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It’s time for a solution

by Professor Mahinda Werake

Despite the escalation of violence and the existence of a limited war in Sri Lanka, the situation that is emerging may not be gloomy as some think. It appears that the present circumstances favour a move by the Sri Lankan government to come up with a proposal that could eventually pave the way for a final solution to the NE problem.

As we know, LTTE is now on a weaker position as a result of the recent EU proscription and its failure in its effort to provoke the Sri Lankan state through violence. As we know, it also failed in acts such as the recent attempt to assassinate the Army Commander and sink the ship carrying troops and two SLMM monitors. However, in order to take advantage of this situation the government needs to act quickly and come up with a blueprint to solve the NE problem acceptable to the non- LTTE, democratically minded Tamils and to India whose support is critical to further isolate the LTTE and compel them to participate in peace talks and accept a negotiated settlement.

In that context, the government cannot afford to get caught in a quagmire as to whether devolution of power to the North and East should be done within a federal or unitary system. Details of which model to be adopted and the extent of devolution can be worked out by the experts over time. What is necessary right now is an announcement of a general framework for devolution which would allow the Sri Lankan Tamils to live with dignity in the North-East according their own culture and traditions without fear or intimidation in harmony with the Muslim and Sinhalese minorities.

Since all democratic political parties (including the JVP and JHU) agree that power should be devolved to the two provinces, it becomes the onerous task for president Rajapakse to rise to the occasion and propose a formula acceptable to democratic parties in the North and the South that aims at solving the NE problem.

Goodwill

With the enormous goodwill and popularity he currently enjoys among the majority of the people in Sri Lanka (which I noticed during my recent visit), and the trust they have on him, it would not be difficult for him to obtain necessary support for any proposal that he would put before them.

In that context, it should be noted that the main reason why India is still not putting enough pressure on the Tigers to seek a negotiated settlement and reluctant to sign the proposed defense treaty with Sri Lanka, seems to be the fact the Sri Lankan government has so far failed to come out with a clear solution for the NE problem supported by the majority in the South that would redress the grievances of the Tamils who live there. Accordingly, if President Rajapakse announces such a solution, at least in principle, it would not be difficult for the central government in India to sound the parties in Tamilnadu and effectively support the Lankan government’s effort to reach a negotiated settlement with the LTTE and guarantee Sri Lanka’s security through a defense treaty. It appears that while the international pressure on the LTTE is mounting for them to reach a negotiated a settlement with the Sri Lankan government, unless and until India also joins the international pressure group whole heartedly, the success of that effort would be somewhat limited.

In talking about a solution to the NE problem, some political groups in Sri Lanka emphasise the unitary state concept basing their position on the importance of preserving the unity of Sri Lanka through a strong central government under a unitary system. However, as we know, by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Sri Lanka has already established a quasi-federal structure and the talk about a unitary state appears to be a moot point unless we go back to the pre-1987 period for which a constitutional change is necessary. It is quite unlikely that a two-thirds majority in the Parliament can be obtained for such a change. What needs to be addressed is how we can safeguard the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka while devolving adequate power to the North and the East.

Could we do it through a unitary form of government where power is more centralised or under a federal system in which the power is devolved from the center to the periphery? Whichever model we may choose, the ultimate aim should be to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the country. In that context, one important point we need to understand is that present day Sri Lanka is neither a highly centralised unitary state nor a truly federal state where the power is adequately devolved from the center to the periphery.

United

It appears that we stand somewhere in the middle of both these concepts. Sri Lanka has created Provincial Councils that enjoy a significant degree of autonomy. With its own administrative structure under a provincial governor, they have significantly diminished the power and authority of the central government in the provinces. Thus, it is true to say that we already have a significant degree of devolution of power from the center to the periphery, and, therefore present Sri Lanka is not a true unitary state.

In other words, what we need to focus our attention today is to look for the best way to remain united as one country while respecting our cultural diversity. Here, we need to remember that federalism does not necessarily lead to separation. Because, under federal systems there are sufficient constitutional safeguards to prevent possible secession in addition to military intervention which is available as a last resort if and when necessary.

Also, as we all know, India has made it known over and over again that it will not tolerate an independent Tamil state in the North-East of Sri Lanka because of the geo-political threat it could pose to her own security. Indian government is also well aware of the links between the LTTE and the Indian terrorists groups and would not allow an LTTE dominated Tamil state emerge in the North-East. Thus, the fear of a separate Tamil state emerging in North-East Sri Lanka under a federal system seems to be rather far fetched in the present geo-political context.

