Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 54

More peace talks

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002

In 1990, President Ranasinghe Premadasa negotiated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for a peaceful settlement of the ethnic conflict tearing the island apart, but the Tamil militants reneged during the negotiations and launched the second Eelam war on June 11, 1990.

While the protracted war was on, the government continued with the search for peace as the costs of the military engagement – in human and monetary terms – rose with every passing year. This explains the reasons behind the round of peace talks (1991-92) between Tamil moderates and Sinhalese leaders, under the framework of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).

Unlike the earlier peace processes, this exercise was less structured and involved only those party leaders who had representation in parliament. It was not strictly between the government and the Tamil groups, but an all-party political exercise aimed at evolving a framework of a solution to end the war.

Constituted in August 1991, at the initiative of Mangala Moonesinghe, an opposition Member of Parliament from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the PSC was formed, consisting of 45 members, the majority of whom belonged to the Sinhalese-dominated political parties.

Consensus was the key element of the decision-making exercise in the PSC, because the Tamils accounted for only six members. In the PSC, the Tamils bargained for greater autonomy to the northeast.

A proposal submitted by Ceylon Workers Congress leader S Thondaman demanded that both the Tamil-dominated provinces be merged “unconditionally” and constitutional safeguards be evolved also, to protect the interests of the Sinhalese and Muslims living in the Tamil areas.

Thondaman’s proposal was aimed to provide autonomy in the real and substantial sense to an unbifurcated North-East Province (NEP), through an institution for autonomy to be created by constitutional amendments.

The Provincial Council would be administered by a Board of Ministers, under a Chief Minister, who would be the leader of the political party, which won more than half the seats in the institution at an election. There would be a governor for the North-East Provincial Government, appointed by the President with the concurrence of the Chief Minister.

There would be a High Court and a single police force reflecting the province’s ethnic ratio. An initial 10,000-strong force was to be recruited in the first three months.

Furthermore, Thondaman’s proposal insisted that the North-East Provincial Government should have the authority to establish a provincial land commission to administer, control and use the NEP’s state land, which would be vested in it; a provincial planning commission to formulate public and private sector investments, schools, universities, ports and harbors, TV and broadcasting stations and similar institutions.

Thondaman’s proposal recommended Predeshiya Sabhas for the Muslims, in the areas where they predominated, with the possibility of a Union of Predaeshiya Sabhas to coordinate the dispersed sabhas, to which authority would be devolved from the Provincial Government.

A Sinhalese Deputy Inspector General Police would be appointed to the NEP to ensure the protection of its Sinhalese citizens. The Sinhalese citizens living within the NEP would have the right for state land in any part of the NEP, complying with the ethnic ratio.

According to Thondaman’s proposals, the Provincial Government was to have full control over provincial public finances and the power to negotiate foreign aid and foreign investments, The provincial boundaries could not be changed without the consent of the NEP’s Provincial Government.

According to the proposal, certain functions were reserved for the Central Government, including defense and foreign affairs, customs, pensions, post and telecommunication, currency and coinage, foreign exchange, civil aviation, passports and visas, national highways and elections. The provincial police force was to have national as well as provincial components, according to Thondaman’s proposal, the situation regarding the formation of the armed forces and their composition did not appear too clearly in the proposal. But, it was stressed that, the thing that mattered was the substance of the devolution of powers to the North-East Province’s Provincial Government and not the framework.

It would seem implied that the functions such as education, health, collection of rates and taxes, transport, roads and licensing, building and construction, industry and commerce, agriculture, food, and fisheries, power generation and supply, tourism and other such matters within the North-East Province would fall fully within the administrative control of the Provincial Government, all of which largely agreed with the natural expectations of the Tamils.

Many political analysts when commenting on Thondaman’s proposal remarked that it was a laudable one for the sincerity and spirit with which it had been formulated and for recognizing the fact that only an unbifurcated territory with a real and substantial autonomy was likely to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamils. The provisions made to safeguard the interest of the Muslims and the Sinhalese in the North-East Province were again praiseworthy in principle.

