “The fundamental issue of devolvement of power has been treated with contempt by suggesting a district chief minister and the unit of devolution to be the district administration. This proposal will at best serve and enhance political patronage and the dishing out of ministerial and other positions, and the waste of public funds for their up keep for no gain whatsoever for the country. A central government cabinet of 55 ministers (current composition), an equal number of project ministers and deputy ministers at central level, up to 30 district chief ministers and say 300 district ministers (10 per district), surely would be worse than a joke. Who in their right minds will take this proposal seriously except those who are currently enjoying political patronage and the perks and opportunities that have come their way? Let alone the LTTE or the moderate Tamil lobby, very few honest Sinhala or Muslim people will take this proposal seriously”.
Another educator and constitutional expert Rohan Edirisinha in his comments (Daily Mirror 5 May) has concluded: “The SLFP proposals for constitutional reform 2007 must surely be the most retrogressive set of proposals made by any political party, organization or group in the last twenty five years. They fail to address the core issues both in relation to peace and democracy, and in the area of constitutional reform for conflict resolution offered to the Tamil people and their political leadership less than what they already have and less than what was offered in the past twenty five years. It is almost as if the SLFP’s constitutional advisors were in a Rip Van Winkle slumber for twenty five years before they drafted the proposals. But what is more distressing is that the Tamil separatists must be chuckling with glee. The proposals will provide them with the ammunition they need to demonstrate to the Tamil people and the international community, that the main political party in the government of Sri Lanka lacks the understanding, capacity, empathy and commitment to accommodate reasonable Tamil aspirations and work towards a negotiated political settlement with justice for all communities within a united Sri Lanka.”
The Island regular columnist Shanie in the 5 May edition (Notebook of a Nobody – “A Damn Squib”) said: “Mahinda Rajapakse and the SLFP would have known that the proposals would fall far short of any expectation that a consensus could be reached. One cannot but come to the conclusion that they were really not interested in settling this issue politically by constitutional reform. They must also know by now that there cannot be a military solution. One fails to understand then what the SLFP has in mind for the future of the country. An opportunity has been lost. They cannot say that these are only a minimum and are subject to negotiation. There is no basis to conduct meaningful negotiations on the basis of such obscurantist proposals”. The proposal to increase the District Councils (Resurrection of the failed District Development Council system introduced 25 years ago) from 25 to 30 is regarded as a ploy. “The proposal to increase the number of districts by 5 would lead the minorities to believe that a sinister agenda is in play to carve out Sinhala majority districts from existing minorities dominated districts in the North and East. By creating districts as the unit of devolution, effective devolution and power sharing is dealt a death blow. Districts will not be viable units and will function like glorified Pradeshiya Sabhas”.
Tisaranee Gunasekara in her weekly column (Sunday Island 6 May- ‘Forward to the Past’) has said: “At his Vatican meeting President Rajapakse reiterated his belief that there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka; only a terrorist problem (this is different from the earlier stance that there is an ethnic problem and a terrorist problem in Sri Lanka)”. As there is no mention of Sri Lanka being a multi-ethnic country, Tisaranee has asked: “Is this an oversight or is it axiomatic given the Rajapakse worldview which denies the existence of the ethnic problem? After all, if Sri Lanka is not a multi-ethnic country there cannot be an ethnic problem; and if there is no ethnic problem there is no need for a political solution based on power-sharing”.
She has also said: “The SLFP proposals not only entail less devolution than there already is; they also contain a clause which has the potential of nullifying even this limited devolution by making it contingent on Presidential grace”. This raises the question whether it is more appropriate to state that the proposals entail decentralization rather than devolution of powers given that only some administrative powers are to be delegated to the periphery. “There would be a Chief Minister for each district and he would be the Chief Executive for the said district and in the amalgamated district. Each District Council would have three Executive Committees in-charge of the affairs of the district. The Chief Minister shall head the Finance Committee. The District Chief Minister would be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the District Council; The Chief Minister shall be a member of the District Council” This clause makes a mockery of not only devolution but also democracy since the President can appoint as the executive chief minister a member of a party which enjoys his confidence rather than the confidence of a majority of district electorate”. She too like others has pointed out the justification for separation given indirectly by the SLFP proposals.
