The LTTE's latest proposals, which set out its demands - political autonomy and administrative independence - in unambiguous terms, hold far-reaching consequences for the island's unitary political structure.in Kilinochchi
"... If no final settlement has been reached and implemented by the end of the said five years... an independent election commission appointed by the Interim Self-Governing Authority, shall conduct free and fair elections in accordance with international democratic principles and standards under international observation."
- The Proposal by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on behalf of the Tamil people for an Agreement to establish an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the Northeast of the Island of Sri Lanka, November 1, 2003.
A MILD drizzle set the tone for an event Sri Lanka had waited for nearly two decades. With an ever-present smile, the political wing leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), S.P. Tamilchelvan, welcomed the mediapersons who had assembled in the garden of the LTTE's peace secretariat in Kilinochchi to announce - for the first time in two decades that alternated between bloody war and shattered peace efforts - the rebel group's blueprint for a solution to the island's separatist conflict.
Implicit and concealed in its proposals are three basic LTTE positions, built up since the 1985 Thimphu Principles. The stand that the Tamils are to be considered a nation runs through the text. The right to a homeland is manifest in Clause 1, which lists the eight northern and eastern districts. The right to self-determination is brought out through Clause 3 (Elections), which says that if a solution is not arrived at and implemented at the end of five years after the proposed Agreement takes effect, the people in the Northeast would choose their representatives through an election held by an "independent election commission" in accordance with "international democratic principles and standards" - an expression that can be easily translated to mean plebiscite.
"The basis of our struggle is to regain the lost freedom for the Tamil people and bring them on a par with our Sinhala brethren, enabling them to enjoy human liberty and dignity and the recognition as a distinct nation of people," Tamilchelvan said, when the press conference was reconvened inside the peace secretariat. The rain was to persist for most part of the two-hour media interaction, when he released the LTTE's outline for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the Northeast.
The LTTE, for its part, rained down its alterative proposals with flashing smiles and a well-crafted document that made it amply clear that the Tigers had not made drastic changes to what they saw as a workable settlement to the separatist conflict - a full separation of powers, with authority over the seas and the mandate to enter into economic agreement with other countries.
In eight pages, 23 clauses and around 3,500 words, the LTTE told the world what it had refrained from expressing during the decades of fighting - self-rule for the Tamil majority north and east, comprising eight districts, Amparai, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Vavuniya, through an ISGA in which the LTTE holds a majority.
The proposals, which will have far-reaching consequences for the island's unitary political structure, set out in clear detail what the LTTE wants - political autonomy and administrative independence.
The LTTE has demanded a majority stake for itself in running the interim self-government - an offer that has already been made by Colombo in its July 17 proposal (Frontline, August 29, 2003). However, the similarity began and ended with this single point. Although the LTTE was willing to accommodate representatives of the Sri Lankan government and Muslims, a demand made by the government, in a nuanced silence it avoided making provision for weighted representation, as outlined by the government.
That the LTTE had not forgotten the working of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) was evident when it said at the outset that the Chairperson of the Authority "shall be elected by a majority vote of the ISGA" and will be its Chief Executive. The LTTE, an unwilling participant in the ISLA, broke away from any arrangement after the then President chose a nominee who was not favoured by it. Subsequently, the LTTE stayed away from the interim administration and ultimately turned its guns on the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
In the present context, there is no provision in the Constitution for such an Authority. Moreover, as the President wields overwhelming constitutional powers, even if Prime Minster Ranil Wickremasinghe's government is willing to consider such a move, it will have to convince the President first. Given Sri Lanka's bitter cohabitation politics and the strong emotions that run in the Sinhala-majority southern Sri Lanka, this becomes a difficult first step for the government. The virtual exclusion of the President from this exercise makes the task even more difficult for the Prime Minister.
Close on heels of this steep step, the LTTE makes it clear in Clause 3 that a final settlement is to be reached within a timeframe. In simple language, the LTTE says that the composition of the nominated members of the ISGA and its Chief Executive would continue "until elections are held" and mandates that "such election shall be held at the expiry of five years of the coming into force of this agreement, if no agreement has been reached and implemented by the end of the said period of five years".
Gently, but precisely, going for the jugular, the LTTE then says: "An independent Election Commission, appointed by the ISGA, shall conduct free and fair elections in accordance with international democratic principles and standards under international observation."
This, along with the final paragraph in the proposals - Operation Period (Clause 23) - sets out the LTTE's deadline clearly. The Agreement for the ISGA, the LTTE said, "shall continue until a new government for the Northeast, pursuant to a permanent negotiated settlement, is established. The Parties will negotiate in good faith to reach such a settlement as early as possible...