Thondoman’s proposal reflected the realistic mood of the Tamils, where the measures for land administration, control, usage, and allocations, as well about public finance control and negotiation of foreign aid were all positive aspects on which Tamils were unlikely to otherwise compromise. However, Thondaman’s proposals still had several restrictive aspects.

The Provincial Government had yet to work with devolved authority under the Governor appointed by the center, with a tight hold on several matters. It was not clear why internal defense, pensions, part of post and telecommunication, customs, and part of civil aviation activities, too, could not come under the Provincial Government in coordination with the center.

Also, the issuance of passports and visas and immigration and emigration works could be allowed to be handled by the Provincial Government, with direction and coordination of the center. The highway network within the North-East Province should be allowed to be constructed and maintained by the Provincial Government, with financial contributions from the center.

Thondaman’s proposal failed to clarify the language to be used in education and administration and places its police and armed services outside the control of the Provincial Council.

But, unfortunately, a permanently-merged single Tamil-linguistic-unit demand was not acceptable to the Sinhalese and a consensus on this issue was most improbable. In his proposal (called the Option Paper) to work out a consensus, Moonesinghe suggested two separate units of devolution for the north and the east with an apex institution, a Regional Council, linking both through a system of provincial representation. Later, he presented an Option Paper which proposed Regional and Provincial Lists of devolved powers.

The matters relating to land, finance and law-and-order were to be listed under the Provincial List, while the Regional Council was to exercise control over planning and development. The Provincial Councils were to have power to control the legislative process in the Regional Council. There would be only one governor and one chief minister for the region covering both the provinces, and the provincial administration was to be under the overall control of a Board of Ministers headed by an Executive Minister.

The posts of Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of the region were to be rotated between the two Executive Ministers of the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils. Further, the paper suggested the creation of a “coordinating and mediating” Devolution Commission, a full-fledged Finance Commission and a second chamber in parliament, with its powers being restricted to an advisory role.

The Tamils did not accept these proposals and insisted on a territorial merger of the north-east; their position on this was non-negotiable. At the same time, the mainstream Sinhalese parties rejected the merger demand. What finally emerged in the PSC was, therefore, a Sinhala consensus on devolution and not a general consensus among all the PSC members.

It was based on the proposal of the UNP, which sought to introduce a system modeled on the Indian constitution without changing the unitary system of Sri Lanka. The SLFP and other Sinhalese parties endorsed the formula, but the Tamil members rejected it. In a statement, they described the reported consensus as “nothing but the unilateral imposition of the narrow, chauvinistic outlook of the major Sinhala political parties on the long suffering of the Tamil people”. They also complained that in the PSC “there was no serious consultation, no sign of any compromise by the UNP or SLFP and certainly no consensus with the Tamil parties on any matter”.

Reacting to Thondaman’s proposal, extreme elements went to the extent of forming an organization called Sinhala Arakshaka Sanvidanya (Sinhala Defense League) headed by the former minister Gamini Jayasuriya. A pressure group in the SLFP was formed called “Hela Urumaya” (National Heritage).

The existence of these groups was dependent on anti-Thondaman and anti-Tamil sentiments and on the call to defend the rights of the Sinhala race. Recently, they have openly declared their agenda as removing Thondaman and fighting against racism. In Sri Lanka, the only problem was a “Frankenstein” called Thondaman; by an involuntary removal of him, these “patriots” are going to achieve peace.

The PSC exercise exposed the weak bargaining position of the moderate Tamils vis-a-vis the Sinhalese leaders. This in turn strengthened the argument of the LTTE that the Sri Lankan Tamils’ rights could be won only through a sustained war.

As soon as Thondaman’s proposals came to light, a concerted effort was made by the leading papers in English and Sinhala to question his legitimacy, and there were articles dealing with various aspects of his proposals.

