Mahinda’s task difficult but not impossible

Excerpts of the Speech delivered by Professor G. L.
Peiris in Parliament on Wednesday 7th December
during the debate on the policy statement by President
Mahinda Rajapakse.

I would like to begin, Mr. Deputy Speaker., by extending our warm
congratulations and best wishes both on behalf of the United National
Party and on my own personal behalf to His Excellency Mahinda
Rajapaksa on his assumption of office as the Fifth Executive President
of the Republic. There is no doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that President
Rajapaksa is assuming office at a particularly challenging moment in our
history. There are many challenging tasks ahead. I would like to assure
you, Sir, that we extend our goodwill and cooperation to the new
President as he grapples with these daunting tasks. The policy of the
United National Party in this regard is very clear. It has been set out in
the document known as the "Peoples’ Agenda" which was prepared for
the purpose of the Presidential Election which was held on the 17th’ of
November. The essence of this document is the unrelenting commitment
of the United National Party to dialogue, consensus and cooperation
with regard to national issues. The section is entitled ‘the Bellanwila.
Sammuthiya’ or the Bellanwila Accord. It is intended to be a refreshing
departure from the confrontational and the adversarial political culture of
the past. It is a fresh breeze that will blow through the corridors of power.

Ethnic Question

We believe in discussion, understanding and collaboration with regard
to national issues, principally the ethnic question. The Hon. Ranil
Wickremesinghe made a very clear pledge in that document. He said
that if he was elected President, one of the first things he would do is to
initiate a dialogue with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He accepted that
no single party by itself would be able to formulate and implement a
viable solution to the ethnic problem in our country. He said that in April
2004, he asked the electorate for one mandate only. That was a
mandate to speak to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On the other
hand, in November 2005, he was asking for two separate mandates.
One is to speak to the LTTE and the other to speak to the Sri Lanka
Freedom Party in order to arrive at a consensus with regard to the
fundamentals which would underpin a political resolution to the ethnic
conflict.

The outcome of the presidential election has been different. President
Mahinda Rajapaksa has been elected and the United National Part is
the principal party in Opposition. There has consequently been a
reversal of roles. But it does not in any way affect the principle that we
contended for. The principle remains intact.

It is a principle Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is based upon conviction and -
will not be diluted by expediency. Just as much as the Hon. Ranil
Wickremesinghe was prepared, if he was elected President to extend
the hand of friendship and co-operation to the Sri Freedom Party and to
work together in pursuit of a realistic solution to this problem, so also
occupying, as we do, seats in the Opposition in the Sri Lanka Parliament
we still remain willing and eager to work constructively with the
Government in pursuit of a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri
Lanka.

Policy

The Policy Statement of President Rajapaksa which we are debating
today straddled a very extensive gamut of issues. Economic
development, housing, poverty eradication, fisheries, industrial
development, the agricultural sector — all of this was Comprehensively
dealt with by the new President in his address to Parliament There is
however no doubt that at the forefront of all these issues is the ethnic
problem. That is the core and the centrepiece of the Policy Statement
that was made by President Rajapaksa. If there is any breakdown with
regard to the peace process there can be no conceivable doubt that the
accomplishment of all the other objectives that were referred to by the
new President would be exceedingly difficult.

As President Rajapaksa assumes office there can be no doubt Mr.
Deputy Speaker, that we are embarking upon a new phase of the the
peace process. It is not at all practicable to begin where we left off. The
talks broke down in 2003. It is not possible mechanically to resume the
peace process starting from where we left off. Circumstances have
changed fundamentally.

The political landscape in the South has changed beyond recognition.
The attitudes of the LTTE have changed. The position of the
international community has also changed.

These are some of the basic changes which have taken place with
regard to the political landscape in the South. At the time the peace
process was interrupted the Executive President of Sri Lanka was
President Chandrika, Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Today the President
is President Mahinda Rajapaksa. These are two very different
personalities with different values, different priorities and a different style
of governance. Also at that time there was a dichotomy in the power
structure. The Executive President belonged to one party and it was the
rival party which commanded a majority in Parliament. That situation
today has changed basically. It is the same political formation that
controls the Executive Presidency and the majority in Parliament. At that
time there was no alliance between the Sri Freedom Party and the
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Today the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has
four times approximately the seats in Parliament which it had at that
time. The Jathika Hela Urumaya has increased its representation in the
Sri Parliament nine fold. It had one seat at that time. Today it has nine
seats. All these represent a very fundamental change in the political
landscape of the South of Sri Lanka.

