The political dialogue between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil National Alliance(TNA)that progressed in fits and starts has reached a state of impasse for several months. The current deadlock is due to rigid positions adopted by both sides on the key question of a Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC).
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is of the firm opinion that any negotiated political settlement or arrangement should be multi-lateral and worked out only through a Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC). He has appointed a 31 member PSC for the purpose comprising 19 Govt party representatives and 12 opposition party representatives. The TNA has been allocated three of the twelve opposition representatives.
The bi-lateral talks between the Government and TNA were suddenly put on hold by President Rajapaksa who opined that any political settlement or arrangement could only be evolved through the multi-lateral mechanism of a Parliamentary Select Committee. Earlier the delegation representing the Govt unilaterally transformed its nomenclature into that of representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) which is the chief constituent of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
This arbitrary change from Govt delegation to SLFP delegation was a harbinger of things to come. It indicated that President Rajapaksa had changed goal posts while the game was in progress. The President who initiated the constructive dialogue with the TNA seemed to disfavour it as a viable option now. Instead he wanted the TNA to participate in the envisaged Parliamentary Select Committee and together with other political parties evolve an acceptable political settlement.
The rationale behind the President’s decision was two- fold. Firstly he felt that any arrangement reached at the Govt-TNA talks had to be approved by Parliament. Therefore it would be better to shift the discussions into a Parliamentary forum like the Select committee and proceed with political discussions aimed at one or more Constitutional amendment/s.
Secondly the President opined that bi-lateral agreements reached in the past between Govt and Tamil representatives had ultimately failed due to the suspicion and resentment among other parties notably the opposition. That was because they were not stake holders in any bi-lateral agreement. Thus Rajapaksa wanted all Parties represented in Parliament to claim ownership to any possible political settlement. He wanted to increase the number of stake holders.
The TNA which has proved through democratic elections to Parliament and local authorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces that it is the premier political party representing the “Ilangaith Thamizhar” or Sri Lankan Tamils was not amenable to the President’s drastic “U”turn. It wanted the Govt-TNA bi- lateral talks to continue and arrive at a basic agreement first. Thereafter that bilateral agreement could be presented at the PSC for multi-party approval.
The TNA was not averse to participating at the PSC. It only demurred on the modalities. It wanted talks to continue bilaterally on an already agreed upon set of principles. Once an accord was reached it could be presented singly or jointly to the PSC. This was the TNA stance.
This TNA position did gain acceptance from the International community notably India and USA.To most detached observers the TNA stance did seem understandable as it appeared that the President had unilaterally changed the rules of political engagement.
Whatever the nature of outside opinion ,President Rajapaksa seemed determined that it was the PSC or nothing. But he found it impossible to convene the PSC and start the ball rolling due to opposition non – cooperation.
The TNA is refusing to go into the PSA at this point of time saying it wants the talks with the Govt to continue first. The Chief opposition United National Party (UNP) says it will abide by the TNA decision. The JVP has virtually rejected the PSC for its own reasons. This in essence has caused a stalemate without any forward movement.
The political stalemate prevails at a critical time for the Rajapaksa regime. The Govt is under intense international scrutiny thanks to the resolution sponsored by the USA and supported by India at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was passed by 24 votes to 15 with 8 countries abstaining in a council of 47 member states.
The visible lack of effective progress on political rapprochement with the TNA reflects badly on the Govt. The TNA due to its creditable performance in democratic elections and by articulating its political stance through acceptable, moderate terms has earned the regard and endorsement of the International Community. The Government’s perceived inability or unwillingness to even engage the TNA in political discussions does not project a positive image internationally.
The crux of the matter is that the Rajapaksa regime trying to resolve the Tamil national question known euphemistically as the ethnic problem without the involvement of the TNA is akin to enacting the “Ramayana” without Lord Rama. However much the Govt and critics try to belittle the TNA and deem it inconsequential , the perception both nationally and internationally is that the TNA has a democratic mandate from the Sri Lankan Tamil people to negotiate on its behalf. Trying to supplant the TNA with political renegades or self –confessed “half democrats “ would not suffice.
