Pressured to act

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The APRCs interim report recommends only measures that can be taken under the existing provisions of the Constitution.

in Colombo

SRI LANKAN President Mahinda Rajapaksa was at his generous best and in high spirits as he mingled with guests at a special function he hosted on the morning of January 19 on the lawns of the Presidential Palace to mark the occasion of Thai Pongal. He betrayed no signs of anxiety over the ongoing war between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north and the suspected guerilla attacks by the Tamil Tigers in the Sinhala-dominated Uva province.

The attacks, which took place within three days of the Norwegian-brokered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of 2002 coming to a formal end, claimed the lives of 32 civilians. The President also did not seem to be worried about the mounting pressure from within and outside Sri Lanka on his regime to come forward with a political package to resolve the three-decade-old ethnic crisis.

When Frontline caught up Rajapaksa at the carnival, he remarked casually: Yes, the pressures from the international community have grown enormously ever since the government decided to abrogate the CFA, to expedite the effort for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. I had called a meeting of the All Party Representative Committee [APRC] on January 9 to give me something by January 23, and they have agreed.

As the promised day of deliverance approached, there were all kinds of speculations and conjectures about what it could entail and how the President would handle the sensitive issue given the fissures within the mainstream polity.

The hardliners in the government and outside are against any political initiative for devolution of powers until the LTTE is wiped out, and their rhetoric in recent weeks has got shriller with the military claiming unprecedented gains against the Tigers. The APRC, constituted by Rajapaksa in mid-2006, is in itself a misnomer in the sense that it does not reflect the sentiments of the largest and the second largest Opposition parties in Parliament. The committee is no more than a rump group of the ruling combine and smaller parties. Little wonder then that Rajapaksa chose to tread the cautious path and made the nominal APRC give him something while holding back the report on the substantive issues it has been debating for over 18 months.

In a way it was a political coup, although of a dubious nature. The President made the committee give him an interim report merely suggesting the plan of action he could embark upon as a first step towards the political initiative to resolve the conflict, within the framework of the existing Constitution.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which came into being after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, provided the answer for most of the questions raised on the ethnic crisis. It is the failure of successive governments to implement the provisions of the 13th Amendment that has kept the ethnic conflict and the LTTE, which is not ready to settle for anything less than a separate state, alive. The sum and substance of the interim report is that under the existing provisions of the Constitution in general and the 13th Amendment in particular, the President could initiate a whole range of measures to begin the process to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

As the critics of the government have rightly pointed out, it does not require an APRC to remind the President about constitutional provisions. Rajapaksa has used the forum to drive home the point that with the APRC report he could now act on the 13th Amendment. In fact, a day before the APRC was to submit the report, he vehemently argued, during an interaction with local editors and foreign journalists, that he required the committees endorsement for full implementation of the 13th Amendment.

After all, the 13th Amendment has been part of the statute for over 20 years. Please ask my predecessors as to why it could not be translated into action. Obviously, though it was part of the Constitution, there was no consensus among political parties in the country on its implementation, the President said in response to a pointed question whether he required the stamp of an all-party group to implement an existing provision in the Constitution. As of now, the gamble of the President to get the APRC to give him an interim report seems to have paid off. The main opposition group, the United National Party (UNP), cannot oppose the report as it was President J.R. Jayewardenes UNP government that passed the 13th Amendment (in 1987). In other words, it is the UNPs baby, and the party cannot disown it so easily.

The international community also would have little to argue over the interim report as it has been telling Colombo for several years to implement the provisions of the 13th Amendment fully and faithfully as a first step to win over the minorities. This was evident from the description by New Delhi of the interim report as an encouraging welcome first step.

According to information obtained from reliable sources, the APRC had intended to give a 14-page report dealing at length with some of the contentious issues such as power-sharing between the Centre and the provinces, particularly in areas related to the police and land. However, Rajapaksa advised them against going into the specifics, fearing that it could stir a hornets nest and provide a platform for protests by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). So, after a great deal of cajoling and pressure from several quarters, the 14 members on the committee, led by its Chairman, Minister Tissa Vitharana, put their signatures on a mere three-and-a-half-page document.

Titled Action to be taken by the President to fully implement relevant provisions of the present Constitution as a prelude to the APRC proposals, the report recommended that the government endeavour to implement the 13th Amendment in respect of legislative, executive and administrative powers, overcoming existing shortcomings. It sought adequate funds by the government to facilitate effective functioning of the Provincial Councils and said the Centre should, hereinafter, route all finances in respect of special projects undertaken by it in the Provinces, if they are on subjects under the purview of the Provinces, through the respective provincial administrations. The committee has recommended special arrangements necessary to permit Maximum Devolution of Powers to the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

It says: The APRC is of the view that conditions in the Eastern Province are conducive to holding elections to the Provincial Council and that elections should be held immediately. Conditions in the Northern Province are far from being peaceful. A free and fair election in the North will not be possible in the near future. Hence an alternative arrangement is required in the Northern Province to enable the people of that Province to enjoy the fruits of devolution.

