N Sathiya Moorthy
It may remain unclear whether the Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) decision to stay away from the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) being formed in Sri Lanka to find a political solution to the still so very vexatious ‘ethnic issue’ was influenced by the fact that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was ‘dismayed’ by reports of the Sri Lankan Government attempting to ‘dilute certain key provisions’ of the Thirteenth Amendment ahead of the promised Northern Provincial Council poll. Singh had expressed his views when a TNA delegation led by parliamentary group leader R Sampanthan called on him in New Delhi a fortnight ago.
Some time before the TNA’s Delhi visit, Indian Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid also expressed India’s concern in the matter in a telephonic talk with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Prof G L Peiris. In New Delhi, the TNA delegation also met with other dignitaries in the Indian Government, including National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshanker Menon. According to TNA leaders, Menon had promised to discuss the 13-A issue with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Sri Lankan Government leaders when he visited Colombo in July. The Indian High Commission was quick to point out that Menon’s visit was primarily aimed at trilateral talks, also involving Maldives on trilateral maritime security.
In the light of the TNA’s avowed expectation for the international community in general and India as the co-author of 13-A along with then Sri Lankan President J R Jayewardene, if not the trilateral participant in the TULF precursor, questions remain if it should have waited for Menon’s meetings in Colombo before going to town with a decision of the kind. Maybe, the TNA could have requested for Menon’s meetings with the Sri Lankan leadership to take preference in his Colombo schedule. Or, they could have asked Parliament Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, a brother of the President, to reschedule the inaugural PSC session to another day. Or, it could have either joined the PSC after the inaugural session – or, decided to boycott the PSC after hearing what the Sri Lankan leadership had to tell Menon.
Northern PC polls
The Government’s current efforts at reviving the PSC process may have come a little too late in the day, but then it could claim that it was more focussed on conducting the Northern Provincial Council polls, as promised by President Rajapaksa, in September. Both may have also been timed for the prestigious Commonwealth Summit slated for November. Hence, the international community in particular, engaged on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, would be tempted to wait until after November, to check the Government’s motives and methods.
Yet, the international community could be expected to be pleased if the Northern polls are as free and fair as can be under the circumstances. There is a perception within the Government to yield to the voter-opinion in the Tamil-exclusive North, if the TNA were to be returned to power. However, problems arise because hard-line sections with the administration and the ruling coalition are not convinced that a TNA-dominated Northern PC would not press for Police and Land powers guaranteed under 13-A until – or, re-merger of the North and the East – until after the conclusion of the PSC process. They have the justification that the UNHRC process over the past couple of years may have robbed Sri Lanka of the time, energy and intent to address the PSC question.
The revived Sri Lankan polity’s interest in 13-A came after the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Jatika Hela Uramaya (JHU) partner in the ruling SLFP-UPFA coalition moved a private member Bill in Parliament for rescinding 13-A, wholesale. This was accompanied by an Opposition UNP initiative for a wholesale re-writing of the Constitution, but if and when the party came to power. It focussed mainly on down-sizing the Executive Presidency and stopped with promising ‘meaningful devolution’.
The UNP proposal on power-devolution however included a constitutionally-mandated all-party, post-poll political administration for the Provinces – but, not at the Centre. If accepted, it has the potential to reduce provincial politics and political administration to that of a large community panchayat, where decisions would (have to) be taken on consensus. Either the scheme would fail, or provincial-level political parties would lose their relevance. Extended to the national-level, in-breeding of the kind at the provincial-level across the country could, after a time, render the national polity inward-looking and their leadership, inadequate.
Prior to the TNA’s decision, President Rajapaksa had told two Ministers of Sri Lanka’s traditional, democratic Left, that the report of the All-Party Representative Conference (APRC), chaired by a third DemLeft Minister, Prof Tissa Vitharana, would form the basis for PSC discussions. This however will have to be endorsed by the PSC at its first sitting or subsequently. Maybe, it should convince the TNA, to join the process.
To be fair to the TNA and the larger Tamil community that sets the party’s agenda at every turn, with only the moderate methodology being left to the leadership’s choice, confusing signals had emanated from the Government side over the past months on what 13-A of the future would look like – if at all. With different parties and leaders speaking in different voices, the Government side sounded confused at best, wishy-washy otherwise.
