President’s call for talks on ethnic problem:No compromise, no solution

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During eighties Dr. Ananda Tissa de Alwis, the State Minister under the J.R. Jayewardene government was the Cabinet spokesman who conducted the weekly press briefings. State Minister was then a Cabinet portfolio that handled the media and related issues. Dr. Alwis then used to relate various interesting stories to the journalists apart from his briefings on Cabinet decisions and other related political matters.   

Once he narrated a story off the record about a discussion in New Delhi between former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala. The discussion was centered around the issue pertaining to people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka who had become Stateless as a result of the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948.   

Dr Alwis who was then the Private Secretary to the Sri Lankan Premier quoted the Indian Premier as saying “Mr. Prime Minister, despite your country being very small in size, it is not a huge problem for it to accommodate these people numbering little less than a million. But your Opposition would not allow you to do so. So do our Opposition in spite of our country being an extremely larger one compared to yours. Let’s hand over this problem to our officials who would hold talks on this matter until the end of time.” 

We are reminded of Dr. Alwis’s story with the call by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the political parties in Parliament to start negotiations in order to find a lasting solution to the ethnic problem. The history of the debate on the ethnic issue though involved mainly politicians harks back to 1920s when the ethnic representation was first introduced in the Legislative Council under the British Raj. However, it was a main subject of political discourse since late 1940s.   

Since then historical agreements such as the aborted Banda-Chelva Pact, famous struggles like the Satyagraha campaign by the Federal Party leaders in 1962, a thirty-year long war, peace talks between armed groups and various governments, meddling by neighboring and powerful countries, inter-State agreements such as the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, so many rounds of negotiations between the minority groups such as the Tamils and Muslims and several Parliamentary Select Committees have marked milestones on the past trajectory of this debate.   

After all these violent and peaceful efforts to resolve the ethnic conundrum since 1940s when the issue became a serious national problem, the debate still seems to have not moved from square one. Ironically, leaders of all ethnic groups still raise basic questions pertaining to the problem. Still many Sinhalese people and their leaders question if there is any problem that affects the Tamils just because they are Tamils. It was against this backdrop that President Wickremesinghe invited the political leaders to conduct another round of talks.   

This pessimistic view towards the recent history might stand in the way to a negotiated settlement of the problem. Yet, negotiations are the only civilized means to resolve the problem. The pessimism is not due to the lack of trust in the President or any other individual, but the lack of trust in the sincerity of leaders of all communities that has been caused by the so-called efforts to resolve the problem, over a period of more than seven decades.   
A mechanism of power devolution has been put in place for the past 34 years. Yet, Tamil leaders still insist on devolution of power as the only remedy for their problems without succeeding to convince the Sinhalese people. Similarly, Sinhalese leaders while representing provincial councils for the past 34 years argue that the concept of devolution would divide the country.   

The political rivalry within leaders of same ethnic groups and lack of political will to take up challenges has superseded their genuine need to bring the problem to an end. The Tamil leaders who once rejected a federal solution to the ethnic problem now insist on federalism. If one group among Tamils now indicates at least a faint sign of compromising that stance, other Tamil groups will call them traitors. Similarly, Sinhalese leaders would have to accept the same title if they do the other way around.   

Yet, there have been occasions where leaders of both communities have come closer to an agreement, but later they made them missed opportunities. For instance, President Chandrika Kumaratunga had presented a set of proposals in 1995 which was then famously called ‘the package.” Sri Lanka was described in it as a “Union of Regions” instead of a unitary State. Although Tamil leaders rejected it, the senior Advisor to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Anton Balasingham during a ceremony to declare open the outfit’s courts complex in Kilinochchi in 2003 said that they could have accepted it. Ironically, it was the LTTE that had killed Neelan Thiruchelvam in 1999 for being one of the two architects of the “package.”   

In December 2002 during the third round of the peace talks in Oslo between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government and the LTTE, it was agreed to explore a solution under a federal framework. Not only Opposition parties refrained from agitating against the agreement, possibly due to war weariness, but also expressed concern when the LTTE announced that they would suspend talks with the government in April 2003. However, the LTTE themselves later rejected the agreement and resumed armed hostilities in late 2005.   

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government converted the parliament into a Constitutional Assembly (CA) in January 2016 in order to draft a new constitution with special focus on the ethnic issue. The Steering Committee appointed under the CA and chaired by the Prime Minister presented its interim report in Parliament in September 2017.   

The report in its attempt to avert a clash over the concept of federalism described Sri Lanka as a “Ekiya Rajaya” in Sinhala and “Orumiththa Nadu” in Tamil which provoked both the Sinhalese and Tamil groups to reject the report. Although the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the ruling United National Party (UNP) had initially accepted the descriptions, the Constitutional reform process died a natural death following the UNP’s humiliating defeat at the 2018 local government elections and the subsequent turbulent political situation   

Merger or demerger of Northern and Eastern Provinces is another tricky issue that has become a major stumbling block to the resolution of the ethnic problem. Unless the leaders of all three major communities in the country prepared to apply President Premadasa’s CCC formula (Consultation, Compromise and Consensus) in these issues, it would be difficult to prevent talks from dragging on until the end of time.   

Besides, the President on Tuesday had made a statement which might have raised question about his sincerity in the minds of the Tamil leaders. Responding to a suggestion by former President Maithripala Sirisema that the District Development Councils (DDCs) with powers granted by the Constitution would be the ideal solution to the ethnic problem, President Wickremesinghe said he was prepared to implement it. Tamil leaders’ aversion to the concept of DDC came in a statement by TNA’s Batticaloa District MP Govindan Karunakaram who stated in Parliament that Tamils were disappointed by the statement made by the President who during the same debate in Parliament asked each party if they were prepared to accept “13 plus.”   

DDCs had been instituted in 1981 and were replaced by the provincial councils and pradeshiya sabhas in 1987. However, the very party that introduced the system, the UNP did not like to allow the Tamils to experiment it. They sabotaged the first Jaffna DDC election in June 1981 by sending goons from Colombo during which the precious Jaffna Library was also torched. Tamil armed groups also wanted to scuttle the election.   

Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa favoured the idea of devolving power to the districts instead of provinces until he started talks with the LTTE in 1989. It would be a gigantic task to convince the Tamil parties now to give up their federal demand for DDCs. 

Courtesy Daily Mirror

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Disclaimer: President’s call for talks on ethnic problem:No compromise, no solution - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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