Five years after the end of the armed conflict in the North and East, legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka still remain to be fulfilled. The newly-elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, during his impromptu talks with Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has insisted on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as an acceptable solution to the issue.
In such a context, Ceylon Today spoke to Prof. Tissa Vitarana, Minister (Senior) for Scientific Affairs and Chairman of the ill-fated All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed to find a solution to the ethnic problem, on the prudence of the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, the repercussions of ignoring the new Indian Government’s wishes and the influence of India’s South bloc on Sri Lankan affairs given the massive majority won by Modi’s party at the Lok Sabha elections.
Following are excerpts:
Q:The newly-sworn in Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has insisted on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution as a solution to the national issue. Do you think the government is finally ready to implement it in full?
A: I will put it this way, the government has to implement more than what has been implemented now. The question of what should be done should be based on a balanced approach, where all stakeholders come together, examine the 13th Amendment, and see what should be implemented and what cannot be. Even the Indian side would recognize this. In the meantime, there are large areas of the 13th Amendment which are practical and desirable and should be implemented as much as possible, with the maximum possible devolution within that framework. This approach is required and I hope the government would act accordingly.
Q:The report submitted by the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed to find a solution to the problem was ignored by all parties concerned. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) did not even take part in the deliberations. In such a context, how do you propose the parties involved should come to a consensus?
A: There has to be a proper discussion which includes all relevant stakeholders. In the APRC process, the absence of the TNA was a shortcoming but despite that, discussions went on for well over three years and a consensus was reached among the 13 political parties. This involved and included the SLFP, a main political party in the government and representatives of the Tamil and Muslim communities. So there was a consensus that was reached with them. Even through Parliament, the Select Committee process should be strengthened and there needs to be proper representation of all stakeholders done in a way that the confidence of all the stakeholders, like that of the opposition and the TNA is restored in the process. If such a discussion takes place, the 13th Amendment could be examined and suitable solutions that are acceptable to the TNA, but are not in the 13th Amendment, could be implemented.
Q:Many stakeholders have been discussing the 13th Amendment for a while now. Yet, they have been unable to come to an agreement. What do you think is missing in the process?
A: Well, there is a feeling that the process that has been initiated is not one that genuinely addresses the problem. This is to the extent that all those who participate feel that it would not yield results that would be put into practice, so there is no confidence in the process. Therefore, we have to have a process which would win the confidence of all the stakeholders. They will then participate.
Q:What kind of process are you referring to?
A: With the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that has been set up, changes need to be made to include all the parties that are represented in the government. My party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) is not represented. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is not represented and we should certainly be represented there. In addition to this, the opposition should be represented there, mainly the United National Party (UNP) and the TNA.
Q: You were the Chairman of the APRC. Yet, you have not been included in the PSC. Why did the government fail to appoint you?
A: You will have to ask the President that question.
Q: The Congress Government of India kept on insisting the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Now, Modi is insisting on it too. Modi has a reputation to be a tough leader and may not take no for an answer. How do you think the government will react in such a context?
A: It is true the government does not seriously apply itself to tackling this problem. Even the Indian side would not expect 100% necessary implementation of the 13th Amendment, but there should be substantial implementation of the 13th Amendment and a serious attempt should be made to devolve power effectively to the Provinces. The government must generate that sort of confidence that it wants to do something and then the process of discussion can go on to find out what is to be finally done in the way of devolution. If a serious process is set in motion, then I am sure PM Modi and the Indian Government would be satisfied.
There are certain parts of the Amendment that can be implemented straight away and there are others that need to be suitably modified after discussion with the stakeholders and then with the consent of everybody implemented.
Q: What are the parts that can be set in motion right away?
A: For instance, there are three lists – the Central Government’s provision list of powers, the Provincial government’s list of powers and there is the list in between; the concurrent list. Action should be taken to ensure that the Provincial government’s list of powers is given over to the Provinces without any type of interference from the Central Government. Then they should be allowed to implement those powers locally. This is something that does not happen now. Then there are other areas in the concurrent list; the government should ensure that the Centre to the Provinces gives necessary concurrence, so that the Provinces have the freedom to take action.
The other important process is the whole process of allocation of funds. Allocation of funds to the Provinces must be carried out as part of the allocation of funds nationally. What is being done now is that after the Central Government ministries are given their allocations and the expenditure for the salaries and running costs of the Provinces are met, the remaining money is given for capital expenditure in the Provinces and this is divided among the Provinces by the finance commission. This is a travesty of justice. We need to have proper procedures in place, which ensures that the development of the Provinces is also included in national development plans and when capital allocations are made, it should not only be for the national level but it should also include the provincial level.
Q: What is your personal opinion about giving police and land powers to the Northern and Eastern Provinces?
