Views Expressed at All-Party Conference on Ethnic Issue

by, Colombo, December 15, 2022

Views expressed at All-Party Conference on ethnic issue

Sajith, Sabry, Wijeyadasa, Wigneswaran, Patali, Hakeem, Douglas, Bathiudeen, Ganesan, and Sumanthiran weigh in on the way forward

President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently emphasised that all political parties should come to a common agreement to provide a solution to the ethnic problem by the upcoming 75th Independence Celebration.

President Wickremesinghe reiterated this at the All-Party Conference held at the Presidential Secretariat on Tuesday (13).

The President convened this conference with the aim of finding a solution to the ethnic problem through national reconciliation.

Below are the views expressed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as the other representatives of political parties who participated in the All-Party Conference:

The President, addressing the all-party conference, said: “We must all come together to solve the problem in this country. Whether it is called an ethnic problem or something else is not important. We want to provide solutions to these problems. All the political parties came together to find a solution for this and reach an agreement in the parliament. Today this party leaders’ meeting was called for that purpose.

The Northern Province MPs have raised the national issue of the country today. This question can be discussed in two parts. The first is the process of compensation for the missing, and investigations on the same. There are many problems that need to be solved regarding the Prevention of Terrorism Act, as well as land. The second is the arrangement required to do legal work related to power devolution.

In this regard, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry and Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe are jointly implementing a special programme. Accordingly, we hope to provide a report on the missing persons and political prisoners. After that, we can talk about devolution.

The report of the committee headed by Supreme Court Justice Nawaz will be printed in a week. The report includes a number of proposals. We are also considering the suggestions of the previous reports.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry: 

“The discussions at the Human Rights Commission held in Geneva and the international discussions about Sri Lanka are mainly carried out under two factors.

We have taken into consideration the reports of the Lessons Learned Commission, the Udalagama Commission and the Paranagama Commission. All those reports indicated that solutions could be provided for the incidents that happened in the country, but these solutions could not be provided under the mechanism of a foreign country. Accordingly, we had promised to provide solutions for this under a local mechanism, but it has not been implemented.

According to the President, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the Nawaz Commission. What was done by that commission was to prepare the necessary programme to provide solutions for this by incorporating the suggestions of the previous commissions. Accordingly, we have a responsibility to implement this mechanism.

Even the security forces have expressed their interest in implementing this mechanism. The security forces say that some units have been branded differently. A situation has arisen where some divisions cannot even go to UN operations. They expect to prove their innocence, and if something suspicious has happened, they expect the law to be enforced.

However, we have not been able to follow such a procedure until now. We think that these can be solved through a local mechanism. You can find solutions for this through the truth commission. We have discussed this with South Africa as well.

It is very beneficial to the North as well as the South to solve this problem. We present a Cabinet paper in this regard. A former ambassador has been appointed as the Director General of this committee. This is expected to bring many good proposals by uniting all the Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslims living abroad. We hope to provide facilities for that as the Government.”

Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs, and Constitutional Reforms Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe:

“The Ministry of Justice is entrusted with the task of reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Even now, the Office of the Missing Persons is maintained under the Ministry of Justice. We hope to complete all the files here by 31 December of next year (2023). An amount of Rs. 100,000 was offered for each missing person as compensation. We are currently considering the property compensation.

There were nearly 11,000 people who lost their birth certificates and identity cards due to the war in the North. We worked to reorganise them. A number of mediation programmes in the Northern Province were conducted under the Ministry of Justice. We believe that when these issues are resolved, Sri Lankans abroad will be encouraged to invest in Sri Lanka. The truth-seeking commission is currently underway. The South African Government is supporting us in this regard.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe:

“Several issues have been raised about the land in the North. The advisor, the Secretary to the Ministry of Lands, and the Chief of Defence Staff, together with the representatives of the people in those areas, hope to find solutions to these issues. Currently, there has been progress made. As the discussions progress, ideas can be obtained. That is why this conference was called to seek the views of all the parties. I suggest that we agree on a solution to this issue.”

MP C.V. Wigneswaran:

“Looking at this problem from the Tamil people’s perspective, we have three issues. The lands, the missing persons, and the presence of so many troops in these areas. People have problems regarding the acquisition of land to various departments. It should be looked into. That is the first thing that needs to be done. This is the first and the most immediate thing that needs to be done, as far as our people are concerned.