"Provided, however, that at the end of four years if no final agreement has been reached between the parties to this agreement, both parties shall engage in negotiations in good faith for the purpose of adding, clarifying and strengthening the terms of this Agreement."
When Tamilchelvan was asked by Frontline if the LTTE would insist on a timeframe for resuming dialogue to work towards the agreement on the ISGA, he replied in the negative and emphasised that setting timeframes were "always detrimental", but wanted an early resumption so that the Tigers could "clarify" their positions on the proposals made.
The LTTE's demand for complete autonomy is made clear in Clause 9, on Jurisdiction, which reads: "The ISGA shall have plenary power for the governance of the Northeast, including powers in relation to resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction and development, including improvement and upgrading of existing services and facilities, raising revenue including imposition of taxes, revenue, levies and duties, law and order, and over land."
The clause further says in clear terms: "These powers shall include all powers and functions in relation to regional administration exercised by the government in and for the Northeast" and leaves the modalities subject to "further discussions".
Judicial powers are covered in the next clause (Separation of Powers), which says: "Separate institutions for the administration of justice shall be established for the Northeast, and judicial powers shall be vested in such institutions." The ISGA, the proposals say, "shall take measures to ensure the independence of the judges".
Subject to Human Rights and Settlement of Disputes, the institutions created under this clause, the proposals say, "shall have sole and exclusive jurisdiction to resolve any disputes concerning the interpretation and implementation of this agreement and any other disputes arising in or under this agreement or any provision thereof".
Financial powers, a main point of suspicion between centres and regions, are addressed in the next clause (Finance), which reflects the need for a continued link with the centre.
The Clause provides for "an independent Finance Commission", which shall "make recommendations as to the amount out of the Consolidated Fund to be allocated to the Northeast". The government, the proposals say, "shall make its good faith efforts to implement the recommendation".
Provision is made for the creation of three Funds - the Northeast General Fund, the Northeast Reconstruction Fund and a Special Fund.
Reinvoking a proposal made in the Unilateral Declaration of Independence more than a decade ago by the first and till date only Chief Minister of the Northeast, Varadarajaperumal, the LTTE has made a separate clause asking for powers to borrow, receive aid and trade.
This demand, in Clause 12, reads: "The ISGA shall have powers to borrow internally and externally, provide guarantees and indemnities, receive aid directly, and engage in or regulate internal and external trade."
The latest peace negotiations, which commenced last September, ran into turbulence three months later when the LTTE and the government differed over the withdrawal of the High Security Zones (HSZs) in the northern Jaffna peninsula. As early as last December, the LTTE pulled out from the sub-committee on de-escalation and normalisation (SDN), signalling the imminent collapse of the peace talks.
Sticking to its position on this issue, the LTTE has addressed this sensitive issue through the clause on Resettlement of Occupied Lands (Clause 17). Making the case that "the occupation of land by the armed forces of the government, and the denial to the rightful civilian owners of unfettered access to such land, is a violation of the norms of international law", the clause says, "Such land must be immediately vacated and restored to the possession of the previous owners." As the ISGA cannot stake a direct claim over control of the Sri Lankan military, the proposal provides for the Authority to "be responsible for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced civilians and refugees in such lands".
The issue of the HSZs was raised first by LTTE chief V. Prabakaran in his annual Heroes' Day speech last November, when he said that the benefits of peace had not accrued to the Tamil civilians who were displaced and could not return to their homes.
Subsequently, this became the focal point that directed the negotiations between Colombo and the Tigers, and as it remained unresolved, the talks broke down this April, with a unilateral pullout by the LTTE.
In addition, the issue of land is addressed through Clause 16, under which the ISGA "shall have the power to alienate and determine the appropriate use of all land in the Northeast that is not privately owned".
The other contentious point, one that was in-built in last year's Ceasefire Agreement signed separately by Wickremasinghe and Prabakaran, was the issue of the seas. While the Ceasefire Agreement provided for a clear demarcation between government- and rebel-controlled areas in the north, it gave the Navy the right over the waters around the island.
For the LTTE, which has been riding the international waves for its arms supply, access to the sea remained the only crucial link with its overseas network. The strangulation became obvious when on March 10 the Navy sank a rebel vessel, suspected to be carrying a consignment of weapons for the rebels off the eastern Mullaitivu coast. The two sides differed on whether the ship was sunk in international waters or within territorial waters, bringing to the fore the sore point of the Ceasefire Agreement.
The LTTE, subsequently said its navy had "won several battles against the [Sri Lanka] Navy during the war, but had lost during peace" and wanted the situation corrected. It sought recognition as a naval unit, but that was not to come.