As it is not possible to hold elections in the North, the President could make appropriate order to establish an Interim Council for the Northern Province in terms of the Constitution. The Interim Council of a Province will aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his executive powers, and will function until Provincial Council elections are held in that Province. The Interim Council should reflect the ethnic character of that Province.

It is proposed that the Interim Council for a Province should consist of individuals who have political experience and an abiding interest in the development of the Province and in its people and be acceptable to the people of the Province. A person to qualify for appointment as a member of an Interim Council should have a thorough knowledge of the particular Province.

The interim report also spells out the need for the implementation of the constitutional provision on Official Language and recommends that the government take immediate steps to ensure that Parliament enacted laws to provide for the full implementation of Chapter IVLanguage of the Constitution. It said there were many contexts in which remedial measures would assume an administrative, rather than a legislative, character. The report says, after 63 sittings of the committee over a period of 18 months, that the consensus document is being finalised and that it should be possible to hand it over to the President in the very near future. The outcome would be a basis for appropriate constitutional arrangements and its implementation would require an amendment to the Constitution and, in respect of some Articles, approval by the people in a referendum. This would of course take time, even after a favourable climate is established.

The report says: Under the circumstances, the APRC, taking into consideration its own proposals, has identified a course of action to achieve maximum and effective devolution of powers to the Provinces in the short term. The emphasis would be on meeting the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking peoples, especially in the North and East. This would be done within the framework of the present Constitution, that is, the 1978 Constitution. The course of action proposed by the APRC would be implementable with immediate effect, and envisages an interim arrangement pending the restoration of democratically elected Provincial Councils in the North and East.

The 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution was enacted following the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987. It resulted in the setting up of Provincial Councils throughout Sri Lanka and it devolved powers to the Provinces under the unitary Constitution. The powers devolved fall under a Provincial List and a Concurrent List. All other powers were reserved for the Centre through a Reserved List. Further, any subject or function not included in any of the three Lists will also be deemed to be a subject or function in the Reserved List. Implementation of subjects and functions devolved on the Provinces through the Concurrent List has not taken place at all due to the fact most of these subjects and functions were retained by the Centre as if they also belonged to the Reserved List.

Tamil United Liberation Front president V. Anandasangaree, who has been in the forefront of the political fight against the LTTE, made an interesting speech on the occasion of the presentation of the report. The speech brought out the imperatives that compelled the committee to opt for an immediate response pending consensus on larger issues as well as its political impact on conflict resolution if the government was sincere in its implementation of the 13th Amendment.

Stating that the TULF and its allies extended their support to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, he said they had been agitating for a solution based on the federal concept and were willing to accept the Indian model as an alternative if the term federal was not to anybodys liking.

We have not changed our views in this matter and in the matter of merger of the North and the East. We assure everybody that while spurning violence, we will, by non-violent means and in a friendly way, continue to persuade the citizens of our country to agree that no permanent solution can be found under a unitary system. We will continue to dispel the fears of those who think that the country will be divided. We will take all steps to erase from the minds of our people the idea of separation and to strongly support the concept of a United Sri Lanka, he told the gathering.

Anandasangaree further said that several opportunities were given to the LTTE to come back to the negotiating table. He had even volunteered to negotiate with the government to get it a prominent role in the administration of the North and the East. Even a general amnesty for the leaders and the cadre was offered. They did not pay any attention to any offer. Instead, they are sacrificing valuable human lives on both sides every day. Even now these offers are open.

The reaction of the UNP was on predictable lines. Lakhman Kiriella, UNP parliamentarian, told the media that only the UNP would be able to provide pragmatic solutions.

The 13th Amendment, the District Council Bills and the Provincial Council Bills were all the UNPs measures to solve the ethnic problem. Neither the JVP nor the SLFP had ever brought forth any such solutions. Rather, they have only sabotaged the attempts of the UNP. When the Indian Peace Keeping Force came into Sri Lanka in 1987, and the 13th Amendment was introduced, the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] and the JVP staged massive protests against them. They created a hue and cry, rousing the people and telling all the lies under the Bo-tree at Pettah. But see the state of this country now, torn into shreds with no peace, no food and no security.

If the IPKF had continued in Sri Lanka for a further month, even Prabakaran [LTTE chief] would have been captured. And, mind you, this was all done at the Indian governments expense without the war becoming a burden on Sri Lankas finances. The Rajapaksa government is no longer the government people voted into power. It is a hotchpotch with no policies. The Sri Lanka Democratic Forum, a non-governmental organisation, rejected the APRCs recommendations and alleged that they were made at the personal behest of Rajapaksa.

The statement said: This undemocratic act by the executive presidency is a travesty of all efforts aimed at according justice to the minority communities, who have consistently suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of successive Sri Lankan governments over the past 60 years. The President and the ruling party have singularly failed to show even a semblance of leadership and have sought to hide behind extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces to railroad the APRCs mission to find credible proposals for a just and sustainable political solution to the national question.

The debate will go on but the question is whether Rajapaksa will demonstrate the political will to translate the 13th Amendment into actions.

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