by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Direct discussions beween Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Tamil National Alliance(TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan to revive stalled talks between the ruling regime and the TNA ended in failure.
A meeting held at “Temple Trees” on Tuesday February 21st between the President and the senior TNA Trincomalee district MP aimed at breaking the current impasse ended inconclusively without any tangibe result.
Cabinet minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge were also present but did not involve themselves directly in the discussion amounting to a dialogue between both leaders. Sampanthan participated alone without any other TNA representatives being present.
The chief reason for the breakdown was due to the President insisting that the TNA provide names of representatives to the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC) immediately while the TNA leader refused to do so until a document of mutual consent was signed by both parties first.
The President indicated at the outset that he was very keen to resolve outstanding issues through the Parliamentary select committee but was unable to convene it because the TNA was refusing to participate in it and was not prepared to even submit the names of nominees by the party to the PSC.
Sampanthan replied that the TNA was equally anxious to help resolve the crisis because it was in the interests of the long suffering Tamil people whose interests the TNA represented.
However , it was not possible to participate in the PSC without having reached some agreement on important issues discussed at Govt-TNA talks, Sampanthan pointed out.
Clarifying the TNA position further the veteran Tamil leader from Trincomalee said that the TNA had engaged in protracted talks with Govt representatives to forge an understanding on achieving a solution to the Tamil national question.
Significant progress had been made in the talks but suddenly the President had decided to appoint a PSC without consulting the TNA and wanted the premier Tamil party to join the discussions said Sampanthan.
Nevertheless the TNA was ready to participate if and when the Govt-TNA bilateral talks arrived at an agreement. Thereafter the TNA would participate in the PSC and submit the bi-lateral understanding to the Select committee for joint approval, Sampanthan explained.
The President interjected and told Sampanthan to submit the names of the proposed TNA representatives first. Thereafter bilateral talks could resume, he said.
Sampanthan declined to do so and said the TNA would announce the names of representatives when they were ready to join the PSC discussions. This was possible only when an underastanding was reached bilaterally he said.
With both the President and TNA leader reiterating their respective stances without any compromise the “Temple Trees” talks ended abruptly without any resolution of the prevailing deadlock.
Talks between Government and TNA delegations have been continuing in fits and starts from early last year. The premier objective of the talks was to reach a consensus on meaningful sharing of power. Although significant progress has been made in several respects an overall conclusion is yet to be finalized as some key issues remain unsolved bones of contention.
The talks which broke down at on an earlier occasion were revived again after a one to one meeting between President Rajapaksa and TNA leader Sampanthan. These talks were arranged by the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
Meanwhile the nomenclature of the Govt delegation underwent a change as that of representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP)which is the chief constituent of the United Peoples Freedom Party(UPFA) alliance.It was emphasized that the official delegation engaged in talks represented neither the Government nor the UPFA but only the SLFP.
The Govt was represented at talks by Cabinet Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and GL Peiris along with deputy minister Sajin Vass Gunewardena and National list MP Rajiva Wijesinha.The TNA delegation comprised Parliamentarians R,Sampanthan, “Mavai” Senathirajah, Suresh Premachandran, MA Sumanthiran and Presidents Counsel K Kanagiswaran.
The resumed talks once again hit a snag when President Rajapaksa “shifted the goalposts” by announcing the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC) to discuss relevant issues and arrive at a consensus. The TNA was asked to nominate representatives to the PSC.
The TNA declined to do so by nominating representatives and expressed misgivings about a PSC mechanism against the backdrop of similar multi-lateral exercises failing to achieve satisfactory results.
The TNA wanted bi-lateral discussions to continue until a bi-partisan consensus was reached. Thereafter the TNA was prepared to participate in the PSC and present the bi-lateral arrangement reached at the PSC. The chief opposition United National Party(UNP) also stated it would abide by the TNA position.
With both sides maintaining such contrary positions the deadlock continued. In a significant snub delivered to TNA, the Govt representatives failed to attend scheduled talks with the TNA on three consecutive days even while the Indian Foreign minister SM Krishna was visiting Sri Lanka.
SM Krishna however stated at a press conference where Sri Lankan external affairs minister GL Peiris was present that President Rajapaksa had reiterated his willingness to “13 A plus” meaning he was ready to go beyond the scope of devolution provided through the India –inspired 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
However President Rajapaksa later said that he had not agreed to 13th Amendment plus and that he had only indicated his willingness to consider “13 A plus”. He insisted that any agreement could only be finalized at the PSC.
Notwithstanding these semantics by the Machiavelli of Medamulana , the Indian High Commission continued to play a behind the scenes role in bringing both sides together.
According to diplomatic sources India provided its “good offices” to both sides to meet unofficially and iron out differences.
Apparently these unpublicized talks between both sides resulted in much progress. A document of mutual consent by both sides to continue talks was drafted for ratification by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa and TNA leader R Sampanthan
This document according to sources referred to SM Krishna’s visit and the need to pursue further talks to reach a mutually acceptable consensus. The TNA and SLFP delegations were to engage in further talks to resolve clearly identified outstanding issues.The TNA would submit names of persons to be nominated by the party to the PSC. However the TNA would participate in the PSC only after outstanding issues were resolved bi-laterally.
It was expected that President Rajapaksa would give his assent to this consent document after he returned to the County from his Pakistan and Singapore trips.
So there was optimism amidst diplomatic circles that a breakthrough had been achieved when President Rajapaksa invited TNA leader Sampanthan for an urgent meeting at “Temple Trees”. It was hoped that both would affix signatures to the draft document after direct discussions.
This result did not materialize as the President had insisted that the Sampanthan submit the names of TNA nominees to the PSC straightaway without any reference to the draft document.
Sampanthan had respectfully declined to submit any names until and unless the “consent” document was accepted and ratified
The President had ignored this request and continued to insist that the TNA submit names to the PSC first and that the PSC should commence sittings as soon as possible. He had virtually ignored the draft document and made no reference to it either positively or negatively.
The direct discussion between both the President and the TNA leader terminated abruptly as a result of the new deadlock in attempts to break the old deadlock.
The talks began at 6 pm on February 21st and was expected to go on for an hour. However the dialogue ended prematurely at 6.25 pm.
The cordial atmosphere that prevailed at the commencement of the talks had soured at the end. Although “official”photographs were taken at the beginning when the President welcomed the TNA leader with a hearty handshake no cameras flashed when Sampanthan departed after talks ended.
It is learnt that a visibly annoyed President had made caustic remarks about Sampanthan after the TNA leader left. He reportedly remarked that Sampanthan was craftier than Prabhakaran.
The breakdown has upset many political observers who had banked on the favourable equation existing between both leaders enabling a satisfactory outcome to emerge.
Thus the impasse continues and it remains to be seen as to whether fresh initiatives would be undertaken by interested parties to resolve the issue.