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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Military push halted in favour of devolution package?

Military push halted in favour of devolution package? The Nation

Having secured Silavathurai, a relatively small area held by the LTTE in the Mannar District, the government has expressed the desire to hold talks with the LTTE to arrive at a negotiated settlement.

However, the sentiments voiced by Minister Keheliya Rambukwella will not be sufficient to impress the LTTE, since he attached strings to his statement by proclaiming that such talks could only be possible if the LTTE renounces violence and terrorism as a means of achieving its objective.

What is important to observe is that the government is, at least temporarily, not keen to go ahead with its military campaign in the north owing to international pressure and the unfolding drama of human suffering. Though there is a lull in the north right now, people are still living in fear of the war which they have experienced over the years in Wanni and other surrounding areas.
On the other hand, it was reported that the LTTE too is well entrenched in the Wanni and any offensive to take over the area would create severe problems for the government forces.

International support
What the government would want to do is to share power with the Tamils to satisfy the international community with the concurrence of India, so that it could solicit the support of international and regional powers to exert pressure on the LTTE to accept the solution arrived at.

The underlying factor is that India would not want anything more than what it has already devolved to the provinces – a quasi federal system to be given to the LTTE for obvious reasons. India knows that excess devolution in Sri Lanka would cause many problems back home, especially with Tamil Nadu, which is keeping close tabs on the Sri Lankan situation.

The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) has almost finalised its devolution package, which at times goes beyond the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, under which extensive devolution of power had taken place.

According to the new package which is still in the draft stage, the all party representatives, except for the representatives of Tamil parties who were not present for the deliberations, had virtually agreed to retain the unitary nature of the state subject to qualification. This was mainly because of the stand taken by the left parties and the JHU.

The President too had insisted that the unitary nature of the state should be retained. Finally, after much deliberation, the APRC has drafted the provision as follows: “Sri Lanka shall be a unitary state which shall be deemed to be an undivided, integrated and interdependent state structure where the state power shall be shared between the centre and the provinces and among the provinces inter se.”

North-east merger
There is a provision in the Chairman’s proposal that two provinces could merge after a referendum, which is almost similar to the provision contained in the 13th Amendment which states that a temporarily merged north and east could decide as to whether they would continue to remain merged after a referendum in the east.

In other words, the 13th Amendment gave the power to the people of the east to decide whether they want to go together with the east. However, the APRC Chairman’s proposal was opposed by the MEP and the JHU, stating that such matters should only be taken up during negotiations with the LTTE.

The two Rajapaksa brothers, Basil and Gotabhaya, were in India to brief the Indian authorities about the present developments in the Sri Lankan body polity and how they propose to surmount the prevailing crisis in the country.

The Indians preferred the Rajapaksas to the senior ministers since they believe that the Rajapaksas are the decision-making coterie in the Sri Lankan government. The Indian authorities think that talking to the Foreign Minister or any other senior minister is futile at this juncture since they are unable to take decisions then and there, unlike the members of the ruling Rajapaksa family. Senior diplomats are of the view that ministers always have to go back to the President before making a decision, which is a time-consuming process.

The Rajapaksas met with the Indian bureaucracy including the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Secretary and the Defence Secretary for extensive discussions on the Sri Lankan issue and whether they should pursue a military option in the rest of the north.

Though the government is harping on the devolution package to please the international community, it is slowly and steadily getting ready for a military thrust, if the need arises.

Devolution package
However, the plan at present is to take the devolution package before the international community at the United Nations Sessions due to be addressed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on September 24 in New York

Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has also expressed similar sentiments during his meeting with the European Union Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner at a meeting held in Brussels.
Although there appears to be a concerted effort on the part of the government to resolve the present crisis through peaceful means, it doesn’t seem to interest the LTTE. By nature, the LTTE is averse to such talks when it is militarily weak. Even if it agrees in principle to talk to the government, it would definitely centre round the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The government’s position however is that certain provisions in the CFA are now defunct – especially after the acquisition of the Eastern Province, which was formerly held by the LTTE.

At times the government issues contradictory statements concerning the CFA, saying that it was a total sell-out and at the same time it wants to adhere to some of the provisions therein.

In the meantime, the APRC is busy finalising the latest proposals and consensus is emerging within the APRC on many matters. President Rajapaksa has already directed APRC Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitarana to expedite the matter on which he (President Rajapaksa) is totally dependent on in order to woo the international community.

HSBC bond issue
Meanwhile, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) to stop forthwith the US$ 500 million bond or face consequences in the future, and emphasised that a future government under his leadership would not honour the agreement between the government and the banking consortium.

He has further threatened to pack the HSBC off if it lends money at an exorbitant interest rate, which would be an additional burden on the people of Sri Lanka. Similar threats were hurled by the opposition UNP during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga when she decided to lease the national carrier, Air Lanka, to Emirates but what finally happened was that not only did the UNP honour the said agreement, it also extended it for a further period.

The government team, which was detained for the purpose also included former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrama, who did not hold any government position.

Interestingly, the UNP is adopting an aggressive attitude at present, especially on the HSBC bond issue, and is going all out to stop the dollar bond in order to save the country from an impending economic disaster.

Similarly, the UNP through its trade union, arm filed an action against setting up of a flour mill inside Colombo Port, funded by the ETA Group in Dubai, but once back in power withdrew court action.

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