Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganeshan, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, spoke about the current status of the constitution making process and the role of NGOs. The excerpts of the interview:
There are different activities- cultural events - being conducted for the promotion of reconciliation. Yet, there is a school of thought by some Tamil leaders that none of them will serve the real purpose without a new Constitution. What is your position regarding this as the Minister?
Obviously, my position is that both are necessary. Both are two different avenues. These are like two rails running parallel. One can’t override the other. Both are interlinked. One can qualify the other.
How do you feel about the work of the present government towards reconciliation?
I am happy. But, as a person generally not being satisfied with anything, I keep on insisting on the best. There is nothing called a ‘perfect system’. It’s better than the last regime. Yet, it’s not the best. We will have to move forward.
Does it mean the Government has done a lot and only a little more remains to be done, or the other way round?
I don’t measure the amount of work done. Simply, I am saying that we have come a long way and another long way is there ahead of us.
"Electoral reforms shouldn’t in any way reduce representation for the minority communities. We should ensure more space for the minorities at every level of governance - Legislature, the Provincial Councils and Local Authorities. We should rely on the ballot, not on bullets."
What is the most important thing to be done next in your view ?
We have a constitutional process going on. That’s very necessary. Through that process, we will set up a legal framework. Within that, we will work towards power sharing and
Electoral reforms shouldn’t in any way reduce representation for the minority communities. We should ensure more space for the minorities at every level of governance - Legislature, the Provincial Councils and Local Authorities. We should rely on the ballot, not on bullets. On the other hand, there should be power sharing.
In the Steering Committee, we are discussing various proposals in terms of power sharing. We haven’t finalized anything. We have received proposals and discussed about them. I can say that power should be devolved to the provincial units to maintain an undivided Sri Lanka. The province is the unit.
"Weerawansa even demanded that Joint Opposition MPs Dinesh Gunawardane and Prasanna Ranatunga leave the process. Luckily, they haven’t responded to it. That is a positive stand. I am very optimistic. The Mahanayake Theras have been fed with misinformation."
Does it mean the current Provincial Council system is the basis for devolution?
There are different proposals. There is a proposal to devolve power to merge the North and the East. That’s a demand from the Tamil side. There’s another proposal to consider the district as the unit. We have to strike a balance. We have decided that the province should be the unit of devolution. On the other hand, the constitution isn’t to be called ‘Federal’. Federalism isn’t being discussed by the Steering Committee. We will strengthen the 13th Amendment. We will also establish a Second Chamber. That’s to address the north and east problem. But, the Tamil people’s issue isn’t restricted to the north and the east only. It is a national issue. Out of the 2.3 million Tamil community, exactly 50 percent live outside the north and the east. The Central, Western, Uva and Sabaragamuwa are the four provinces where other Tamils are living. Most of them are of Indian origin.
The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by me represents the aspirations of these Tamils. Our proposals are different from the demands of those in the north and the east. We consider the local government entities- Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils- as the unit of devolution.
Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s allegations against NGOs baseless
There are wrongdoers everywhere
Most NGOs are civil society movements
They (NGOs)helped in changing the regime
We can’t simply forget their (NGOs) contribution
13th Amendment needs to be implemented in full to resolve ethnic issue
Re-merger of North and East and devolving power to that unit is a demand by Tamils there
Hill country Tamils want to have more local authorities
Foremost place for Buddhism won’t be compromised
Federalism as a concept has been misinterpreted
Does it mean that you demand the decentralization of administrative power to the estate sector?
Yes, it is. I don’t use the word ‘estate Tamils’ though.
"The TNA leader is the Opposition Leader. He has become part of Sri Lanka. To be frank, TNA leader R. Sampanthan isn’t the national opposition leader. He isn’t doing that job properly."
What is the terminology you prefer to use?
Indian Origin Tamils. In fact, we want to drop the word ‘Indian and call ourselves ‘hill country Tamils’. However, it’s not a secret that they are of Indian origin.
When you call them Tamils of Indian origin, won’t it amount to the alienation of them from mainstream Sri Lankan society in a way?
That is the reason for us to consider the use of terminology ’hill country Tamils’.
As far as the North and the East are concerned, what is the amount of power to be shared between the centre and the periphery?
We already have a piece of law. That is the 13th Amendment. That has to be implemented fully.
When you say fully, does it mean the abolition of the concurrent list?
We are now discussing about the concurrent list, the provincial list etc. There are proposals to abolish the concurrent list.
"Indian Origin Tamils. In fact, we want to drop the word ‘Indian and call ourselves ‘hill country Tamils’. However, it’s not a secret that they are of Indian origin"
Then, what are the powers to be vested with the centre?
The centre is responsible for the national defence of the country. The other one is finance. When it comes to defence and finance, the centre should have sole authority. On the other hand, land and police powers are also being discussed. Now, we have the independent police commission. We don’t see the police as central or provincial. We say the police is an independent entity. As for land power, we are trying to work out a national land policy. That’s to outline how the land should be distributed and shared between the centre and the provinces.
