The ‘plus’ in ’13-plus’ – That is the issue By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Sunday Times-16/01/2011

 

What is the “plus” in the “13–plus?” This is the question to which President Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks an answer in his discussions with the Tamil National Alliance, he says. “That’s what I want to find out!” He had just been asked by reporters what his starting point was with regard to a political solution to the ethnic issue, to which he had responded “As I have always said, it’s 13-plus.” He was referring to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution relating to devolution of powers to the Provinces.

The president was hosting a group of around 20 foreign correspondents to a New Year breakfast at Temple Trees on Friday. Also seated at the table was the president’s brother Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, along with Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. After sharing a sumptuous buffet with the journalists the president engaged in a one-on-one question and answer session with them.

He was categorical in his assertion that there will be no devolution to the provinces of police powers or powers to receive foreign direct investment. With regard to the police powers he made reference to difficulties encountered in India where such powers were devolved to the states. Foreign direct investment, he indicated, would have to be channelled through the central government.

Questioned as to what the TNA had asked for in its discussions with the government thus far, Rajapaksa said he was “not giving what Prabhakaran wanted,” adding that ”in bargaining too, there is a limit.” As for a time frame for the political solution the president said it was up to the TNA to decide on it. “There has to be a consensus – otherwise why would I discuss …?

I would always prefer to share power at the centre.” He had asked the TNA representatives to hold discussions amongst themselves and suggest a solution. He would then put it to the political parties in the South. Responding to a doubt expressed as to whether the southern politicians will agree he said “They know I will not sell the country. The Southern political parties are not narrow-minded.”

Last year the government launched a process of dialogue with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance, being the largest political party in parliament representing Sri Lanka’s Tamils. This was with a view to negotiating a long awaited ‘political solution’ to Tamil issues. The TNA fared well in the general elections of April 2010 having won 14 seats in the 225-member legislature. During the years of conflict the party lost credibility for having acted as proxy to the Tamil Tigers, who are widely believed to have rigged the 2004 elections to ensure their ‘agents’ in the TNA got into parliament. The 2010 general election was the first in three decades where Tamil voters in the North and East were not under the LTTE jackboot. The TNA lost one parliamentary seat in September 2010, reducing its numbers to 13, when its only Sinhala representative M.P. Piyasena (Amparai District) crossed over to the government during the vote on the 18th Amendment.

In the government-TNA talks so far, both sides appear to have maintained a low profile with regard to their deliberations. The process started with one-on-one talks between president Rajapaksa and the veteran politician, TNA leader R. Sampanthan. It is possible that this low level of visibility has been maintained so as not to create too much speculation too soon, since that could be counter-productive. A joint committee has been set up to look into issues relating to both a political solution and the reconstruction and resettlement process in the North and East. It includes on the government side, Ministers Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Nimal Siripala de Silva and G.L. Peiris, with the TNA represented by MPs R. Sampanthan, Mavai Senathirajah, Suresh Premachandran, M. Sumanthiran, S. Adikalanathan and President’s Counsel Kanag Easwaran. Sampanthan has been away from the discussions of late owing to health reasons.

Meanwhile in parallel development towards the end of last year the other Tamil political parties that had hitherto been highly fragmented, closed ranks to form the Tamil Political Parties Forum. This in itself is seen as a significant advance that was unthinkable while the LTTE was around. In what is seen as a groundbreaking move, the TPPF has now joined forces with the TNA with a view to arriving at a joint platform with regard to a political solution, as well as resettlement issues. It has been reported that a joint committee made up of representatives of the two groups held its first round of discussions earlier this week.

It is worth noting that the TPPF includes independent Tamil political parties as well as those that are part of the UPFA government, such as the EPDP led by Traditional Industries Minister Douglas Devananda, and the TMVP led by Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan. Most Tamil political parties have lost members to LTTE terror during the past three decades. Devananda escaped eleven attempts on his life. Veteran politician V. Anandasangaree, leader of the TULF was an outspoken critic of the LTTE and high on their hit list. Being former MP for Kilinochchi he well knows the reality of the LTTE’s oppression of Tamil people in the North. During the years of conflict he wrote many an ‘open letter’ published in the papers appealing to Prabhakaran to mend his ways. S. Chandrahasan chairs a civil society group involved in refugee resettlement work. Other members of the TPPF are PLOTE, EPRLF, TNLA, Sri-TELO, and DPF. In November last year representatives of the TPPF had a meeting with president Rajapaksa (independent of the TNA).

The convergence of disparate Tamil political groups in a bid to arrive at a common standpoint in resolving the grievances of the Tamils could be seen as one of the most positive post war developments in Sri Lanka - an unexpected dividend of the LTTE’s defeat. With these groups now talking to the TNA, and the TNA engaging in talks with the government, it would appear that negotiating a solution now requires steadfast political will on all sides. President Rajapaksa’s biggest asset in this process would seem to be the overwhelming electoral mandate he enjoys, along with the confidence of the southern polity which, in his own words, knows “he will not sell the country.”