President Mahinda Rajapaksa interrupted a four-day visit to Thailand to return to Colombo on Friday morning. He left for Bangkok the same evening after taking part in two main engagements.
One was the wedding of Minister Arumugam Thondaman's daughter Nachiyar at the Water's Edge in Battaramulla. Some 900 guests, including cabinet ministers and leading opposition personalities, were among those present.
The weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday evening was put off for Friday and fixed at 2 p.m. However, officials hurriedly telephoned ministers to say the meeting had been advanced to 12.30 p.m. Rajapaksa chaired the session which was routine and did not see him make any remarks. Discussions and decisions on some 34 cabinet papers, including the tabling of annual reports of some state concerns, were completed in less than an hour. Rajapaksa flew back the same evening to Bangkok.
|President Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting TNA leader R. Sampanthan at the wedding of the daughter of Minister Arumugam Thondaman. The President told the TNA leader, "Instead of issuing media statements, why don't you come and see me"
On Tuesday, he was entertained to dinner by Princess Maha Chakri Siridhorn and other members of the Royal family. Five members of Rajapaksa's entourage were also included for the event. Rajapaksa also addressed a gathering at the UN centre on the significance of Vesak before returning to Colombo yesterday. He is due to leave for Britain today. He will take part in a luncheon hosted by Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma to honour Queen Elizabeth II on the 60th year of her accession to the British throne.
That will be his only engagement with the British monarch. Whilst the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka has taken over the leadership of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) after the last meeting was held in October last year in Perth, Australia.
Rajapaksa, the Sunday Times learnt, has sought a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Similarly, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, who is accompanying the President, has sought a meeting with Foreign Secretary William Hague. Until yesterday, there has been no official confirmation about these engagements. If they do not materialise, there is the likelihood of them meeting on the side-lines of Sharma's luncheon event.
Another engagement for Rajapaksa whilst in London is expected to be an address to the Diamond Jubilee Commonwealth Economic Forum that is being held on June 6 and 7 at the Mansion House. This is how the City of London website describes the venue: "The Mansion House is located opposite the Bank of England at Bank Junction.
As well as being the home and office of the Lord Mayor of London, this unique building provides a spectacular setting for business meetings, civic and livery activity, and conferences. Charitable and business related organisations also use Mansion House for fundraising events, receptions and dinners. A number of high profile events are held each year which provide a platform for cabinet ministers, visiting Heads of Government, and other prominent public figures. Some 50,000 people visit the Mansion House every year."
The theme of the event this year is "reshaping capitalism for global prosperity and sustainable growth". The date of Rajapaksa's address is being kept a closely guarded secret. In December last year reported moves to hold large-scale demonstrations in Oxford led to the cancellation of a speech Rajapaksa had planned to make to the Oxford Union. Government leaders blamed the police in Oxford for succumbing to pressure from Tamil Diaspora groups. The subject of his talk in London is expected to centre on the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka and the measures the government is taking.
The External Affairs Ministry's Monitoring MP, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, was in London a fortnight ago to make arrangements for the visit. Whilst Rajapaksa will speak on government's 'rapid economic development programmes' in the post-war period at the forum, during bi-laterals both in Britain as well visits to the Vatican, Cuba and Brazil, he is also to focus on the reconciliation process, one that is receiving priority attention. This is particularly in the wake of the United States-backed UN Human Rights Council resolution in March. The resolution, among other matters, called upon the government to "take all necessary additional steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans."
In fact, Sri Lanka has already told the US that a dialogue towards this process had begun. This was when External Affairs Minister Peiris held talks last month with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, as revealed in these columns last week, the move to kick start a "reconciliation process" is headed for failure after the government ignored pre-conditions set by the United National Party (UNP). The UNP wanted discussions on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and "further measures" to be included in the PSC agenda. It also wanted the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. However, the government negotiating team leader, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, ignored these issues when he spoke in Parliament. Without being categorical, he declared the government would allow any political party to air its views without restrictions. His non-committal response has indefinitely delayed the setting up of a parliamentary select committee to formulate a political package to address Tamil grievances or bilateral talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Whilst the imbroglio continues, other developments this week, paradoxical enough has widened the chasm. On the one hand, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), which was earlier believed to be opposed to the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, said this week that it was in favour of discussing the matter. Udaya Gammanpila, Assistant Secretary of the JHU and Western Provincial Minister, told the Sunday Times: "The view of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will have to present a document to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) about the grievances of the Tamils, as it is the TNA which claims that the aspirations of the Tamils have not been met. In the absence of such a document from the TNA, the JHU will take up the position that the 13th Amendment should be the basis for the discussions.