On the other hand, as we know, even under a unitary state concept, there are for instance, ways of devolving sufficient power to the peripheral areas an evidenced by the unitary system in Britain where Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales enjoy a great deal of autonomy. Thus, if the Sri Lankan government is reluctant to devolve power under a federal system for domestic political reasons, it could still decide upon a model under a unitary system that would meet the needs and aspirations of the Tamils in the North and East paying due consideration to the Muslim and Sinhalese minorities who live there.

Devolution package

The important point here is that whatever the model it opts to choose, the Sri Lankan government needs to work with all democratic parties in Sri Lanka and come up with a devolution package. Only such a solution based on democratic principles that can heal the wounds and end the long standing suffering of the people in the North-East. It is quite likely, that once the democratic parties agree on such a formula, India and the international community would fully support that effort isolating the Tigers, if they are not willing to go along with the solution. In that context, Sri Lankan government would be in a much stronger position vis a vis the LTTE even if it becomes necessary to seek a military confrontation with them to end the conflict.

In discussing a federalist or unitary solution for the North-East, the ground realities of the eastern province have to be acknowledged. The Sinhalese and Muslims who jointly form the majority in the eastern province have to be recognised as distinct groups whose interests differ from the Tamils. In order to accommodate their interests, re-demarcation of the boundaries of the Northern and Eastern provinces or creation of autonomous Sinhalese, and Muslim areas within those provinces may have to be considered.

In that context, holding a referendum in the eastern province in order to decide whether it opts to continue to be merged with the north may be another issue that needs to be addressed. It is clear that the temporary merger of the two provinces forced on Sri Lanka by the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement cannot go on indefinitely without a final decision.

Because of the increased violence and killing currently going on in the North East, particularly due to the hostility between Prabhakaran and Karuna groups, it has become necessary to renegotiate the CFA involving the Karuna Group. It is essential to stop the violence and create a peaceful environment conducive for talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

Initially, the LTTE would most likely refuse to recognise the Karuna Group and sit with them at the negotiation table. In such an eventuality, the Sri Lankan government needs to get the international community, particularly the Co-chairs and India, to put maximum pressure on the LTTE, involving the threat of further international sanctions, to persuade them to recognise the changed ground realities and act accordingly.

Smear Campaign

Without establishing a peaceful environment in the North-East, by getting the Karuna Group to agree to stop its attacks on the LTTE and vice versa it would not be possible to successfully conduct future peace negotiations. In that context, the present LTTE smear campaign of branding the Karuna Group as paramilitaries supported by the Sri Lankan government is not helpful and as a matter of fact is counter productive.

The LTTE needs to remember that Karuna was its leader in East for a long time and he has a significant following there. In that context, it is unreasonable and impractical for the LTTE to ask the Sri Lankan government to militarily disarm the Karuna group which did not exist at the time of signing the present CFA. The practical solution to the problem is a ceasefire between the two sides under a revised CFA. As far as the Sri Lankan government is concerned, the main difference between Prabhakaran and Karuna should be that while the latter has agreed to a negotiated settlement with the government, the former has not made such a commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict as yet.

Once a new CFA is negotiated, serious discussions could commence in order to reach a negotiated settlement that addresses the needs and aspirations of the Tamil community within the concept of a united Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, an environment has to be created in which there would be free movement of people in the North-East and all Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese political parties could conduct their activities freely without intimidation of armed groups. Thus, it would be incumbent upon the international community (India in particular) and the Sri Lankan government to remain firm and make it absolutely clear that decommissioning of troops is a pre-condition to implementing any solution to the North-East conflict that will be negotiated. Once again, it will be the international community, more than the Sri Lankan government that could exert direct pressure on the relevant parties to disarm. As a matter of fact, because of the mistrust between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, the actual act of decommissioning of troops may have to be done under some form of international supervision.

As the writer has stated in a previous article in The Island, devolution according to an acceptable model, decommission of all rebel troops, and holding democratic elections are the three essential steps that can bring real peace to the NorthEast. As a prelude to that process, the time has come for the Sri Lankan government, with the consensus of all democratic parties in Sri Lanka, to propose a clear solution to the NE problem (in broad terms) and unleash all democratic forces (both domestic and international) against the LTTE if they continue their violence and refuse to tread the path of democracy.

In the final analysis, LTTE should be made to realise that the final solution to the NE problem can be found only within a democratic framework and not under a military dictatorship. -Island

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June 21, 2006 - Posted by | Media Journalism, News and politics, Press Release, South Asia, World News

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