by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The on –going political dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)has registered some positive forward movement at the third round of talks held on Friday March 18th in Colombo.
The essence of the dialogue was succinctly revealed in the following excerpt from the joint communiqué released to the press after the talks-
“The two sides proceeded to discuss appropriate constitutional arrangements to meet the aspirations of all the people of Sri Lanka. They agreed to Continue their dialogue with a view to arriving at a structure to fulfil these aspirations.”
It was indeed heartening to know that the third round of Govt-TNA talks had concluded on a positive note. Despite two earlier rounds the past few weeks had seen an escalation of political tension threatening to disrupt this dialogue.
The assassination attempt on TNA Jaffna district MP Sivagnanam Sritharan was a disturbing event. This column which reconstructed the attack in the “Daily Mirror” of March 12th made a specific appeal to the TNA that in the interests of the long suffering Tamil people the party should not let the incident affect the talks with the Govt.
Apart from the Sritharan incident there were other acts of omission and commission affecting the course of the dialogue. There seemed to be a hiatus between pledge and performance on matters agreed upon.
An ill-informed Tamil media spurred on by anti-govt elements both local and abroad was extremely critical of the TNA for participating in the talks.On the other hand there seemed to be some lethargy on the part of the Govt also in pursuing the dialogue constructively.
It was against this backdrop that the long awaited third round of Govt-TNA talks took place on the 18th.Fears about the talks collapsing proved to be liars. The engagement seems to have been positive and firm groundwork seems to have been laid for future positive progress.
Before delving into the happenings of March 18th this column would like to trace briefly the sequence of events that led to the current situation in the dialogue between the Govt and TNA.
The Govt – TNA political dialogue is the best thing that happened in the sphere of ethnic relations in this country after President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected to office for a second term last year.
It was initiated by President Rajapaksa in a quiet yet firm bid to explore ways and means of resolving the Tamil National Question by talking to the single largest Tamil political party in Parliament. The TNA which contested the 2010 polls under the house symbol of the Illankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) won 13 seats from all five electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. It also got a national list seat.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and TNA Parliamentary Group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan ~ in Nov 2010~ pic courtesy of: news360.lk
This column in the “Daily Mirror” of December 11th 2010 revealed exclusive details about how President Rajapaksa initiated the political dialogue with the TNA.
President Rajapaksa broke the ice by meeting the TNA Parliamentary Group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan on a one to one basis without aides. This was followed by a second meeting with Sampanthan.
As a result of these meetings a decision was taken to set up two joint mechanisms comprising Govt and TNA representatives. One was to concern itself with immediate issues facing Tamils affected by the war. The other was for commencing a structured dialogue aimed at achieving a political settlement.
TNA leader Sampanthan also submitted two lists of seven and five names to be included as party representatives on each of the joint mechanisms.
The seven names proposed to be on the joint mechanism concerning matters such as relief,resettlemt, rehabilitation, reconstruction and livelihood were TNA Parliamentarians R.Sampanthan,S. Senathirajah, K.Premachandran,S. Sritharan, A. Adaikkalanathan, P.Selvarajah and MA Sumanthiran.
The five names proposed to be on the joint mechanism regarding talks for a political settlement were TNA Parliamentarians R.Sampanthan, S. Senathirajah,K.Premachandran, MA Sumanthiran and the reputed lawyer K.Kanagiswaran who is not an MP.
In addition to these moves there was another positive development also. Two trusted representatives nominated by President Rajapaksa and R.Sampanthan held a series of discussions among themselves in Colombo.
These talks were focused on the contours of a potential political settlement based on maximum devolution to provincial units while ensuring the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.
Both representatives reported back regularly to Rajapaksa and Sampanthan after each round of talks. With the encouragement and support of their principals both representatives succeeded to a very great extent in their mission.
Various aspects of Devolution -substance and unit – were discussed and agreement was reached in many areas. Agreement was not possible in some areas and a few were somewhat grey areas.
These talks provided to a great extent the spadework in evolving a basic outline for future talks between official high –powered delegations.
In writing about these talks in the “Daily Mirror” of December 11th this column did not disclose the names of both representatives as it did not want to hinder the dialogue in any way.
Since events have progressed to another plane the names can be revealed now. Central Bank Governor Ajit Nivard Cabraal was the President’s representative in these talks.TNA national list MP and Lawyer MA.Sumanthiran was Sampanthan’s nominee.
The stage was set therefore for further forward movement on these lines after 2011 dawned. President Rajapaksa set up a joint mechanism called the Committee on long –term reconciliation through a political settlement.
Three cabinet ministers were nominated by the President to be on the committee. They were Ratnasiri Wickramanayake,Nimal Siripala de Silva and Prof.GL Peiris. Galle district MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena was appointed secretary to the committee.