Corresponding to that is a definite change of mood which has taken
place in the LTTE. At the time the peace talks were taking place there
was a certain mood of optimism, of hope looking ahead. The high-water
mark of this was reached in Oslo on the 5th of December, 2002 when as
my Friend, the Sampanthan said, the parties agreed to explore
federalism as the basis of a long lasting and durable settlement of the
ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. All that has now changed.

There are three fundamentally important statements which have been
made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the last few days.
First of all, there is the ‘Maveerar’ Speech of Velupillai Prabhakaran
which is characterised by a mood of despondency an erosion of
confidence. This was on the 27th of November this year. Three days
later we had an even more emphatic statement out of London by Anton
Balasingham. Then on the 05th of December, just a couple of days ago,
there was a statement by Balaimmar.

If you look at all these three statements together, there is a definite
change in the mood of the LTTE and a sense of brooding pessimism
Which, reflected in all three of statements.

Just as much as the position has changed in the South of Sri Lanka and
in the attitude of the Liberation Tigers, so also there are significant
changes which have taken place in the approaches and the attitudes of
the international community. You will recall, Deputy Speaker that in
Tokyo in June, 2003 fifty one nations and’ twenty one multi lateral
institutions pledged very substantial aid to Sri US Dollars 4.5 billion. But
the international community has moved on. Other things have happened
in the world. The Tsunami disaster has occurred. Their attention has
been transferred elsewhere. These resources were to come to Sri
principally because of the peace process. That is what distinguished us
from other nations, which were competing for these scarce resources.

International Community

It was the policy of these governments that these resources should be
utilised for the benefit of the poorest of the poor. For example, Guinea
Bissau has a per capita income which is a mere fraction of the per capita
in Sri Lanka. The Dutch Government has already transferred a very
considerable portion of these resources to Africa. The British
Government has followed suit. The German Government is also
contemplating such a course of action. Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese
envoy in charge of the peace process is now in Sri Lanka. He has
repeatedly warned us, that unless we got our act together and pursue,
the peace process, we would miss this window of opportunity and these
resources will go elsewhere. . The point I am making is that, the,
international community will not come back mechanically. We have to
persuade them and it is going to require a great deal of persuasion.

Consequently, the task confronting His Excellency the President,
Mahinda Rajapaksa is much more difficult than the peace process was
at the time it was interrupted. It is difficult, but is certainly not impossible.
We have to persevere. I recall the words of Winston Churchill under
equally difficult circumstances, when he said" Never, never, never give
up." These are words which have achieved immortality as the beacon
light for nations in distress. We appreciate the grim determination which
underpins His Excellency the President Mahinda. Rajapaksa’s Policy
Statement to Parliament. He said in particular, that dialogue is the only
way to peace and he is proposing to accord the highest priority to a new
peace initiative.

Six rounds of talk

Based on my own experience with six rounds of talks with the LTTE, I
would in all humility make a few suggestions to the new Government.

The first of these suggestions is that, when you have a process or a
structure in existence, it would be a grievous error to dismantle that
structure unless and until you are ready with a substitute. If you do that,
what you have is a vacuum. Some of the very distressing incidents which
have taken place during the last few days highlight the importance of
that Principle. By all means structures need to be improved. Take a
critical look at what has been done. Reject what is bad. No human
system is perfect. Build upon a sound foundation, but reject or modify or
adapt what is found to be deficient. But to reject lock, stock and barrel
the entire structure without having a viable substitute ready, would be
cause of action that is fraught with the gravest danger.