The President in an effort to demonstrate that some forward movement is being achieved has been trying to get the TNA to at least nominate its proposed representatives to the PSC. President Rajapaksa even summoned TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan to a one to one meeting at “Temple Trees” and tried to elicit the names of TNA nominees but the Septugenarian Sampanthan would not oblige. The impasse prevails.
The TNA’s reluctance to go into the PSC without reaching an agreement with the SLFP(Govt) first is understandable. Significant progress has been made at the Govt-TNA talks notwithstanding the fact that some irresponsible TNA Parliamentarians make media statements to the contrary. Besides the unilateral manner in which President Rajapaksa terminated the bilateral talks abruptly and imposed the PSC as an alternative is insulting.It is after all a matter of dignity where the TNA and by extension the Tamil people have once again been treated shabbily.
There is also a question of mistrust and lack of confidence. If President Rajapaksa is reluctant to go in for bilateral talks the TNA is hesitant about going in for multilateral initiatives. Recent history is replete with instances of round table conferences, all party conferences, political party conferences, Fact-finding Commissions, Parliamentary Select committees etc where no worthy decision was arrived at. Where reports were presented no follow up action has been taken.
President Rajapaksa’s record in this respect too has been tardy. The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) he convened years ago submitted an interim report that has not been implemented. The four different reports submitted by different groups and members of the APRC experts panel are also gathering dust. At another level the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report(LLRC) Interim and final reports are yet to be implemented.
If these acts of omission or non – commission do not inspire confidence in the Govt there is also another cause of deep suspicion on the part of the TNA. The party is fearful that through multilateral discussions and majoritarian imposition the PSC could be converted into an instrument that could crush the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils. The TNA worries that the quantum of devolution proposed could be little or nothing at all. The TNA has anxiety that even the devolution available through Provincial Councils could be done away with through the PSC. If that happens the TNA which strives for the Silk “verty” of greater devolution may lose even the cotton “verty” it is clad in now!
The statements made by some members of Parties represented in the Government like the Jathika Nidhahas Peramuna or Jathika Hela Urumaya as well as by some members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party make the TNA uneasy that the whole concept of devolution could be under threat at the PSC. The recent interview given by Economic Affairs minister and Presidential sibling Basil Rajapaksa to a Sunday English weekly has also accentuated fears of the PSC outcome. Many Tamils share TNA misgivings about the possibility of a Sinhala majoritarian viewpoint being imposed through the PSC.
Another factor heightening TNA trepidation about going into the PSC has been the recent “communication gap” between President Rajapaksa and visiting Indian political leaders on the question of “13 A plus”. Both Indian Foreign minister SM Krishna and opposition leader Sushma Swaraj told the media on different occasions that President Rajapaksa had agreed to “Thirteenth Amendment Plus”.
Those assertions at public press conferences went unchallenged when they were made but were disputed within days. It was made clear that President Rajapaksa had not agreed to 13 A plus. He had only said he was prepared to concede 13 A plus or beyond if the PSC decided so. What the President had indicated was that he himself would comply with whatever the Parliamentary select committee decided upon.
This clarification too did not infuse much confidence to the TNA. Ironically the TNA which has also been dismissing the 13th Amendment as being inadequate was now troubled that even those gains made through the Indo-Lanka accord could be frittered away. There was a time when TNA leader Sampanthan told the BBC Tamil service that “the 13th amendment was a stinking ,dead corpse which the TNA wont touch”.Even now the TNA yearns for something greater than the 13th amendment but was equally concerned that powers could be whittled away to much less.
In this respect there is also suspicion among Tamil circles that the PSC idea could be a deceptive time buying exercise. With the Rajapaksa regime facing lots of international pressure the PSC could be utilized as a stratagem to deflect attention away. After prolonged and protracted sittings the PSC could simply wither away like the APRC without anything tangible in the form of an acceptable report materializing.The TNA would then be the laughing stock of the Tamil speaking world.
If these were reasons reinforcing the TNA’s doubts over the PSC, the President was equally if not more, resolved to forge a political consensus through the multilateral mechanism of a PSC and nothing else. He was not amenable to the suggestion that bilateral talks and agreement should precede TNA participation at the PSC. Obviously the TNA is disgruntled at what it depicts as intransigience but what the TNA seems oblivious to is the fact that the party too is an underlying cause for this state of affairs.
