The Political Column

12th October 1997

Unit of devolution : a compromise

By Our Political Correspondent

During the past few weeks, the govern ment has focused attention on finalis- ing the devolution package to end the ethnic crisis.

Despite protests from sections of the Maha Sangha and Sinhala hardliners, the government has taken positive steps. It is encouraging to see the government’s commitment in finding a solution acceptable to all communities.

We could recall what happened some 40 years ago, when Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike made a bold effort to settle a crisis that has now turned into the catastrophe that it is.

But under pressure from sections of the Buddhist clergy, extremists Sinhala elements and political opportunists, he tore apart a pact he and Federal Party Leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam had signed.

Not only Premier Bandaranaike, but Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake also had to abandon moves to solve the ethnic problem in the face of opposition, even from his own Cabinet.

Having foreclosed two opportunities that came the nation’s way, the country is now embroiled in further turmoil.

Though President J.R. Jayewardene introduced the 13th Amendment to the constitution with the help of India, failure on the part of the successive governments to implement provisions therein effectively gave rise to the bloody deadlock.

Though the LTTE agreed at the beginning to accept the Indo-Lanka solution they later backed out and engaged in an armed struggle to achieve its goal.

The present government without the participation of the LTTE has come out with some sort of a solution, a step aimed at solving the crisis more effectively, but it is left to the LTTE to accept or reject it in time to come.

It appears now, the government is close to reaching an accord with the minority Tamil parties and Muslim groups except for the main opposition UNP and the party directly connected to the crisis, the LTTE.

The UNP’s position is that it should not be bulldozed into a

time frame as decided by the government.

These sentiments were expressed by former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel when the UNP’s national Integration Committee met minority parties.

This meeting was held to decide on how they should proceed from the present position, since the government had arrived at some basic understanding with the minority parties on the unit of devolution and related issues.

Mr. de Mel said it would be difficult for the UNP to respond at this stage without a clear signal from the government.

“Apparently the government is confused on the whole issue. The President’s position is somewhat different to Minister G.L. Peiris’ and Dr. Peiris himself changes his position from time to time,” Mr. de Mel said.

The UNP also reiterated its demand for the setting up of a Police Commission and an Independent Election Commission should be acted up on by the government.

The UNP also said its members on the Select Committee on constitutional reforms have no mandate to decide on behalf of the party. In short it said the outcome of those meetings should go before the party’s apex body, the working committee.

The UNP also accused the government of trying to employ highhanded tactics to implement the devolution package.

Dr. Neelam Thiruchelvam who did most of the talking along with Mr. Sampanthan said the UNP could at present agree or disagree on certain issues and then deal with those matters when the package come up in parliament for debate. A consensus could be reached in that way.

There had been some cross talk too between Dr. Thiruchelvam and EPDP leader Douglas Devananda on the reserved list and the powers entrusted to the regions. But on most of these matters there had been consensus.

They also had discussions on Article 2 of the Constitution and the unit, to see whether the unitary nature of the constitution could be preserved.

Mr. Sampanthan said there was no specific problem other than the unit of devolution.

With this the UNP was smart enough to put the ball back to the other side of the court and told the minority parties to let them know once they reach agreement on the outstanding issues.

At the meeting of the Select Committee on Constitutional Reforms Minister Peiris said the government had arrived at the decision on the unit of devolution and he was ready to make an announcement. He said he would like to hear the responses of others.

He explained the government’s plan to hold referendums in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, giving people there an opportunity either to merge with the North or remain as an independent unit. Dr Peiris said depending on the outcome of these referendums people in the Ampara electorate (majority Sinhala area) would be asked as to whether they wish to join the region of Uva.

The moment the people of the Trincomalee and the Batticaloa districts express their willingness to join the North, the decision will immediately give birth to a new Muslim dominated council in the South-East. This council will encompass Sammanthurai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai areas creating a Muslim majority council.

Heated exchanges took place when A.C.S. Hameed asked why the Eastern Province was being broken into blocks. He said that according to the Indo-Lanka Accord the provision was that a referendum should be held to decide whether the temporarily merged North-East council should continue or whether the East should separate. Mr. Hameed asked Dr. Peiris to explain the rationale behind the Eastern referendum plan. But the Minister could only say it was a decision of the government.

Mr. Hameed said the UNP had a right to know the details since it was not a part of the government. He said most of the other parties participating, except for DUNLF, in the Select Committee were constituent parties of the government. He wanted to know whether there was broad consensus.

At this point the EPDP leader Douglas Devananda said he was against a referendum but other Tamil parties chose to remain silent.

Deputy Minister Wiswa Warnapala said Mr. Hameed had always posed this question about a consensus among the Tamil parties and constituent parties of the government. Mr. Hameed replied his question should be viewed in its correct perspective. He said that if the constituent parties of the government had reached a consensus it would be easier for the UNP to look at the whole issue.

Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said that if the two major parties in the country, the UNP and the SLFP, could agree to a broad consensus there was a good possibility that other parties also would come to some agreement.

Mr. Hameed said now that he is aware for the first time of the exact proposals on the unit of devolution as envisaged by the government, his delegation would take this proposal to the UNP and try to obtain an early response.

At this stage SLMC representative Rauf Hakeem said it was prudent to exercise this option looking at historical facts.

He said the other areas of the East had a district ethnic identity.

Mr. Hakeem said they would look at the whole problem with a political mind. “We oppose the merger of the North and the East. We will oppose a referendum for the whole of East as well, since the Muslims will become the deciding factor.

“If we vote either way, we would be betraying the majority communities”. This meant that the SLMC wouldn’t want to fall out either with the Sinhalese or the Tamils.

“It is because of the UNP we are facing this dilemma, we can see a silver lining in this set of devolution proposals. There is a reasonable opportunity afforded to the Tamils in the East to exercise their right once the merger is announced. The government has now taken a position and it is up to the UNP now,” he asked.

However the NDUNLF representative Ravi Karunanayake said this party was not in agreement with the constitutional reforms.

He asked Dr Peiris, “isn’t this a break-up on an ethnic basis?”

The Minister replied, “No”.

“The Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts have been carved out from the East on an ethnic basis and there is no question about it, “ Mr. Karunanayake reported. “What is the fate of the 20% of the Tamil population in the Ampara district? Won’t they left high and dry after all the solution is for Tamil minorities who agitate for autonomy?”, Mr. Karunanayake asked.

Minister Peiris said they looked for the best solution and that it was not necessary to respond to the question posed by Mr Karunanayake.

“I don’t need any response, but I want it minited.”

Why are you going on an ethnic basis?

If the Cabinet decides to-day the Wellawatte Tamils should work with Jaffna would it be possible? Mr. Karunanayake asked adding that how could one prevent Mr. Thondaman asking for a council in the plantations if we go by historical facts?

At this juncture former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel asked as to whether all the parties reached an accord on the government’s proposals. The reply was negative.

Dr. Peris said, they had come a long way.

Mr. de Mel having listened to these comments asked as to whether the government would submit its proposal on unit of devolution in writing as it seems to change their stand from time to time.

Dr. Peiris agreed to hand over the proposals to the UNP on Thursday but the Tamil parties expressed anxiety over the matter since the government had not incorporated their modifications to the proposals on the unit of devolution.

The worry of the Tamil parties is that if the UNP says “Yes” to the present document they would find if difficult to amend and modify it at a later stage.

The document handed over to the UNP on the government’s proposed unit of devolution is as follows:

Chapter XV

The devolution of power to regions

127. (1) A Regional Council shall be established for every Region specified in part B of the First Schedule with effect from such date as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette.

(2) (a) The President shall, by Order published in the Gazette, require a Referendum to be held in the Administrative Districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, and fix a date therefor, to enable the electors of such Districts to decide on the question whether or not such Districts and the Administrative Districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaitivu should form one Region to be designated the North-Eastern Region.

(b) Where at such Referendum the question - (i) is answered in the affirmative by a majority of the valid votes cast, a Regional Council shall be established for the North-Eastern Region specified in Part C of the First Schedule with effect from such date as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette;

(ii) is not answered in the affirmative, two separate Regional Councils shall be established for the Northern Region and the Eastern Region as specified respectively in Part D of the First Schedule with effect from such dates as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette.

(3) Where a Regional Council is to be established for the Northern-Eastern Region in terms of sub-paragraph (b) (i) of paragraph (2), a Regional Council shall be established for the South Eastern Region specified in Part C of the Second Schedule from such date as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette.

(4) (a) Where a Regional Council for the North-Eastern Region is to be established in terms of sub-paragraph (b) (i) of paragraph (2), the President shall, by Order published in the Gazette, require a Referendum to be held in the polling division of Ampara and fix a date therefor to enable the electors of such division to decide on the question whether or not such division should form a separate Region to be designated the Region of Ampara.

(b) Where at such Referendum the question - (i) is answered in the affirmative by a majority of the valid votes cast, such polling division shall form the Region of Ampara as specified in Part E of the, First Schedule and for which a Regional Council shall be established from such date as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette.

(ii) is not answered in the affirmative the polling division of Ampara shall form part of the Uva Region specified in Part B of the First Schedule and for which a Regional Council shall be established from such date as the President shall appoint by Order published in the Gazette and, until such Order is made, the polling division of Ampara shall be administered by the Central Government and the provisions of the Constitution relating to the Capital Territory shall, mutatis mutandis, apply.

(5) The legislative and executive power of the Central Government shall extend to all subjects and functions set out in List II of the Second Schedule in respect of the Capital Territory specified in part A of the First Schedule which shall not form a part of any Regional Council established under this Article.

