Sri Lankas main opposition party, badly divided and in disarray over its policy on the devoluiton of power, is likely to ask for at tleast six months to study the government proposals presented by Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris amidst hysterical scenes in parliament on Friday.
Veteran former finance minster Ronnie de Mel who represented the UNP on the Parliamentary Select Committe said the partys parliamentary group and the policy-making working committee would need upto six months to carefully study the government proposals and the multitude of riders presented by various parties.
Mr. de Mel said the UNP would begin its scrutiny of the constitutional reforms and devolution proposals soon after party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe returns from a visit to India and South Asia.
Mr. Wickremesinghe is expected back today.
During his absence and especially last week, the UNP which has not expressed a clear stand on the devolution package was thrown into further confusion when a group of about 20 MPs openly objected to a statement made by the four UNP members of the PSC.
Meanwhile, the two most influential minority parties, the TULF and the SLMC are calling on the governemnt to first set up the merged north-east and south-eastern councils by constitutional means and hold referendums one year after normalcy is restored.
The government had earlier proposed that referendums be held in the eastern districts before the councils are set up but that move is now being reviewed in view of claims by the minority parties that the situation in the east is not conducive for free and fair elections.
Minister Peiris told the media after the pandemonium in parliament on Friday that the government was determined to go ahead with the reforms despite the lack of consensus. But he indicated that finality might be reached only by the middle of next year.
NDUNLF member Ravi Karunanayake, in a rebellious mood after the presenting of the draft constitution on Friday, told The Sunday Times that he would put the country before self and was prepared to face any repercussions for having protested against the proposals when they were presented.
Mr. Karunanayake, who has been an active participant of the Select Committee on Constitutional Reform, said that he took strong objections to the fact that they were presented as government proposals when there was no consensus on certain issues, and the NDUNLF, a constituent party of the PA has sought divisions on them at Select Committee level. If he so desired, these proposals could have been presented as certain party proposals, but not that of the entire PA. It gives a false idea to the people, and it is the bounden duty of any party to prevent any bulldozing acts of this nature, he said.
When contacted, Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs and Deputy Finance Minister, G.L Peiris said that if this was objectionable, Mr. Karunanayake could have raised the issue last Tuesday when the Select Committee met. He said that the MP himself presented a paper reiterating the NDUNLFs stance on the proposals, which was also presented in Parliament with the proposals.
After protracted negotiations, marked by alternating scenarios of hope and despair, the stage was at last set for Rajiv Gandhis arrival in Colombo on July 29 to sign the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement.
Rajiv had come to the conclusion that neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tamil groups, especially the LTTE, would reach any agreement and come to a durable compromise unless India took a direct hand in the matter. He had become skeptical about Jayewardenes intentions and was clearly disappointed at the obdurate attitude of the LTTE and other Tamil groups. My advice to him after the failure of our initiative at the Bangalore SAARC summit was that Indias purely mediatory efforts were not likely to succeed.
The LTTEs clandestinely publicised objective of a Greater Eelam would have its impact not only on India but the rest of South-east Asian countries with Tamil populations. Having seen the LTTE in operation, both in the political and military fields, I also felt that, despite the legitimacy of the Tamil aspirations articulated by it, the LTTE was essentially an authoritarian organisation that relied on violence.
My colleagues Gopi Arora, director IB, M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon and Joint Secretary Kuldip Sahdev had doubts about the LTTE falling in line. I shared their worry to some extent, which prompted me to raise two questions in one of these meetings. First, whether MGR and the Tamil Nadu leadership would endorse the agreement. Secondly, if the LTTE created a situation, after the agreement was signed, which might compel us to exert pressure on it to remain committed to the agreement, would we be able to do it successfully? Rajiv said that he had been in touch with MGR and other Tamil leaders, and that they were supportive of the agreement. On the second question, about the implications of India having to confront the LTTE, Rajiv asked the then chief of the Army Staff General K. Sundarji what his assessment was. The Generals reply was that once the LTTE endorsed the agreement, they would not have the wherewithal to go back and confront India or the Sri Lankan government. He went on to say that if the LTTE decided to take on India and Sri Lanka militarily, Indian armed forces would be able to neutralise them militarily within two weeks. So, there need not be any serious worry on this score. Rajiv then turned to me and said that dealing with the Indian end of the various problems related to the proposed agreement would be done by officials in New Delhi and that my primary task was to ensure that Jayewardene did not back out of signing the agreement....
Jayewardene continued to nurse reservations about the agreement till two days before it was signed...
Ultimately, he decided to sign the agreement only because he was given clear indications that if he did not join the endeavour for a political compromise and insisted on a military operation, India would totally pull back from its mediatory role and that the general support of India, particularly the Tamil Nadu public, would be available to the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamils.
