By way of contrast, the reconciliation process at the present time is a narrower process led by the president with less consultation with other political and civil society actors. This is especially with regard to the issue that has got most prominence in recent times-the 13th Amendment and devolution of powers. It is only the president who is standing tall and making the case for it. Shortly after his election as president by parliament, the president pledged to resolve the protracted ethnic conflict and take the burden off the shoulders of future generations. He also said he would implement the 13th Amendment, which set up provincial councils as a means of inter-ethnic power sharing, and devolve powers in full measure as stated in the constitution. However, the president has been a lone voice in this regard. He has no political party with leaders who have popular support to back him.
The contrast could not be greater than with the peace process of the period 1995-2000 which was led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She had the support of both her party and coalition partners. They stood together as one team and sought to take the message to the people. During that period, more and more people gave their assent to the devolution of powers and even the concept of federalism became more acceptable. However, President Kumaratunga could not succeed.
The president and her government were opposed by a formidable array of opponents in which the LTTE, which was at the height of its military power and almost assassinated her, and the opposition political parties who burnt the draft constitution in parliament. On this occasion, however, there is no such formidable array of oppositional forces to confront President Wickremesinghe in his bid to reconcile the nation.
The president is expected to address parliament later this week to discuss issues pertaining to the 13th Amendment. He has said that parliament needs to make the decisions as constitutional power is to enact laws and to amend them is vested in parliament. The strength of the president with regard to addressing the ethnic conflict is his clarity of vision. He has seen the problem from multiple angles and, therefore, the issues that he will be taking up extend beyond the 13th Amendment and the devolution of powers to a truth-seeking mechanism, release of LTTE prisoners and those alleged to have been associated in their activities and the establishment of a land commission, among others. These are all necessary parts of both a political solution to the ethnic conflict as well as healing the wounds of the past. What the government will be proposing is an improvement over the past. The most positive aspect of them will be the president’s commitment to taking the process forward.
At this time, it appears that the development of the core ideas of the president’s proposals are by the president and his core team of advisors. The process of development of the reconciliation plan has not been open or transparent one. The notion that the 13th Amendment can be implemented in full, but not the police powers, is not a position taken on by any political party or civil society organsation. It seems to be the president’s own thinking and that of his team members who remain in the background. Similarly, the truth-seeking mechanism with its unique structure of an interim secretariat, is also not an outcome of inclusive or transparent discussions with other stakeholders, be they the political parties, victims’ groups or human rights watchdog organisations.
In the draft legislation that has emerged, the truth-seeking mechanism has been given a timeframe from 24 July 1983 to 18 May 2009. The beginning day is, curiously, the day after the anti-Tamil riots of Black July commenced. The end date is likewise curious. It is the date that the guns fell silent on the battlefields of war. The choice of these two dates will give rise to speculation as to why they were selected and what they leave out. This would be especially true of the end date which leaves out the enforced disappearances that took place for a considerable period of time after the guns fell silent on the battlefield, and during which time many LTTE cadres were surrendered by their families never to be seen again.
In these circumstances, the proposals put forward by the government will need to be considered as proposals only, and not as final agreements to be enacted into law. They will need to be discussed, negotiated and amended. The president’s thinking that the 13th Amendment can be implemented in full as per the constitution, but without the grant of police powers could be like sitting between two stools. It will incur the concerns of the majority Sinhalese population and polity regarding the other areas of controversy, such as land powers, but would not appeal to the Tamil population and polity on the grounds that police powers are not being devolved. The concern that the devolution of police powers would give the chief ministers of the province the right to abuse the police is not correct. The provincial police will be under the total control of the central government and its agencies, such as the National Police Commission.
Indeed, false propaganda about police powers is rife and the government would do well to launch a massive education programme prior to implementing the 13th Amendment in full. With regard to the truth-seeking mechanism, the government has held two discussion sessions with the participation of 60 to 200 persons at a time. Apart from this it has also held informal discussions with small groups of civil society leaders. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry has spent an hour or two at such meetings describing what the government plans to do and taking questions from the audience. These meetings cannot be described as consultations or negotiations, but would be more akin to debriefing sessions by government members about the progressive steps they are planning to take. But even this needs to be appreciated as no one apart from the president in the government or opposition appears willing to think about a solution to the ethnic conflict or propose a way to solve it.
It is therefore important that the president and the government be given a chance to solve the national problem that has defied the attempts of other government leaders to solve it, beginning with SWRD Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake. The current government should not rush through the process of consultations and negotiations and set up the new mechanisms. There needs to be more intense consultations to get things right. On the occasions that Foreign Minister Ali Sabry has engaged with civil society groups he has stated that the government wants to get things right this time. Getting it right means having in-depth consultations with the relevant parties, including the political parties, civil society and the academic community and, in particular, getting the agreement of the elected representatives of the Tamil people who have been steadfast in their demand for justice and accountability.