Beside and Beyond the PSC Proposal

As was only to be expected, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has clarified that the proposal to set up a Parliament Select Committee (PSC) to negotiate a political solution and power-devolution package to the unending ethnic issue was not a diversionary tacti. If so, the Government will need to do more. If not, the Government will be deemed to have slipped into a denial mode. The consequences in the latter case would be undeniable.

There is justification in the Government’s argument that Parliament being the final arbiter of law and constitutional amendments at birth, a PSC would be the next natural course. The first question would have been if a PSC would be picking up the issues to be addressed out of a hat, or would be drafting legal and constitutional amendments in vacuum.

Petroleum Industries Minister Sushil Premajayantha has since answered this part by clarifying that the Government would send its proposals to the PSC, when constituted. The question is whether such a document would be majority-driven within the Government, or whether it would be driven by ‘the majority’ in the Government.

Even at this stage, the Government can adapt the Tissa Vitharana Report of the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) as its own. If political representation is the key, then the report has had its way. Even the UNP Opposition that boycotted the APRC for most parts did not seem to have any reservations. What more, the recommendations also addressed the basic concern of ‘Sinhala nationalists’, by sticking to the ‘unitary State model’.

The TNA and or other stake-holders, including possibly the Muslims and the JHU, may have other drafts.  Others may have fresh ideas. The PSC can then work on them, along with the Government proposals. But a time-limit will be required, if a committee of this kind were to produce results.

Nor can the evolving dynamics of the post-war situation be used to argue out what had been offered the previous day. There is thus a need to acknowledge that the post-war political dynamism needs to be retained. Fresh ideas and solutions to specifics should be considered at every turn. A political solution to a 30-year war with its independent consequences could not be – and should not be – found overnight. Some issues would come to pass — others would persist, as they have done from the past. Their priority and longevity should not be confused.

At the commencement of the current negotiations with the TNA on power-devolution, President Rajapaksa nominated former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, a perceived hard-liner, as the head of the Government delegation. He has since been replaced as a member of the Government team by Parliament member, Rajiva Wijesinha, an acknowledged Liberal.

The UNP Opposition, as always, has promised its support for any solution that the Government and the Tamils would arrive at. In the past, if not under the incumbent President, the party had found reasons not to back a power-devolution package. Rather than isolating specifics on power-devolution that it could have put to vote from the Chandrika-II package, party members burnt the whole Bill in Parliament.

The JHU is a partner in the Government. It wants a political solution but does not want power-devolution. The party continues to say that the Tamils in the post-LTTE Sri Lanka have no complaints. It says the TNA continues to be a ‘proxy LTTE’.

The JHU refuses to hear the repeated Government assertion that the TNA was not the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil-speaking people. It is also true that the Tamils in the North continue to favour the TNA in elections. The JHU does not want to read the writing on the wall.

The JVP Opposition wants a political solution to the ethnic issue. Its leaders have been making a beeline to the war-ravaged Tamil North over the past months. Yet, it wants to stay away from a PSC, as and when constituted. The last time round, the party had stayed away from the APRC. The JVP seems wanting power to scuttle results without responsibility to producing any.

Sections within have said that the TNA would stay out of a PSC, if formed. The Government had kept the TNA out of the APRC, saying that it would be the party to negotiate a ‘Sinhala-majority consensus’, when arrived at. Post-war, the TNA should see the PSC as an opportunity, not a digression or denial.

The TNA cannot underpin its current apprehensions with an underlying proposition hinging on ‘sole representative’ status. Many others in Sri Lanka, and not just the Sinhala polity, share the JHU apprehensions in this regard.

The TNA needs to prove otherwise, going beyond electoral gains in the North. The truth lies somewhere between the TNA’s political majority within the Tamil community and the sentiments of the majority community. A right balance need to be struck. Until recently, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a post-poll partner in the Government, had been saying that it would talk to the TNA, on the demands of the community. Today, they want a third seat in the Government-sponsored negotiations, a demand they had made when the LTTE was around.

The TNA should have no hesitation in acknowledging that the problems of, and solutions to the Upcountry Tamils, are different. At the end of the day, Sri Lanka needs to address ethnic and socio-economic issues wholesale, for the moment, providing cushionfor future changes in approach and amendments to the law and Constitution, as and when required. The Tissa Vitharana Report addressed most of them.

Not being a party to the APRC recommendations, the UNP, JVP and the TNA – and not necessarily in that order – would get an opportunity to give their opinion in the PSC, if it is made a basic document for negotiations. The Government can also report to the PSC the progress made, or not made, in the on-going negotiations.

The Government has two-thirds numbers for passing constitutional amendments. It will require adjustments, either to the political package that would need voting. Or, it would have to make political adjustments for piloting an acceptable solution through Parliament and possibly in a people’s referendum, too. That requires imagination and initiative. The results would be worth it – for the nation, the people, the polity and the personalities involved. The TNA too should realise the same.

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