For the hill country Tamils, are you seeking a separate administrative zone?
We aren’t demanding any such zone. As I said, our proposal is to strengthen the local government authorities. There should be more local bodies. In the north and the east, they want the merger. We want to divide our localities into more and more local authorities. Then, administration reaches the lowest bottom of our society.
Now a section of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs threatens to quit the Government. Also, the Mahanayake Theras said that there is no need for a new Constitution. How optimistic are you of the constitution making process now?
I learned that the National Freedom Party (NFP) MPs decided to leave the process. Its leader MP Wimal Weerawansa wrote to the Speaker. His party hasn’t been recognized in Parliament. The Speaker should ask for such letters from each MP, not only from Weerawansa.
By sabotaging the constitution making process, Weerawansa is trying to sabotage the whole country. He will be considered the worst separatist. The Tamil community dropped the demand for Eelam and the armed struggle. The TNA leader is the Opposition Leader. He has become part of Sri Lanka. To be frank, TNA leader R. Sampanthan isn’t the national opposition leader. He isn’t doing that job properly. I must confess that. On the other hand, he has given a favourable signal to southern Sri Lanka by talking up this job as the Opposition Leader. The message is that he dropped the Eelam concept.
Weerawansa even demanded that Joint Opposition MPs Dinesh Gunawardane and Prasanna Ranatunga leave the process. Luckily, they haven’t responded to it. That is a positive stand. I am very optimistic. The Mahanayake Theras have been fed with misinformation.
"By sabotaging the constitution making process, Weerawansa is trying to sabotage the whole country. He will be considered the worst separatist. The Tamil community dropped the demand for Eelam and the armed struggle. The TNA leader is the Opposition Leader."
Though you say the Tamils have dropped extremist demands, some leaders still talk about nothing but Federalism. What is your view?
I must tell you that Federalism isn’t separatism. It is a democratic political demand. One may agree or disagree. It’s there in many other countries.
Yet, Sri Lanka is a country afflicted by separatist ideology. So, some view Federalism is a stepping stone to a separate state. What do you say about that fear?
You are correct. The concept of Federalism has been misinterpreted for decades. Therefore that fear is justified. If you ask me personally, I am for Federalism. I am for a secular country. I want to keep the religion away from the state.
Yet, we have decided to give the foremost place for Buddhism. We will not change a single word here. I am telling it with responsibility that the current provision related to Buddhism will not be altered.
I am a Hindu. But, I can call myself a Buddhist. I have dedicated a place in my Pooja room for a Buddha statue. We are close to each other. I follow the principles of Buddha Dhamma. In the Steering Committee, I proposed not only to give the foremost place to the Buddha Sasana, but also to protect Buddhist philosophy. Yet, the Prime Minister told me, “Mano, I understand your view. But, let us not change the current position. You are trying to qualify it. But, some will misinterpret it. Let us go by what is there now!
It’s said that the constitution making process is lopsided and geared towards extremist demands of the minority communities. Justice and Buddha Sasana Affairs Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said such activities by the extremist groups had posed a threat to Buddha Sasana. How do you respond?
I disagree with Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. I don’t know how he can say that. I think it’s baseless fear. You can create such stories and keep on postponing solutions to the ethnic issue. That way, you can keep on rejecting any proposal. Somehow, you have to find ways and means to accommodate the minorities.
"I am a Hindu. But, I can call myself a Buddhist. I have dedicated a place in my Pooja room for a Buddha statue. We are close to each other. I follow the principles of Buddha Dhamma."
The matters related to the NGOs come under your purview. Minister Rajapakshe said that some NGOs pose a threat to national security and the interests of the country. What is your response?
I don’t agree. There are mischief makers in Parliament, the Army, the police and even in the Cabinet. We have to identify such elements and remove them. You cannot simply generalize everything. You cannot dissolve Parliament by saying there are rogues in it. If there are wrongdoers in the Army, they will have to be removed without generalizing allegations against all.
It means there are miscreants within the NGO community?
At the moment, I am conducting investigations against two NGOs for financial frauds. I can’t name them. One is a local NGO and the other a foreign-funded one.
Do you mean to say that there’s no need to have new regulations?
I am conducting investigations against them because there are regulations available at the moment.
I am referring to a new piece of legislation to regulate the NGO operations
There is no need. Most NGOs are civil society organizations. I am a person who grew up with the civil society. The civil society contributed to the power change in the country. That was to bring about good governance from an era of autocracy. We can’t simply forget about their contribution and portray them in a negative manner. If Wijeyadasa Rajapakse can name an NGO and submit me details, I can take prompt action. I can’t blame all. They were with us in the opposition at that time.
"We don’t see the police as central or provincial. We say the police is an independent entity. As for land power, we are trying to work out a national land policy. That’s to outline how the land should be distributed and shared between the centre and the provinces."