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APRC on track, solution based on unitary state: Prof.Tissa Vitarana

The All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) deliberations are continuing and agreement has been reached among the 14 parties in the process on 90 percent of the substance in an emerging consensual agreement on power devolution within a unitary state framework, APRC chief and Science and Technology Minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana said. However, he cautioned that the country should await the outcome of the discussions with ‘patience’ and said that no specific time frame could be given for concluding the APRC process.

Fresh after a visit to Northern Ireland, where the APRC members studied the region’s power devolution exercise, Vitarana told this writer in an interview on April 24 that some of the observations made by the parties to the Northern Ireland conflict were most appropriate for Sri Lanka too. ‘Keep on talking…..have patience, patience, and more patience’. He also said that there was an urgent need for the SLFP, the UNP and other important political parties to co-operate with the APRC process.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: Is the APRC process still on; how far has it progressed in finding a solution based on extensive devolution?

A: In fact, the APRC met this week as well, on Monday, and we have had extensive discussions on our recent visit to Britain, Northern Ireland in particular, and with the various views expressed it was decided that we should produce a common document regarding our study of what is happening in Britain and specially with regard to the devolutionary process there and the way it has contributed towards stopping the divisive tendencies and brought a settlement to the prolonged struggle which has been going on in Northern Ireland, for them to separate from Britain. Besides that we had extensive discussions on the problems of the Tamil people of Indian origin. So our discussions are going on. On our main document, we have reached agreement on perhaps 90 percent of the substance. About 10 percent is outstanding, and these we are taking up one by one and are trying to arrive at common positions. These processes cannot be carried out according to a time table. We have allowed the discussions to go on freely and 14 parties are involved in them and we have been looking at problems from different points of view. Trying to reconcile them and arriving at a common position is no easy task and I think the country has to be patient. The message which those politicians involved in the Northern Ireland peace process constantly conveyed to us when we met them was:" Keep on talking….and have patience, patience and more patience". For, it is only in that way that you can work out a political solution, and that is what we are trying to do.

Q: What insights of relevance to Sri Lanka do you bring from Northern Ireland?

A: One of the biggest issues in Sri Lanka is that the minority parties are doubtful whether within a unitary state it is possible to get adequate devolution of power and even if adequate power is devolved, whether it would not be withdrawn by the central government, as a unitary constitution permits it. It was therefore very interesting to see how Britain, which has a unitary governmental system, was able to tackle the problem of the Northern Ireland separatist movement. The IRA and the LTTE are considered two of the most violent militant groups. But the fact is that today, the Sinn Fein and the IRA have got into the democratic stream. Initially, when the Good Friday agreement was signed 10 years ago it was the non-militant groups from both sides which formed the government from both the Catholic and Protestant sides. But today, the present government has brought together the two extremes, the Ulster Unionist Party of Rev. Paisley and the Sinn Fein and the IRA. It was very interesting because we met the leaders of all these political parties. The two Chief Ministers are supported by two Deputy Ministers who are drawn from these two political parties and it was interesting to see how when we put questions to them they supported each other. From a position where they were killing each other today they have reached a position where they are supporting each other in government. The fact is that this is possible within a unitary state. Britain also has the disadvantage in a way, that it does not have a written constitution so that the constitutional safeguards are not available. All that has been done is to have a Northern Ireland Act, which has been passed in the British Parliament at Westminster and this Act the British government could always change by a simple majority. But it is because the two major parties which form governments in Britain, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, have an agreed position on Northern Ireland that stability is possible. These political parties have supported each other in working out a solution. Because of this consensus there is a sense of confidence that the conditions of the Act wouldn’t change even if there is a change of government and the Conservatives take office.

I think this is the lesson that we have to learn. If Sri Lanka’s two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, become parties to the APRC process, and if through that we work out a common set of proposals, then the Tamil speaking people-the Tamils and the Muslims-will have the confidence that whichever party that comes to power would honour the agreement. This is what I hope the APRC would be able to achieve.

Q: The impression that I get is that the government is opting for a unitary state-based solution. Is that correct?

A: Well, actually that is the position because the SLFP, JHU and the MEP are insisting that we have a unitary state. Outside the APRC process the JVP is also insisting on that. Therefore, we have to accept that reality. Deciding the nature of the state on the basis of the ‘unitary’ , ‘federal’ labeling is not relevant today. In fact, several constitutions, including the Indian one, do not describe themselves as ‘unitary ‘ or ‘federal’. So, it is quite unnecessary. We must work out a system of government which is suitable to our conditions and helps solve our problems. What we saw in Britain shows very clearly that as intractable a problem as we are having with regard to the National Question, the Northern Ireland religious division has been solved within a unitary framework and without the benefit of a written constitution. So, I think we should gain strength from that and be able to press forward towards working out a solution, taking into consideration all the thinking of large sections of our people.

Q: Will the emerging division within the JVP, with Wimal Weerawansa leading a breakaway dissident group to back the government, have an impact on the APRC process?

A: Well, it is difficult to say at this juncture. It is very clear that there is a deep-going political division within the JVP. All indications are that the Weerawansa faction would break away and set up as a separate group. What stand they would take in relation to the government is uncertain. It may well be that they may support the government and enable it to get a stable majority in Parliament. One fact that many people ignore is that we are trying to work out a political solution through a minority government, a government which doesn’t enjoy a stable majority in Parliament.

We must remember that when the 13th amendment was formulated in 1987, by the J.R. Jayewardene government, they had a five sixth majority in Parliament and despite that when there was pressure from Sinhala-Buddhist interests from the South, President J.R. gave in and did not go ahead with the implementation. So here we are trying to take this process forward with a minority government and the fact that we are having a President who at that time was opposed to this process of the 13th amendment , now agreeing to have also the 13th amendment implemented, is a big step forward. So, we have to understand these difficulties and in this context getting a stable government might strengthen the hand of the President to take the process forward. On the other hand, we know that the Weerawansa faction is part of the Patriotic Front which is opposed to any kind of devolution. So, if they start laying down conditions on those lines it may make the process even more difficult. These are imponderables and we have to see how the situation evolves.

Q: How do you intend going ahead with a political solution based on devolution, when government policy seems to be to end the conflict through war?

A: I don’t agree with you because government policy is not to end the conflict through war, because the President and all the political parties which belong to the government are aware that this is a political problem, and a longstanding political problem which needs a political solution. The reality is that the President made every effort, as indicated to us when we had initial discussions at the time he wanted our support for his election as President, that he would definitely call the LTTE for talks and take the peace process forward. He definitely tried to achieve that. It is the LTTE which closed the door and provoked the government by acts of violence and ultimately the conflict escalated. Now it has come to a position where the President is clearly saying , well, if you are not prepared to follow the road of peaceful dialogue and resorting to violence then we also have no option but as a government to take countermeasures. This is what is happening. We have to learn a lesson from the experience of Indonesia, in relation to the Aceh separatist movement. There were three ceasefires. During all those ceasefires, Aceh rebels strengthened themselves militarily and when the Indonesian government realized this what they did was to have secret talks with the leaders of the rebellion and only when they arrived at a satisfactory agreement with regard to the core issues, that they had open talks. But during that entire period the Indonesian army kept on attacking the rebels and weakening them, so that ultimately their strength was reduced to one third of their former capability.

It was from such a position that the Aceh rebels were forced to come into talks and when the Indonesian government made the offers which were more than acceptable to the people of Aceh, then the rebels gave up arms and came to the democratic stream. I think here the military situation is what the LTTE has brought on itself and it may well be that it is through the weakening of the LTTE militarily that ultimately we would come into serious peace talks.

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