President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Initiative to Resolve the Tamil National Question by 4 February 2023.

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leader and Colombo District MP,Mano Ganesan received a telephone call from Ranil Wickremesinghe on 19 July 2022. It was a day before the Presidential election where the members of Parliament were scheduled to vote and elect a new executive president to fill the vacancy created by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vacation of post and consequent resignation.

Ranil Wickremesinghe who was the then Prime Minister and acting interim president was a candidate in the presidential election. So when Ranil called, Mano thought Wickremesinghe was canvassing support for his candidacy. But that was not so. Ganesan was surprised by two things. Firstly Wickremesinghe did not seek his vote or the TPA’s support in the presidential poll. Secondly Ranil sounded supremely confident that he was going to be elected President.

Recalling the telephone conversation, Mano Ganesan told me “Ranil spoke as if he had already been elected President. He told me of his intention to resolve the Tamil National Question. He also told me of his plans to address the socio -economic issues of the North -Eastern and Up Country Tamils. He also spoke about the economic upliftment of their areas. Ranil seemed very convincing then”.

On 20 July 2022 Ranil Wickremesinghe won the Presidential election getting 134 votes out of 225. On 21 July 2022, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s mission is to help extricate Sri Lanka out of the economic morass it has sunk into and lead it on the road to economic recovery. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vision is for Sri Lanka to reach a high level of economic development in about 25 to 30 years.He wants all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnicity or religion to share the results of that economic growth equitably. Ranil knows he will not be there to taste those fruits of economic success but he is planting the trees for the benefit of future generations.

However, the primary objective of this article is not about the economic situation or the measures adopted by the Wickremesinghe administration to address it. Instead this column focuses specifically on a related yet crucial issue. This is the hitherto unresolved Tamil national question. It is also about resolving issues affecting the Tamil people. It is about redressing their genuine grievances and accommodating their legitimate aspirations.

Economic Downfall

The telephone conversation with Mano Ganesan that was referred to at the beginning of this article indicates clearly that Ranil Wickremesinghe is fully aware of the need to resolve issues affecting the Tamil people.It also demonstrates that he realized this well before he was elected president.

Mano Ganesan

It should be noted that the Tamil issue or ethnic crisis is one of the main causes of Sri Lanka’s economic downfall, Ranil Wickremesinghe realizes that full-fledged economic emancipation is impossible without ethnic reconciliation.

How then has President Wickremesinghe gone about in tackling these matters concerning the Tamil national question after assuming presidential office?

Given the tumultuous situation in which he became President, Wickremesinghe;s priority was to consolidate his position and re-establish presidential authority. This he seems to have accomplished for the moment through somewhat controversial means.

Firstly he has acquired support from a (slender) majority of MPs in Parliament from both Govt and Opposition ranks, cutting across race and religion. Secondly he has entrenched himself in office with the aid of the defence establishment and law enforcement agencies. Thus he has on the one hand ensured the smooth passage of the 21st Constitutional Amendment and 2023 Budget while curbing anti-state violence and suppressing anti-govt protests on the other. The situation is fraught with uncertainty but paradoxically appears to be quite stable.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe conversing with Tamil parliamentarians at the parliament

It is against this backdrop that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is now taking the initiative to resolve issues affecting the Tamil people. The reality is that all the Tamil speaking minorities have issues that need to be addressed. The North-Eastern Tamils, the Hill Country Tamils and the Muslims. It appears that the President is adopting a practical, sequential approach to the problem and is currently focussing on the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces.

75th Independence Anniversary

Initially President Wickremesinghe spoke about the need to resolve the Tamil national question in Parliament during the 2023 budget debate. While addressing Parliament he drew attention to the fact that Sri Lanka was about to celebrate her 75th anniversary of independence from British rule next year (Feb 4) and urged that the issues be resolved and ethnic reconciliation achieved before that.

The president then undertook a trip to Vavuniya and Mannar districts where he opened a sub -office of the Presidential Secretariat – Northern Province Development Special Unit . This sub-office will coordinate with the Presidential secretariat on development and reconciliation matters relating to the Northern province. President Wickremesinghe also interacted with officials , political representatives and civic leaders to identify problems,needs and potential solutions., Similar trips to the other districts of the North and East are in the pipeline in 2023. In Vavuniya, President Wickremesinghe and TNA Jaffna MP Sumanthiran discussed the issues of resolving the Tamil national Question over lunch.

President Wicremesinghe continued to emphasise the urgent need to bring about ethnic reconciliation before the 75th independence anniversary. He engaged in dramatics of a kind by asking SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, TPA leader Mano Ganesan, SJB Chief whip Lakshman Kiriella and TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthiran whether they were ready to meet and reach an agreement. They were all amenable. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa too concurred and said he was for 13 plus. Sumanthiran told the President that if he convened a conference of all parties after the Budget, they would participate and seek an early solution. Wickremesinghe then said he would do so the week following the Budget being passed.President Wickremesinghe followed this up by convening a conference of leaders of political parties represented in Parliament on December 13th.

Prior to the all party conference the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) met in Colombo to formulate an appropriate stance to adopt at the conference. The TNA is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East. The TNA comprising the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) has ten MPs representing the five electoral districts of the North and East.

