Efforts by minority political parties to persuade the UNP and the SLFP-led People's
Alliance to reach consensus in resolving the ethnic strife have gathered momentum.
It was after the dinner meeting hosted by Minister G.L. Peiris, two weeks ago, the minority parties realized that they have a greater role to play in this respect.
Accordingly, a delegation comprising leaders of almost all minority parties represented in Parliament met President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss various issues.
"The meetings were quite successful. We look forward to continue these discussions in a more useful manner", a member of the delegation told this column.
During their preliminary round of discussions with the UNP leadership, the TULF expressed its concern once again and emphasised the need to find a lasting solution to the problem.
TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam said there must be a constructive conclusion to the Parliamentary Select Committee process.
"As minority parties, we are anxious to see this," he said.
"The differences between the two major parties should not be the cause for denying to the minorities their legitimate rights," he stressed.
In the circumstances he appealed to the UNP leader to have a statesman-like approach to the problem rising above party interests.
Referring to the dinner meeting hosted by Minister G.L. Peiris, Mr. Sivasithamparam said there was a feeling that this was a government effort and that the UNP had, little or no role in the process, but "our feeling is that the UNP has a greater role in jointly preparing a political package acceptable to the minorities."
Mr. Wickremesinghe who at this stage inquired as to whether the government was willing to have a broad approach to the whole question, expressed his concern over the timeframe fixed by the government for the purpose.
"You have a restricted timeframe, now can you do all that within a limited time," Mr. Wickremesinghe asked the delegation.
Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, a member of the delegation interjected to say "They should not take it too seriously."
"If the UNP can show they are genuinely interested in developing the present set of proposals to a package acceptable to minorities, I would be able to convince Minister Peiris not to be too rigid on the timeframe. But if the UNP is not willing to participate, an extension is meaningless," Mr. Ashraff said.
Mr. Sivasithamparam said a further delay in the process would not matter so much, since they had waited for nearly forty two years now.
UNP's A.C.S. Hameed made a point at this stage when he said this was the first time that the Opposition in Parliament acted with a sense of responsibility. In the past whenever there was a move to solve these problems, the Opposition did not co-operate with the Government
Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam who acts as the coordinator for the minority political parties said the UNP could put forward fresh proposals or bring amendments to the present proposals. "Once the government accepts these, the people would know that it was a joint effort."
Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel (UNP) said there were more pragmatic and practical proposals which can be brought.
Minister Ashraff welcomed Mr. de Mel's proposals and said all that could come as the UNP's basket of proposals. But it would be more advisable to initiate a dialogue with the minority parties before putting forward such proposals to make sure that there wouldn't be any problem as far as the minorities are concerned.
As members of both sides continued their discussion in a calm atmosphere, Mr. Wickremesinghe raised a question about the unit of devolution.
Minister Ashraff proposed that the unit of devolution should be discussed during the latter part of the talks, since it would be a very sensitive issue.
"If you want to see this a success, don't discuss it now," Minister Ashraff said.
"We should convince the country that all matters have been resolved except for the unit of devolution," he added.
When Mr. Wickremesinghe nodded in approval, UNP's constitutional expert and former Minister K.N. Choksy said it would be a problem. "Without consensus on the unit of devolution it would be difficult to resolve issues such as the structure of the new Constitution and the nature of it."
"My approach is different," Minister Ashraff said replying Mr. Choksy.
"Whether it is a Provincial Council or Regional Council, we all agree that certain powers have to be devolved. Therefore what a unit is, is a question of definition and fixing of the geographical boundaries. In the circumstances, it could be taken up at a subsequent stage."
Minister Ashraff had an opportunity to defend President Kumaratunga too when the UNPers asked as to whether she would be magnanimous enough to accept the UNP proposals.
Minister Ashraff said President Kumaratunga is different from the other SLFPers. When the entire country opposed the Indo-Lanka accord Chandrika and her husband Vijaya through their Sri Lanka Mahajana Party passed a resolution supporting it. "So Chandrika is different from the others" Mr. Ashraff argued.
