All Party Conference: Déjà vu?
Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu
There is no denying that however elusive it has proved to be, a
consensus of all parties in the south or in parliament on a political
settlement is necessary for peace. In particular, a consensus amongst
predominantly Sinhala parties is crucial, since it cannot be
implemented without public support and legitimacy and will therefore
require approval at a referendum.
Indeed the consensus amongst predominantly Sinhala parties is one
part of the ‘dual transformation’ required by key actors, if there is to be
Dual transformation necessitates the willingness and ability of the Sri
Lankan state to adopt meaningful power sharing as the organising
principle for a constitutional settlement on the one hand and for the
LTTE to enter the democratic mainstream having jettisoned secession
on the other.
The former is predominantly about consensus amongst predominantly
Sinhala parties. At the very least it is about a consensus between the
two main parties that constitute governments – the SLFP and the UNP.
Together they can agree on what was termed in the South African
context as "sufficient consensus" – the electoral arithmetic supporting
the argument that between them they represent well over 50% of the
The purpose of all-party conferences and the one that is about to
commence is to arrive at a common position for talks with the LTTE. In
effect a consensus amongst all parties regarding the future
constitutional architecture of the Sri Lankan state.
This is a mechanism that has been tried before. Not always sincerely
as far as intentions are concerned. At times it has been used to give
the illusion of commitment and progress with regard to a settlement. In
this respect it has been at times as much of a mechanism for buying
time as it has been for constructing a springboard for a just, durable
and democratic peace. Intentions notwithstanding and given the thesis
that in politics it is perceptions and consequences that matter, no one
can dismiss the central importance of arriving at such a consensus.
The question that faces us today is as to whether the all-party
conference that is to be convened will be any more productive and
constructive than its predecessors, beyond demonstrating the gulf in
opinion that divides the political parties as well as the gulf in opinion
that divides them, Muslim and Tamil nationalist opinion including of
course that of the LTTE.
The point about an all-party conference is that it could at the end of
the day produce a consensus and rationale for stalemate, deadlock
and war as much as it could for negotiation and peace. Either way it is
an important exercise because it is a political barometer of the
prospects for a negotiated settlement and accordingly of the extent to
which the current political configuration is willing and able to advance
a peace process towards a settlement.
Critical to all of this are the terms of reference of mandate of an all-
party conference. Clearly, if it is to be open ended it could turn out to
be the talking shop and exercise in futility feared. It has to be focused
to be taken seriously. With regard to the current exercise, it is not
clear as to what the terms of reference and mandate are – whether it
is to be about the trajectory of a future settlement or an interim one or
as to whether it is to be about the CFA and therefore in the first
instance about the venue for talks as some media reports seem to
Which ever of these issues it is to be about in the first instance and if it
is to cover the full gamut of them subsequently, there are certain
factors that have to be honestly addressed if this confabulation is to
be more than gesture and smokescreen.
Constitutional principles, organising concepts and ideas seem to wax
and wane according to oscillations in the partisan balance of power. It
would seem that federalism is now out of fashion and even in danger
of becoming the dreaded "F" word of Sri Lankan politics yet again.
What is in, is the euphemism or some would simply say eye wash of "
maximum devolution" within an unitary state. There are those who feel
that the latter is a concession that has to be made in the current
political circumstances if any vestiges of the former are to be retained.
This is the "rose by any other name would smell just as sweet"
argument and one that first surfaced in the mid to late ’90s. Labels do
not matter this argument goes, substance does.
There would indeed be some credence to this argument if there was a
solid and demonstrable commitment to a negotiated settlement and its
implementation, not just amongst the politicians but also amongst the
bureaucracy and judiciary as well. They will play key roles in making a
settlement work as originally conceived and intended.
My point in this context, is that since at the heart of the settlement will
be the balance of powers between the central government and the
provincial and state ones, it is crucially important to state clearly and
plainly as to what that is. Were a settlement to state that it is federal,
plainly and simply, the judiciary would be spared the exercise of trying
to ascertain as to whether the framers of the constitution intended the
emphasis to be on " maximum devolution" or " unitary state" as would
be the case if the latter formulation were adopted as the organising
idea for any future settlement.
Moreover, there is the "going back to the future" scenario of
appearing to jettison federalism after all that has transpired in the last
11 years, since the first PA proposals jettisoned the unitary state.
It is difficult to believe that the current government which was part of
the effort in the ’90s has forgotten what transpired then.
Or is it the case that they have drawn a different lesson from that
experience – one this columnist believes is the wrong one. Or is it the
case that the maximum devolution within an unitary state position,
reminiscent of the Premadasa era, is a bargaining position to counter
and balance the decidedly confederal ISGA proposals of the LTTE ?
What it is needs to be clarified. The all party conference cannot flesh
out the settlement and present it as a fait accompli to the LTTE.
The value of an all party conference is to define the framework for a
settlement and the principles on which it has to be founded. In this
respect, this will be the acid test of the championship of the unitary
state – it will reinforce the lines of division, as the LTTE hoped would
happen, as a direct result of its enforced election boycott.
Were the conference to address the CFA, I reiterate that without an
honest addressing of Articles 1.8 and 2.1 the exercise will not be a
constructive and positive one. Is there a consensus on para-militaries
and on Karuna in particular and does that consensus in turn have a
beneficial impact on Article 2.1 dealing with human rights? Ducking or
fudging this will only confirm the commitment to a proxy war. The issue
of the venue obscures the issue of preparation for talks were they to
Let us hope that the conference will produce a consensus for a just
and lasting peace and not destructive war and debilitating division.