Although I took up this and related issues many a time before, the current impasse in talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has compelled me to address those issues once again as, in my view, the resolution of the national question would be key to Sri Lanka’s future.
Two different views have been presented by the relevant parties in explaining the current impasse. According to the TNA, the GoSL delegates have come up with a condition that the TNA should name its delegates to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) if it wants to continue deliberations with the government.
If this is true, it is not only a new conditionality for talks to be continued, but it is tantamount to an imposition of new restrictions over the independence of TNA’s right to take decisions on matters that are relevant to it as well as to Tamil people. In such a situation, the impasse is created by the GoSL.
The State media has, on the other hand, given the impression that impasse is created by the TNA by making three demands that are unacceptable to the government. They are
(1) the re-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
(2) powers over state land to the merged provincial government;
(3) the setting up of provincial police force.
These three demands are not new and the position of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on those demands is ambiguous. If the TNA presents these demands as conditions for further talks, then the TNA is to be blamed for the current impasse. However, it is quite legitimate for the TNA to ask these subjects to be included on the agenda to be discussed in its talks with the government.
So, the GoSL-TNA talks and the PSC have to be separated although both the fora focus on the same or related issues. Furthermore talks between the GoSL-TNA would contribute to PSC proceedings in many ways if it is really aimed at finding a solution to the national question.
The suspicion of the efficacy of PSCs in general and PSCs on national question is understandable owing to the fact that many PSCs and similar efforts in the past failed to produce any results. One of the recent examples is the failure of the PSC on electoral reforms notwithstanding a consensus among major parties over the necessity of a change in the electoral system.
This goes for the results of the highly publicized All Party Conference on national question and constitutional reforms. Instead of addressing these issues of national importance, the government unilaterally used its 2/3 majority to introduce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
Therefore, in spite of the suggestion that the PSC on national question should make its recommendations available in six months, the TNA on the basis of the past experience has legitimate basis to hypothesize that the PSC will end up as another failed attempt
The GoSL’s claim that the TNA is putting forward three unreasonable demands is baseless for two reasons.
First, as I mentioned above, these demands are not new and have been on the TNA ‘shopping list’ for a long time. Since three demands are inter alia programmatic to the Tamil national politics, the government, whatever the party in power should anticipate that these three demands would be raised in the discussion.
Secondly, these three issues represent to some extent the politico-constitutional reality today. Recently, the government has announced in the Parliament that it had decided to withdraw a bill on water supply drainage because the content of the bill had to do with the subjects of the provincial/concurrent list. According to the 13th Amendment, Provincial Councils can exercise land and police powers if they pass statutes to that effect.
The Supreme Court has recognized the idea of provincial land in its judgments. It is also interesting to note that Northern and Eastern Provinces were amalgamated in 1987. It was demerged only recently by a decision of the Supreme Court. Of course, the current politico-constitutional reality has many weaknesses, flaws and ambiguities.
However, the Sri Lankan Sinhala politicians have since talks at Thimpu wittingly or unwittingly accepted that these three subjects, namely, merger, land rights and police powers would represent the key controversial issues in any constitutional change in order to accommodate the demands of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The present government has time and again told us that it would accept the existing politico-constitutional realities. On many occasions, it informed India that it would find a solution to the national question on the basis of the 13th Amendment and going beyond that. Whatever its current position, the government has no legitimate basis to reject those three demands and tell the TNA that only the demands that do not fall within those three issues can be discussed.
Media Minister in his news briefing said that the three demands could not be entertained as they involved the security of the state. Does it mean that now the government is thinking in terms of 13 minus?
In this context, I welcome the TNA’s decision not to participate in the proposed PSC. As I indicated in an earlier note, if it decides to participate it should be conditional. The TNA should persuade the UNP, JVP, DNA as well as the left MPs and SLMC to boycott the PSC.
In my opinion, the TNA has been making a tactical blunder since the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. It is the non-participation in the mechanism that was created by the 13th Amendment. The setting up of an elected Northern Provincial Council is a prerequisite for finding a solution to the Tamil national question.
Let me pose a counterfactual question: Had the TULF participated in the Provincial Council election in 1988 and formed a TULF-led Provincial Council, what would have been the outcome? Flawless systems do not exist in real world. In my opinion, a provincial council led by the TNA in post-war context in Sri Lanka would create a more favourable situation for Tamils to present its case and also for it to consolidate its position. President told Parliament that 2012 would be a year of election.
The TNA should demand that holding election to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), setting up of elected NPC and transferring power from de facto military administration to elected body as a pre-condition for its participation in the PSC. If Ministers Tissa Vitharana, DEW Gunasekera and Vasudeva Nanayakkara are really interested in resolving the national question, they should also support the TNA demand and opt for only conditional participation.