I would say to the Government that what is required at this time, is a
step-by-step approach. There should be limited goals, modest ambitions
and specific milestones. The present situation is such that it is
Absolutely impossible to conceive of a grand strategy which embraces
all the dimensions and the aspects of the peace process. The
government might well ask "where do we think the process should begin
now." I would say that sequence is as important as substance. Clearly it
is impractical at this time to address in dept. the, components of the final
solution.

This is obviously not the right time to do it. I do not think even an in-
depth examination of the Ceasefire Agreement with a view to its
amendment is appropriate or timely at this moment. We have to start
elsewhere. I would respectfully suggest the new Government that they
should start with confidence building Look at the P-TOMS Agreement
which has now broken down. It is a dead letter. We have to start all over
again.

Steps taken

The Government of His Excellency President Rajapaksa has already
taken some steps in this regard. It has sought to unify under one
umbrella the triple-R programme, TAFREN and the work that is being
done by several line ministries, I think time is a good a salutary
beginning. Let us address the practical problems of the people in those
areas malaria, roads, schools, hospitals, drinking water, irrigation
systems. These are what Mr. Anton Balasingham referred to as the
basic existential needs of the Tamil speaking people. That is no doubt a
very modest beginning. But I would venture to suggest that as you begin
in that way and the parties gather confidence in each other that would
impart certain momentum to the process that would be healthy and
beneficial at this time.

As President Rajapaksa surveys the current scene, one of the daunting
problems is the diversity of attitudes among the principal actors from
one end of the spectrum to the other. In one’s moments of
despondency, one might ask, one might wonder whether it is possible to
reconcile these contradictions and these sharply contrasting attitudes
even at the basic level. I think this is reflected in the very passionate
speech that was delivered this morning by the Hon. R. Sampanthan.

At one end of the spectrum you have the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Elam and at the other end of the spectrum you have the Janatha
Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya.

The differences in approach, in value, systems and in world outlook are
obviously fundamental. But I would ask President Rajapakse, to take
heart from the lessons of contemporary history and international
diplomacy.

It has been possible for people with very different ideologies to work
together pragmatically in pursuit of broad policy objectives. Margaret
Thatcher said that it was a pleasure to do business with Gorbachev.
Perestroika and glasnost were some of the products of that dialogue.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened up a line of communication
with Communist China and by doing so transformed the course of world
history. Yasser Arafat was able to do business with Ariel Sharon. I would
suggest in this regard that the personality of the new President, Mr.
Mahinda Rajapakse is a singular advantage. What is required is
flexibility of mind, respect for a point of view that one does not agree with
and clear acknowledgement that there is more than one path to the
summit of a mountain. That kind of a resilience of outlook is, I think the
key to finding a solution. What you are endeavouring to do Mr. Deputy
Speaker, is to reconcile at a practical level sharply contrasting attitudes
among the principal actors in the current distressing and complex
situations.

I would respectfully ask the President, Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse, whatever
he does not be intimidated by labels. United, uniary, federal, what do all
these things mean? Human emotions and the problems of nations and
communities Mr. Deputy Speaker, cannot be reduced into neat labels.
The need of the hour is to look beyond these labels and to approach
the substance of these concepts. These must not be used as mere
Manthrams. There are significant problems associated with Manthrams.
Manthrams evoke divisive emotions. They lead to a dramatic polarization
which is a fundamental problem confronting Sri Lanka today. These
labels and these Matithrams result in the disappearance of middle
ground and the willingness to compromise with regard to national issues.
That is the last thing that this country can afford at this time.

I would respectfully suggest to the President and his Government that a
great deal can be learnt from the contemporary political experience of
India. India refused to succumb to these labels and these Manthrams.

Is the Indian Constitution unitary or federal? Nobody can answer that
question. There is no agreement whatsoever on that issue, Mr. Deputy
Speaker. Some legal scholars describe the Constitution of India as a
weak federal Constitution. Others prefer to classify it as a unitary
Constitution with certain quasi-federal features. It is a rainbow, it ‘is a
spectrum; it is not a This is’ something that you need to bear in mind as
we endeavour to resume and to resuscitate the peace process
particularly difficult circumstances.