The TNA derisively described as Tiger Nominated Agents by Douglas Devananda is seen as an appendage of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)by a vast number of the Sri Lankan people. The LTTE may no longer exist in Sri Lanka as a viable organization but its overseas structures remain intact.
A large number of Tigers and pro-tiger elements in the Diaspora have changed their stripes and transformed into human rights champions and seekers of retributive justice. This transfiguration may have deceived western human rights organizations, political representatives and media personnel but in Sri Lanka the people remain wary.
The TNA because of its past history where it was meekly subservient to the LTTE and acted as tiger puppets is yet viewed with suspicion. The intemperate pronouncements of some TNA leaders and their past tiger links increase this feeling.
In recent times the TNA has incurred further hostility by shamelessly aligning itself with extremist elements in the Diaspora. The TNA was elected by the Ilangaith Thamizhar to represent them and look after their welfare but many TNA parliamentarians seem keen to cater more to the whims and fancies of Diaspora elements rather than to the basic needs of their constituents whom they seem to take for granted.Interviews to media organs of the Diaspora and frequent overseas trips seem to be the order of the day for several TNA leaders.
This nexus is causing much revulsion and hostility at home among the Sinhala people who view this suspiciously as an unhealthy development. Many regard the TNA as dancing merrily to the tunes played by Overseas orchestras. President Rajapaksa being a political animal sensitive to public opinion realizes this. He may also be having more concrete evidence of TNA –Diaspora links through reports furnished by the impressive intelligence network run by his brother the Defence secretary.
Although devolution of a limited extent is already available through the Provincial councils there also exists a degree of hostility towards it. Greater devolution is looked upon suspiciously by some as the word Devolution is also fast acquiring a negative image akin to a “dirty word” like Federalism. There is also resentment over the fact that the 13th Constitutional amendment paving the way for devolution was made possible through Indian intervention. There is a sullen mood in the country that could erupt if mishandled.
All this has made the President cautious. He is aware that a bilateral deal with the TNA runs the risk of being looked upon suspiciously by sections of the majority. Also he is conscious of the fact that this “deal” could be exploited by elements hostile to him in the country. The President only knows too well that slight friction could ignite violent demonstrations as witnessed at Katunayake and Chilaw. He knows the ethnic issue is volatile and requires only a flashpoint of tension to trigger off a major conflagration. Thus Rajapaksa treads cautiously.
Moreover the President is also doubtful about a potential agreement with the TNA. Given the manner in which virulent sections of the Diaspora exert dominant influence on some TNA leaders the President fears that the TNA would make excessive demands of him. He has also seen how Sampanthan and the old Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF)let down Chandrika Kumaratunga at a crucial juncture in 2000. He does not want a replay of that scenario.
President Rajapaksa is like a batsman who does not want to call a run because he thinks the partner at the other end may not respond and run him out. He is like a trapeze artiste who does not want to jump off his swinging bar and grasp the hands of his partner in mid air because he is paranoid that his opposite number would let him down literally and figuratively. So Rajapaksa wants a safety net!
And that safety net is the Parliamentary select committee. By involving other political parties in the exercise the President wants to make it a combined effort rather than a solo effort by his party alone. By getting all involved as stakeholders he is distributing responsibility at multiple levels.
Rajapaksa is hopeful that he could convince the people of a political arrangement forged multilaterally than one formulated unilaterally or bilaterally. It is not a two –thirds majority in Parliament that is of concern but the daunting prospect of a potential country wide referendum. Only a multilateral end product could prevent the possibility of a referendum polarizing into ethnic camps, he feels.
Had President Rajapaksa taken the TNA leader Sampanthan into his confidence and outlined his reasons for changing from bilateral to multilateral talks the veteran TNA leader may have been amenable as he too is a politician sensitive to political considerations.. But this did not happen presumably because a Johnny come lately into politics had prejudiced the President’s mind about Sampanthan carrying old LTTE baggage. Instead of trying to win over Sampanthan the President attempted to browbeat the TNA and hence the current deadlock.
