For an inclusive solution

Print edition : November 16, 2012

G.L. Peiris. He says the PSC is the way forward.-LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

Interview with G.L. Peiris, Sri Lankas External Affairs Minister.

Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris spoke to Frontline in Colombo on the current situation relating to the emergence of a political solution to the ethnic issue in the country. Prof. Peiris contends that the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) is the way forward to discuss the question of a political solution and that the Tamil National Alliances (TNA) fears over joining it are unfounded.

What do you think about the fears of the TNA over joining the PSC that it would become a forum used by the majority ethnic community, if not the parties, to scrap the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution?

Does that make any sense at all? If the majority wanted to do that, why would they go through the Parliamentary Select Committee? They can go ahead and do it anyway. I cant see the reasoning in the fear that the Parliamentary Select Committee will be used as an instrument for recommending the abolishment of the 13th Amendment. A PSC is not an essential instrument to accomplish that; a proposal to that effect can be brought forward and the Constitution can be amended.

But will the PSC process not give it more legitimacy since all the parties are involved?

No. You can have a debate in the chamber of Parliament and involve all the parties. That argument is totally irrational in my view and is an example of the subterfuge being adopted to cloud the issue. If that is the fear, then it is a totally unfounded fear.

What happens next if the PSC does not work out?

Well, it has to work out. If you are changing the countrys Constitution, you need a two-thirds majority and, possibly, a referendum to change some of the provisions. [The PSC] is the obvious instrument for moving forward.

What is the solution that the government has in mind? Is it a distillation of the five documents, or is it something else? We have heard about this 13-plus, 13minus, etc.

The governments approach is not to present something that is cast in stone. That approach was attempted in the past. The end objective is implementation. We dont want yet another leaf being added to the thicket.

Why were the reports of the All Party Representative Conference (APRC) abandoned?

We can certainly make use of the APRC reports. The APRC discussed a whole range of issues, not just devolutionbasic structures of government, electoral system, and so on. What is now proposed is a more focussed effort. We are ready to start the process. I dont think the TNA will gain anything by insisting on delaying. But frankly, the problem I think is this: they have dug themselves into a situation of extreme rigidity from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves without loss of face. I think that is one practical problem.

How do you assess Indias role in all this in the last year or so?

Well, there is no denying the fact that there was deep disappointment over the Indian vote in the [U.N.] Human Rights Council on March 22 this year. That was the game changer at the HRC. But that is now behind us. In the relationship between countries, there are ups and downs. And we realise, indeed as India does, that this is a crucial relationship for both countries. We are bound to each other by a variety of ties. So it is necessary for both countries to look to the future rather than be obsessed by one episode, however significant it may have been. Since then, we have had six Cabinet Ministers from India visiting us during a short period of four to five months.

Do you sense any pressure at all in the way in which India has pushed for a quick resolution in Sri Lanka?

No. In fairness, Indias approach is not prescriptive. But what they are saying is that they would like to see this resolved in a manner that is acceptable to the TNA. Now, the problem about that is that it puts the TNA very much at the centre, giving it the opportunity of upping the ante and shifting the goal post. Because, if all is in their hands, then it is not a situation that is conducive to making progress on the ground.

But the TNA is the legal electoral representatives in the North and the East too.

But there are other players who cannot be ignored. What about the Muslims? And there has always been this problem of the TNA only wanting a bilateral process with the government. It did not want the Muslims to be a party to the dialogue. But the Muslim point of view is that this concerns them too. They were very much the victims of ethnic cleansing; they had to endure enormous pain and anguish. So there is no way that the Muslim interest can be excluded from consideration or discussion.

Im saying this only to illustrate that there are other vital interests that have to be part and parcel of a viable negotiating process. It cannot be simply the TNA and the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party]. What about other Sinhalese interests? They cannot be ignored as long as there are Sinhalese-owned bakeries in Jaffna. And this talk of demographic composition of society [in the North] being changed, it is not just one community that has been affected.

The Sinhalese have been affected too. Because the Sinhalese were driven out of those areas. So were the Muslims. So when one talks about dispossession of lands, being driven out of areas where generations have lived, one must remember that this is not something that is exclusive to one community. Which is why everyone has to be genuinely and substantively involved in the search for a solution.

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