I would also say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the new Government, it is a time
for self criticism. Let us turn the searchlight inwards. Let us take stock of
the peace process, examine its current status. Let us try to identify its
flaws and weaknesses with a view to identifying corrective measurer as a
new Executive President assumes office in our land. President Mahinda
Rajapakse in his address to Parliament identified in his view as one of
the principal weaknesses of the peace process which the United
National Front Government had pursued, the bilateral character of that
process. President Rajapakse told Parliament that in his view this was
one of the factors which militated against the achievement of success.
President Rajapakse committed himself to the pursuit of a somewhat
different approach to the peace process. He said that he would like to
talk to all the political parties in the South in order to arrive at a
consensus on the basis of which he would endeavour to resume a
dialogue with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

This approach has an obvious advantage in terms of implementation.
What has prevented implementation in the past is a sharp division of
opinion. But, there is a note of caution that needs to be sounded. The
note of caution, the caveat is this Mr. Deputy Speaker. If what you are
proposing to put on the negotiating table is a proposal the elements of
which have all been agreed upon and endorsed by all the political
parties in the South characterised as they are by the fundamental
differences which I referred to earlier, then there is a distinct danger that
there will be inadequate political space and manoeuvrability for
constructive engagement with the LTTE. That is the only significant
problem connected with the new approach which has been advocated
by President Rajapakse.

There is no doubt that there must be the fullest cope for consultation
and participation. I would like to suggest for the attention of the new
President the conceptual structure of the South African peace process
where there was distinction between the High-Table and the Long-
Table. High-Table referred to the discussion at track one and the Long-
Table enabled the fullest possible participation by civil society,
academics, trade unions, professionals, all these people could make an
input into the peace process and the collective perceptions of civil
society would feed into and reinforce the peace process. That was an
integral feature of the conceptual framework of the successful peace
process in South Africa.

I would also like to refer to the problem of the facilitator. Obviously we
need a facilitator. It is not possible for the Government to speak directly
to the LTTE. Norway has been around for more than five years. There
appeared to some doubts whether the Government wish Norway to
continue in this role. There has been a sharp focus on India.
Throughout the handling of the peace, process by the United National
Front Government headed by the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe we
enjoyed an unreservedly supportive relationship with India. There was
consultation with regard to all issues and the consultation was intensive,
candid, complete and continuous. I myself had the privilege of
discussing the Sri Lankan peace process with two successive Foreign
Ministers of India their Excellencies Jaswant Singh and Yashwan Sinha.
They placed at our disposal all the assistance they possibly could with
regard to structures for the devolution of power. They even put at my
disposal detailed information relating to Darjeeling and Ladakh some
features of which had direct relevance the highly complex condition in
the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

However, we need to recognize that there are significant practical
constraints which inhibit a direct role for the Government of India. These
constraints have nothing to do with the Wishes of Sri Lanka. We would
like as large and ample a role as conceivable for India.

But domestic Indian political circumstances and the operation of Indian
laws necessarily restrict the kind of role that can be played by the
Government of India at this time.

I now understand from some sources in the media, that the Government
does propose to invite the Royal Norwegian Government to continue its
facilitation role. In that case, I think, it is only fair to define clarity and
precision, the parameters within which the Norwegian Government is
expected to fulfil this function because the experience of the past has
indicated that certain doubts in that regard have led to
misunderstandings and recriminations which have greatly damaged the
stability and continuity of the peace process.

It would also be useful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make a passing
reference to problems connected with the Ceasefire Agreement. I have
no doubt that President Mahinda Rajapakse will recognize in the fullness
of time the chastening effect of power, as his predecessors have done
before him. It is hardly realistic at this moment to undertake a
comprehensive amendment of the Ceasefire Agreement. As we know,
the ceasefire agreement is a contractual arrangement between two
parties. It contains provision that upon the giving of 14 days" notice, it
can be abrogated by one party or the other. But an attempt by one party
unilaterally to modify its content in opposition to the wishes of the other
party would amount to an implied abrogation of a contractual
arrangement with distressing consequences. I would suggest that the
way forward is not through amendment, but through constructive
discussion directed towards modalities of implementation.

