Devolution after the LTTE

In this interview, Professor Tissa Vitarana, Minister of Science and Technology and Chairman of the All Party Representatives Committee, speaks to C. A. Chandraprema on the deliberations of the APRC the in the post-LTTE era.

Q. What further progress have you made with regard to the deliberations of the APRC after that interim report which recommended that the 13th amendment be implemented in full?

A. Actually, there is now a main set of proposals, which is not based on the 13th amendment. We have drawn up a clear cut set of powers for the centre and the provinces. The concurrent list has been dropped altogether, so that there is a clear separation of powers between the centre and the provinces.

Q. Does the fact that the LTTE is now on the wane, change the entire situation in the APRC?

A. As far as we were concerned, the effort was to arrive at a consensus with regard to the resolution of the national question among the political parties represented in parliament. The president wanted to make use of our report as the basis for discussions with the LTTE. But the way things are shaping out, it would appear that talks with the LTTE are not on. In this context, we have to try to get the Tamil representatives’ input into the APRC process. What I am trying to do is to draw the UNP into the process once again, after the proposals are accepted by the parties participating in the process. Once the UNP input is there, the TNA also can be asked to come back into the process. We made that request once, but they turned it down. With the LTTE out of the picture, the TNA will have to take over the task of espousing the Tamil cause. Once the UNP comes back, there will be pressure on the TNA also to come in.

Q. If we characterize the entire devolution debate over the past two decades and more as a case of trying to accommodate ourselves to the LTTE’s demands, how would you react to that?

A. All I can say is that as far as the APRC is concerned, we were not considering the LTTE’s demands at all. We were considering the views of the different political parties, including parties like the TMVP. The parties representing the up-country Tamils have made their inputs into this process. The Muslim parties have also made their inputs. Our deliberations are based purely on their inputs. The LTTE line of a separate state has not been taken into consideration at all.

Q. What I meant was, that if you take the early 1980s, the TULF accepted the District Development Councils, but that was torpedoed by extremists including the LTTE. Then in 1987, everyone accepted the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, Prabhakaran signed it, and then it was torpedoed by the LTTE. That is what I meant by the devolution debate being driven by extremist demands.

A. I don’t deny that this has been a factor. But in the present context, we should look at meeting the real interests of the Tamil people. I think that should be the focus in working out a solution.

Q. For argument’s sake, if we say that the last representatives who were duly elected by the Tamil people in a free and fair election - the TULF of 1977 – accepted the District Development Councils. In the minds of those representatives, that was satisfactory.

A. All I can say is that I have been in touch with Mr. Anandasangaree who is in my view, the president of the TULF, and he has said that he is prepared to accept the province as the unit of devolution, and I am happy to say that the APRC has also accepted the province as the unit of devolution. So that should not be an issue.

Q. If we go on the premise that this whole devolution debate has been driven by extremist demands, ie. we have been discussing devolution with a gun held to our heads – if you don’t devolve more powers, we are not going to be satisfied kind of thing - shouldn’t it be the case now that the whole debate should be re-thought afresh? India devolved power without a gun held to her head and that is why it succeeded. But in this country, we have been desperately trying to devolve due to pressure.

A. In the present situation, as far as the discussions in the APRC are concerned, there has been no sense of pressure and through our discussions, we have now reached a consensus. So why not accept what has been achieved through the APRC process?

Q. I happened to bump into (TNA parliamentarian), Suresh Premachandran soon after you put out the draft proposals and he rejected it outright. Others in the gathering then tried to pacify him saying that this was only a ‘starting point’. You were trying to end something, but to others, it was only a starting point. This has been the problem with this whole devolution debate.

A. Certainly, their requirements are beyond what many other political parties are willing to give. Let them ask for what they want. That’s a different matter. Now with the defeat of the LTTE, there is a change in the balance of forces and they would perhaps be more amenable to free discussion without undue pressure.

Q. With the defeat of the LTTE now imminent, do you get the impression that there is now a different kind of pressure building up where the majority community would try to say that we should not devolve any powers at all?

A. There are extreme points of view on both sides. We have to give greater weightage to the views of the majority. In today’s ‘Daily Mirror’ there is mention of an opinion poll where two thirds of those polled are for a political solution. I think that is what we need to build on, rather than giving extra weightage to extreme positions.

Q. Coming back to that question of the District Development Councils, I would feel that now that this gun has been removed from our heads, this entire devolution thing has to be re-discussed.

A. I disagree with you on that point very strongly. The discussions have already taken place very freely. The SLFP itself proposed that the district should be the unit of devolution in the discussions that we had and gradually, they came around to accepting the province as the unit of devolution. So I don’t think we need to go back to that position at all.

Q. What about the rationale behind it? If you take the Muslims in the Digamadulla district, the Tamils in the Nuwara Eliya district – they would be getting somewhere if the DDCs were reintroduced.

A. In the APRC, we are trying to avoid having territories carved out on the basis of a race or a religion or any factors like that. Once you start that process, you let lose fissiparous tendencies and ultimately, you’ll find the Catholics asking for something in the western province and some will raise caste issues. So, we can’t start that process.

Q. One final question. Since you are a member of the LSSP, when it comes to constitution making, Rohan Edirisinghe said in a recent interview with this newspaper that the 1972 constitution, was the worst constitution of all, and the only reason why we are discussing the defects of the 1978 constitution is because it has been in effect longer. How would you react to the criticism that the 1972 constitution, which was a brainchild of your late leader Colvin R. de Silva, is the cause of all this mayhem that you are now trying to unravel?

A. People don’t realize that these are processes in which the balance of forces is the determinant of the outcome. At that time the main issue before the country was severing the umbilical cord which tied us to British imperialism and priority was given to achieving that. The LSSP was a minority party in an alliance. When initial discussions took place with regard to what we wanted, the LSSP expressed its views. We stood for making Sinhala and Tamil official languages. But the SLFP was not prepared to accept that. Colvin very clearly said; "this is not my constitution. This is not an LSSP constitution. This is the constitution of the various forces that are represented in that parliament." Any reasonable person will realise that and not try to say this is an LSSP constitution, because the LSSP stands for a completely socialist society. Here in a capitalist society, the different forces have to be balanced and depending on the consensus that is reached, we have to come out with a document which will take the country forward. And that is precisely what was done. People like Rohan Eidirisinghe, for whom I have respect, come long after that era. I don’t think they were mature enough to understand what was going on. In retrospect, it would be very easy to make criticisms, without understanding the context of that time.

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