The five TNA representatives proposed by party leader Sampanthan were on the committee. But Sampanthan himself was indisposed and in India due to health reasons.
The preliminary meeting between the Govt and TNA took place on January 10th 2011. It was decided then that meetings should occur on a fortnightly basis and the next one was fixed for January 24th.
That however did not happen and the second round of talks took place only on February 3rd. There was a further delay in scheduling and the third round was fixed for March 1st.
This too was put off at very short notice.It was said that the ministers could not be available in Colombo due to their ministerial duties and because of their involvement in local authority electioneering.
The TNA requested that the meeting be scheduled for March 7th as the ministers would have to be present in Colombo at that time due to Parliament convening . There was no immediate response to the request.It was as if the Govt had lost interest.
This seeming lack of interest contrasted sharply with the Government’s public attitude about the talks. Government ministers and diplomatic envoys had referred to the talks with the TNA positively at International conferences.
The Rajapaksa regime has been under tremendous international pressure on a number of issues in recent times. One among these was the perceived unwillingness or inability to commence measures for resolving the long festering ethnic problem.
Now the Govt was able to showcase the talks with the TNA and tell the world that it was addressing the issue by negotiating with the premier representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil people.
It was suspected that the Govt was using the talks with the TNA as a device to deflect or contain international criticism without any sincere commitment towards the dialogue. The Tamil media both local and overseas began accusing the TNA of colluding with the government wittingly on this or being taken for a ride unwittingly.
The TNA itself was in a troubled state of mind on the issue. Sections within the party began doubting the government’s bona fides on this. They felt that the govt was on the verge of abandoning or aborting the talks because it was unable or unwilling to deliver on some of the immediate issues raised on earlier occasions.
At Viththakapuram, in Tellipalai, Jaffna, Feb 22, 2011 ~ pic: UKinSriLanka
Some of these issues raised by the TNA in the first round of talks were the removal or reduction of high security zones, disarmament of persons and groups bearing arms illegally in the North and East and the fate of 600 -800 Tamils being detained from pre-May 2009 times at various places in the Island under the Prevention of Terrorism Act(PTA) and Emergency regulations.
The Govt side promised to return with a positive response at the second round of talks.When the second round began the TNA was rather disappointed with the Govt response.
Meeting a resettled community: UK Minister Alistair Burt, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Minister for South Asia met a resettled community at Viththakapuram, in Tellipalai, Jaffna, Feb 22, 2011 ~ pic: UKinSriLanka
The govt minsters said that there were no high security zones anywhere in the North and East. The TNA then provided the Govt representatives with particulars about the high security zones in Palaly in the North and Sampoor in the East. These included documents filed by the govt in courts regarding the fundamental rights case SC FR 646/2003 SC FR 646/2003.
On the question of disarming those bearing illegal arms in the North and East the govt response was that an amnesty period would be announced for surrender of illegal arms and thereafter the criminal procedure code would be amended to make such possession of illegal arms a non –bailable offence. Again the TNA was disappointed as the party’s focus was on Tamil para-military organizations carrying arms illegally.
There was also a disconnect on the issue of detenues.The TNA was referring to those being detained for many ,many years under the PTA and emergency regulations as LTTE suspects without being brought to trial. But the Govt response did not deal with this category and only dealt with that of LTTE “surrendees” being held after May 2009.
The TNA therefore had to explain in detail about these unfortunate people being held for many years and present more documentation. Among the documents presented were an interview given to “The Nation” of January 30th 2011 by the former minister of Prisons reforms DEW Gunasekara. In that the minister stated 600 -800 persons were under detention for 10 to 15 years.
The Govt representatives then assured the TNA that they would get back to the third round of talks with more information on the three issues raised. There was however another related issue arising out of the Govt response to the detenues issue that was discussed during the second round of talks. Subsequently this matter became a serious cause for friction between the Govt and TNA.
What happened was this. At the second round of talks The Govt delegation informed the TNA that there was a computer data base about Detainees, IDP’s and next of kin being maintained at the Terrorism Investigations Department (TID) office in Vavuniya.
The TNA was told that these data bases were active and that family members could avail themselves of this facility to know more about affected kith and kin. The TNA then inquired whether they could publicise this and ask people to go to Vavuniya and get information. The reply was in the affirmative.
A mother handing over a written submission to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Secretariat during the session in Jaffna, November 11-14. ~ pic: Courtesy of Center for Human Rights SL~more pics
The issue of detenues and IDP’s is a very important one to Tamil people. There are thousands of families languishing without information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. Many do not know whether they are in the realm of the living or not. Some know they are alive but do not know where they are being held. The dimensions of this humanitarian tragedy are not realised by the world at large and the government has been accused of being callously insensitive.
