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Reconciliation needs more time, president opines

2013 Jul 09

It may appear as if there is confusion in the ranks of the government regarding the controversial 13th Amendment to the Constitution: some oppose it, others wish to retain it, some want more powers added to it, and others want its powers curtailed.
This week, however, there were indications as to which option the government would take. It came from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He said that Sri Lanka ‘should not listen to India’ in evolving a solution to its reconciliation issues.

India has been wanting to impose its will on Sri Lanka in the reconciliation process and calling for ‘thirteen plus’, granting devolution of power that is greater than that envisaged in the 13th Amendment which was brought about following the Indo-Lanka Accord. Also this week President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while visiting the Seychelles, noted that the country required more “time, space and encouragement” to take forward its reconciliation process in a reference to the ‘deadlines’ that he was being subjected to by the international community.

One such ‘deadline’ was the demand by India to conduct elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that Sri Lanka is hosting. India reportedly made this a condition for its support for Colombo to host the summit.

There are sections of the international community demanding swift action from the Sri Lankan government on reconciliation. To some extent the government is also culpable, not having acted with a sense of urgency over the last four years since the end of the Eelam war.

These include India, the United States, Britain and the European Union, Canada and the United Nations, especially the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, that should not mean Sri Lanka should rush in to a hastily formulated, ill-conceived ‘solution’.
If any evidence is needed to support this argument, the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 is the best example. The Accord was forced upon President J. R. Jayewardene by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, when the Sri Lankan military was dominating the Eelam war.

India believed it would ‘work’. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were not enamored by it and refused to hand in their arms. The conflict continued. The provincial councils it created were a white elephant that added another tier of politicians at a cost to the public. Twenty-five years later, there is nothing to suggest that the provincial councils have spurred development by allowing different regions to make decisions on their own. Instead, they have been a convenient dumping ground for political parties and a gateway for political misfits.

At present, there is controversy about the Thirteenth Amendment. Ministers are threatening to resign over it; others want it repealed. There are protest marches and signature campaigns. All these discussions have been within the parameters of a mature democracy.

Considering the diverse opinions with regard to the 13th Amendment, the best way forward appears to be a forum where all shades of opinions are canvassed. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that has been proposed is a reasonable option.
Unfortunately, most of the opposition including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has refused to participate in the PSC. Instead, the TNA has been running to New Delhi for comfort saying it cannot participate in a PSC dominated by the ruling party. It is even considering boycotting the NPC polls.

This is not the way forward. For years, the TNA did not have a political mind of its own. It was merely a mouthpiece for the LTTE in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Whether they acted in that manner out of fear or fervor is irrelevant. What the TNA - and the opposition political parties such as the United National Party - must realize is that whatever solution Sri Lanka accepts, it is what the nation must live with, implement and bear the consequences of, in the coming decades. Is a solution conceived overseas the best in such a scenario?

There are powers which the proponents of devolution are demanding - such as the right to merge provinces - which exceed those granted to states in India which is ridiculous. Besides, India is a virtual subcontinent; Sri Lanka is a tiny island with a fraction of its land and population. It is best that the government adopts a ‘homegrown’ approach to this issue. This government has many faults, a culture of impunity and some autocratic tendencies being among them. However, they can never be accused of pandering to foreign interests in the way the Opposition does.

The task ahead for President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not easy. Yet, if politics is the art of the possible, he is an extremely gifted artist. The picture of reconciliation that he paints must not be for the gaze of the foreign connoisseurs, but be acceptable in the eyes of the average citizen of Sri Lanka.

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