This is because the implementation of the 13th Amendment has been mentioned in the Mahinda Chinthanaya (the Future Vision of Mahinda Rajapaksa) and the President has been given a mandate by the people to implement it. However, it is the TNA which should first come up with a document to be considered at the PSC for discussions."
The reference in Mahinda Chinthanaya states: "After two decades, we now have experience regarding the Provincial Council system. Different opinions and views regarding the relevance or irrelevance and features of the system are discussed. There are those who are in favour of the system and those who are not. However, it is an intrinsic part of the contribution through the 13th Amendment and is a functional system. I am in favour of an open discussion on the amendment to the Provincial Council system. This discourse will be the basis for the discussion that I intend to initiate with political parties and organisations".
However, on the other hand, last week the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ruffled political feathers when he declared that "meaningful devolution should go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1987." He then declared, "Our acceptance of this position does not mean that we consider the 13th Amendment to be an acceptable solution, nor that, in the event our right to internal self-determination is continuously denied, we will not only claim our right under international law to external self-determination. It only means that this is the only realistic solution today."
The reference to "self-determination" drew an angry response from Minister Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front. "Whether it is internal or external self- determination, be it for Sinhala, Tamil or Muslims, there is no way our party will allow this to become a reality. Such a move will only pave the way for a separate state," he told the Sunday Times.
Jathika Hela Urumaya Leader Venerable Omalpe Sobhita Thera told the Sunday Times: "According to the country's constitution no person can do anything to promote a separate a state. A demand for self-determination is considered a campaign for a separate state and also would be against the laws of the country. Even members of parliament have to take an oath that they would not work towards a separate state. Therefore it is wrong for TNA MPs to make such a demand. If the TNA comes before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and makes such a demand it would be considered an act against the State".
"The TNA", Ven. Sobitha Thera said, "should not put forward pre-conditions, but come before the PSC and discuss with other parties and try to reach consensus". He added, "As JHU we oppose any move to talk about self-determination. That has been the government's position as well. That is why the JHU supports the government. There is no necessity to speak about self-determination and demolish the democratic structure which currently exists in the country. The concept of self-determination by the TNA is being used for its survival. We will not allow this to take place".
Sampanthan's controversial remarks came during his lengthy address to the annual sessions of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (Ceylon Federal Party), the official name under which the TNA functions. The ITAK had its 14th annual convention at the American Mission Hall in Urani, just two kilometres away from Batticaloa.
It began on Friday (May 25) and ended on Sunday. Friday's events began after TNA parliamentarians hosted lunch in honour of Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha. Co-incidence or not, the envoy was on a tour of the Eastern Province last week. For good measure, the starter for the luncheon was a soup made from fish from the Batticaloa lagoon from where the eastern capital drew its legendary reputation of being the land of the singing fish. The 60-member Central Committee met on Friday evening. The next day, the General Council consisting of 150 members met to elect office bearers. The third day, Sunday, the general convention with more than a thousand delegates taking part took place.
First to some edited excerpts from Sampanthan's 16-page speech: "….The intervention of India was an inevitable chapter in the history of our political struggle. The intervention of India has clearly taught us the lesson that whatever our aspirations may be, India will never welcome a political solution in Sri Lanka that does not accord with the interests of India. However, using the intervention of India to our benefit, together with its assistance and blessing, we grasped an opportunity to arrive at a political solution that would enable us to live with dignity within a united Sri Lanka.
"Looking beyond our opinions concerning the matter, the intervention of India was historically inevitable. The political and diplomatic means of using this opportunity for either our benefit or our detriment lay in our hands. Despite the great force within our people, achieving Tamil Eelam was becoming an increasingly unrealistic goal. Thus, instead of sacrificing more lives to this cause, our party, with the help of India, began supporting a solution that allowed the Tamil people to live within a united Sri Lanka without compromising their fundamental rights…….
"…..Our expectation for a solution to the ethnic problem of the sovereignty of the Tamil people is based on a political structure outside that of a unitary government, in a united Sri Lanka in which Tamil people have all the powers of government needed to live with self-respect and self-sufficiency. We believe that only within such a structure of government can the Tamil people truly enjoy the right to internal self-determination that is their inalienable right. The position that the North and East of Sri Lanka are the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people cannot be compromised in this structure of government.
"We must have unrestricted authority to govern our own land, protect our own people, and develop our own economy, culture and tradition………The players are the same but the alliances are different. In the past the United States and India stood against us. However, in the favourable circumstances that we have now come about, the United States and India are to a great extent supporting our position…..India's vote in support of the Resolution presented by the United States at the UN Human Rights Council was an astonishing international development in our favour. This can only be seen as an indication of future developments…."