‘The Nation’ an independent Sunday paper carried 6 May 2007 the comments of Jayadeva Uyangoda, Head of the Political Science Department on the SLFP Proposals. He has said: “It is a solution by the Sinhalese political class to the Sinhalese class,” adding that “no self respecting minority would agree to these proposals”. Furthermore: “These proposals presented by the main governing party have completely ignored that there has been an ethnic conflict plaguing the country for over 20 years. … The only positive aspect of the proposals is the mere decentralize plan, it only presents an administrative plan to the ethnic conflict. These proposals ignore the nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka.”
Rohini Hensman in her candid comments in ‘The Island‘ (9 May Midweek review) has said: “Of all the people in Sri Lanka, only two groups can benefit from the SLFP proposals; the wealthy Sinhalese elite and the LTTE (the separatists)”. This may be in the very short term; they too will soon suffer. The views of many forward-looking critics broadly reflect their disillusionment with the Proposals that are illogical beyond the worst possible scenario one could imagine.
Daily Mirror on 7 May in its editorial column said: “The presentation of SLFP proposals for the resolution of the main national problem has sharpened the debate over the possible ways of settling the conflict. The views expressed and comments made on the present proposals bring to the fore the usual deep-seated and apparently irreconcilable two main points of view prevailing over the issue”. In my opinion the proposals have deepened suspicion and polarized the ethnic majority-minority division instead of unifying the divided communities within one united multi-ethnic country. Furthermore, the irreconcilable division within the Sinhala polity has come glaringly to the fore dashing any hope of a southern consensus on any reasonable political settlement acceptable to the minority ethnic communities. The lack of courage to lead from the front along the promising path to peace and progress is also evident. One cannot resist the temptation to mention here the old imperialistic ‘divide and rule’ policy.
India and other concerned parties
Whatever the reasons for the ill-conceived SLFP Proposals, the message the government has sent out to the world at this critical juncture is that it is not quite genuine in offering a political solution to the ethnic issue. In fact, any hope of mobilizing international support it so desperately needs to implement a military thrust against the LTTE will not be realized. The Government seems to have not grasped fully India’s stand on the Tamil problem. Many Indian observers of the disturbing political scene in Sri Lanka characterized by broken promises and abrogated pacts have stressed on many occasions the need for an aggressive movement like the LTTE until the ethnic conflict is resolved satisfactorily. Indian commanders who were in Sri Lanka during 1988-1990 with the IPKF have said their political establishment did not want the LTTE to be destroyed. India’s objections currently focus mainly on the present leadership (this emerged after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi) and egocentric political goals. Moreover, India like many other countries detest politically motivated killings of unarmed civilians, intolerance to dissenting political views, pluralism and democracy. Not only India but also other concerned countries are dead against the imposition of authoritarian rule, especially at the time where the free world wants former communist and autocratic countries to become fully democratic.
Recently, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga visited New Delhi with a special message from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Sunday Times 6 May reported that the message possibly “included steps taken by President Rajapaksa to introduce Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s proposals for devolution to end the ethnic conflict — a matter that has figured prominently during talks between the two leaders on at least three different occasions”. The report also stated the emissary had also taken a copy of the proposals to New Delhi. This too makes one wonder whether the Government is depending on external support not only for its military efforts but also for imposing a one-sided political solution to the ethnic problem. Sri Lanka has warned that the LTTE’s recent air raids are serious threat to India’s nuclear installations. Thus all available means are being used to get India’s assistance to crush the LTTE. The latter has been using the ethnic problem to achieve its own political objectives. The ethnic problem has now become secondary to both the Government and the LTTE. The danger to the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka lies in this relegation. This must change without delay and the onus is on the LTTE leadership.
