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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Reconciliation talks process at a dead end

The move to kick start a “reconciliation process” is headed for failure after the government ignored pre-conditions set by the United National Party (UNP). As a result, there will neither be a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to formulate a political package to address Tamil grievances nor direct negotiations between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). At least not for the moment.

As revealed exclusively last week in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary), UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made a statement in Parliament on Thursday afternoon. It came after more behind-the-scene consultations with the government. Hours ahead of making his speech, he even gave a copy of his text for government scrutiny and response.

The thrust of Wickremesinghe’s 13-paragraph statement was that the UNP “has called on the government to create an environment for the opposition parties to take part in the PSC.” Hence, he declared, “Such an environment is possible on an agenda based on the implementation of recommendations of the LLRC Report including a devolution package, implementing the 13th Amendment and further building on it so as to achieve meaningful devolution, taking into account the bi-lateral discussions between the 3-Member Committee of the Government Parliamentary Group and the TNA based on the discussion papers and the documents referred to therein. The deliberations will be within this framework and the Report will be submitted as per Resolution P. 145/11.”

However, House Leader and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who spoke after that made no reference to the pre-conditions set out by Wickremesinghe – i.e. (a) Implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and further building on it, (b) To take into account discussions between the three-member committee of the Government Parliamentary Group and the TNA on discussion papers and documents. However, he said the government “guarantees that the opportunity will be provided for any political party or group to express its views without restrictions…..”Both sides seem to have concurred only on one issue — to place a time frame of six months after starting work by which time the PSC would have to complete its deliberations.

Former Army Commander carrying a basket of flowers to the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, three days after he was conditionally released from prison. Pic by Athula Bandara

De Silva expressed “appreciation” over Wickremesinghe’s statement and re-iterated that “the government strongly believes that the most suitable approach to find a solution acceptable to all communities is the PSC where consensus could be reached following a broad discussion on the issues.” In what seemed somewhat surprising, if not puzzling, de Silva said, “It is the sincere hope of the government that the efforts of the opposition leader to get the UNP and the opposition political parties to take part in this select committee will be successful.”

This statement raises the fundamental question whether it is the sole responsibility of the UNP to bring “opposition political parties” to the take part in the PSC. What of the government assurances, if any, given during behind-the-scene consultations? Didn’t Wickremesinghe simply re-iterate the conditions which were agreed upon earlier? It is only logical to raise this question since Wickremesinghe’s statement came after talks, first more privately. Later, he met Rajapaksa and some of his ministers with senior members of the UNP. Highlights of Minister de Silva’s statement appear in the subsequent paragraphs.
The UNP chose this week not to make an official response. The party is to wait until the return of leader Wickremesinghe. He left on Friday to New Zealand to attend a meeting of the International Democratic Union (IDU). He was accompanied by the party’s international affairs advisor and former parliamentarian Sagala Ratnayake. A party source said yesterday, “our leader will pursue further talks to explore whether the reconciliation process can be carried forward on a formula acceptable to all sides. We cannot be rubber stamps only to endorse the government’s agenda.”

As a result of these developments, TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan who was to make a statement in Parliament did not do so. Sampanthan called Minister de Silva’s remarks “duplicitous.” The alliance will not resume negotiations with the government nor participate in the proposed PSC. So the issues are back to where they began or at square one again.

This fallout, just days after Sri Lanka told the United States it has begun a process of reconciliation, will be both a setback and embarrassment to the government. In what seemed a new policy shift, the government had hoped to kick start the PSC and resume talks with the TNA. Towards this end, as previously reported in these columns, President Rajapaksa initiated private talks with the opposition UNP leader Wickremesinghe. The latter played the role of an interlocutor with the TNA. That, no doubt, was an act with some political forethought. It denied the government the claim that opposition parties did not want a dialogue towards reconciliation. Now, the UNP, for once, playing its real role as an opposition, has taken the wind off the sails of the government’s reconciliation programme.

An infuriated TNA leader Sampanthan told the Sunday Times, “We are not happy at all with Minister de Silva’s statement on behalf of the government. It is wishy-washy and couched in duplicitous language. Our party will soon take a formal decision and make it known.”

The TNA is pre-occupied this weekend with its annual convention that is being held in Batticaloa. Yet, most speakers are due to dwell on this subject.

