Tamil Talks Doomed To Fail From The Start?
Posted on December 2nd, 2022

By Sathiya Moorthy Courtesy Ceylon Today

Revisiting his proposal to hold power-devolution talks with the Tamil parties after the conclusion of budgetary processes in Parliament in the first half of December, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has since advised/appealed to them, ‘not to place hurdles’ before even meeting them once. Else, they might end up regretting once again that they had ‘’missed one more opportunity’’, he has said.

Given his vast and varied experience as a parliamentarian for 45 years and association with the Tamil political leaders, especially those from the TNA, Wickremesinghe was obviously referring to the TNA’s pre-conditions for negotiations. Meeting in Colombo, the three-party TNA, along with a couple of erstwhile partners from the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community, has said, they would participate in the talks only if the government promised ‘federalism’ in the place of the present unitary Constitution, and, also re-merger of the North and East. This is precisely what Ranil has since clarified that they would have to refrain from.

‘13-Plus’

Ranil made the original offer to hold talks with the Tamil parties while addressing Parliament, a week earlier. In doing so, he said his government would protect (the rights conferred by) the 13th Amendment, facilitated by the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. He named Tamil front-row members like TNA’s M.A. Sumanthiran (in the absence of group leader R Sampanthan, who has been granted three months’ leave owing to his failing health). The President also named Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the two-member Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) in positive terms.

Intervening in the brief debate, two-term President and three-term Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said they could discuss 13-Plus. Mahinda’s intervention is important as the single-member UNP parliamentary group of President Wickremesinghe is dependent near-exclusively on his SLPP for floor majority, which alone matters in making and facilitating laws and constitutional amendments.

Rajapaksa was alluding to the forgotten post-war negotiations his government had initiated with the 16-member TNA (now, 10 MPs), in 2011. At the time, the two sides were believed to have made substantial progress on some issues and progress on the processes in others.

Both sides, shifting the goalposts

The talks failed after the TNA, out of nowhere, started talking about ‘war crimes probe’, accountability issues and the UNHRC process, in public – and without mentioning it at the negotiations table. The government gave it an ‘indecent burial’ when the official team, led by then Minister G.L. Peiris, ‘boycotted’ (?) a two-day session, without even having the courtesy to inform the other side, waiting in a discussion room in the Parliament complex.

The government’s predicament was understandable under the circumstances. Yet, it cannot to date justify how a governmental delegation was overnight converted into a team from the then-ruling SLFP, headed by President Mahinda. Already, the government had played foul when it declared that the equally forgotten Report of the ‘Tissa Vitharana Committee’ on power devolution, appointed by the President, had to be vetted by an SLFP team before the government took a decision.

It is such moves that also made the international community (read: West) conclude that the government kept shifting the goalpost and was also taking unilateral/autocratic decisions. But they did not talk about the TNA too shifting the goalpost and a Party leader claiming/ owning up credit for the US-led West moving the UNHRC on ‘war crimes probe’.

Possibly, the TNA leader did not know the enormity of what he was telling the Southern Sinhala polity and society. The Party too did not venture to correct him, if it was desirous of a negotiated settlement to what remained the ‘national problem’. Today, that place has gone through an overwhelming economic crisis, sorry!

Too much of a risk

It is all in the past. Now, it is not as if the Tamil parties, particularly TNA group leader, R. Sampanthan, not unaware of the ground realities. That whatever be, his hopes and intention, President Wickremesinghe does not have the numbers to do what he wishes. Even if he is willing, and so does Mahinda Rajapaksa, both would still face opposition from within their Sinhala-dominated Parties. In particular, Mahinda is no more the master of all that he surveys, which was however the case even after he lost power in 2015.

If the two have not spelt out their positions on ‘federalism’ thus far this time round, SJB leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, a self-proclaimed friend of the Tamils, has offered all support for a negotiated settlement, but (only) under the current, unitary Constitution. Even if all three leaders and their Parties ‘conspire’ to accept the Tamil demand for ‘federalism’, under the existing Constitution, it would have to face a Public Referendum. It is too much of a risk that none of them in political terms and the Sri Lankan State as an institution would want to risk.

Re-merger and the rest of Tamil demands would then have to wait. Even discussing terminologies like ‘union of provinces’, as outlined in the failed ‘Chandrika Package’ and recently revived by PLOTE leader D. Siddarthan won’t have any ‘takers’ in the Sinhala South. So does the ‘contiguity-based merger’ of the North and the South, again mooted by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It has passed its time, or so it seems.

No clarity

It thus remains to be seen if the negotiations would at all commence, as there is no clarity whatsoever on the kind of commitments that the Tamil side would expect from the government on their pre-conditions. Or, would they be willing to join the maiden session, where they lay down their pre-conditions formally, and then take it forward from there? Again, there is no idea.

Sooner than later, the President will have to decide if he intends to take forward the talks without mainline TNA-Plus participation, if it came to that, and continue with the processes with pro-government Parties like the EPDP of Minister Douglas Devananda in the North and TMVP of former Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, now MP from Batticaloa district.

Will the government be willing to commence the talks from where they had left it at the Constitution Assembly, which was there when he was PM (2015-19)? That is another question. The chances are that the government may not have any clear ideas on what to offer, what to accept and what course to adopt just now. It is only clear what not to offer, and what not to accept. It may be able to decide on the positives, only if the talks commence and progress – and not possibly otherwise.

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

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