It was quite understandable therefore that the TNA seized the opportunity and gave much publicity through the Tamil print and electronic media to the availability of a data base facility. The TNA was under pressure for talking to the govt and utilised this chance to demonstrate that there were tangible, practical gains from its dialogue with the govt.
Thanks to the publicity generated by the TNA hundreds of people went to Vavuniya to utilise this data base facility and locate their loved ones if possible. But they were in for a rude shock. The Police in Vavuniya reportedly turned the people away saying there was no such facility and that it was only an election gimmick by the TNA.
Thoroughly disappointed relatives who had travelled long distances complained bitterly to the TNA as a result. The credibility of the party was eroded. Moreover the TNA was in an unenviable position as the party could not come out publicly with the truth as it may have undermined the talks with the Govt.
Adding insult to injury was the perceived lukewarm attitude of the Govt on this matter. When the party complained orally and in writing to the Govt about this there was no effective response.
Compounding the situation further was the perceived lethargy of the Govt in scheduling a definite date for the third round of talks. Some members of the TNA began to suspect that the Govt was insincere on the matter. Given the inadequate response to the issues raised earlier and the data base fiasco these sections felt the Govt was simply procrastinating on the one hand while using the dialogue for international propaganda on the other.
Those in the TNA who wanted the dialogue to continue found themselves assailed by the extremely unhelpful, negative attitude maintained by influential sections of the mainstream Tamil media. These elements who seemed grossly ignorant or thoroughly ill-informed about the actualities of the Govt-TNA dialogue poured scorn on the talks.
While pro –tiger media organs abroad launched a vicious campaign that the TNA had sold out to the Govt and was collaborating with it to de-value the so called war crimes issue , sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil media charged that the TNA was being manipulated by the Government.
Sadly , many of the media reports about the talks were inaccurate but the TNA was being criticised on the basis of these reports. To cite one example the Editor of a Tamil weekly wrote a news story under his name that the TNA had agreed to local authorities being the unit of devolution and then called out “Et Tu Brute” to the TNA in a signed article. The news was incorrect and charges baseless
In such a situation the TNA was also forced to counter media criticism by resorting to tough talk. Some frontliners like Suresh Premachandran the accredited spokesperson of the party began to give media interviews expressing pessimistic sentiments about the talks with the Govt. He described the talks as being a “sham”.
Despite this posturing to the media the TNA was not critical about the talks with the Govt in their election campaign. There, the TNA asked Tamils of the North and East to vote for the party in order to strengthen their position at the talks with the Government. There were reasons for that.
The reality was that despite the misgivings and disappointment in tackling some immediate issues through the dialogue there had been commendable progress in the larger issue of devolution. While some areas were still under dispute considerable forward movement had been achieved on many matters.
Both sides were engaged in a joint exercise to determine the extent of devolution by apportioning specific functions and responsibilities to the provincial unit through the devolved list and to the central govt through the reserved list. Under the 13th amendment there was a third “concurrent” list. Now both sides were trying to do away with the concurrent list altogether or reduce its scope to a great extent.
The TNA fully realised the importance of evolving a satisfactory scheme of devolution acceptable to all sections of the Sri Lankan nation. Since President Rajapaksa has gone on record that the devolution he had in mind was 13th Amendment plus there was every chance that the substance of devolution could be greater than what is available now.
Under these circumstances it was imperative that the TNA should stay the course in continuing the dialogue with the govt in spite of pressure.Resentment over immediate issues however prickly should not lead to a situation where the talks collapse. President Rajapaksa has the power and capacity to deliver on maximum devolution provided a consensus can be arrived at. That opportunity should not be missed
Thus the TNA adopted a double-track policy. While its accredited spokesperson Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh blew hot in media interviews and was harshly critical of the Goverrnment’s stance in talks , the TNA speakers at political meetings spoke differently. They asked the Tamils to vote for the party so that the hands of the TNA would be empowered at the talks. TNA leader Sampanthan issued a statement on these lines soliciting Tamil support at the local authority hustings.
Meanwhile there was growing interest within the international community about the Govt – TNA talks. The Govt had contributed to this situation greatly by referring to the dialogue in glowing terms at various international fora including the UN. Several countries were interested in what was going on.
Ambassador Butenis opens the American Corner Jaffna on Jan 24, 2011 with Mr. Jeff Anderson, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy Colombo and Mr. Sughirtharaj, Director, Jaffna Social Action Center. (pic: US State Dept.)
The US ambassador Patricia Butenis met with the TNA and was briefed on the status of the dialogue by that party. Subsequently she met President Rajapaksa and sought to clarify the position about the talks. The president informed the US envoy in unambiguous terms that the talks would be on until positive results were achieved.
