The monotony of an otherwise drab (weekly cabinet meeting) session was first broken by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. He hurriedly circulated a ‘supplementary cabinet paper’ on the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
He noted that the responses of the leaders of political parties, who are constituent partners of the UPFA government, were now being received. He recommended that an official Committee headed by Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga be appointed “to decide which are appropriate for implementation”. He noted that the work of the proposed committee “requires extensive co-ordination”. The proposal was unanimously approved by the ministers. Weeratunga is expected to name other members of the committee which will get down to its task immediately.
It is now clear that the secret Action Plan which Peiris is now formulating will incorporate the recommendations of the committee. The Sunday Times (political commentary) of April 22 revealed how the UPFA government has decided to heed the key provisions of the US-backed resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. The most important, it was revealed, was the formulation of an Action Plan, which the resolution demands should detail “the steps that the government has taken and will take to implement” the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC). As reported in these columns, Peiris has formulated the outlines of the Action Plan. Though he wants the Action Plan to remain a secret, senior US Embassy officials in Colombo who are maintaining a regular dialogue with the External Affairs Ministry on his visit to Washington DC prefer his going public before leaving Colombo.
However, this is only informal advice and not a pre-condition. It is purely to obviate any possible criticism against the US over purported “secret deals” that may follow otherwise. Peiris and an entourage are scheduled to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on May 18. A new addition to the team is Environment Minister Anura Priyadarahsana Yapa though the basis of his selection as a second minister in the team is unclear. He was one of the many government ministers in the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Others, as reported earlier, are Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, Sajin Vass Gunawardena, “monitoring” MP of the External Affairs Ministry, Namal Rajapaksa MP and Kshenuka Seneviratne, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.
With barely a week to go for his departure, it is highly unlikely that Peiris would want to release his Action Plan in Colombo and thus generate a public debate of any sort. Without any prejudice to Weeratunga, the chair, or other members of the committee that is being constituted as a result of the cabinet decision on Thursday, a number of vital issues do arise. The LLRC itself was made up of eminent persons from different walks of life. By Peiris’ own admission to the cabinet on Thursday, the constituent parties of the UPFA government have been called upon to study the LLRC recommendations, a selected set of which were given to them at their meeting on April 18. It is now becoming clear that most constituent parties are examining almost all the recommendations and putting together their views.
Hence, calling upon state officials to select what they deem is most suitable means another bureaucratic mechanism is judging what has already been determined by ruling party members. Hence, there is little or no difference if the committee, instead of the constituent parties of the UPFA, were earlier called upon to whet the recommendations and select what they determine “are appropriate for implementation.”
However, that would still be a package picked by the country’s bureaucracy instead of one determined by politicians. The urgency, in the wake of the impending US visit by Peiris and his entourage, confounds the situation. The opposition, no doubt, would also have some justification in saying that the UPFA politicians have washed their hands off by placing the most important decisions in the hands of the bureaucracy. Thus, they could argue, with equal justification, that any blame arising out of the final selection of recommendations would be directed at the officialdom.
The Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), a constituent partner of the UPFA has broadened the scope of its responses to the LLRC recommendations by calling for even constitutional amendments. It wants the parliamentary system to be strengthened and the executive presidency abolished. Party leader D.E.W. Gunasekera told the Sunday Times, “We have already sent our views to the President on the LLRC report. We are generally for its full implementation even though we have some reservations on issues like land rights which we have mentioned in our communication to the President. But we have gone even further and asked that there be radical constitutional changes. One is the abolition of the executive presidency and the strengthening of the parliamentary system.”
The only cabinet minister from the Democratic Left Front (DLF), Vasudeva Nanayakkara, is now convalescing after surgery. A spokesperson for the party, Dudley Kalansooriya, told the Sunday Times, “The government must implement the recommendations of the LLRC without delay. Otherwise we will not be able to bring about reconciliation between the different communities. The Ministry of National Languages and Social integration which is headed by DLF secretary Vasudeva Nanayakkara has already taken steps to implement the language policy of the country which is also strongly recommended by the LLRC.”
Other UPFA constituent party leaders who reacted to the Sunday Times report were:
Udaya Gammanpila (Hela Urumaya): “The LLRC report is a comprehensive one. It has addressed both serious as well as trivial issues. We are still discussing the report. The matter has been postponed due to Vesak. We will make a public statement after Vesak.”
Dinesh Gunawardena: (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna): “We have been asked for our views. We have sent some of our views on the report of the LLRC. We hope to forward some more observations soon. This report is lengthy and addresses a wide range of issues. We need time to study it. We hope to give our response by the end of next week.”
Piyasiri Wijenayaka (National Freedom Front): Our political bureau is still discussing the LLRC recommendations. We are yet to reach a consensus on how to respond to them. It will be finalised after the Vesak holidays and then forwarded to the President. We will also make it public.”
Tissa Vitarana (LSSP General Secretary and Senior Minister): “We have sent our views to the President. We welcome the LLRC report and endorse it. The report has dealt in depth on issues including the root causes for the conflict. We are happy that certain recommendations have been implemented. For example 90 per cent of the IDPs have been resettled.
“No outside force should force the implementation of the LLRC report. Some sensitive issues will take time to be sorted out. We have to win the hearts and minds of the minorities and bring about reconciliation. All stakeholders should strengthen the hands of the government to find a political solution. Those engaged in talks with the government should carry the talks forward. We should also have a time frame within which to implement the recommendations.”
The main constituent partner of the UPFA, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will also make its own observations.
As can be seen from Peiris’ approach, all opposition political parties have been left out. This includes the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The latter, however, has an opportunity to make its viewpoints on key issues known if the current imbroglio is overcome so talks could resume between the party and the government. In such an event, the TNA’s new ally, the UNP, will also be on board. Together with the TNA, they will also serve on the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee.
In Washington DC, preparations are being made for Peiris to make several appearances besides his bilateral meeting with the Secretary of State. Susan Rice, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, will fly to the capital for a meeting with the Sri Lanka delegation. The delegation is also scheduled to meet Samantha Power, Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs in the National Security Council. The latter visited Colombo and is familiar with the situation in the country. The head of a local organisation in Colombo is also known to meet her periodically in Washington to bring her up to date on developments. Peiris is expected to deliver an hour long lecture on Sri Lanka – Challenges and Opportunities, on May 15 at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
If Peiris is now making strong efforts to iron out differences between Sri Lanka and the United States, with regard to Sri Lanka’s neighbour India, it is a different story. It was only last week it was revealed in these columns that a visiting Indian parliamentary delegation told UPFA leaders that New Delhi’s vote for the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka was not Tamil Nadu centric. They said it reflected the Indian government’s acute disappointment over the conduct of their counterparts. In this backdrop, several efforts by Colombo to send a senior cabinet minister to New Delhi for talks remain stalled. The Sunday Times learnt that New Delhi wanted to know whether there was “anything substantial” Sri Lanka wanted to say and doubts over “credible measures” being taken on “assurances given to them.”