President Mahinda Rajapakse in his address to Parliament referred to
several areas of concern and l entirely agree with him with regard to the
identification of those areas. He referred to the protection of human
rights, the prevention of the recruitment of children for war, the
safeguarding of national security and the prevention of terrorist acts. I
would submit that these concerns can be adequately and effectively
accommodated by a review of the modalities for implementation of the
Ceasefire Agreement and a comprehensive survey of its substance with
a view to amendment or modification is neither desirable nor practical at
this point of time. Even before such a process is embarked upon, I think,
there can be limited gains from discussions between field commanders
— military personnel — and I was happy to note from the media this
Morning that the new Army Commandeer has expressed confidence in
such a course of action.

I would also like to refer to the element or the degree of
internationalization of the peace process. The Ranil Wickremesinghe
Government accepted that as an integral feature of the peace process.
It was not accident or coincidence. It was a matter of conscious and
deliberate policy. The rationale- was this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We
realized that, as we progress towards the very difficult issues connected
with constitutional structures and the devolution of power, it is of
paramount importance to keep alive the interest of the people of our
country. The peace process must not appear something remote and
distant. It must come alive in the hearts and minds of the people of Sri
Lanka. It must make their lives better, richer and more fulfilling. This is
possible only abundant resources are at our command that in turn
meant that the international community had to underwrite the Sri Lankan
peace process and give us the benefit of resources which would be
necessary to inspire confidence and credibility on the part of their
stockholders of the peace process. That is the reason why the
Wickremesinghe Government placed such emphasis on the international
dimension of the peace process.

Of course, there was a downside. The criticism was made that the peace
process was overly donor driven and insufficiently responsive to local
aspirations and concerns. I think the answer is a sense of balance as in
most things in Balance is the answer to human problems. Of course, the
final solution must be home grown and homespun. There is no need to
reinvest the wheel. Look at the experience of peace processes
elsewhere. South Africa, Northern Ireland, the Bougainwille Agreement
in Papua New Guinea, closer home, the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Agreement ‘in Bangladesh. But we must have the creativity, the
resilience of mind to adapt those solutions to suit the combination of
circumstances characteristic of our own country. While we do that it is
also necessary to keep the international community continually
interested and involved. We have to strike a pragmatic equilibrium, a
balance between these two objectives.

and, I am confident that Sri Lanka possesses the expertise, the creativity
and the imagination to achieve that balance.

Then, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think it is also necessary to take a look at
the role of the media and management of expectations. At the time we
handled the peace process, possibly the Sri Lankan, peace process was
the most open peace process Anywhere in the world. The media had
unrestricted access to the negotiators. There were some problems that,
grew out of that because there are some matters which have to be
discussed in, confidence. There was also another problem. As we began
the peace process we were able to hit the headlines all over the world,
as the Hon. Sampanthan knows, I because of the, dramatic
breakthroughs that occurred, at that time. Principally. What he referred
to the communique that was issued out of Oslo on the 5th of December
2002. Now it was not possible to maintain that same momentum as you
got to grips with the nitty-gritty, the process Was going to be much
slower. But not understand that. They believed at because the progress
at the outset was so dramatic and so rapid, that would naturally
continue. And when it did not continue, they came to the conclusion that,
the process must be a failure. There was, profound disenchantment. So
with that pragmatic, experience of six rounds of talks with the Liberation
Tigers, under the UNF Government, I would urge, the Government of
President Rajapakse to take a critical look at the whole area of
management of expectations as President Rajapakse embarks upon, a
review of the conceptual underpinnings of the Sri Lankan peace process.


There is one other point that I would like to refer to. President
Rajapakse in his address to Parliament said that he was committed to
the abolition of the executive presidency. I would urge to take a close
look at that problem. The ultimate political solution would consist, as the
Hon. Dew Gunasekera would no doubt agree, of extensive devolution of
power,. So there is going to be a division of power between the centre
and the periphery. As we proceed along that path in order to hold the
country together you need a strong centralizing mechanism and in Sri
Lanka that can only consist of the executive presidency. There are no
panaceas to these problems. It depends on time, circumstance and
priority. What is good for one country at a particular stage of its
development may be totally inappropriate in a different factual context.
But situated as we are in Sri Lanka today, I would say that there is a role
for the executive presidency as A cement that binds together all the
communities in our troubled nation.

