Deadlocked talks and after…

It should not surprise anyone that the talks between the Government and the TNA are deadlocked on basic issues, where the ethnic issues began taking a political turn decades ago. Where progress had been made, it was about the very process of negotiations on this score, post-war, and the political message emanating from the local-government polls only weeks earlier.

In a way, the TNA is justified in seeking clarity on the Government’s thinking on devolution-related issues. The Government too is justified in arguing that all matters could not be decided across the table, with the TNA as the only participant. There are other stake-holders in the country whose views, if not concurrence needed to be obtained. Yet, the post facto claim that the talks were between the SLFP leader of the ruling UPFA and the TNA would not wash.

Yet, there is enough cause for concern if one studied the TNA’s conditions for returning to the negotiation table. Even while swearing by the concept of power-devolution within a united nation, the TNA has now sought clarification on the ‘unit of devolution’. It should read as their demand for ‘federalism’, which successive Governments, under different political combinations had rejected. The TNA alone was an outsider to those governments.

The TNA’s demand for similar clarity on the division of powers between the Centre and the Provinces are more focused and meaningful. Their demand for clarity on the fiscal powers of the Provinces should be treated as an extension of the former. Yet, greater amplification of the same by the TNA implies that they are hopeful of direct acceptance of external aid and investments to the Province(s), over the head of the Colombo dispensation.

The world over, provincial administrations have powers for entering into fiscal arrangements with third parties, whether with Governments or individuals or UN entities. Where it involves credit, sovereign guarantee from the Central Government is often a pre-requisite. No Province within a ‘united Sri Lanka’ by TNA’s commitment could be sovereign. ‘Sovereign guarantee’ could thus come only from the Central Government.

Where the issue concerns overseas aid, there again, a supervisory mechanism could still be put in place by the Centre. Independent of the immediate concerns of the Sri Lankan State, aid and investment would come only where there is a need and opportunity. Tsunami aid that flooded all across the coast of the island-nation did not touch the hinterland. Yet, if the TNA’s hopes are for the Diaspora Tamils to invest in the Tamil areas in a big way, it could well be a far cry.

It is possible that the Colombo dispensation apprehends stacked-away LTTE funds flowing into the country for financing another round of insurgency (possibly minus the terrorist link). A Government and nation that have won the war should look at the future with an air of confidence, not suspicion. There are enough laws to regulate funds-flow. If it involved illegal money-flow, a constitutional sanction for legitimising the same would still keep it under State scrutiny, as much as possible.

The rest relates mostly to Police and Land powers. The Government needs to accept that no stake-holder in TNA’s place could accept any negotiated settlement that does not confer Police and Land powers on the Provinces. Independence of the relevance of the solution to the original issues involved on these scores, the two issues have become political. The solution too has to be political.

The Government has often referred to instances in neighbouring India, on the arrest of political adversaries from the federal government by provincial administrations, to deny Sri Lankan Provinces Police powers. It has also referred at times to the communication gap between the Centre and the State in the deployment of security personnel in the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai serial blasts. They would not wash as communication gaps and failures in the decision-making apparatus are not unknown to the ‘unitary State’ of affairs.

If someone could go to India for citing precedents in this regard, they could also go to that country to examine the options available on the devolution of Police powers. The TNA too should look at these options, to see if these were the solutions that they needed for problems that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka faced on this score. A middle-point would suggest itself, and both should inch towards that common goal.

It is possible that elements in the Sri Lankan State apparatus could apprehend a return of LTTE-type of militancy if the Provinces were to be conferred Police powers at this stage. With the cache of LTTE arms being dug out every now and again even two years after the conclusion of the war, there are enough sophisticated arms that could be available to any future insurgent group – Tamil or Sinhala – within the country. No one is looking around for the Sri Lankan State to arm them to the teeth, any more.

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