With the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, space has opened up for consideration, in an open and dispassionate manner, of the core issues that gave rise to the conflict. However, realisation has dawned on most people that this is not merely an opportunity for such an exercise, but also that, there is an absolute need to do so, in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Accordingly, this has prompted the Government to initiate talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with a view to reaching a solution to a vexed problem.
While there can be disagreement among political parties and the country at large, as to what constitutes the root causes, there can be no doubt that we need to find answers to these questions, in order to reap the full benefits of the end of hostilities between the Government and the LTTE. The recently released Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission report has also highlighted the fact that a political solution is imperative, to address the causes of the conflict.
Media reports indicate that talks between the Government and the TNA have been deadlocked on four main issues - the granting of police and land powers to Provincial Councils; the merger of the North and East; and TNA participation in the proposed Select Committee of Parliament. There may be other issues as well but, from a plethora of often confusing media reports, as well as equally confusing statements made by Government and TNA spokesmen, it is possible to identify the aforesaid as being the main stumbling blocks to the progress of the talks.
One of the main reasons why negotiations often struggle to take off is, when one or both parties to the talks proclaim that a particular issue or issues are not negotiable. In this case too, there have been statements from both sides that one or more issues are not up for negotiation. It is axiomatic that, the mere fact an issue is taken up for discussion, does not necessarily mean that the demand contained in the issue has been conceded. It only means that the subject will be discussed and, either a solution satisfactory to both sides will be arrived at or, the parties will have to agree to disagree.
In this context, the statement by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, that all these contentious issues can be discussed, is indicative of a mature and 'Subhawadhi' approach.
When confronted with a highly contentious issue which seems irreconcilable, the party making the demand can set out the objectives that it hopes to achieve by realization of the demand, so that the party not in agreement with the proposal, could suggest alternatives to achieve the very same objectives. For example, if the TNA wants land powers to be granted to Provincial Councils, in order to ensure that demographic changes are not made to the disadvantage of the Tamils in the North or the East, the Government could come up with alternate proposals designed to address such concerns, for the TNAs consideration.
Equally, if the demand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces is made by the TNA, to ensure the security of the Tamils in these areas, the Government could offer alternate mechanisms to achieve these objectives. If the resistance to the proposal for a merger, from the Government side, is based on the fear that it will pave the way for secession, the TNA could come up with proposals that address such concerns of Government. The Apex Council proposed by the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committtee of Parliament, with suitable modifications, could be one such alternative. There could be several other alternatives.
The TNA's concern with regard to the Select Committee proposal is understandable, given the experience of various attempts in the past, and the perception that this is another delaying tactic. But the TNA could rise to the occasion and display its determination to arrive at a political solution, by participating in the Select Committee, notwithstanding its own reservations.
It could, in fact, turn the Select Committee to its own advantage, by suggesting the following:
1. A time line of 6 months for the Select Committee, as already proposed by the Government.
2. Once agreement is reached on any one issue at the Government-TNA talks, that agreement should be presented to the Select Committee for deliberation. This would mean that the process would go on in parallel. It would save time, as well as ensure that the Government too, will become committed to persuading the other members of the Select Committee to support the agreement reached between the Government and the TNA.
The other advantage in participating in the Select Committee is the fact that, it would ensure the simultaneous participation of the other parties in the process. It will ensure the buy in of the UNP into the process, and hopefully, to the outcome. The LSSP and the Communist Party could be counted on to vigorously support the outcome of Government-TNA talks in the Select Committee. It would help get Muslim political opinion on board with regard to the final outcome. This will be immeasurably better than the TNA talking to, and interacting with the SLMC, bilaterally, because, nationally speaking, the SLMC represents only a minority of Muslims, and in the North and East, the SLMC represents only one section of the Muslims. Besides, the SLMC's track record of political expediency, and its wavering stand on Muslim issues, would not ensure the commitment of the Muslims to a final solution.
Although the SLMC vacillates between a South Eastern unit and a non contiguous unit within the merged North-East, as a solution to the concerns of the Muslims of the North and East, when the proposal for a non-contiguous unit was included in Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike's election manifesto, at the insistence of the SLMC, but at great political cost to her, it finally backtracked, and worked to defeat her at the Presidential Election of 1988. Thus it makes sense to get the commitment of the collective Muslim political entity, rather than that of the SLMC alone.
Another important step that needs to be taken, in taking the Government-TNA talks forward, is to ensure that an official joint press release is issued after every round of talks, particularly, when agreement is reached on any particular issue. This has not been done in the past, leaving the public and the media to speculate as to the progress of the talks. Such regular briefings would also help to shape opinion within the country, with regard to the solution that is finally arrived at.
The above only suggests broad approaches to deal with difficult issues, and is not meant to be exhaustive in any way. Human ingenuity could always find ways of addressing the most complex political problems, provided there is a genuine will to do so. In both the Government and TNA negotiating teams, there is sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to navigate any contentious issues, and find innovative outcomes that would meet the needs of the country.
One of the key conditions for the talks to succeed is the bona fides of both the Government and the TNA, and a determination to resolve the problem. There is also the need to be mindful of not making statements or engaging in actions that make the situation uncomfortable for the 'other' side. For example, during the Government-LTTE talks, under the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration, the LTTE organised a series of Pongu Thamil events which created a great deal of unease in the South, which in turn, resulted in pressure on the Government, thus making it difficult for the then Government in its negotiations.
In the current context, the Government is under pressure from sections within, not to pursue with the devolution agenda, while the TNA is being subject to criticism from sections of the Tamil community, for not pursuing issues such as the 'right to self determination of the Tamils'. Thus, while not compromising on the rights of the different communities, it is necessary, in the National Interest, to be mindful of the difficulties that both the Government and the TNA face from sections of their constituencies.
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