The stalemate situation however is not good for the Government in general and the Tamil National Alliance in particular. The President and Govt are strong enough to simply stay put without making any effort to either convene the PSC or engage in parallel poltical efforts as a substitute. This however would result in increasing loss of trust and confidence towards the Govt among the minority communities. It would also bring about an undesirable strengthening of hawkish tendencies among both the Sinhala and Tamil ethnicities. The Diaspora hardliners will have a field day condemning Colombo while the International community will gain another reason to criticize the Rajapaksa regime.
The TNA too would be affected. First and foremost there is the question of what the TNA could do constructively by staying away indefinitely. If the Govt continues to be inflexible on reviving the Govt-TNA talks and the TNA does not participate in the PSC there does not seem to be any other viable alternative looming on the political horizon. There seem to be no other options available.
While there is much merit in the TNA wanting to reach an agreement with the Govt before convening the PSC, the harsh reality is that it takes two to tango. Rightly or wrongly the President is resolved that it is a multilateral mechanism or nothing. Compelling the President to re-commence bilateral talks through international pressure even if possible (this writer thinks it is impossible)would only amount to a forced marriage. Consummation is not possible. So the TNA simply parroting the demand for bilateral talks is politically a despondent cry in bleak wilderness.
The LTTE and pro-LTTE Diaspora elements and those irresponsible vocal warriors who want the TNA to adopt a confrontational posture with the Govt would no doubt be delighted at the TNA remaining indefinitely outside the PSC but such an approach would not be fair by the Tamil people of Sri Lanka who elected the TNA.
The TNA won recent elections by campaigning on a platform of a negotiated political settlement within a united Sri Lanka and not on a separatist demand. The TNA beseeched the voters to strengthen their hands at negotiations by voting for them. The TNA did not campaign for “Thesiyam, Suyanirnayam and Thayagam”(Nationalism, Self-dtermination and Homeland). In fact those who did so were roundly defeated at the polls.
It is therefore imperative that the TNA be attentive to the requisites of their constituency. The Tamil people in Sri Lanka are quite realistic about the current situation. What they are worried about is their existential problems, the safeguarding and preservation of their ethnic identity and the ensuring of fundamental rights.
Going into talks and discussions with the intention of arriving at a settlement providing greater devolution at the periphery and sharing of power at the centre is a legitimate aspiration of the Tamil people which the TNA is duty bound to fulfill.
With the President resolved that the PSC is the only option the TNA is in realistic terms faced with Hobson’s choice. It is no comedown to adjust to this reality as politics is the art of the possible. Stubborn unwillingness can only lead to annihilation as events in May demonstrated three years ago.
Compromising pragmatically is what responsible political parties representing a weak minority do. The compromise however has to be done with calculated finesse and tempered with cautious optimism.
The TNA must also realize one thing. International opinion is fluid and fickle. The shades of opinion that backed Colombo’s war three years ago is now calling for accountability. International opinion may be supportive of the TNA stance towards the PSC at present but it could change overnight. Faced with the prospect of a prolonged impasse the Internatiional community may alter its attitude and pressure the TNA to participate in the PSC at Rajapaksa’s terms. It would be better therefore if the TNA revises its stance towards the PSC of its own volition.
Another point to be noted by the TNA is that a state of impasse could result in greater pressure being exerted by Tamil extremist elements within and outside Sri Lanka. Nature abhors a vacuum and if the TNA keeps up a state of non – negotiations indefinitely the extremist elements would seek to press the party into adopting harder, confrontational positions. This is not a good thing for both the party as well as the long suffering Tamil people in the Island.
It must be emphasized that the intention of the President to seek a political solution through a Parliamentary select committee is something commendable in the eyes of the democratic world. It is an acceptable exercise upholding the finest traditions of participatory democracy.
In the case of Sri Lanka the doubts are not about the mechanism but of how the process would turn out to be. The TNA is reluctant only because it fears the PSC would be utilized wrongly. If the doubts on this account are clarified or eradicated then there should not be any reason for non –participation. At the same time the Rajapaksa regime too should be mindful of TNA apprehensions and seek to allay them positively.