At this stage the issue of local government elections came up for discussion and the UNP said it would be difficult for them to discuss matters relating to the political package with the local elections round the corner. The UNP insisted that the government's plans to finish the Select Committee deliberations by March would not be realistic in view of the local polls somewhere in March.
Mr. Wickremesinghe pointed out that they have to file nominations in 200 odd places and hence an extension of the timeframe was required.
At the end of the talks Minister Ashraff made another proposal on a request made by Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam. Minister Ashraff said they should examine whether the Executive Committee system introduced by the Donoughmore Constitution could be re-introduced, even within our Parliamentary system.
He said Minister Peiris, when he was Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, in an article in The Sunday Times had called for the abolition of the party system and restoration of the committee system.
The UNP also jumped at the idea and inquired as to whether it would be introduced at the Regional level and at a later stage at a much lower level.
Though the initial round of discussions came to an end with this, Dr. Thiruchelvam requested Mr. Wickremesinghe to personally get involved in the discussion without leaving it mostly to the National Integration Committee.
Mr. Wickremesinghe agreed, but said, "first of all the minority parties should reach consensus with the National Integration Committee of the UNP".
Some Ministers, including Mr. Peiris and Mr. Ashraff had another opportunity of meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe at a dinner hosted by the Swiss Ambassador at his residence at Thurstan Road.
The dinner was attended by Dr. Thiruchelvam also.
Soon after the dinner when the guests were having a chat, Dr. Peiris asked Mr. Ashraff, "Ashi can we get Ranil to a side and have a chat with him."
"Is there a way of getting him here?"
At that time Mr. Wickremesinghe was talking to the Swiss Ambassador and others.
Mr. Ashraff suggested to take Mr. Wickremesinghe for a walk along the sprawling garden.
With this Mr. Ashraff walked up to Maithri Wickremesinghe and told her jokingly, "Maithri I want to take your husband for a walk up the garden path".
Ranil replied "I know when to get out".
During the chat which ensued Dr. Peiris and Mr. Ashraff tried again to persuade Mr. Wickremesinghe to support the package but he was non-committal though he showed signs of positive thinking.
After the meeting with the UNP leader, the delegation of minority parties met President Kumaratunga on Wednesday.
The TULF once again expressed concern and Mr. Sivasithamparam gave a summary of the dinner meeting hosted by Dr. Peiris and the subsequent talks with the UNP.
Addressing the delegation on the question of sharing responsibility for the devolution proposals, the President said "If this problem could be solved, I don't mind UNP taking full honours for that - I have told Ranil over and again".
She said "I don't want to stay in power for long. I have made a vow that I would retire at the age of 60. Therefore I have a limited agenda and the main item is to solve the minority problem."
At this stage Mr. Sivasithamparam suggested a postponement of the local elections. He said "In the light of the ongoing talks, why not we postpone the local elections by a couple of weeks and give priority to the dialogue on the ethnic issue?"
The President said it would be difficult for her to do that.
"The UNP is going all over the world hammering us. Amnesty International is trying to find fault with us. If we postpone the elections they will blame me saying that I have no courage to face elections. But if the UNP makes a request it is a different matter. if they want I am prepared to do that."
Replying, Dr. Thiruchelvam said it would not be fair by the UNP.
However others said they were well aware of the government's position and that such a postponement would put the government in an awkward situation.
At the end of the discussions, the President agreed to accommodate the UNP proposals if they were acceptable to the minority parties and said the government was willing to extend the timeframe fixed for the submission of Select Committee proposals to Parliament provided the UNP showed a genuine commitment to resolve this national problem.
However Dr. Peiris emphasised they could not give in, if they felt the UNP was only playing for time.
Finally they all agreed that the four weeks after the local government elections would be crucial for the devolution proposals.