In its proposal, the LTTE addresses this through Clause 18, which says: "The ISGA shall have control over the marine and offshore resources of the adjacent seas and the power to regulate access thereto." With this single sentence, the Tigers have made yet another core demand, which would change the nature of the region's relationship with the Centre. It is also likely to be an extremely emotional issue for the island's sensitive south, which fears that two-thirds of its sea would be lost.
The ISGA proposes a three-member tribunal (Clause 22) for settling disputes over the Agreement that cannot be resolved. Two members of this bench are to be appointed by each party and the third member is to be appointed jointly. "In the case of disagreement over the appointment of the Chairperson, the parties shall ask the President of the International Court of Justice to appoint the chairperson," the proposals said.
The determination of any dispute, the proposals say, "shall ensure the parity of status of the LTTE and the Government and shall resolve disputes only to the provisions of this Agreement". The decision of the arbiters shall be final, conclusive and binding.
With this step, the LTTE has taken the dispute settlement process outside the island's structure and seeks to place it in the international realm.
In the next clause, the LTTE addresses the internationally sensitive issue of Human Rights; but in a manner that reflects the independent nature of the ISGA, it sets international standards. "Every law, regulation, rule, order or decision of the ISGA shall conform to internationally accepted standards of human rights protection." It would also put in place "an independent Human Rights Commission, appointed by the ISGA, which shall ensure the compliance with all such human rights obligations", the proposals say.
Since the start of the latest peace process, human rights have remained an uncomfortable issue for the LTTE. The organisation had earlier sought to distinguish between individual human rights and collective human rights, by insisting that the Tamil community's rights were being affected by the Sri Lankan government's military presence.
This is to be seen against the backdrop that nearly all visible international players in Sri Lanka's peace process had made the point that there would be no compromise on human rights, as reflected in the emphasis laid on this issue in the Tokyo Declaration. Moreover, the LTTE has also been making the point that its offer "would win support from the international community".
A separate Auditor General (Clause 13) and the appointment of District Committees (Clause 14), control over natural resources (Clause 19), water use (Clause 20) and agreements and contracts (Clause 21) are the other provisions of the proposal.
The ISGA proposals are also aimed at countering the Constitution on issues that distance the island's minority from the state. For instance, while the Constitution provides primacy to Buddhism, Clause 5 of the proposal (secularism) states: "No religion shall be given foremost place in the Northeast." Subsequent clauses ban discrimination "on grounds of religion, race, case, national or regional origin, age or gender in the Northeast," and accord `Protection to All Communities' (Clause 8). The ISGA also makes the point that it "shall ensure that no bribery or corruption is permitted in or under the administration".
Tamilchelvan described the proposals as "reasonable, rational and practical" and said: "We are prepared to negotiate with the government." Striking a note of optimism, he said: "We believe the government and the international community will accept the proposals in full." Although the two sides have indicated their willingness for an early resumption of talks, serious differences persist on the government's offer and the LTTE's counter proposals.
A month after the LTTE walked out of the talks with Colombo, Tamilchelvan told the media that there was a need to work outside the Constitution if a solution to the conflict had to be found. Tamils have blamed the rigid, unitary Constitution as the basic cause for the conflict.
"A new government structure is required," Tamilchelvan said after releasing the proposals reiterating the rebel position that a solution would have to be worked outside of the island's unitary Constitution.
However, despite the broad conceptual agreement to do away with the Constitution and replace it with one that provides for greater devolution of powers, the possibilities are not too bright. The bitter cohabitation politics apart, the latest proposals of the LTTE are bound to raise emotional and political sparks in the south.
Asked if the counter offer was a stepping stone to a separate Eelam, Tamilchelvan said "a careful study, not a perusal" would show that the LTTE was "ready to consider a viable option to gain basic freedoms for the Tamils". Asked further if the LTTE was giving up its demand for a separate state, Tamilchelvan, however, said that it was for the "people to decide" and would depend on how satisfied they were with the manner in which the ISGA was worked out and functioned. "The LTTE does no have the right to say we have given up or are continuing with the demand. We do not want to raise such issues and spoil the present situation," he said.
On the possibility of political opposition to the counter proposals against the backdrop of the political rivalry between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, he said: "We do not want to comment on southern politics. It is a historical truth that the Opposition has always deterred a solution. The President is a continuation of that past."
With the LTTE's proposals on the table and the government keen to restart negotiations, Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process enters a stage where much more mutual accommodation is required. At best the LTTE's stand could be a maximalist one, but even during the toughest phase of negotiations it is extremely unlikely that the Tigers will dilute the core concepts outlined in their proposal. The slender links to the Centre are in the form of financial relationship, the nuanced position that the government should move the security forces from the north and the east and the use of the term `administration of the Northeast'.
However, with a deadline set for reaching a final settlement, the LTTE, for its part, has turned the sand-clock on the conflict resolution process.