■ Govt.-TNA Talks Due To International Pressure
Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The government has resumed talks with the TNA to find a political solution to the ethnic issue, but the sincerity in the whole exercise is being doubted by the Tamil political leadership in the country.
After decades of dialogue between successive governments and the Tamil political leadership, the Tamil leaders are now expressing frustration at the whole process that continues to be delayed.
The TNA says that the government does not show any sincerity or willingness to find a political solution through the long drawn talks. In the event the government continues to vacillate in the exercise of finding a political solution, the TNA says they would be compelled to speak to the Tamil community, mobilize them and agitate for a settlement.
The government and the TNA have so far held 10 rounds of talks since they commenced in January this year. However, the second phase of the talks resumed last month after they stalled a few months earlier due to the government’s failure to present a written set of proposals as requested by the TNA.
The second meeting between the two parties that was scheduled for last Monday (3) was postponed due to the unavailability of several members from the government delegation.
A date for the next round of talks is yet to be fixed.
TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran told The Sunday Leader that it seemed like the government was engaged in discussions with the TNA only due to international pressure. He observed that the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was of the view that there was no need for any political proposal since the development of the Northern and Eastern Provinces would address the issues faced by the Tamil people in the country.
Premachandran also noted that the government’s proposal to form a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to formulate a political solution was yet another delaying tactic. “The government would say it is to form a consensus among political parties, but it would also be delayed by hardliners through their constant objections,” he said.
One of the main concerns of the TNA is the sincerity of the government in finding a political settlement. The government has failed to respond to a TNA request for a time frame for the discussions in order to make them more effective. “Our view is that we should sit even for three to four days, discuss and finalize the proposals. Meeting once a month does not help,” Premachandran said. The government however maintains that the discussions with the TNA are sincere and aimed at finding a political solution.
Member of the government delegation at the talks, Parliamentarian Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha says that both, the government and the TNA want to find a political solution to the ethnic issue. However, he noted that both sides are cautious to ensure that situations like in 1958, 1968 and 2000 would not happen again. In all three instances political proposals prepared and presented by the respective governments failed due to opposition raised by various parties. “Both sides are sincere in holding talks,” Prof. Wijesinha said.
The government and the TNA have both agreed to base the discussions on the proposals handed by the TNA, the proposals prepared by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1995 and the recommendations in the majority report of the experts’ panel appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006.
The salient feature of all these proposals is that the solution lay in the maximum devolution power in the country. President Kumaratunga after assuming office for the first time initiated discussions with political parties and with civil society to formulate a durable solution to the ethnic issue.
Her proposals declared Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious and pluralistic society where political power was to be shared with the periphery. The proposals accepted Sinhala and Tamil as Official languages and Sinhala, Tamil and English as National languages, and clearly laid down how these provisions should be implemented in respect of administration, legislation, courts and education. They also defined and demarcated the powers and functions of the centre and the regions considerably, addressing the shortcomings in the 13th Amendment.
Other notable features in the proposals were the inclusion of representation of minorities in the higher levels of government, and an end to statelessness. Kumaratunga announced her “Devolution Proposal” on August 3, 1995 and following prolonged and in-depth discussions at a Parliamentary Select Committee, a document with some amendments was presented to Parliament in October 1997.
However, the process was delayed due to the conflict at the time and finally the Bill was presented to Parliament on August 3, 2000. It was withdrawn due to intense objections raised by the UNP.
President Rajapaksa after assuming office in his first term appointed a multi-ethnic experts’ panel to make recommendations to resolve the ethnic issue. The majority report of the experts panel was handed over to the President in 2006 recommending maximum devolution of power with the province as the unit of devolution, and provision for the appointment of two Vice-Presidents from communities other than that of the country’s President.
Out of the 17 members of the experts panel, 11 (six Sinhalese, four Tamils, and the only Muslim member) endorsed the report. At the same time, there was a minority report from the experts’ panel by Attorneys H. L. de Silva, Gomin Dayasiri, Manohara de Silva and Professor G.L. Peiris.
There were also two dissenting reports by the panel Chairman and former civil servant, M.D.D. Pieris, and former Secretary to President Premadasa, K. H. J. Wijayadasa.
According to the 37 page majority report the country was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the crisis had arisen because the numerically smaller ethnic groups had not had their due share of state power. The report has stated that this has resulted in the minorities being sidelined and becoming alienated from the Sri Lankan state, with initial efforts on a power-sharing mechanism also failing.
Key Recommendations In 2006
Some of the recommendations of the majority report are as follows:
*To evolve, to the maximum extent possible, a form of genuine power-sharing between the different ethnic/religious communities, which is not predicated on any particular model, but which suits our own needs.
*The name of the state be ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka.’
*The Constitution be termed ‘one, free, sovereign and independent State,’ and the use of distinctive expressions, such as unitary, federal, union of regions/provinces, among others, be avoided.
*Instead reference be made to the state as consisting of ‘institutions of the Centre and of the provinces, which shall exercise power in the manner provided for in the Constitution.’ *The Constitution should speak of ‘the constituent peoples of Sri Lanka’
*The right of every constituent people to develop their own language and culture, and preserve their history and the right to their due share of state power, including representation in institutions of government, would be recognized without weakening the common Sri Lankan identity.
*In-built mechanisms are put in place to discourage secessionist tendencies and to preserve the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the state. It would provide for emergency powers for the Centre to intervene in the provinces if there is ‘clear and present’ danger to the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the state, and when the provincial authorities request intervention. *One of the Vice-Presidents be the Chairman (non-voting) of the Second Chamber, while the other be the Chairman of the High Posts Commission.
*The Chairmanship shall be on the basis of rotation between the two bodies. Their term of office is to be three years.
*A Second Chamber, comprising representatives from the provinces, would engender in the provinces a strong feeling that they too have a distinct role to play in the national legislature. ‘The Second Chamber would also function as a mechanism to rectify possible imbalances of representation in the Lower House. This institution could also facilitate consensus building amongst interest groups.’
*As for the merger of the North and East, any proposed merger of two or three provinces other than the North and the East would not pose any problem if done through referendum under the 1978 Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act, No. 42 of 1987.
*A single North-East province with two internally autonomous units to address the concerns of the Muslim and Sinhalese populations. ‘In such an arrangement, the Muslim-majority unit will comprise Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and the Pottuvil polling divisions as the base together with non-contiguous Muslim-majority Divisional Secretary’s Divisions in the North-East. The Sinhala-majority unit will comprise Ampara polling division together with non-contiguous Sinhala-majority Divisional Secretary’s Divisions in the North-East.’
*The Northern and Eastern provinces be merged for 10 years, and the wishes of the people of the East on continuation of the merger be ascertained through a referendum at the end of the period.
*The majority of the subjects and functions be categorized as belonging to the national sphere or the provincial sphere, with a provision for a Concurrent List consisting of a minimum of subjects and functions in order to make devolution meaningful. *Subjects such as defence, national security, foreign affairs, immigration/citizenship, communication, national transportation, international commerce/trade, maritime zones, and shipping and navigation, be reserved by the Center.
*An Autonomous Zone Council to address the concerns of the Tamils of Indian origin.