At the Parliamentary Select Committee meeting on Wednesday the issue of extending the timeframe fixed for constitutional reforms came up again.
The UNP's A.C.S. Hameed said it would be useful to submit a single report to Parliament to which everybody could agree rather than submitting a majority and dissenting reports.
"It is not impossible. It could be achieved but it needs more time" Mr. Hameed said.
Mr. Hameed's contention was that it would be better to conclude the final report after the Tamil Muslim parties have finished discussions with the UNP, so that consensus reached at these talks could be included in the report.
The question posed by Mr. Hameed was whether the government would agree to the consensus that would be reached between the Tamil-Muslim parties and the UNP.
The UNP's position was that it was willing to continue the process but with the local elections round the corner, it would be difficult for it to do so while involved in the election campaign. Therefore a suggestion was put forward that adjustments should be made to the timeframe.
Dr. Peiris who chairs the PSC, said an eight-week postponement was reasonable, and disagreed with a UNP proposal to put off the whole process until the end of May.
"It is far too long - there is no justification in holding the Parliamentary Select Committee process until May," he said.
The consensus reached at the Select Committee was to conclude the informal talks between the minority parties and the UNP within two to three weeks after the local government elections and the government would be informed as to whether a consensus has been reached on the matter.
Dr. Peiris also told the Select Committee that the idea from the beginning was that the government did not want to claim the entire credit for this exercise. "Since it is a national problem a solution has to be found by all", he said.
He also said that the government was happy to accept any amendment by the UNP if the minority parties are willing to accommodate those.
If the minorities fell in line with these amendments Dr. Peiris said the government would have no hesitation in presenting matters to Parliament as a joint report.
However Dr. Peiris warned they should not end up in the same situation as the Mangala Moonesinghe report where both majority parties agreed but the minorities disagreed.
At the meeting on Friday the PSC discussed the feasibility of introducing the Executive Committee system at Regional Council level as a way of reducing political confrontation and making it possible for the two parties to work together.
The proposal which came as an idea from the UNP is likely to go a long way in reducing the degree of polarization which is a significant problem in Sri Lankan politics.
However what is crucial for both parties is the impending local polls. Both the government and the UNP want to feel the pulse of the people as to what they think about local and national issues. If the government cannot secure at least 50% of the total votes it could be a set-back to the political package and after all UNP would only make a final commitment towards the political package depending on the voting pattern and the stand taken by the people on the national issues.
As the government was pushing hard to solicit UNP support for the package the Cabinet of Ministers at the weekly meeting approved two papers put forward by Minister M.H.M. Ashraff concerning the controversial P & O issue.
These papers were based on a report submitted by the Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee (CANC).
The CANC report says the anticipated volume growth makes it mandatory for the building of a brand new port in Colombo South adjoining Queen Elizabeth Quay.
It says "the master plan developed by the JICA (Japanese International Co-operation Agency) in September '96 had estimated that container traffic would continue to increase to 3.6 million TEU's (high estimate) or 2.3 million TEU's (low estimate) by the year 2005. The anticipated growth is largely due to continued trade expansion in the region particularly in the Indian sub-continent.
All evidence indicates that Colombo has firmly established its potential to emerge as the hub port for South Asia.
If Colombo is to meet the demand as the major hub port in South Asia, it is necessary for the Port to expand its capacity as urgently as possible to retain the market growth and its share".
The CANC has recommended the option prepared by the Ministry to develop a Colombo South port and has supported their recommendation from the observations made by the latest JICA master plan.
"The JICA report states expansion of the QEQ to the outside (South port development) also needs a large investment in the construction of breakwaters and sea wall. However it is less than the investment required for the berth development. An advantage of the South development is that it enables the extension of the present container terminal in a short period after the start of construction.
In this regard priority was given to the South port development in consideration of construction costs and period.
The development of the South Port enables the expansion of the QEQ container terminal to the outside as well as the construction of the new deeper berths.