Guard of dishonour
The night of July 29 was characterised by parallel and even involved diplomatic activity on the part of Jayewardene. We received information that Jayewardene had a detailed discussion with the US Ambassador James Spain that night in which he informed the US envoy of his discussions with Rajiv and his decision to invite the IPKF to Sri Lanka. I brought these developments to Rajivs notice on the same night. Jayewardene was astute enough to know that his meeting with the American ambassador would not remain unknown. He conveyed a message asking for a fourth meeting with Rajiv on the morning of July 30. After the meeting with Mr. Jayawardene some of us made the suggestion that he should just take the salute of the guard of honour from the dais and not inspect the troops lined up because of two reasons. First, we were not quite sure whether the guns being held by the soldiers in the combined guard of honour were really without ammunition. Secondly the guard of honour was arranged in an area which had buildings from where the prime minister could be targeted. Rajiv dismissed our suggestion saying that he would not be seen as being afraid.
Haardeep Puri and I walked down the lane where the cars were parked, as Rajiv commenced his walk down the red carpet adjacent to the front row of the guard. We had walked out about 30 yards down the lane when we heard a commotion behind us. A couple of Sinhalese with their lungis tied up above their knees were running away from the square where the guard of honour was being held. One of them was shouting something in Tamil. I asked him what had happened. He said something had happened to the prime minister of India and there was going to be shooting.
I approached Jayewardene and asked him what the commotion was about. He looked me cooly in the eye and said:
Nothing serious. Rajiv tripped a little and slightly lost his balance he was reaching the last group of sailors in the guard of honour. As we rushed back to our cars an Indian TV journalist told me that one of the Sri Lankan sailors had tried to hit Rajiv with his rifle butt, as he was reaching the end of the front row of the guard.
A trade fair to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Trinity College, Kandy will be held from Wednesday to Friday in Kandy. Bishop of Kurunegala, Andrew Kumarage will declare open the fair on the first day.
Ranjit Dahanayake, Managing Director of Hermes International Limited, has been elected as a director of Hotel Services (Ceylon) Limited, owning company of Ceylon Intercontinental Hotel.
Celltel Lanka Limited has announced the appointment of Serge Guevel, the companys Director Finance and Operations as Chief Executive Officer with immediate effect.
Mr. Guevel succeeds Celltels outgoing CEO Jerry Huxtable, who has been promoted to the Board of Directors of Extelcom, the Philippines business of Millicom International Cellular (MIC), which is the major shareholder in Celltel.
An executive committee system providing for an all-party board of ministers in the regions will ensure fair representation for all and bring about consensus politics whereby all parties together will work for the common good, a constitutional expert has said.
Constitutional lawyer Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, known to be one of the architects of the proposed Devolution Package, said that he believed this bold and dramatic experience would lift Sri Lanka to a higher level of democratic grassroots politics.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Dr. Tiruchelvam outlined the vision and goals of the proposed constitutional reforms, though it appears that the all-party talks on the subject have largely been going round and round like the traditional chekku madu (bull).
Q. The proposed regional councils in the Devolution Package are widely seen as a watered down version of classical federalism? Your comments?
A. The power sharing arrangements envisaged by the constitutional reform proposals are grounded on two broad principles. Firstly, the need to develop a constitutional structure which would facilitate effective devolution, with the powers of the centre and the region clearly demarcated . Secondly, to eliminate the concurrent list and to add the subjects and functions in that list to the regional list. In this regard, the constitutional reform process builds on the political consensus which has been evolved over the years since the 13th Amendment was enacted. The objective is to ensure that the regions and the different communities in this country become constructive partners in a stable and pluralistic democracy.
Q. Only a little is known about the powers of the Chief Minister in the proposed regions. What are they?
A. The Chief Minister is the head of the board of ministers and will belong to the political party which commands the confidence of the majority of the members of the regional council.
He will be the head of the political executive at the regional level and will determine the subjects and functions which should be assigned to ministers. He could nominate ministers from his party.
However, since the proposals envisage proportionate representation at the executive level, members of several political parties would qualify for representation in the board of ministers. This introduces for the first time into our democratic institutions the Swiss model of proportionate representation at the executive level. If it works, it will compel all political parties which share power at the executive level to develop a common sense of purpose and to address in a meaningful way the pressing social and economic problems within a region. This is a bold experiment and represents one of the most dramatic departures from the Westminster model since 1948.
Q. What control will the centre have over regional councils?
A. The objective is to ensure that both the centre and the regions exercise exclusive legislative and executive authority within their defined spheres.
However, all representative institutions are subject to the constitution which is the supreme law of the land.
The chapter on fundamental rights, for example, would limit the legislative and executive authority both at the centre and the region. The judiciary would be a neutral arbiter to ensure that neither authority transgresses its constitutional limits.
The Chief Ministers Conference provides an imaginative and alternative framework for the resolution of both inter-regional and centre-regional disputes. It envisages both conciliation and an arbitral mechanism - a process faster than the judicial process in solving disputes.