When suggesting that the TNA should abandon its rigidity and participate in the PSC one does not want the premier Tamil party to walk into the spider’s parlour like the fly. Just as President Rajapaksa seeks to use the PSC as a safety net the TNA also should have adequate safeguards before participating in the PSC.
The least that it should demand and obtain before consenting to participate are minimum guarantees. These guarantees should make the TNA feel more secure and confident about participation.
Firstly the TNA must ensure that the PSC exercise should not diminish what is already available in terms of devolution. Whatever is available through the present provincial councils must not be reduced. In short the Prevailing provincial council structure and powers should not be allowed to decrease below par.
Secondly the quest for greater or maximum devolution should not be curtailed or restricted. The usage of concepts like “13 A plus” or “13 A minus seem meaningless in a state of flux. As it stands today it is 13 A minus” without the North- Eastern merger.
What is possible and feasible is to regain the “plus” by trading the unit of devolution for substance of devolution. In this the eradication of the concurrent list and allocating the bulk of powers to the Province with the exception of key areas seems to be the way to gain greater devolution.
The extent of Maximum devolution cannot be guaranteed but what is necessary is a guarantee that the target would be above and beyond the current scope and scale of the Provincial Council.
Thirdly the gains made through the Govt-TNA bilateral talks should not be simply thrown in the dustbin of history. It may be recalled that there were bilateral talks at three levels. The first was the one to one talks between Central Bank Governor Ajit Nivard Cabraal and TNA national list Parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran. The second was the one to one talks between President Rajapaksa and TNA leader Sampanthan. The third was the delegation to delegation talks between the Govt (SLFP) and the TNA.
Despite negative aspersions cast on these talks by the TNA spokesperson Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh and journalist mouthpieces of the Diaspora like a Tamil Sunday newspaper editor, the fact of the matter is that much progress had indeed been made in the various rounds of talks as far as the search for greater devolution. Agreement had been reached on a number of substantive issues and there were only three to six outstanding matters to be resolved when the talks were aborted. The outstanding issues however were contentious and required in depth discussions.
Since the bilateral talks have been abruptly terminated and the President wants fresh discussions to begin at the PSC there is no way in which the essence of the agreement reached could be imported into PSC proceedings. President Rajapaksa would not want the PSC to be seen as an extension of the Govt-TNA talks. There is however a device that could be used to both retain the basis of areas covered as well as to make a fresh start.
This would be to define the starting point in PSC discussions on the basis of certain modalities agreed upon during the bilateral talks. It may be recalled that it was agreed during the meeting between President Rajapaksa and TNA leader Sampanthan on September 2nd 2011 that five documents would comprise the basis for further discussions. This decision was reiterated and endorsed at the talks between the two delegations on September 16th 2011. The endorsement was minuted and later accepted as minutes and ratified at the next round of talks between Govt and TNA delegations on October 20th 2011.
The five relevant documents are-
1. The text of the Interim report of the Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Mangala Moonesinghe that was released in December 1992.
2. The text of proposals released by the Kumaratunga Government in January 1996.
3. The Text of proposals formulated by the Parliamentary select Committee chaired by Prof GL Peiris that was presented to Parliament as a White paper in October 1997.
4. The Text of the Draft Constitution Bill presented by the Kumaratunga Govt in Parliament in August 2000.
5. The text of the report submitted by the All Party Representative Committee (APRC)Majority of Experts Panel on December 2006. Eleven of Seventeen Expert panel members comprising Six Sinhalese, Four Tamils and One Muslim signed this report.
All the above documents have already been agreed upon as the basis for further discussions at the bilateral talks. They could now be accepted as discussion papers for PSC proceedings and be used as a basis. This would ensure an element of continuity from bilateral to multilateral talks while enabling the PSC to start off with a fresh slate.
The substance of these five documents incorporate much of the essentials covered thus providing the TNA with a sense of confidence in the PSC. At the same time utilizing these documents as discussion papers at the PSC could also lay down the parameters of a home grown solution which is what President Rajapaksa wants to finalise.
All five reports/documents are indigenously formulated without any external input or imposition. Moreover there is a multilateral basis to at least four of the five documents. These documents as discussion papers could satisfy both the Govt and TNA as well as other parties in the PSC and also provide a sound basis for proceedings.