According to the CANC the first berth and the yard in the South Port will be available only by the year 2003, with the development to be completed by 2011. To meet the shortfall in capacity between year 1997-2003 the report recommends the immediate development of the QEQ to handle a greater volume of containerised cargo.
Observations made by the Minister are as follows:
The CANC has recommended the third financial offer of the P&O on the basis that the P&O has committed itself in principle to assist the GOSL in chasing the necessary funds for the building of the Breakwater and developing four of the terminals.
However, the GOSL (government) will resume its right to refusal and assign the building operations of the said terminals to any other party that may offer better financial terms.
The technical feasibility study and the full cost benefit analysis and obtaining donor funding for such a development will take approximately 2 years. The P&O has come forward to invest US $1 million being 50% cost of the feasibility study.
Further the P&O also has made a firm commitment to bear the cost of the Breakwater on a partnership basis.
Under the circumstances, unless a firm decision is taken to develop the QEQ from the present capacity to an optimum 1 million TEUU during the next 3 years - I am afraid Colombo will lose its strategic position as a hub-port not being able to face the demand of the anticipated Growth of Volumes in South Asia.
Hence I am in agreement with the recommendations of the CANC that immediate steps be taken to develop the QEQ and the negotiation process with P&O be expedited with a view to finalise plans for the building of the New South Port.
Hence I seek the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers for:
(a) The acceptance of the P&O financial proposal, subject to several refinements suggested by CANC and summarised in the annexure 1 of the CANC report.
(b) The issue of a comfort letter, incorporating the recommended financial position and subject to the technical questions and other draft terms of the concession agreement that are to be finalized and reconfirmed by the CANC as outlined in the annexure 11 referred to as "recommended GOSL position". (The Comfort Letter to be issued subject to its contents being approved by the Attorney General).
(c) The Letter of Intent be further extended by a period of four months to May 15, 1997 with retrospective effect from January 15, 1997.
(d) The expansion of the CANC to steer the project and to resolve all the issues identified and to achieve the swift implementation of the report, with the following additional members:
Member - Additional Secretary, Ministry of Shipping, Ports, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction
Member - Chairman, Sri Lanka Ports Authority
Member - Deputy Secretary to the Treasury
Member - Chairman, BOI or his representative
(e) Secretary Ministry of Shipping to convene the meetings of the CANC whilst Mr. Mano Nanayakkara present consultant to BII to continue in the CANC notwithstanding the fact that he has relinquished his office as its General Manager.
(f) Widening the Terms Of Reference of the expanded CANC to include the following:
1. Finalise the financial terms for the immediate development of the QEQ.
2. Appoint a sub-committee to conclude any outstanding technical, operational and navigational issues for the QEQ and financial issues pertaining to the Outer Harbour with P&O and negotiate the terms of the concession documents.
3. Take necessary steps to review and implement ancillary investment plans of the SLPA.
4. Overlook and manage the feasibility study for the Outer Harbour and seek donor funding for the Breakwater.
5. Appointment of an internationally reputed firm of independent port consultants to advise on technical issues relating to construction methods, navigation, hydraulics and port operation.
(g) Putting SLPA on a "Level Playing Field" in order to compete with P&O by enabling SLPA to enjoy all the financial concessions granted to any institution under BOI status with immediate effect.
(h) Operating the Jaye Container Terminals and the Break/Bulk and Bulk cargo operations at Colombo by two separate and wholly owned Limited Liability Companies with BOI status.
(i) Putting the following plans of the SLPA on a "Fast Track Basis" in order to commence work immediately on:
1. Widening of the North Pier up to 30 metres, purchase of 3 level luffing wharf cranes, 3 lorries and 2 pontoons.
2. Deepening of the North entrance to allow a draft of 12/13 metres to ease navigation.
3. Accelerating the construction of the Galle and Trincomalee Jetties to ease the congestion in Colombo.
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