Many mainstream Sinhala papers came out with articles to rouse the passions of the Sinhala people, after all the tragedies of the past, and there were also articles trying to turn the discourse into a more rational one. The state-controlled papers managed to come out with sober editorials and views, but their weakness as a result of their being a mouthpiece of the of the Government, made the people cynical. The weekly and monthly Sinhalese papers, such as Ravaya, Yukthiya and a few other papers played a positive role in promoting a rational discourse and their contribution to the internal process of self evaluation was a healthy and refreshing one.

Two proposals before the parliamentary select committee chaired by Mangala Moonesinghe that received publicity were the Apex Council proposal for a semi-merger of the North and East, and the second proposal for federalism without a merger proposed by Srinivasan, the Jaffna MP. The first, widely accepted as well-meant, was worked out by Moonesinghe himself, with help from some leading academics. The second was noted for the magic words federalism and de-merger. Its details were sketchy and badly thought out. Why it received so much publicity is a subject of much speculation. Moonasinghe’s 1992 “Option Paper” included a framework and proposals based on the following considerations:
1. The question of a merger or non-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is a major contentious issue in the negotiations. Therefore, a solution acceptable to all parties without endangering the aspirations of all the ethnic communities living in the two provinces needs to be worked out. The framework proposed in this paper is such a compromise.

2. The proposed framework also embodies the possibility of further strengthening of devolution in the sense that it envisages devolution within the devolved unit.

3. It also envisions ethnic integration through cooperation and consultation within the North-East region while further strengthening devolution.

Framework proposals:
1. There shall be two separate Provincial Councils for the Northern and Eastern provinces. The two councils shall be elected on the basis of an electoral list agreed upon by all political parties. 2. Each Provincial Council shall be headed by an Executive Minister. The Executive Minister shall also the head of the Board of Ministers of the Province.

3. There shall be a Regional Council for the entire North-East Region, and the Regional Council shall be constituted by the two elected Provincial Councils.

4. When the two provincial Councils meet together on matters pertaining to the entire region, they shall constitute themselves as the Regional Council.

5. The Regional Council shall be headed by a Chief Minister for the entire North-East region. The two Executive Ministers shall each year alternatively function as the Chief Minister of the region. When one Executive Minister is the Chief Minister, the other may function as the Deputy Chief Minister.

6. When the two Provincial Boards of Ministers meet on matters relating to the entire region, they shall constitute the Regional Board of Ministers.

7. Legislative functions shall be jointly and separately exercised by the two Provincial Councils. When the two Councils meet in joint session to exercise legislative functions, jointly, they shall do so as a single legislative body for the entire region, constituted as the Regional Council. When the Councils meet separately, they shall do so for the respective province.

8. For the purposed of legislative and executive action, there shall be a Regional List and a Provincial List.

9. The Provincial Councils shall have legislative powers in respect of matters – such as land, finance and law and order – specified in the Provincial List and the Regional Council on matters – such as planning, economic development – as specified in the Regional List.

10. In case of subjects specified as regional subjects, legislation passed by the Regional Council and having a direct bearing on a given Province shall not be operative, until it is approved by the relevant Provincial Council. (This measure will in effect safeguard the rights of the minority communities, particularly in the Eastern Province).

11. There shall be one Governor for the entire region.

12. In each Province, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities shall be guaranteed by constitutional arrangements.

Furthermore in the Option paper, to strengthen devolution for better center-province relations and for the promotion of national integration, the following measures relating to the national polity were proposed:
1. Creation of an Upper House of Parliament at the Center, consisting of 50 members. Each Province shall elect three members to the Upper House. The Province shall be the constituency for such elections. Of the remaining 23 seats, some will be nominated by the political parties represented in the Lower House in proportion to their numerical strength, while the remaining seats shall be reserved for distinguished citizens such as professionals, academics and developmental specialist, to be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the Leader of the Opposition.

2. The establishment of a Devolution Council to co-ordinate and mediate in matters relating to center-province relations. The Commission shall consist of nominees of the Central Government and Provincial Councils.

3. The establishment of an independent Finance Commission, consisting of members nominated by both the Central Government and Provincial Councils.