It’s true that President Rajapaksa has relished differing ideas on political issues and disparate inputs on policy issues before himself taking a decision. Yet, after he had completed eight years in office, the Government and the party have not done anything to convince the local critics and the international community about the genuineness of what could be dubbed his broad-based approach, providing for maximum consultation.
Given their own partisan perceptions of successive Sri Lankan State actors not living up to their commitments, the TNA in its post-war, post-LTTE avatar obviously does not want to be one of those blind men trying to guess how the elephant looked like. At the same time, driven by the ‘Tamil nationalist constituency’ nearer home and in the Diaspora, the party is often seen by its Sinhala critics as playing electoral politics over emotions. It is a reverse of the TNA’s charge that President Rajapaksa and the Government were playing up to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist constituency.
Both may have a point that goes beyond genuine concerns by all stake-holders to resolve the ‘national problem’ through collective national will. Media reports have it that the Government is looking at advancing two or three Provincial Council polls, otherwise due during the course of next year. The results of the same could encourage/discourage President Rajapaksa to think further ahead. In 2010, not long after the ‘Eelam War IV’ victory, he had advanced the presidential polls by close to two years. He won a resounding victory, against a combined Opposition that included the TNA.
The TNA, for its part, is faced with the Northern PC polls. Ahead of the Eastern PC polls last year, the party revived the re-merger demand with greater vigour. Months before the poll, the ITAK constituent of the TNA held a huge rally in the Eastern town of Batticaloa, sending out conflicting signals to moderate Tamil supporters on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan State on the other. In the light of the current TNA decision to boycott the PSC, the party cannot escape ‘Sinhala nationalist’ criticism of playing ‘Amirthaligam’s politics in the post-Prabhaharan era’. That is an identification that the TNA can do without.
From APRC to PSC…
Objecting to the PSC process even when President Rajapaksa first mooted it a couple of years ago, the TNA said that they already had five different sets of proposals over the past decades, and nothing more was needed for the Government to arrive at a decision. At one stage, the party insisted that for the TNA to join the PSC, the Government should declare that the five earlier reports would form the basis for the discussions in the select committee. Thus, with President Rajapaksa declaring that the report of the latest of those five committees, namely, APRC, which in turn had looked into the findings of the previous committees, it is anybody’s guess why TNA should stay away.
In the post-war period, when the TNA was engaged in talks with the Government, it had insisted on a PSC of the kind should only discuss and decide on the decisions arrived at the bilateral talks. Though the talks floundered, visibly at the initiative or non-initiative of the Government, the latter now seems to be reviving the APRC Report to which the TNA had made positive references, after all. What it may have to insist on instead of boycotting the PSC is that the APRC Report would after all form the basis at the PSC. The TNA and the larger Tamil community, including the Diaspora, seem to have concluded for decades now that a unilateral arrangement with the Government of the day would suffice to carry forward any political solution of the kind. The current fate of 13-A seems to flow from such a perception at birth. Leave the then Opposition SLFP and the ‘Sinhala nationalist forces’ alone, even the Opposition UNP, which had got 13-A passed when in power with a brutal parliamentary majority, seems to be shying away from addressing the ethnic issue to the Tamils’ content, ever since. The vague one-liner in the UNP’s Constitution draft in the present post-LTTE scenario is a reflection on the ground reality.
If the TNA and the international community thought that the present Government with a two-thirds majority in the 225-member Parliament could get away with anything, as long as President Rajapaksa is convinced about its advisability, they only have to look at the exiting position. At the height of the JHU’s current demand for the total repeal of 13-A, 31 members belonging to the ruling combine – not all of them Sri Lankan Tamils or from other minority communities – opposed it straight away.
The list included a few from President Rajapaksa’s SLFP. Seven UPFA Provincial Council members in President Rajapaksa’s Southern Province also voted against the resolution, when moved. Today, if the repeal of 13-A does not stand a chance to muster the two-thirds majority in Parliament, it owes not to the TNA, nor to the Opposition UNP, but to these 31 MPs, accounting for close to a fifth of the UPFA’s parliamentary strength.
Numbers can cut both ways, and the TNA and the international community, which is more exposed to individual MPs in individual parties, voting on their free will, based on their constituency interests and convictions – right or wrong, as others may see it! Consensus is thus the only way, and the Tamil community stands a chance if, and only if the TNA, negotiates with the larger Sinhala polity and community – and also convince them that the nation’s terrorist troubles of the past are well behind it.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)