Q. Can the centre impose its rule on a regional council over-stepping itself in the context of national security?
A. The circumstances in which the state of emergency within a region can be declared have been carefully and strictly defined in the text of the constitution. There are three situations in which the President may invoke such powers. The first is the situation of armed insurrection; secondly, grave internal disturbances, thirdly, an international violation of the constitution by the regional administration which poses a clear and present danger to the unity and the sovereignty of the republic.
In such a situation, initially a state of emergency can be declared and the assistance of the national police force or the armed forces can be made available to the civil authorities to contain the situation. Where such attempts are not successful, the executive powers of the region may be assumed by the President. If there is a complete breakdown, the President may even dissolve the council. Judgments of the Supreme Court have recently ensured that these powers may not be abused or exercised arbitrarily. There are other safeguards such as the appointment of an arbitral tribunal to inquire into and report on whether this power has been properly exercised.
Q. State lands within a region would belong to it, isnt it so? Then what about treading on the toes of the landless Sinhala people - say in the Central Province? For that matter even the Tamil people who are landless?
A. Even under the 13th Amendment, powers in respect of land have been devolved on the provincial councils and every provincial council is entitled to administer, control and utilise such state land as may be required by such council for a Provincial Council subject. The proposed scheme however vests state lands in the region subject to the power of the centre to acquire and utilise such lands which may be reasonably required for the purposes of the subjects in the reserved list.
There is a duty to consult with the regional council concerned. There should therefore be no apprehension on the part of the landless of whatever community that these arrangements could affect them in a discriminatory manner.
The principles of land settlement which have been historically required by law, i.e., preference for persons within a district and thereafter to persons within a region, are also embodied in the text of the draft constitution.
Similar principle with regard to priorities in land settlement are embodied in paragraph 2.4 of the appendix II to 13th Amendment.
Q. There is fear that a merged north-east could eventually link-up with part of the Central province controlled by Mr. Thondaman and form a Tamil region. Your comments?
A. This is an unfounded fear. The units of devolution as envisaged in the proposal follow two principles. First, the principle of territorial contiguity, i.e., all of the regions encompass areas which are geographically contiguous. Second, the units are multi-ethnic in character. There has been no attempt to construct exclusive ethnic enclaves.
The executive committee system and the proportional representation of the executive level will provide minorities within regions with a degree of political participation and power sharing which has been hitherto inconceivable in all previous constitutional arrangements.
Q. The Sinhala people have an in-built fear that a merged north-east would finally secede to join up with India. Your observations?
A. These fears are unreasonable. We cannot be entrapped in the misgivings and distrusts of the past. We need to seize the opportunities of creating a stable framework which will reconcile interests of all communities within the island.
The fears that the north-east would secede and would subsequently join India are not consistent with contemporary realities. An effective response to the apprehension is contained in the commentary which accompanied the legal text to the constitution.
It stated a misapprehension entertained by persons who have viewed devolution of power in an unfavourable light is that this political measure will lead to a fragmentation of the country... This is a totally erroneous conception.
If you look at the recent history of eastern and central Europe, it is the nation states which were highly centralised in their practical working which could not reconcile the forces of ethnicity and nationalism.
The Constitutional arrangements for autonomy in the Basque country and Catalonia have contributed to strengthening the unity of Spain. At the referendum held in each region, the autonomy statutes were supported by 88% of the people who voted.
Even in the United Kingdom, many of the textbook notions of a centralized nation-state are being rapidly discarded in the context of the constitutional proposals for Scotland and Wales, and a possible settlement on Northern Ireland.
Q. Even in Federal states international trade is not permitted to the regions. Why is it here given to regional councils? This is another cause for fear that this privilege would be abused. Your comments?
A. This is not a correct reading of the proposals. Foreign trade, inter-provincial trade and commerce are subjects reserved to the centre.
Q. It is not clear about defence either. Will the centre oversee all defence?
A. Here again the proposals are unambiguous. Defence, national police and the security forces are reserved subjects while regional police and law and order are devolved subjects.
Q. Currency, I believe will be controlled by the centre?
A. Currency, foreign exchange, international economic relations and monetary policy are subjects reserved to the centre.
Q. What about armed forces and police? Will armed forces representing the centre serve in the regions?
A. I have already pointed out that the defence, national security, national police and the security forces are subjects which will remain with the centre. The Chief Minister of a region may however seek the assistance of the national police to preserve public order within the region in a state of emergency.
The regional police and law and order are devolved subjects. The regional police would ordinarily be responsible for investigations and prosecution in respect of offences against the person and property.
Q. What is the position of the IGP and the Commissioner of Elections under the Devolution Package?
A. The Commissioner of Elections is a constitutional functionary who is responsible for ensuring free and fair elections and administering the Department of Elections. The United National Party has submitted proposals for the establishment of an Independent Election Commission consisting of five persons. Similar Commissions exist in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
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