Both the proposals, the one proposed by Srinivasan and that of Mangala Moonasinghe had positive and negative points from the view of all communities in the North-East. For the Tamils, up to 40 percent of their population in the North-East, particularly the East, were refugees. There was a fear that a long war fought in the name of a merger would mean displacement, rather than a merger, becoming permanent, leading to creeping colonization of Sinhalese under military protection. From this point of view a transfer of power from the military to a civilian authority in the East was desirable. Meanwhile, given below is the Interim Report of the Mangala Moonesinghe Parliamentary Select Committee, 1992:
Your Committee was constituted following the unanimous adoption by Parliament on 9th August, 1991 of the following motion moved by Mr. Mangala Moonesinghe and seconded by Mr. Stanley Tillekeratne:

“That this Parliament is of opinion that a Select Committee of Parliament be appointed

(a) To arrive at a political solution to the question involving the devolution of power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces;

(b) To prevent –
(i) The disintegration of the nation;
(ii) The killings of innocent civilians, members of the Armed Forces and the youths fighting for a cause;
(iii) The increased militarization of the culture of violence in our country; and

(c) To achieve peace and political stability and utilize the reduced defense expenditure for rapid economic growth and national development.

That the Committee shall – (a) Have the power to fix its quorum;

(b) Have the power to summon any person to appear before it, to require any person to produce any document or record, to procure and receive all such evidence, written or oral, as the Committee may think it necessary for the fullest consideration of the matters referred to above, and

(c) Have the power to report from time to time and to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of Parliament.”

While moving the motion, Moonesinghe proposed an amendment to delete the word “national” which appeared in the notice between the words “the” and “question” in paragraph (a). The House agreed to the amendment.

The Speaker thereafter appointed a committee of 45 members representing all parties in parliament under the chairmanship of Mangala Moonesinghe. This was the largest Select Committee in the history of the parliament of Sri Lanka.

At its first meeting on November 2, 1991 the committee fixed its quorum at 14. The Committee has held 43 meetings to date.

Your Committee at its meeting on November 20, 1991, decided to call for written representations from the public on matters relating to its Order of Reference. This decision was advertised in the press and given publicity through radio and television in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The closing date for such representations was fixed for December 16, 1991. Your Committee subsequently decided that representation received up to January 10, 1992 would be considered. Your Committee received 253 memoranda.

Memoranda were received from Members of Parliament, political parties, other organizations and individuals. Where clarification of the submissions was found to be necessary, the Committee examined the Members of Parliament, representatives of political parties and other organizations and individuals.

The Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Sri Lanka, Piarre Wettach, in March 1992 confirmed in writing to the Chairman That, he had met two members of the LTTE, viz G Mahendrarajah (Mahattaya) and Anton Balasingham, who had informed him that a delegation from the Select Committee would be welcome in Jaffna. Your Committee informed Wettach that any representation from the LTTE would be welcome and that they wished this to be conveyed to the LTTE. However, the Committee notes with regret that there has been no response whatsoever from the LTTE in this regard up to date. Of proposals, of evidence, following issues emerged for consideration:
(a) Whether the temporarily merged Northern and Eastern provinces should continue to be one unit with special arrangements made to safeguard the interests of Muslims:

(b) Whether the Northern and Eastern Provinces should be separated and that each should be an independent unit of devolution.

(c) Whether the temporary North-East merger should continue except for the Sinhala populated areas to be excised and annexed to the neighboring Provinces; and

(d) Whether the unit of devolution should be the District.

As Your Committee continued its deliberations, it became clear that misunderstanding and mistrust prevailed on issues pertaining to colonization of lands, law and order and delays in implementation of legislation relating to devolution. The Committee decided that public servants who had access to information and specialized knowledge of the subject should be summoned to give evidence.

Public Officers were examined on the following subjects:
Colonization: The Land Commissioner, the Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development and the Director, Planning in the Mahaweli Development Authority were summoned to give evidence and produce documents pertaining to relevant data on land settlement in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Their evidence related to land settlement in those Provinces since independence in 1948 together with an ethnic classification of those settled in the colonization schemes.