Asked why he spoke on self-determination, Sampanthan defended his remarks. He told the Sunday Times, "Something needs to be done. You cannot go on like this." The reference was to the stalled dialogue with the government and the failure so far to constitute the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). He said: "if there is adequate devolution of power, adequate political autonomy genuinely implemented, internal self-determination is met." He argued that "self-determination" is not a dirty word and does not mean separation. He claimed "it is only external self-determination that is separation. That arises only when internal self-determination is denied."
Asked whether he was for a united Sri Lanka, he replied "I am for a united, undivided Sri Lanka where all the people who inhabit can live with equality and justice." Those assertions from Sampanthan are not likely to go down with either the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or any other constituent partner of the UPFA.
Sampanthan said that recently the TNA leaders held a meeting with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was after Wickremesinghe and his party seniors met President Rajapaksa and his senior ministers. It came at the invitation of the President. "He explained to us all that happened. Wickremesinghe told us that President Rajapaksa had agreed to 'a framework' for the opposition parties to take part in the PSC. We were told that the government had agreed to Mr. Wickremesinghe's framework," he said.
The "framework" Sampanthan refers to is the pre-conditions set by the Opposition Leader. That is why he (Wickremesinghe) made a statement in Parliament after handing over a copy of the text earlier to help the government to respond. "The government did not respond," Sampanthan said.
Q: Would you agree to resume bilateral talks and also serve in the PSC if the government accepts what you call "Mr. Wickremesinghe's framework?"
A: The government accepted it (at the meeting) with Ranil Wickremesinghe. Now, we don't know what the government's position is. We talked with the government for 15 months. Now they say we are talking to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). From recently, they have changed it to talks with "a three-member team from the Government Parliamentary Group." We do not want this contradictory situation to continue. There must be some acceptance from the government. If they say that, it would have opened the door.
The response to Sampanthan came from Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, leader of the government delegation that spoke with the TNA. He told the Sunday Times: "What I have stated in Parliament, in response to the statement made by the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is the government's position. We have made it clear that we are ready to discuss any position at the PSC. It can be about the 13th Amendment, it can be about the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) or any other matter. We are ready to discuss them. We have said that we are willing to take up any document for discussion at the PSC and willing to reach consensus. Let them bring up any document for discussion. We are ready to take them. But the important point is they have to come to the PSC to discuss any issue and reach consensus. Even the TNA should come and discuss matters. We are very open. We have kept the doors open to discuss anything."
If Minister de Silva has told that to the Sunday Times, there was no reference to the pre-conditions that Wickremesinghe spelt out in his speech in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is expected to raise this matter with Rajapaksa when he returns from his visit to New Zealand.
There is little doubt that besides Sampanthan's controversial remarks last week, there are some serious credibility issues between the TNA and the Government. A letter obtained by the Sunday Times confirms that the delegation that talked with the TNA was indeed from the Government of Sri Lanka. The letter, on a letterhead of the Presidential Secretariat (See facsimile on this page) is dated January 5, 2011 and is signed by Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, MP, in his capacity as Co-ordinating Secretary to the President. It is addressed to M.A. Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament, Sri Jayawardenapura, Kotte and states:
"Hon. Member of Parliament,
"The first sitting of the committee appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka to engage in a dialogue on matters connected with long term reconciliation will meet on the 10th January 2011 at the Presidential Secretariat at 3 p.m. The committee so appointed representing the GOSL (Political Editor's note; Government of Sri Lanka) is as follows:
"Hon. Ratnasiri Wickremenayake - Chairman
Hon. Nimal Siripala de Silva
Hon. G.L. Peiris
Hon. Sajin de Vass Gunawardena - Secretary to the Committee
"Any communication on the subject matter can be directed to the undersigned as follows:
Office telephone; 2325625
Fax number: 2325620
Sajin de Vass Gunawardena MP
Co-ordinating Secretary to the President
Since the government-TNA talks began in January 10 last year and 17 rounds of talks were held until August 4. Former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake who headed the government delegation resigned following a statement the TNA issued after the conclusion of the separatist war in May 2009. He was replaced by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. The talks ended in a deadlock in August last year. President Rajapaksa has initiated moves to re-start the talks since September last year following a meeting with TNA leader, Sampanthan.
During the talks, the Sunday Times is able to reveal today that the TNA placed a two page proposal before the government delegation. Here are some highlights:
Points for discussion at the 3rd meeting on 18th March 2011
- The Centre and the devolved units should be supreme in their respective spheres of competence.
