The All Party conference was a success of sorts with all participants agreeing on the need for a power-sharing solution
Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leader and Colombo District MP, Mano Ganesan received a telephone call from Ranil Wickremesinghe on 19 July 2022
It was a day before the Presidential election where the MPs were scheduled to vote and elect a new executive President to fill the vacancy created by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.
Ranil Wickremesinghe who was the then Prime Minister and acting as the interim President was a candidate for the Presidential election.
So when Ranil called, Mano thought Wickremesinghe was canvassing support for his candidacy. But that was not so. Ganesan was surprised by two things
Firstly Wickremesinghe did not seek his vote or the TPA’s support in the Presidential poll. Secondly, Ranil sounded supremely confident that he was going to be elected President
Recalling the telephone conversation, Mano Ganesan told me “Ranil spoke as if he had already been elected President. He told me of his intention to resolve the Tamil National Question. He also told me of his plans to address the socio -economic issues of the North-Eastern and Up Country Tamils. He also spoke about the economic upliftment of their areas. Ranil seemed very convincing then”
On 20 July 2022 Ranil Wickremesinghe won the Presidential election getting 134 votes out of 225. On 21 July 2022, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the eighth Executive President of Sri Lanka.
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s mission is to help extricate Sri Lanka out of the economic morass it has sunk into and lead it on the road to economic recovery
However, the primary focus of this article is not about the economic situation or the measures adopted by the Wickremesinghe administration to address it.
Instead, this column focuses specifically on a related yet crucial issue. This is the hitherto unresolved Tamil national question. It is also about resolving issues affecting the Tamil people.
The telephone conversation with Mano Ganesan was referred to at the beginning of this article indicates clearly that Ranil Wickremesinghe is fully aware of the need to resolve issues affecting the Tamil people.
It also demonstrates that he realized this well before he was elected President. It should be noted that the Tamil issue or ethnic crisis is one of the main causes of Sri Lanka’s economic downfall, Ranil Wickremesinghe knows that full-fledged economic emancipation is impossible without ethnic reconciliation.
How then has President Wickremesinghe gone about in tackling these matters concerning the Tamil national question after assuming presidential office? Given the tumultuous situation in which he became President, Wickremesinghe’s priority was to consolidate his position and re-establish presidential authority.
This he seems to have accomplished for the moment though somewhat controversial means.
Firstly, he has acquired support from a (slender) majority of MPs in Parliament from both Govt and Opposition ranks, cutting across race and religion. Secondly, he has entrenched himself with the aid of the defence establishment and law enforcement agencies.
Thus he has on the one hand ensured the smooth passage of the 21st Constitutional Amendment and 2023 Budget while curbing anti-State violence and suppressing anti-govt protests on the other. The situation is fraught with uncertainty but quite stable.
It is against this backdrop that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is now taking the initiative to resolve issues affecting the Tamil people. The reality is that all Tamil-speaking minorities have issues that need to be addressed
The North-Eastern Tamils, the Hill Country Tamils and the Muslims. It appears that the President is adopting a practical, sequential approach to the problem and is currently focusing on the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces alone.
75th Independence Anniversary
Initially, President Wickremesinghe spoke about the need to resolve the Tamil national question in Parliament during the 2023 budget
While addressing Parliament he drew attention to the fact that Sri Lanka was about to celebrate her 75th anniversary of independence from British rule next year (Feb 4) and urged that the issues be resolved and ethnic reconciliation achieved before that
President Wickremesinghe continued to emphasise the urgent need to bring about ethnic reconciliation before the 75th independence anniversary
He engaged in the dramatics of a kind by asking the SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, TPA leader Mano Ganesan, SJB Chief whip Lakshman Kiriella and TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthiran whether they were ready to meet and reach an agreement. They were all amenable. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa too concurred and said he was for “13 Plus.” President Wickremesinghe followed this up by convening a conference of leaders of political parties represented in Parliament on December 13th
Before the all-party conference the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) met in Colombo to formulate an appropriate stance to adopt at the conference
The TNA with 10 MPs is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East
Tamil National Alliance The Tamil National Alliance meeting at the Colombo residence of its Parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan decided on a three-tiered approach
The first was to resolve outstanding issues like the release of political prisoners, the release of private lands appropriated by the state, enforced disappearances, seizure of lands through orders of the Archaeology, Forests and Wild Life Departments etc
The second was the full implementation of the 13th Constitutional Amendment which paved the way for the introduction of Provincial Councils and afforded official language status for Tamil The third tier is related to Constitutional reform. The TNA wants a power-sharing arrangement based on federal lines for the Northern and Eastern provinces. Though this would be its negotiating position, the TNA may be amenable to flexible compromises if a satisfactorily a comprehensive solution was within reach
The All Party conference was a success of sorts with all participants agreeing on the need for a power-sharing solution.