(6) For the purposes of Article 2 and this Article, the boundaries and areas of the Administrative Districts, Polling Divisions and Municipalities referred to in this Article and in the First Schedule shall be those established by or under any written law and in force at the commencement of the Constitution.

Though the TULF had taken a stand with the government the top trio of the party, M. Sivasithamparam, Neelan Thiruchelvam and R. Sampanthan came under fire at the party’s politbureau meeting on Sunday.

They were accused of having joined hands with the government to divide the East.

TULF Eastern strongman Mavi Senadhiraja boycotted the meeting but Joseph Pararajasingham took them to task.

Mr. Pararajasingham said there should not be any compromise as far as the Tamil homeland is concerned and expressed the view that they should oppose the government’s idea to hold referendums in the East.

He said the TULF should not be bothered about finding a solution for the SLMC’s problem.

Later the TULF politbureau decided to oppose the idea and when they met with the President they expressed these anxieties over the proposed referendum in the East.

But Minister M. H. M. Ashraff who came late for the meeting had a solution. He said the government should carve out the regions first and hold the referendums later.

Now the problem is as to whether this would be practical with the LTTE’s presence in the Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.

What the Tamil parties want is a permanent merger without a referendum. In the circumstances the idea of holding a referendum will have a limited scope.

At the government group meeting too, many views were expressed on the package but President Kumaratunga did most of the talking.

When one member from the Matara district said that there was no unanimity among the Ministers on the package and they found it difficult to muster support, the President said there were one or two Ministers who opposed the package and when matters were explained to them in the proper manner, they had accepted it.

Making his observations on the Thavalama programme, Reginald Cooray said this had caused heavy traffic jams in towns.

In short he said the office workers are cursing the Thavalama, because of the heavy traffic jams.

Puttlam district MP Eustauce Perera said there was a thinking among the people that the government was not interested in development work other than the war and the package. He said development work should also be undertaken simultaneously.

An angry President retorted, saying the government had embarked upon many development projects and had worked for the upliftment of the people.

We have launched many programmes in the villages even surpassing the UNP in a very short period of time, she said.

But more than anything, her main concern was to present the package in parliament on time.

While all the spade work was being done to meet the deadlines on the package, the UNP Working Committee met at Sirikotha last week for a long session.

Former Deputy Minister Gamini Lokuge spoke on the issue of several party members attending and making statements at functions, programmes and the likewise in areas, outside the party’s permitted parameters.

This remark, many believed, was aimed at Susil Moonesinghe who recently prominently participated at the rally organised by the Buddhist clergy against Minister Mangala Samaraweera. But he was not present at the meeting to explain his position.

Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe however took this opportunity to emphasise on the party’s laid down conduct on such matters and mentioned that party members should refrain from indulging in such acts without obtaining the approval of the party.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would dispense with the matter with only a written communication and directed General Secretary Gamini Atukorale to send a circular to all members on how they should get about in such matters in the future.

The Working Committee also discussed about the disturbing economic trends and their new programme to reach out to the grassroots.

The week beginning today has been devoted to this purpose and UNP organisers are scheduled to visit many public places to educate the people on the present political trends in the country and the war situation.

Making his own assessment on the present situation in the North and the East, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the on-going war was not showing much success and they may have to re-think of their strategy which may once again drive the country into a severe set-back.

With this given situation, he said it was surprising that Anuruddha Ratwatte had to bring ‘Buddhist monks’ in support of Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s battle against the monks.

Although most of the members thought that the Working Committee would take up the Wijeyapala Mendis issue, the leader did not want to discuss it since parliament had put it off for January.

But there is continuing heat being built up by the young turks of the UNP against Wijeyapala Mendis’ continuity.

Even on the bus Mr. Mendis sent to transport MPs to the Ranweli Hotel to participate in the Harold Herat felicitation ceremony, only 15 members travelled including former Minister John Amaratunga.

Mr. Mendis was seen singing at the party being part of his public relations exercise to win support of MPs in his bid to save his seat.

However most of the Working Committee members are toeing Ranil Wickremesinghe’s line and exerting pressure on Mr. Mendis to resign.

Besides these, it was an awkward situation for new Treasurer Milroy Perera who had to tender an apology to the Working Committee for not having the monthly accounts ready on time for the presentation of the Working Committee.

Besides all these the most crucial thing for the UNP to-day is to decide its stand on the package. But it seems the UNP would try to put off the matters since Mr. Wickremesinghe would be out of the country from October 13. At the Select Committee meeting scheduled for October 14, the UNP would not take any stand since a high powered committee of the UNP decided that the leader should handle the devolution matter by himself. But when the Select Committee meets on the 14th to finalise the unit of devolution, the UNP would not be in a position to announce its response on this national question.

In these circumstances, there are questions as to when the package would be finalised and also whether it would be finalised at all.

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