- All state land in the North East Province to vest in the Provincial Council with provision for the Centre to request and use lands necessary in respect of reserved subjects in accordance with such procedures as may be established by law. Lands that are presently used by the Centre in respect of devolved subjects to be handed over to the Provincial Council. Land in excess of the centre's requirement for any of the reserved subjects held by the Centre and requested by the Provincial Council for a provincial subject shall be released to the Provincial Council in accordance with procedure established by law.
- The National Finance Commission to evolve a scheme for the allocation of resources. Such allocation to be based on the principle of balanced provincial development. The Provinces to be categorised in accordance with their present levels of development with a view to redressing inequitable development.
- Power to receive foreign direct investments to be devolved. Foreign loans may also be negotiated and received by the Provinces directly, with the concurrence of the Centre if it exceeds a defined limit.
- One of the units of devolution would be the North and East Provinces.
- Law and Order to be devolved, except in matters concerning national security and offences relating to international crimes and inter-provincial crimes. A National Police Force and a Provincial Police Force to be set up.
- The reserved list for the Centre will consist of all matters necessary to preserve the unity, sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, without undermining maximum possible devolution.
The devolved powers should include the following:
(1) Health and indigenous medicine;
(2) Education and Educational services, including higher education and universities awarding degrees;
(3) Vocational education and training;
(4) Agriculture and agrarian services;
(5) Irrigation within the Province;
(6) Animal Husbandry;
(7) Fisheries marine resources and aquatic resources;
(8) Coast conservation;
(9) Forests and protection of the environment within the Province;
(10) Industries and Industrial development;
(13) Minor Ports and Harbours;
(14) Roads and Waterways;
(15) Housing and Construction;
(16) Urban planning and implementation;
(17) Rural Development;
(18) Local Government;
(19) Co-operatives and co-operative banks;
(20) Supply and distribution of food within the Province;
(21) Trade and Commerce;
(22) Promotion of tourism within the Province
(23) The regulation of cultural activity within the Province, including public performances;
(24) Media and broadcasting including television;
(25) Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction;
(26) Social Security;
(27) State land and its alienation (State land within the Province required for the purposes of the Centre in respect of reserved subject may be utilized by the Centre in consultation with the Provincial Council and in accordance with such procedures as may be established by law);
(28) Provincial Police and law and order, Provincial Police Services Commission;
(29) Prisons, Borstal and reformatory institutions;
(30) Provincial Public Service, Provincial Public Services Commission;
(32) Regulation of unincorporated associations and societies within the Province;
(33) Charities and charitable institutions charitable and religious endowments and religious institutions;
(34) Archaeological sites and remains;
(35) Domestic and International borrowing (international borrowing above a defined limit would require the concurrence of the Centre);
(36) The regulation and promotion of foreign direct investment, international grants and developmental assistance to the Province;
(37) Provincial financial and credit institutions;
(38) Excise duties;
(39) Turnover taxes on wholesale or retail sales;
(40) Betting taxes, taxes on prize competitions and lotteries other than National Lotteries;
(41) Motor vehicles licence fees;
(42) Stamp duties on transfer properties, such as land and motor cars;
(43) Fines imposed by courts;
(44) Court fees, including stamp fees on documents produced in courts;
(45) Land revenue, including the assessment and collection of revenues, and maintenance of land records for revenue purposes;
(46) Taxes on mineral rights;
(47) Offences against laws with respect to any of the matters specified in this list;
(48) Fines in respect of the matters in this list;
(49) Planning at Provincial level.
(50) Land surveys and other surveys in respect of all matters specified in this list;
(51) All other matters that are 'provincial' in nature.
The TNA listed for "future discussion" the following: "Legislative power over the above subjects to be devolved to the Provincial Council. Executive power over the same also to be vested with the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers of the Provincial Council. Judicial power to be devolved through Provincial High Courts, Provincial Judicial Service Commissions etc. Details for discussion on these and constitutional amendment procedure, Constitutional Court and other independent institutions, emergency powers, powers of the Governor, power sharing mechanisms at the centre and other related matters maybe discussed in detail at the subsequent meetings."
From "going beyond" the 13th Amendment to the Constitution with a proposal to strengthen the Provincial Council beyond its current levels, making it a highly powerful body, the TNA has now fired a salvo at the government.
It has said it is for 'internal self-determination.' That is if the talks with the government do not succeed. Then, 'external self-determination' if internal self-determination does not succeed. With so many hurdles, due partly to contradictions on the government side creating serious questions of credibility, this only means there are more serious challenges now to the "reconciliation process".