The proposals revealed by the President on April 30 clearly signal the retrogression in political, economic, social and cultural life of the sovereign State and its ultimate breakup. All communities in varying degrees will be affected if no action is taken to settle the burning issues – including the one caused by the SLFP Proposals. The courage to put forward the inconsiderate proposals has partly come from the feeling the Tamils have been weakened militarily and by factionalism. The latter arose mainly from the transformation of the liberation struggle to seizure of land by force (including ethnic cleansing) for autocratic rule by the grabber. Many Tamils lost their lives in this risky impulsive venture. The elimination of so-called ‘traitors’ intensified with the break up of the LTTE in 2004 and along with it the reemergence of the crack between the Northern and Eastern Tamils. Now the breakaway Karuna group (TMVP its political party) that has been endeavouring to get rid of the LTTE cadres in the East, itself is now said to be divided. Bitter rivalry between the leader Karuna Amman and the group’s military commander Pillaiyan has resulted in clashes between the two TMVP factions in the East. (Details in Tamil Week 6-12 May 2007 – ‘Karuna – Pillaiyan Factions of TMVP Clash in East by DBS Jeyaraj)
It is no secret that Colombo benefited directly and indirectly from the presence of Karuna faction fighters in the East. Splits and their manipulation to prevent consolidation of areas traditionally inhabited by Tamils and Muslims seem to be a part of the strategy to weaken the Tamil cause. The relative size of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has diminished as a result of assassinations, migration and the casualties in the endless war. There is now the urgency to rethink the methods and the strategies hitherto used and seek a federal system that will ensure the safety, security and rights of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka. The support of the international community is necessary for any permanent political settlement. This will never be possible with the Tamil Eelam goal and continued dependence on violence to achieve political goals. Unity is paramount to achieve even a devolved structure based on the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. The late S. J. V. Chelvanayagam had often stressed the importance of unity between Tamils and Muslims in the North-East and the merger of the North and East for ensuring the future of the Tamil speaking people. As leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front he was anxious to bring the upcountry Tamils too into this union in 1976 but this did not materialize, because the astute CWC leader the late S. Thondaman, though sympathetic to the plight of the Tamils in the North-East was unwilling to support the claim for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. The then Tamil leaders understood his predicament but valued CWC readiness to support other legitimate demands of the Tamils. Unity of all Tamil speaking people was considered vital for securing equal rights by the then political leaders.
The late Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson in his book “The Break-up of Sri Lanka – The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict” (1988) has said that the Eastern Province Tamils who were suspicious of Jaffna Tamils when faced with Sinhalese linguistic domination and state-sponsored colonization of their traditional territories with Sinhalese settlers closed their ranks and joined with the Northern Province Tamils, because of the charisma of Chelvanayagam. Today one cannot claim there is a popular Tamil political leader to move around and perform the same duties freely Sri Lanka, as one multi-ethnic country has also no national leader with the charisma of Nelson Mandela to unite the people from all ethnic groups. For this to happen, all the people regardless of their ethnic, religious and other differences must have complete trust in the leader. They must believe that he or she would not let them down and thereby put at risk their future. It is because of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders who were instrumental in preparing the Indian Constitution that India remains one undivided progressing nation with all citizens proud of their common Indian identity.
The IRA had Sinn Fein leaders who were able to visit London and Washington D.C. at critical times and present their case. They are now in the new government in Northern Ireland sharing power with former arch rivals, the Unionists. The TNA has no similar standing, nor the authority to exchange freely views on the aspirations and democratic rights of the people they represent. The members had difficulties in even meeting officially Indian government leaders. The present TULF leader V. Anandasangaree is faithfully and courageously campaigning alone for the adoption of a quasi federal structure similar to India’s. But he is an outcast to the LTTE and its followers, solely because of his refusal to be subservient to the LTTE leader’s diktat.
As mentioned by some critics, serious consideration should have been given to the Expert Panel (majority) report submitted by the multi-ethnic team of experts – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. The political parties, including the President’s SLFP should have discussed the Expert Panel reports, including the amalgamated report of the chairman at the APRC sessions. What was the real purpose in setting up this panel? Was this also part of the agenda to demonstrate commitment to constitutional reform and to blame others for the inability to make the changes needed to settle peacefully the North-East problem?
Now that the damage has been done, expert assistance is needed to consider wider issues for safeguarding democracy, human rights, minority rights and interests, social justice and equality, national unity and rule of law. For lasting peace not only widely acceptable changes to the present biased structure are needed but also systems to prevent misuse of power. The present approach that depends from the start to the finish on the inputs of rival politicians concerned more about their short-term interests than national interest will serve admirably the objective of retaining the present power base. The SLFP proposals drafted by an exclusive team (Sinhalese only) cannot by any means claimed to reflect the aspirations of Tamils, Muslims and the moderate Sinhalese. No one in their right minds will regard them as suitable for the resolution of the national issues (not just the ethnic but others too).
The idealistic approach taken early last year would have been appropriate at the time of independence after centuries of foreign rule and the natives had common aims and aspirations. After more than half a century of internal power struggle and confrontational divisive politics at the expense of depriving the rights of the ethnic minorities with no change in the attitude and aspirations of political leaders, it is absurd to expect this approach to succeed. In fact, it seems from the recent developments on both the political and war fronts, there has been no serious interest in seeking urgently a constitutional settlement. A way must be found to bypass the present dilemma and achieve durable peace for all communities to live amicably and prosper. Sadly, this too seems to be more difficult now than it was two decades ago.