A: We do not need to give all the powers that are there in the 13th Amendment. It should be done in a step-by-step process so that mutual confidence is built up and powers would be exercised in a responsible way within a unitary framework, without endangering the sovereignty of the country as a whole. If you look at the APRC report, we said there need not be a separate police commission, that one police commission in Colombo for the whole country was adequate. It is already there and it could be implemented with a few changes. Then when you think of the police powers, there are different police powers. You can start with the lower levels of the police powers which do not involve carrying arms and then as the police acts with more responsibility, the powers can be gradually increased within a certain time frame.
Q: Do you think if you have the police reporting both to Provincial Councils and the Central Government, it would cause more bureaucratic confusion?
A: No. What we suggested in the APRC and what is included in the 13th Amendment is, above the level of Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), personnel would belong to the national police service. All higher positions will be manned by the people who belong to the national police service. You will have a uniform set of procedures throughout the country.
The Deputy Inspector General (DIG) for each Province has to work together with the Chief Minister, but at the same time the DIG will come under the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the IGP is involved in his appointment.
At any level today, we don’t have a situation where the opinion of the CM in any of the Provinces is disregarded by the DIG of that Province. The DIG acts in consultation with the CM, but his authority is derived from the IGP. That is operated in so many countries too, so why not in Sri Lanka?
Q: What diplomatic issues would crop up if the government fails to heed the advice of PM Modi?
A: The important thing is no one expects results overnight so there must be a process that is set in motion here which is acceptable to the Muslims and the Tamils in the country. If the government does not set any process in motion, it will not carry conviction abroad. Only something which carries conviction to the Tamil and Muslims here will carry conviction abroad.
India earlier supported the American resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) but in the last UNHRC session, they remained neutral. Nor did they support the American resolution or oppose it. Thus, if we don’t show any positive response you might find a change where India will shift once again to supporting the resolution, which will inevitably come up in the next UNHRC sessions in March next year.
Q: What do you think is the real reason behind the government delaying and not implementing the 13th Amendment in full? Is it pressure from the South or political parties within the government influencing policy?
A: Well, there are different opinions to contend with. This is a coalition government, which has different political parties in it and these political parties have their own agendas. Even if you look at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) there are different opinions within the SLFP. So these have to be balanced. And depending on which opinion is dominant at any given time, the government takes a stance accordingly. Our hope is that the point of view, we as the LSSP are advancing, will be paid due heed.
Q: Who are the coalition members who are not supportive of the 13th Amendment?
A: That everyone knows. I do not need to mention it.
Q: Do you think the South is ready to give the North and East powers devolved to the provinces under the 13th Amendment?
A: Yes I think so. It is not only in the North. We are saying that the process of devolution is for all the Provinces. I think the time is now right for the political parties who did not support the 13th Amendment to rethink their positions and come to what we consider as a sensible course of action.
Q: Are you saying the people have changed their attitude towards the 13th Amendment and it is just the politicians who are lagging behind?
A: Yes. I would think so, in the sense that people mostly want peace. They want some settlement that would satisfy the Tamil people so that they would live in peace and harmony with the rest of the population in the country. For that they need a political solution and it should be pursued seriously.
Q: Many fear giving police powers to the Northern and Eastern Provinces will pose a danger to national sovereignty? How can this fear be overcome?
A: Well that is why you should not give all powers at once. If there is such a fear, do it in phases. Do not give the police guns, or give them lesser powers. Then, gradually, depending on how they behave and when people are more confident, you can give them more power.
Q: Both Jayalalithaa and Vaiko boycotted Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Do you think these two parties have the capacity to pressurize Sri Lanka into giving land and police powers to the North?
A: The point here is that Jayalalithaa, whatever said and done, has got the third highest number of representatives in the Lok Sabha. The other point is that Modi’s Alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), though securing 62% of the MPs, has only got 40% of the vote. Two-thirds of the Indian population has not voted for the Modi Government. Thus, in the interest of governing the country with a majority, the Modi Government in Delhi has to have good relations with all the State governments.
There are some people here who presume that in future there will not be a Tamil Nadu (TN) factor in the Indian policies when dealing with Sri Lanka. But that is not true. However, it will not be to the same extent as the Congress Government. The Congress was dependent on the TN politicians to exist as a government, but Modi needs the support of the States to govern the country.
Q: Do you think the government would be in crisis, if police and land powers are given to the Northern and Eastern Provinces?
A: No. There should not be any crisis. It should be done on the basis of discussions and as I said, you don’t need to go to the limits of what has been suggested in the 13th Amendment. You can reach middle ground and implement things phase by phase.
Q: There is talk of a possible LTTE resurgence. Do you think if the government does not implement the 13th Amendment, there would be another LTTE in future?
A: Well you see, the LTTE separatist mindset is prevalent among 10% of the Tamil Diaspora and there are people in TN who have the same mindset. A certain minority in the North and East also have that mindset. They will remain a minority so long as the government takes positive steps to satisfy the Tamil people. If the Tamil people are dissatisfied, and the dissatisfaction grows, you will have a situation where those extreme elements get more and more support and we could have another LTTE situation in our hands.
By Zahrah Imtiaz