It was also stated that there was no need to re-invent the wheel as almost every aspect of Constitutional reform had been discussed in detail in the past. This included the draft Constitution formulated in 2017 when Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister.
Feb 4 Deadline
An important aspect of President Wickremesinghe’s initiative to resolve the Tamil issue and achieve meaningful reconciliation was his insistence on February 4, 2023, being the deadline.
He has stated this in Parliament as well as in other fora. The President reiterated this at the all-party conference. Furthermore Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that if a solution could not be reached by Feb 4 2023, it would never be reached at all. He said that he would make an announcement in Parliament of this position if a solution could not be found by the 75th Independence day
President Wickremesinghe’s 75th Independence anniversary deadline has come in for derisive criticism in some quarters. How could a more than five-decade-long problem be resolved in 52 days? ask some.
Some MPs have even quipped that the President is holding a gun to their head by imposing such a deadline
Nevertheless, others feel that Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed dead serious about this deadline. It is also pertinent to note that Wickremesinghe would be able to dissolve the present Parliament anytime after Feb 2023 if he opines that the legislators are obstructing his plans for economic recovery and political reconciliation.
Be that as it may, the all-party conference concluded with President Wickremesinghe suggesting a two-track approach to resolving outstanding issues and pursuing greater devolution.
TNA Spokesperson MA Sumanthiran proposed a three-track a parallel approach whereby the processes of discussion, decision- making and implementation could be undertaken simultaneously
The President agreed and explained that he never meant to adopt a sequential approach in the first place. He said that daily meetings could be held if necessary to reach a settlement.
Elaborating further, Sumanthiran said that the three tasks of resolving issues, full implementation of 13 A and A constitutional change could all be achieved by having three parallel tracks
He pointed out that some implementation-related issues could be resolved before January 3, 12023 while an agreement could be reached on the 13th Amendment and Constitutional reform by January 31st. “you could then announce on the 75th anniversary that an accord has been finalised,” the TNA parliamentarian told the President.
In what appeared to be a very positive development, an informal meeting between the Govt and TNA was held on Wednesday, December 21st
President Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena along with cabinet ministers Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Douglas Devananda and Ali Sabry represented the Govt while Trincomalee MP R. Sampanthan and Jaffna MP M.A. Sumanthiran represented the TNA. Attorney-General Sanjay Rajaratnam was also present
It was decided at the 45-minute-long discussion that 14 convicted Tamil political prisoners would be pardoned and released.
Five would be released immediately and the other nine within two weeks. The ongoing cases against other political prisoners would be expedited and consequently dismissed on a Nolle prosequi basis. All privately owned lands appropriated by the armed forces in the North and East would be returned
This move would be ratified at the National Security Council meeting on Jan 3, 2023.
In a rather significant move, the Govt and TNA are scheduled to meet consecutively on January 10, 11, 12 and 13 in a four day marathon session
During these discussions, all matters regarding the full implementation of the 13th Amendment would be finalised
The issues concerning Constitutional reform would also be dealt with within these four days. The timetable and agenda for the 4-day marathon would be devised at a preliminary meeting on Jan 5th. The idea is to reach an amicable understanding before Thai Pongal on Jan 15th
What President Wickremesinghe’s Govt and the Tamil National Alliance seem to be aiming for is to resolve as many outstanding issues as possible by 31 Jan 2023 on the one hand and reach an agreement on Constitutional issues and the Provincial councils on the other
If all goes well, this would enable President Wickremesinghe to announce on the 75th Independence anniversary that a political agreement has been reached on the Tamil National Question.
Difficult to be Optimistic
It remains to be seen whether this noble goal would be realised on February 4th 2023
Given Sri Lanka’s lamentable track record in the sphere of equitable power-sharing, it is difficult to be optimistic. There are many pitfalls on the way
However, it is the fervent desire and prayer of this the column that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s admirable initiative to resolve the Tamil National Question before Sri Lanka’s 75th Independence anniversary meets with the success it richly deserves.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org