Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made an important statement on what is commonly referred to as the 'National Question' in Parliament this week (Our Political Editor deals with this in detail), compelling a response from the Government which has otherwise been prevaricating at worst, and ambivalent at best on the subject.
The 'National Question' is no longer exclusively an issue relating to the greater devolution of political power essentially to the minorities-dominated North and East. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report and its recommendations have made the issue much broader, and truly a National Question rather than one that was not of central importance to the country as a whole.
The opposition leader wants the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) brought into the Parliamentary Select Committee earmarked to discuss this issue, preferably as early as next month. The focus of the work of the committee would be to implement the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution which is to give wider powers to Provincial Councils essentially in the North and East. In other words, it is to give political power to the TNA, the dominant party in these areas having played no other card than the divisive communal card right through its history up to date.
The TNA is also widely considered a proxy for India that seeks to have a foothold in the North, if not the East as well by pressing the Sri Lankan Government to implement a scheme of local government that India introduced with disastrous consequences as can be seen in its working in the rest of the country ever since 1987. Why it would be any different in the North and the East no one knows.
The opposition leader's position may seem statesmanlike. Unfortunately, however, the very cry for greater devolution in the North and East, which is not a new cry, is covered with suspicion and comes in the backdrop of the failed armed secession movement for which the TNA gave tacit support. The majority of Sri Lankans may be excused for a justifiable wariness about what all this could lead to.
The opposition leader's seemingly principled stand can be likened to the stances often taken by the traditional left parties that were not in step with the popular sentiments of the vast mass of the people. This left them politically stranded, often humiliated at elections and having to hang on to the coat tails, saree-pota or national dress of other mainstream parties to ride to office.
It is about time that those who keep pressing the President to implement 13A realised that he is only playing for time. His promises to implement not only 13A, but 13A Plus were at crunch time when he wanted India's support to defeat the LTTE. He knows only too well the groundswell of public opinion against 13A. In 1987, the 13A was forced down the throats of the people of this country by India. Local MPs from the Government benches had to be holed up in a Colombo hotel, transported to Parliament under armed escort and the whip cracked to vote for it even as tyres, buses and buildings burned on the streets. We wouldn't want a repeat of that history, surely.
If the opposition leader's motives are, however, to apply added pressure on the President, vis-a-vis, the international community (read Western powers and India) then it has an element of adversarial politics which he is asking political parties to eschew.
The Government has called for a 'home grown' solution to the issue. Clearly, the President wants to ward off international pressure. That is easier said than done; Western powers and India will continue to use that as a stick to browbeat Sri Lanka into line.
This is particularly so when the Government of Sri Lanka does little or nothing to correct its record on so many fronts that the people of this country are eager to see progressing. As much as the Tamil political parties -- as opposed to the Tamil people in the North and East -- want greater autonomy, those in the South still fear it to be a stepping stone for a separate state. They have also seen over the past 30 years what damage political power vested in the wrong hands can do. Yet, they want reform in so many other fronts.
Time is going to be the ultimate healer and unifier between the peoples of the North and the South, not 13A. In Vietnam, where there was total war between the North and the South, the country is unified and run by the people from the victorious North. There is little trace of bitterness and animosity among the people who live their separate lives in one country. But that war ended in 1975 and it is only now that US warships that were once firing missiles into that country are being welcomed with flowers.
The Government here is encouraging people-to-people contact and it is a happy sight to witness carefree children in their uniforms from Vavuniya in the North and Dehiyattakandiya in the South coming together to the Galle Face Green in Colombo in the evenings enjoying the fruits of peace. LTTE cadres have been 'rehabilitated' and Internally Displaced People are mostly out of their refugee camps (though not necessarily back in their homes) at a pace which independent observers have been quite impressed with.
There is indeed more to do in unifying the country and its people, but there is over-emphasis that 13A is the panacea for this problem. Once people-to-people contact lessens tensions between the two communities, it will be easier to tackle volatile issues such as the 13A. Not otherwise.
Defusing the ethnic divide would also be the responsibility of the mainstream political parties -- the SLFP, the UNP, the JVP and the left parties -- that claim to be national parties. They need to induct more minority members to give leadership in their areas -- a leadership that was ruthlessly decimated by the LTTE -- and have them assume a prominent role within their parties rather than to rely on the regional communal based parties to deliver their vote base.
The handing over of the committee to oversee the 'Action Plan' that will implement the LLRC recommendations to the President's Secretary from the Minister of External Affairs is a welcome move by the Government. The Secretary's feet are on terra firma, in more ways than one.
If the Government can speed up the process of reunification through people-to-people contacts and implement quickly some of the recommendations on which there is common ground among political parties, especially in relation to good governance issues, 13A can be on the back burner without earning the wrath of the people. It can do neither -- not implement 13A nor the majority of the LLRC recommendations.