That some of the militant elements in the area, who still have access to military hardware, continue to be active emerged when the venue for the event — the Devanayagam Hall — was set on fire. Earlier, when UNP leader Wickremesinghe, who was on a visit to Batticaloa was to address a meeting at the same venue, a hand grenade was found. The serious security concerns these groups raise will no doubt be a major issue when impending elections to the Eastern Provincial Council are held. The question is whether they will allow a violence free poll if they continue to remain armed.

TNA leader Sampanthan told the Sunday Times, “Minister de Silva’s statement does not address any of the issues involved. This is my impression. My party, I am sure, will accept my reasonable view.”
He said that as TNA leader, he would not consider this an “adequate response” and added that it “does not create an environment for a dialogue with mutual trust.”

Sampanthan’s complaint is not only over the non-inclusion of any discussion on “the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and further building on it.” He is also protesting that the TNA’s request to include five different documents in the proposed agenda for the PSC has been ignored. They are the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee headed by Mangala Moonesinghe, three documents from 1995 onwards dealing with constitutional changes (when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was President) and the report of the Multi-Ethnic Committee of Experts. All these documents, Sampanthan said, were in the public domain. In 2006, when he addressed these experts, President Rajapaksa wanted “maximum devolution” and asked them to look for a suitable model, Sampanthan said. “We have seen none of these things happening. Minister de Silva’s statement is mere words and there is nothing substantial. The language used is duplicitous.”

Sampanthan was also unhappy that the previous TNA-Government dialogue which broke down with both sides accusing each other, has been given a new nomenclature. “We have letters to prove beyond any doubt that it was the government that invited us for talks. They later made out that we spoke with a delegation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Now they say it is a three-member team from the Government Parliamentary Group,” Sampanthan lamented. The three-members were Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, G.L. Peiris and External Affairs Ministry Monitoring MP Sajin Vass Gunawardena. “There is neither candour nor honesty,” Sampanthan complained.

Wickremesinghe had maintained a dialogue with President Rajapaksa, at the latter’s initiative to have the PSC constituted and ensure TNA resumed talks with the government. These talks culminated in a meeting between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe together with their close senior colleagues on May 14. First the highlights of Wickremesinghe’s statement:

“…………The government must take the first step to create an environment to build a national consensus based on unity, the strengthening of democracy, power sharing, equality and respect for the rights of all communities. All of us have a duty to respond and a role to play.”

“For this reason we applauded the joint statement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations, which concurred “that addressing the aspirations and grievances of all communities and working towards a lasting political solution was fundamental to ensuring long-term socio-economic development. The Secretary-General welcomed the assurance of the President of Sri Lanka contained in his statement in Parliament on 19 May 2009 that a national solution acceptable to all sections of people will be evolved. President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.

“This communiqué was confirmed by United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution of May 2009. In this context the UNP supported the bilateral talks between the representatives of the Government and the representatives of the TNA. Similarly, when the report of the LLRC was tabled, the Leader of the House stated “the Government seeks the support of all members of this House, rising above Party affiliation, to carry forward the task of implementation with the energy that is called for at this crucial time.”

“Despite the shortcomings of the Report we responded positively by supporting the implementation of its recommendations. This was because we agreed wholeheartedly with the recommendations of the Report highlighted in paragraph 9.179 “there must be willingness on the part of all political parties to give up adversarial politics and have consensual decision-making on national issues…………….. The breakdown of talks between the representatives of the Government and the representatives of the TNA has been a serious setback in working towards national reconciliation and in forging a Sri Lankan solution.

“Now however, the urgency of taking action on the repeated assurances given by the government to this House and elsewhere can no longer be denied. We must therefore use the recommendations of the LLRC report without further delay. If we fail to do so, Sri Lanka will be reviled internationally, and be forced to confront a hostile global environment.

“The United Nations Resolution L.2 of the 19th Session in March 2012 “requests the Government of Sri Lanka to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report……………The government has stated that the Parliamentary Select Committee should be the mechanism for such a dialogue. In a context where bilateral talks between the Government and the TNA have come to a standstill, it is essential that these talks be revived forthwith to run parallel to the Parliamentary Select Committee meetings. The discussion papers and the documents referred to already by the two sides provide sufficient material to build and conclude these talks.

