Exits emergency, enters PSC

Whatever be the reasons behind the near-simultaneous withdrawal of emergency and the creation of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) for finding an all-party solution to the ‘national question’, they should be welcome. Taken to the logical conclusion, the former could be a precursor to the beginning of the end to the ethnic tensions in the nation, and the latter the beginning of a fresh beginning, for leaving the past behind.

More may need to be done on both counts. UNP Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe, unhesitatingly welcomed the withdrawal of the emergency when President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the Government’s decision in the House. He qualified it with a demand for a further easing of war-time application of legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

The TNA, among others, should adopt such a positive approach to the Government’s initiatives of the kind. A positive wordage of their perceptive position may not hurt. Their reaction implying that it’s all ‘too little, too late’ too does not serve any purpose. Post-war, the TNA has changed its strategy in dealing with the Government. It has to change its tact and tactics, to become even more acceptable. Past experience could be a leading light but should not be a baggage to view every step of every government, this one and later, with suspicion and mistrust.

The PSC is a different issue. The terms of reference is said to be too broad to comfort the TNA, yet it does not mean their concerns would not be addressed. The Government should confer greater credibility on post-war efforts aimed at rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation. It would not hurt to be circumspect and gracious at the same time.

Confusion still remains also about the stalled talks between the Government and the TNA. This apart, the two sides should bestow greater clarity on establishing linkages between the talks on the one hand and the PSC on the other. Procedural clarifications by the PSC, when it commences work, could also help.

Post-war, the PSC would be the first national institution of the kind to focus on power-devolution and a larger political solution. In comparison, even the APRC was a creature of the war era. That does not mean that the APRC was wrong, or its report could be among the basic documents for the PSC to refer to.

It is all a part of the national reconciliation process, and Parliament as an institution under the Constitution has as much responsibility as the Executive and the polity. That way, the PSC is not only about addressing the concerns of the Tamil community. It is about power devolution to the Provinces. In the coming years and decades after the ethnic war, the issues and questions would become as relevant to the rest of the country as to the Tamil areas.

The Sri Lankan State and the constitutional institutions created for its care and guardianship should give up the past habit of contributing to the fire, then end up fighting that fire. It did not help the majority Sinhala community in the past. It will not do so in the future. The post-war preventive measures have to be constitutional measures aimed at greater institutionalisation of democracy and pluralism in the country. Pluralism here does not stop with ethnicity, either. 

Militarist efforts at enforcing discipline in a people comforted by democracy for centuries would be transient and counter-productive, over time. The past is proof to the future in this case. The Tamils created the LTTE, but the militant form of JVP was not their creature.

It can begin, here and now. The TNA, among others, have sought greater relaxation of the emergency-like situation, with the withdrawal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the surrender of lands occupied for the purposes of the armed forces. Both could be done in phases but a beginning has to be made.

It could well start with the de-linking of the Police administration from the Defence Ministry. Bringing the Police under the control of the Defence Ministry was among the early orders passed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa after coming to power in 2005.

It had remained so for most parts of the war era, even before President Rajapaksa. Delinking the civilian Police under a civilian ministry could now be among the early orders (after the withdrawal of the emergency) that he could pass to further herald the return and permanency of post-war normalcy in the country as a whole.

This in turn could set the tone for the national discourse that the PSC should be engaging in.

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