Tamil National Alliance

The Tamil National Alliance meeting at the Colombo residence of its Parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan decided on a three-tiered approach. The first was to resolve outstanding issues like release of political prisoners, release of private lands appropriated by the state, enforced disappearances, seizure of lands through orders of the Archaeology, Forests and Wild Life Departments etc.

The second was the full implementation of the 13th Constitutional Amendment which paved the way for the introduction of Provincial Councils and afforded Tamil official language status.

The third tier related to Constitutional reform. The TNA wants a power sharing arrangement based on federal lines for the Northern and Eastern provinces.Though this would be its negotiating position, the TNA may be amenable to flexible compromises if a satisfactorily comprehensive solution was within reach.

When the all party conference commenced , President Wickremesinghe stated “We must all come together to solve the problem in this country. Whether it is called an ethnic problem or something else is not important. We want to provide solutions to these problems.”

The conference was a success of sorts with all participants being in agreement on the need for a power sharing solution.It was also emphasised that there was no need to re-invent the wheel as almost every aspect of Constitutional reform had been discussed in detail in the past. This included the draft Constitution formulated in 2017 when Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister.

Feb 4 Deadline

An important aspect of President Wickremesinghe’s initiative to resolve the Tamil issue and achive meaningful reconciliation was his insistence on 4 Feb 2023 being the deadline. He has stated this in Parliament as well as in other fora. The President re-iterated this at the all party conference. Furthermore Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that if a solution could not be reached by Feb 4 2023, it would never be reached at all. He said that he would make an announcement in Parliament of this position if a solution could not be found by the 75th Independence day.

President Wickremesinghe’s 75th Independence anniversary deadline has come in for derisive criticism in some quarters. How could a decades long problem be resolved in 52 days ?ask some. Some MPs have even quipped that the President is holding a gun to their head by imposing such a deadline.

Nevertheless there are others who feel that Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed dead serious about this deadline. It is also pertinent to note that Wickremesinghe would be able to dissolve the present Parliament anytime after Feb 2023 if he opines that the legislators are obstructing his plans of economic renaissance and political reconciliation.

Be that as it may, the Dec 13 all party conference concluded with President Wickremesinghe suggesting a two-track approach of resolving outstanding issues and pursuing greater devolution. TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthiran proposed a three track parallel approach whereby the processes of discussion,decision- making and implementation could be undertaken simultaneously.

The President agreed and explained that he never meant to adopt a sequential approach in the first place.He said that daily meetings could be held if necessary to reach a settlement. Elaborating further, Sumanthiran said that the three tasks of resolving issues, full implementation of 13 A and Constitutional change could all be achieved by having three parallel tracks. He pointed out that some implementation – related issues could be resolved before 31st December 2022 while agreement could be reached on the 13 th Amendment and Constitutional reform by January 31st 2023.. “you could then announce on the 75th anniversary that an accord has been finalised”, the TNA parliamentarian told the President. It was decided to hold the next all party conference on 5th January 2023.

Govt-TNA Meeting

In what appeared to be a very positive development , an informal meeting between the Govt and TNA was held on Wednesday December 21st. President Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena along with cabinet ministers Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Douglas Devananda and MUM Ali Sabry represented the Govt while Trincomalee MP R. Sampanthan and Jaffna MP MA Sumanthiran represented the TNA. Attorney-General Sanjay Rajaratnam was also present.

MA Sumanthiran

It was decided at the 45 minute long discussion that 14 convicted Tamil political prisoners would be pardoned and released. Five would be released immediately and the other nine within two weeks. The on going cases against other political prisoners would be expedited and consequently dismissed on a “Nolle prosequi” basis. All privately owned lands appropriated by the armed forces in the North and East would be returned. This move would be ratified at the National Security Council meeting on 3 Jan 2023.

In a rather significant move, the Govt and TNA are scheduled to meet consecutivel on January 10, 11, 12 and 13 in a four day marathon session. During these discussions all matters regarding the full implementation of the 13th Amendment would be finalised. The issues concerning Constitutional reform would also be dealt within this four day period. The time-table and agenda for the 4 day marathon would be devised at the All Party meeting on Jan 5th. The idea is to reach an amicable understanding before “Thai Pongal”on Jan 15th. The Thai Pongal is a unique harvest festival of the Tamils.

What President Wickremesinghe’s Govt and the Tamil National Alliance seem to be aiming for is to resolve as many outstanding issues as possible by 31 Jan 2023 on the one hand and reach agreement on Constitutional issues and the Provincial councils on the other. If all goes well, this would enable President Wickremesinghe to announce on the 75th Independence anniversary that political agreement has been reached on the Tamil National Question.

Difficult to be Optimistic

It remains to be seen as to whether this noble goal would be realised on 4 Feb 2023. Given Sri Lanka’s lamentable track record in the sphere of equitable power – sharing, it is difficult to be optimistic. Extremist politicians on either side of the ethnic divide are capable of sabotaging this effort as in the past. There are many pitfalls on the way.

However it is possible to reach broad agreement and devise a roadmap for implementation if there is true will and genuine commitment on the part of all concerned. it is the fervent desire and prayer of this column that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s admirable initiative to resolve the Tamil National Question before Sri Lanka’s 75th Independence anniversary meets with the success it richly deserves.

This is an updated version of an article appearing in the “D.B.S. Jeyaraj Column” of “Daily Mirror” dated 24th December 2022.It can be accessed here:

https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/President-Ranils-initiative-to-resolve-Tamil-national-question/172-251008