“While agreeing that the government and the TNA need to focus on the agreed core issues of devolution, the Parliamentary Select Committee can in the first instance deal with the other recommendations of the LLRC Report. Furthermore, if all talks are to be concluded by the end of the year, it is imperative that sittings commence at least in June this year. Then the six-month time period mentioned in Resolution P145/11 will end in December this year. For what is required is not a post mortem of why the bilateral talks failed but an immediate recommencement.

“The United National Party is of the view that the Parliamentary Select Committee deliberations would be fruitful only if we seek to develop and flesh-out the agreements reached at the bilateral talks as well as the recommendations of the LLRC. We do not have time to dither or dawdle. With this in view, the UNP led by me had a productive discussion with President Rajapaksa and a team of Ministers. We discussed the need to recommence the bilateral talks that are to be inter-woven with the Parliamentary Select Committee. Similarly, we also discussed the issues of recommencing bilateral talks as well as the willingness of the TNA to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee with the leader of the TNA, Mr R Sampanthan. I am gratified by Mr Sampanthan’s positive response.

“I have also kept the TNA and the JVP informed of this proposed agenda.
“The Government has not objected to what we proposed above – in order to create a suitable environment for the PSC. Thus at this juncture, I would also like to assure the TNA that the UNP will support all decisions arrived at during the bilateral talks between the representatives of the Government and the representatives of the TNA. Therefore, I would like to urge the Leader of the House to endorse this agenda.”

Responding to this statement in Parliament was Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House. Here are the highlights of his speech:

“……….Particularly, we have to be thankful for the interest and effort made by the opposition leader in this regard. As mentioned by him, long lasting peace could be established only by way of finding a political solution acceptable to all communities. This has been accepted by the government. The government strongly believes that the most suitable approach to find a solution acceptable to all communities is the PSC where consensus could be reached following a broad discussion on the issues.

“For this purpose several government MPs and Ministers made a proposal and placed it on the Order Paper of Parliament of 12.08.2011 as an undated proposal. Thereafter the matter was discussed in detail with the Tamil National Alliance and accordingly on the points which could be agreed the proposal was amended and placed on the Order Paper dated 10.10.2010. At the Parliamentary Affairs Committee, on 22.11.2011, the Party leaders reached agreement to present this to Parliament. Here it was proposed to appoint 19 government members and 12 opposition members. This was approved in Parliament on 23.11.2011.

“The Secretary General of Parliament on 24.11.2011 informed the Secretary to the Leader of the House and the Secretary of the Leader of Opposition to send nominees to this Special Select Committee. Accordingly the office of the Leader of House on 25.11.2011 sent the names of 19 government members. However since the opposition has not nominated its members the Select Committee could not be set up.
“It is the sincere hope of the government that the efforts of the opposition leader to get the UNP and the opposition political parties to take part in this Select Committee will be successful. We wish to inform that the government hopes that the Select Committee could complete its work in six months.

“The government has already created a climate where such discussion could commence. The government in response to the question raised by Hon Sampanthan in Parliament has explained a clear programme on expediting the release of the detainees. Also a programme is underway under the direction of President’s Secretary to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

“The government guarantees that the opportunity will be provided for any political party or group to express its views without restrictions and that the Select Committee is willing to consider any document which has been discussed and consensus has been reached. Therefore, as the opposition leader says we should not be debating about the issues and problems of the past and delaying setting up this Committee. We should reach broad consensus in a manner to reach a solution to this problem without a delay.
“We wish to state that the government will have no hesitation to implement any agreements reached in this committee. On behalf of the government I appeal to the opposition parties to nominate the names for this Select Committee.”

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has announced that it will not take part in the PSC. Its spokesperson Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times, “There have been many instances in the past, where the government has proposed ‘talks’ as a way to solve the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. However, each time it has failed to bring about a solution. This is the government’s way of misleading the public into believing a solution will be found. We should not be sitting to have talks when we can take immediate action to resolve this problem. We do not believe the Parliamentary Select Committee will bring about any significant change. Therefore there will be no JVP representatives in the Committee”.

The government’s dialogue with the UNP to activate the PSC and resume talks with TNA has re-confirmed another fact. Leave alone implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and “going beyond,” the government will not even discuss the matter at any forum where a political package to address Tamil grievances is formulated. Where the UPFA is concerned, the matter is no longer an issue. It is this factor that has led to an unprecedented low in relations between Sri Lanka and India. It prompted New Delhi to vote in favour of the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka on the grounds that “Sri Lanka has reneged on its promises.”

By ST Political Editor
form The Political column of The Sunday Times


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