Another complicating factor was the local authority elections. The TNA and the Govt were at loggerheads with each other as rivals wooing the hearts and minds of voters in the North and East. The election rhetoric was harsh and vicious. There were also charges of electoral malpractices and violations. The stresses and strains of electioneering also cast a shadow over Govt-TNA relations.
The double track approach adopted by the TNA towards the talks upset sections of the Govt too. Premachandran’s harsh critique of the dialogue in media interviews made some feel that the TNA had changed its position. The TNA explained to the govt that the sentiments expressed by Premachandran were due to frustration at the progress of the talks. The Govt was assured that the TNA was ready, able and willing to resume the talks.
With doubts about the TNA position being removed efforts were on to hold the long awaited third round. The date fixed was March 24th but with the TNA informing the Govt that two of their members would be unavailable on that day the date was re-scheduled for March 18th.
The long –delayed third round of talks commenced at 4 pm on March 18th. Both sides were in a buoyant mood as the results had been announced . The ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had won 205 of the 234 local authorities to which polls were held. If the Govt had won resoundingly in the Sinhala majority areas the TNA had also scored creditably in the Tamil majority areas.
The TNA had won all twelve Tamil majority local authority polls it contested in the Mannar,Vavuniya,Mullaitheevu, Amparai and Trincomalee districts. It also won the most number of Tamil votes in the Muslim majority areas it contested. The solitary exception was the Oddamavaddy PS where the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) got more Tamil votes than the TNA.
Since the TNA had sought a mandate from the Tamil people to continue the talks with the Govt the party regarded the election results as an endorsement. The TNA was elated that the Tamil people had overwhelmingly supported the party despite media criticism about talks.The results had strengthened the party in the dialogue with the Government.
The Govt – TNA talks got off on a positive note with both sides beaming with satisfaction at their respective polls victories. The “hurt” feelings of the TNA over the Database fiasco was soothed to a great extent when the Government delegation apologised profusely for the “misunderstanding”. The TNA was assured that the matter would be resolved satisfactorily in the near future and that both Sajin de Vass Gunawardena and Suresh Premachandran would be in Vavuniya together to flag off the data base facilty when open to the public.
The Government delegation also required more time and more information on the issues of detenues,disarming groups carrying illegal arms in the North and East and high security zones. This was agreed to.
The TNA also referred to the issue of photographing northern residents by the armed forces. The party had resorted to legal action earlier and courts had been informed by the Attorney-General’s dept that the practice would cease. But it had been resumed again and the TNA was once again seeking legal recourse.
It was felt that this issue as well as the earlier unresolved ones were all directly related to the Defence ministry. Realising their constraints on these defence related matters both sides agreed that an effective communication channel with the Defence establishment was necessary . It was resolved that greater liaison with the defence ministry be established on a permanent basis.
It was also realised that other ministers should also be approached if and when matters pertaining to their ministries are discussed. It was accepted that some form of linkage be evolved with relevant ministers whenever required.
It was also accepted in principle that an arrangement for meetings on successive days be made when the talks reach a critical stage. Effective decision making would be made easier under such an arrangement.
Both sides made significant progress on the discussions on devolution. Although no decision has been finalised the lists of powers and functions allocated as Devolved and Reserved have been further enlarged. The committee is continuing with its task of identifying each area in a specific and detailed manner.
A better,utilitarian approach towards scheduling talks was also adopted. It was decided to demarcate future meetings as being for immediate issues and for the devolution issue. There would be a meeting on April 7th to discuss everyday problems and immediate issues. There would be another meeting on April 29th to discuss matters related to Devolution.
It appears therefore that the teething troubles of the Govt-TNA talks are over. Both sides seem to have clarified misgivings and doubts about each other but it cannot be denied that a vast amount of mutual trust needs to be further established.
While the Govt needs to be more aware of the pressure exerted on the TNA by extremist Tamil elements the TNA also must be sensitive to the Government’s situation in talking to them. Although the party is distancing itself from its pro-LTTE past and has the support of moderate Tamils there does exist a negative image of the TNA in the minds of many Sinhala people.
The TNA must be appreciate the difficulties faced by the Govt in adhering to each and every request made by the party. The TNA must strive to re-furbish its tarnished image in the eyes of the Sinhala majority. That would make the Government’s task easier and facilitate true reconciliation and unity.
The parameters for future talks seem to have been set and the basis for further negotiations outlined. It would also be necessary to include Muslim representatives after further progress.
Given the climate of mistrust and hostility that prevailed the third round of Govt –TNA talks seemed a non – starter. Fortunately it did take place and considerable forward movement has been achieved.
To adapt the words of Neil Armstrong the progress made at the Govt –TNA talks may amount only to a “small step” in quantitative terms but it is certainly a “giant leap” in qualitative terms.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com