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UNP Drops Federalism

TamilNet news feature, October 1, 2007

“We always supported the devolution of power but we never mentioned the word ‘federal’. It was Chandrika who introduced this word ‘federal’. Subsequently, this government [Rajapakse’s] resurrected the word and used it to level allegations against us. But we never said ‘federal’. The last power sharing proposal that we put forward was rejected. Therefore, we are trying to put forward a new proposal. That’s all there is to it.

The decision by Sri Lanka’s main opposition United National Party (UNP) to ditch the federal constitutional model as a solution to the island’s protracted ethnic conflict makes it the last of the major southern parties to embrace Sinhala nationalism again. In doing so, the former ‘pro-peace’ party may finally have resolved its ethnic dilemma.

With its arch-rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) having secured the nationalist high-ground with its leader, President Mahinda Rajapakse, prosecuting what southern voters consider a successful war against the Tamil Tigers, the UNP is under mounting pressure from its rank and file to reclaim the Sinhala vote by also swinging to the right.

The UNP is not too concerned about losing the international support it has enjoyed since 2001 under its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe: last week the US urged the SLFP government to come up with a proposal without using problematic words like ‘federalism’ and ‘unitary.’

However the UNP’s move to abandon federalism is certain to alienate the Tamil voters whom the UNP also needs if it is to be sure of toppling the SLFP government at the next election.

The Muslim vote, which the UNP also needs, may be more assured. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the island’s largest Muslim party has come out in support of the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Not only is federalism the sole principle to emerge from the Norwegian peace process, the dropping of the concept is indicative of the UNP’s decisive step towards a Sinhala nationalist stance on the ethnic question.

The UNP would be joining the SLFP which has already swung to the platform formerly dominated by the ultra-nationalist JVP.

The point was made by Suresh Premachandran, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, who told th Hindustan Times that if federalism was abandoned by the Sinhala majority, there could be no talks on a political solution between them and the Tamils.

The issue was precipitated last week when UNP parliamentarian and Colombo District leader Ravi Karunanayake announced that there was a policy shift by the UNP on the ethnic issue.

The Island newspaper Friday quoted him as saying the UNP will be abandoning its federalist stand and abrogating the ‘Oslo declaration’ – the landmark decision on exploring federalism reached in December 2002 by the LTTE and the then UNP government.

"We had never come to an agreement with the LTTE or any other party to go for a Federal solution and the UNP had never accepted or proposed a Federal solution to the problem of the North and East," Karunanayake said.

“It was only a creation by the media and not by us,” he said.

The UNP, he added, will also be reviewing the 2004 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in order to suit the present ground situation.

“Our party stands for maximum devolution of power and when the Ceasefire Agreement was signed by the UNP government of 2001 we did not have a Federal solution in mind, but only a mode of maximum devolution of power to solve the problem,” he said.

Karunanayake categorized this policy shift as a case of the UNP ‘repositioning’ itself.

The UNP needed to do this because of the way the public perceived what they said had resulted in repeated defeats.

The Island newspaper said there is widespread support for this policy shift within the UNP.

The Oslo Declaration refers to the agreement reached at the third round of talks in December 2002 in Oslo between the LTTE and the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government.

The agreement states: “Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties have agreed to explore a political solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.”

Federalism became entrenched in Sri Lanka’s political landscape in 2003 when it was endorsed at the Tokyo donor conference. The Tokyo Declaration, signed by 70 state and multilateral donors, “commends both parties for their commitment to a lasting and negotiated peace based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.”

The Oslo Agreement to explore federalism was reached by delegations led by the LTTE chief negotiator, the late Anton Balasingham and the UNP government’s chief negotiator, Prof. G. L. Peiris.

At the time, Prof. Peiris hailed the agreement as a ‘paradigm shift’ on Sri Lanka’s vexed ethnic question.

The two men were hailed for having established the ‘breakthrough’ which, both privately said, was facilitated by the personal rapport they had established.

The move was fiercely criticized by the Sinhala right at the time, however, Wickremesinghe’s arch-rival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, did not move to dismiss his government – that she did a year later.

Prof. Peiris, who defected to the SLFP government in January this year, has since distanced himself in no uncertain terms from the Oslo Agreement, saying words like federalism and unitary were “meaningless.”

Nonetheless, the UNP itself has avoided being drawn out on the issue.

However, the UNP may have decided to bite the bullet now.

The Lakbima newspaper says that a number of people who called Wickremesinghe after hearing reports of his party’s U-turn on federalism were presented with a stock answer:

“We always supported the devolution of power but we never mentioned the word ‘federal’. It was Chandrika who introduced this word ‘federal’. Subsequently, this government [Rajapakse’s] resurrected the word and used it to level allegations against us. But we never said ‘federal’. The last power sharing proposal that we put forward was rejected. Therefore, we are trying to put forward a new proposal. That’s all there is to it.”