Then secondly, there are legal provisions, which give us certain rights as it is, especially the Provincial Councils. Not having elections with regard to provincial councils in relation to other provinces, is not going to help consequences in those areas, except for the perks the office-bearers will be wanting to have for themselves. But, as far as we are concerned, we need to have the Provincial Councils looking after our interests. The North and East Provincial Council elections should be held as quickly as possible. Already, lots of lands are being taken over, and it’s all being done quite against the law, actually, and there are various cases pending. So, we need to look into the question of land grabbing and all that. Therefore, we need to be clothed with the rights that we already have, and those must be accommodated and those must be brought into effect.

So the first one was with regard to the ground situations or the problems, second one is with regard to the rights we already have which needs to be put into effect, and the third one of course with regard to the Constitution.  As rightly pointed out by Your Excellency (President Wickremesinghe), that part of it comes third, but they have to be simultaneously attended to if we are to keep to the time limit that Your Excellency has given as 4 February next year. But it is not impossible, because we already have sufficient documents, sufficient commission reports that have gone into various matters, and in fact there are various drafts which have been prepared. So we only have to sit down and work out a final outcome in order to see how we could grant rights to those who have been affected by the constitution so far brought in this country.

Lastly let me point out, as far as Northern and Eastern Tamils are concerned, we have a history of over 3,000 years and we have a land of our own, we have the language, culture and even probably the land area is different from the rest of the country. We need to be given that right, because it was only in 1833 the British brought this country together administratively and thereafter, it has been granted, since the time of Independence, on a platter, more or less, to the majority community. Today people of the Northern and Eastern provinces are under the boot of the Army, as well as the majority community in the Northern and Eastern provinces. All these have to be brought to an end and we need to have a constitution which gives us respect, equality, and the desire to go together as one country in the future.

MP Patali Champika Ranawaka:

In the matter of solving the ethnic problem, there is the ability to make decisions as the Executive as well as to make decisions according to both parts of the constitution. The necessary solutions to provide a political solution are decided by the Executive. But in matters related to environment and archeology, the relevant law should be applied.

MP Rauff Hakeem: 

“Mr. President, while welcoming your initiative to call this meeting, we feel that we could address this issue in a very simplified manner, initially at least, by taking a resolution to implement the 13th Amendment in full as an initial stage before affectivities to be done before the 75th Independence Day. We can then work on other Constitutional reforms through a structure that can be created by the all-party conference and also to involve civil society if it is possible. Already people like civil society activist Victor Ivan and others have met us with a structure to look at the issue involving some elements of civil society as well.

While saying that, I will also just add briefly about the grievances of the entire Tamil-speaking population in the North and the East. The day-to-day livelihood issues have been impacted heavily by land grabs, not by the Army alone but through other departments of the State, particularly, the Wildlife, Forest, and the Archeology Departments. There are a variety of issues that simply don’t affect only the Muslim community, but also the Sinhalese community and some other parts of the island as well.

So particularly when you address the issues, these issues have to be brought up and coming back to some other issues pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks. There have been attempts to confiscate some of the religious institutions and properties to the state. Local communities are letting it happen because of the presence of the Police.

We appeal to you to look at a way of resolving it with the local religious leaders in these areas. We know that this aberration with society has been taking place. All of us are willing to work with the state to resolve these issues. To hand back some of the lands, not just the properties owned by Zaharan Hashim and his group, but there are other places of worship too that are confiscated. Please look at those issues as well.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe:  

“If there are any places of worship under threat kindly let us know. I think today we looked at some of the Muslim Organisations and removed the ban on them.”

MP Douglas Devananda:

“I strongly believe that I have the right to talk on behalf of the Tamil community because for more than 45 years I have been involved in that. So I have the right to talk. First, I agree with MP R. Sampanthan until May 87, after that I have a different opinion. Now discussing reconciliation, I want to name it as National Reconciliation. That is when I entered into the political mainstream.

After the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement the Tamil community had enough opportunities. Unfortunately, they have misused that. I have the right to talk about that. So we have to settle these issues with the 13th Amendment. For the last 35 years, we have been advocating to start with a political solution, with the 13th Amendment. First, we start the reconciliation with all communities then we will go further and my colleagues MPs Siddarthan and Selvam Adaikalanathan, were involved from the very beginning of it.

We have discussed with them and they also agreed with this view to start with the 13th Amendment. We don’t want to go for a new Constitution, because if you want to go for a new Constitution, we need a two-thirds majority and referendum. At this juncture, for this country, it is impossible. First we start with the implementation of the 13th Amendment and through that, we can settle all issues. Now Your Excellency has given another golden opportunity to the country and the people, so we have to use that. This is my strong view. Again, I am insisting I have the right to talk about these issues.”