That does not mean that I support the retention of the executive
presidency without any structural modification whatsoever.

It is quite evident that two changes are overdue and desperately
required. One is to cut down the scope, the scale of judicial immunity. No
president anywhere in the world enjoys A kind of judicial immunity that is
available to the president of Sri Lanka. It cannot be justified by any
standard whatsoever.

Secondly, the executive presidency must be transformed in order to
make it accountable to Parliament. But subject to those two
reservations, I think, there is a role for the executive presidency in the
current circumstances of Sri Lanka. President Rajapakse is certainly
able to extenuate, to mitigate some of the problems connected with the
repository of executive power in the office of executive president by
transferring his attention as he has very wisely done in his address to
Parliament to problems connected with the protection of human fights.
He has spoken of the United Nations Charter and I think there must be a
special focus on social and economic rights.

Let us look, at the situation where the Supreme Court is A court of first
instance and last instance with regard to human rights. That is not
desirable. There must be greater attention, pay to legal, aid to make it
possible for less affluent people to have access to the pecuniary
resources which would enable them to ventilate their adequately in a
court of law. President Rajapakse can also consider resuscitating and
breathing new, life and energy and vitality into the Committees of
Parliament and giving roleto the within those Committees. So these are
all very salutary changes which can be made in order to soften some of
the harsher consequences that arise in the body politic from the
plenitude of executive power in the office of the executive president of
Sri Lanka.

Just a couple of concluding thoughts, Mr. Deputy Speaker. President
Rajapakse in his recent statements has rightly said that he does not
propose to be dictated to by anybody, he does not take ultimatums
seriously. Perfectly right! The Leader of a Sovereign Nation cannot be
dictated to by anybody. He must have his own agenda. He must have his
own priorities and that is clearly the way forward.

At the same time the events during the last two days which were referred
to by the Hon. Rauff Hakeem and Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero and
also the comments that were made by the Hon. Sampanthan make it
very clear that we do not have the luxury of time. There is very
considerable urgency and we need to move forward.

As we do that I would like to remind the new President of some very wise
words which were uttered some by the Hon. Yashwant Sinha at the time
Foreign Minister of India when he had a long discussion of almost one
and a half hours with me followed by a luncheon at which we had the
opportunity of discussing this matter more A told fully Mr. Yashwant
Sinha told me, "It is not for me to advice you what to do but I am an older
man and perhaps you would find interesting some of the reflections that
I have to make on this matter. Mr. Yashwant Singh also told me, I
remember these words because it occurred to me at several moments
thereafter because these words were prophetic in quality, "Take a long
breath.

Do not expect this job to be easy. It is a long and arduous road. The
process will break down from time to time. That is natural. It is inevitable.
You must expect it to happen. At some moments one party will leave the
negotiating table. At other times both parties will leave the negotiating
table." That is precisely what happened.. But he said, "Do not lose
heart. Persevere. That is the road to success." As I had to grapple as
the Chief Negotiator of the Sri Lanakn Government at that time with
some excruciating, difficult problems which arose particularly during the
in Berlin, I remembered these very wise words which the then Foreign
Minister of India, uttered to me.

I ask President Rajapakse also to take courage and comfort from those
words. And I assure him that the United National Party does not propose
to play petty politics with this issue. The party that was founded by
Deshyamanya D. S. Senanayake loves this country. He realized that
there is no future for this country unless there is a satisfactory solution
to these problems, as the Hon. Sampanthan said, a solution that
recognizes the self respect the dignity of all the communities that inhabit
this land. Nothing can be more important for the survival, let alone the
prosperity, of this nation. And as the new President embarks upon these
daunting tasks and charts a course of action which hopefully will bring
peace and prosperity to our country, I assure him on behalf of the
United National Party that he has our goodwill, he has our support and
our co-operation with regard to the very formidable tasks, the
responsibility for which destiny has placed upon his shoulders.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
[Island]
Professor G. L. Peiris