Law and order: The Inspector-General of Police gave evidence on the relevant aspects of law and order. He explained that there were provisions in the Constitution under the 13th Amendment to establish a National Police Service and Provincial Police Service.

Finance: Members of the Finance Commission outlined the principles upon which financial disbursements are made to Provincial Councils for capital outlays and recurrent expenditure. The Secretary, Ministry of Finance indicated to the Committee that the objective of the Commission was to encourage the Provincial Councils to expand their revenue base and take an initiative in revenue collection in order to be financially viable.

Your Committee also summoned the Director, External Resources who held the view that it would be useful to allow the Chief Ministers to take preliminary steps to procure foreign loans and aid to develop their respective Provinces provided that the Central Government also participated in the negotiations

It was apparent from the evidence of these public servants that the devolution contemplated in the legislation relating to Provincial Councils had not been fully implemented.

Your Committee is unanimous that there should be a greater devolution of power and that such devolution should be put into effect within specified time. Your Committee was also of the view that not only should more power be devolved in conventional subjects such as health and transport, but also in matters such as foreign aid and foreign concessionary loans and that the Chief Executive of a Province must be encouraged to take the initiative in negotiating external financial assistance to develop the Province provided that the Central Government also participated in the negotiations.

In the course of the deliberations on the conflicting issues raised a Concept Paper was tabled embodying a compromise which provided for two separate Councils and an Apex Assembly consisting of Members of the two Councils to plan common policies and coordinate programmes. The paper presented a flexible framework for discussion.

The Paper was rejected by Members of the Committee belonging to the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and the Tamil United Liberation Front.

Subsequently an Option paper was tabled incorporating the salient features contained in
(a) The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact
(b) The Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact
(c) The Manifesto of the Democratic Peoples’ Alliance
(d) The Memorandum of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna
(e) The Memorandum of S L Gunasekera, MP
(f) The Memorandum of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress
(g) The Concept Paper, and
(h) The “Four Point Formula” of the Tamil United Liberation Front

Your Committee in order to expand the area of devolved subjects, examined closely the papers presented by the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and the Four Point Formula of the Tamil United Liberation Front.

Your Committee agreed that the subjects in List III (Concurrent List) of the Ninth Schedule to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution should be minimized or even that the list should be dispensed with.

K Srinivasan, MP for the Jaffna District subsequently presented a proposal on November 11, 1992, entitled “A Realistic Solution to the National Crisis.” A majority of members of Your Committee on 11th December 1992, agreed to adopt Item 2 in that proposal namely that “the Northern and the Eastern Provinces shall each be treated as a distinct unit of devolution.” The Members representing the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and the Tamil United Liberation Front did not agree.

Item 1 of the proposal states –
“The Unitary nature of the Sri Lankan Constitution be converted into a federal one.”

“Provided however that subject to the undertaking by the parties to the Select Committee that they shall not canvass and/or participate, the question whether Sri Lanka should have a Federal Constitution or not may be put to the determination of the people of Sri Lanka through the democratic mechanism of a referendum.”

While not accepting this item in its entirety, the majority of Your Committee agreed that the devolution of functions may be on lines similar to those found in the Indian Constitution.

The member of Your Committee representing the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna did not agree to Item 1 of the Srinivasan Proposal.

Matters Agreed Upon by a Majority of the Members

On December 11, 1992, Members of Your Committee representing the United National Party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the Communist Party, Lanka Sama Samaja Party as well as the independent members, Mr. K. Srinivasan, Member for Jaffna District and Mr. Basheer Segudawood, Member for Batticaloa District, reached agreement;
(a) On the establishment of two separate units of administration for the Northern and the Eastern Provinces;

(b) To adopt a scheme of devolution on lines similar to those obtaining in the Indiana Constitution; and

(c) To devolve more subjects that are in List III (Concurrent List) or to dispense with the List.

Next: Chapter 55

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