MP Rishad Bathiudeen:

“With the war, our houses have been covered by the jungle. But now our lands have been declared as protected lands by the Wildlife Department. Mr. President, during the war which lasted for 30 years, there were no people in those areas. Hence, these areas were covered by the jungle. Therefore, I urge you to save our lands.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe:

“The Ministry of Lands and the Ministry of Wildlife are working together to provide solutions to that problem. But there should be 32% forests in the landmass of Sri Lanka. Parts outside of that can be found and provided. As we celebrate the 75th Independence Day, we need to move forward as one nation.

The larger community has doubts that there might be another war again. Tamil MPs say they have abandoned the idea of war. That’s why we have to discuss with each other and resolve these issues from one platform.”

MP Gevindu Cumaratunga:

“To solve this problem, the first thing is to be honest. The best example is that the right of law students to study law in their mother tongue is in the process of  being revoked. Can we find solutions in such a situation?”

MP Mano Ganesan:

“We suggest that the Local Government elections should be held soon. Our view is that the powers vested on Provincial Councils should be implemented fully. The reconciliation should commence with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe:

“Are you against solving the issues that we are discussing here before addressing the issue of the 13th Amendment? We agreed in Parliament to find the solutions for these issues first; let’s act accordingly.

In addition, we hope to keep Parliament informed of the transactions that we would do with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. We have to see if all agree with them. If there is an objection, there is an issue, since the WB and the IMF are monitoring the developments here.

We hope to make you aware of the plan that they have presented to us after presenting it before Parliament. In addition we hope to keep Parliament informed of the current situation of the bank network, as well as the debt restructuring.

In addition, we have to inform the Parliament if we are capable of providing the solutions to those issues that we discuss at the All-Party Conference. The All-Party Conference has been called for this purpose.

We can hold a similar conference on economy as well and formulate a national policy on it. MP Patali Champika Ranawaka said that there are some matters that should be addressed with the powers vested in the Executive.  Let’s talk about the 13th Amendment and devolution of power later. Let’s hold the next round of discussions in January next year. We can reach the decision if we would find a solution through the All-Party Conference or not. Let’s discuss the matters pertaining to the economy next February.”

MP M.A. Sumanthiran

“Mr. President may I clarify this – five parties  discussed these issues after your initial invitation was extended to us in Parliament and we identified three areas of concern.

As you rightly said the immediate issues, we focused mainly on the land issues, but certainly the release of prisoners and a mechanism of justice for the disappeared are also crucial. I am glad that you invited both ministers to speak about that. So that needs to be done, and that way, we can immediately start.

Without any major amendments to the provisions in the Constitution, other laws with regard to power sharing must be implemented and Provincial Council elections can be held. For that, you don’t require any other process, only implementations. Now I want to clarify that this can start simultaneously. You don’t have to wait until land issues are resolved to start on the implementation of the law. Both can happen simultaneously.

A new Constitution, or as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said, ‘13+’, can also start simultaneously.

If you start these three mechanisms today as we agreed, the immediate issues, the implementation of laws and how we should proceed could be finalised. When you were the Prime Minister at the last Parliament, we went a long distance to the point of even presenting a draft Constitution in January 2019. How do we finalise that? I believe all of these can happen before the deadline the President himself has set. We can’t pass the Constitution, obviously, but we can agree on what that is.

So if you have three parallel tracks by 31 January we can get to a point of saying yes, we have arrived here, these things have been resolved, we have agreed to hold the elections, implement all the laws and have agreed to the final solutions. Only then, the 75th Independence Day would be what you envisage.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe:

“I would like to point out that what I meant was we start with these three issues and either take up the 13th Amendment today, or if there is no time, when we meet up in January. Not to have a sequence in it, but in discussion we first take these immediate issues up, then go to the 13th Amendment, if we don’t have time today, certainly January,  as I said we can even see day after day and go through it. It is useless putting it off. One way or the other, we either come to an agreement or say we can’t come to an agreement – one of the two – so I can report back to Parliament when we meet after the provision.”

MP M.A. Sumanthiran:

“What I am saying is before 31 January it is possible to do this.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa: 

“The discussion today is of great importance. I am happy that we have a time frame for this programme. Such a programme with an aim is of great benefit to the country. Unity is important for the economic development of a country. The people of different communities are living so equally in the country that we should not use differences such as caste and religion in politics. We have to remove such practices from politics.

Hence we can bring about reconciliation by way of removing such differences, and we have to get rid of racism or we will not be able to create a new world for the future. All should have a feeling that all communities are treated equally and we can solve all these issues by way of a home grown mechanism.  As we have commenced this programme we have to ensure that it  continues. Hence we all have to unite to make this All-Party Conference a success.”

Both the Government and Opposition side members appreciated President Ranil Wickremesinghe for calling an All-Party Conference on Reconciliation.

(President’s Media Division)

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