Fourthly the PSC should be a time bound exercise. President Rajapaksa should fix a firm deadline of around three to six months for the PSC. Exceptional care should be taken to hold PSC sittings regularly and frequently without prolonged intervals. There must be a guarantee that an interim report would be presented to Parliament after a designated period of time like Six months.
Fifthly options of sharing power at the Centre also should be examined in addition to devolving power to the Provinces. The departed TULF leader and Constitutional expert Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam used to observe that the Tamils seek power sharing at the periphery only because they were denied power sharing at the centre. In that respect President Rajapaksa’s idea of setting up a second chamber or upper house also should be delved into and accepted with modifications at the PSC proceedings.
If President Rajapaksa could provide such categorical guarantees on these counts to the TNA in good faith there should be no reason then for the Tamil representatives to remain in the cold.Such guarantees if duly conveyed to the International community through appropriate channels would endow the process with a sense and spirit of serious commitment.
The TNA should also consult parties such as the UNP, Muslim Congress, Ceylon Workers Congress and the leftist ministers in cabinet about these PSC matters and try and evolve a consensus.Already the UNP leader Ranil Wickremasighe has indicated willingness to allocate two of the eight representatives entitled to the UNP to the TNA if necessary. This would enhance TNA strength to five in the PSC of Thirty –one.
The role played by opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe in trying to ensure participation of the TNA in the PSC is commendable. He is reportedly acting as an intermediary between both sides in this.
Ranil has also agreed to evolving a working arrangement with the TNA. He has said he would join PSC proceedings if the TNA agreed to do so and has also said that he would abide by whatever decision reached by the TNA on devolution. This no doubt would provide the TNA much needed moral support and a sense of political security.
Even if the TNA is provided these minimum guarantees by the President and it participates in the PSC there is no guarantee that everything would be to its satisfaction. Given the inconsistent nature of politics as well as inter-personal relationships, everything is uncertain and unpredictable. The guarantees given by the President could be observed in the breach at the PSC. The final outcome could prove extremely unsatisfactory.
If such an eventuality occurs what can the TNA do? It has two options. It can pull out of the PSC at the earliest sign of dissatisfaction and release a statement outlining its reasons for doing so.
The other option is to stick it out till the end, refuse to endorse the PSC report and instead present a dissenting report. Some sections of the Tamil media are warning the TNA that the PSC is a trap. Even if it were so the TNA need not be trapped permanently. It can always exit when necessary. Withdrawal is always an option.
The matter of issuing a dissenting report also evokes memories of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam (how one misses him at this juncture) during the time of President JR Jayewardena. In 1979 JR appointed a Commission on Devolution chaired by retired chief justice Victor Tennekoon. Neelan was the TULF nominee on the Commission. The final report was not to the liking of the TULF and Dr. Tiruchelvam. So Neelan wrote a dissenting report.
Lo and Behold! A pleasant surprise was in store when the District Development Councils bill was presented in Parliament in 1980 and the DDC’s set up in 1981. Many recommendations in the dissenting report filed by Neelan were in the DDC bill and structure. The only TULF Parliamentarian of that time currently in Parliament is Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. As a close associate of Neelan, Sampanthan would certainly remember what happened then if and when the TNA participates in the PSC.
The time is ripe for the TNA to participate in the PSC if minimum guarantees are sought and obtained from the President. Even if all things work out well there is a question of saving face. Since the Govt and TNA have adopted contrary positions and rationalized their conduct on that basis neither side would like to be perceived as having compromised. Politics is more perception than reality and optics counts.
The TNA is likely to suffer more because it has insisted vehemently that it would participate in multilateral talks only after bilateral talks conclude. Its political opponents could attack the TNA on this count now.In such a situation the way out would be for President to help the TNA . He could convene a fresh political conference of political parties represented in Parliament and use that as a prelude to constituting the PSC.
However much one understands and agrees with the reasons stated by the TNA about participating in the PSC the time has now come to end this stance. The politics of boycott and confrontational approach has been detrimental to overall Tamil interests in the past.
The TNA must obtain guarantees to participate in the PSC. The President must provide such guarantees. Politics is the art of the Possible!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org