By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I was pleased that Laksiri Fernando had picked up on my publication of documentation with regard to the negotiations between the government and the TNA way back in 2011. I suspect he is right in saying that some might think this is betrayal, given that even my efforts to defend the Secretary of Defence against Sarath Fonseka’s allegations in 2009 were described as betrayal. But this was by those such as Wimal Weerawans who wanted to take political advantage of those allegations and therefore did not mind insinuating that they were true.
However I trust that those concerned with political reconciliation and long term peace, as Prof Fernando is, will realize that these notes are meant to make clear how easy it would be to reach a consensus with the TNA. But this needs negotiations to be conducted in good faith, and systematically, with appreciation of what the other side might fear. It is also important to move swiftly on whatever is agreed, as Nimal Siripala de Silva tried to do in 2011 with regard to the Concurrent List, only to be rebuffed by G L Pieris., even though we had obtained the President’s agreement to proceed.
To illustrate what I mean, I will look at the question of a Senate, which seems to have been a priority only for the President and me on the government side. To go into the history of that proposal, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat in 2007, I should perhaps have participated actively in the discussions of the All Party Representatives Conference, which SCOPP hosted. But the Chairman, Prof Tissa Vitharna, thought that someone new should not be involved, so I stayed away. My main contribution was to cut down on the food bill, which had been enormous when I took over, largely because the practice previously had been to stuff up the delegates while waiting for the proceedings to start. This took for ever given prevailing standards of punctuality, and with the orders being placed beforehand, much went to waste when hardly anyone turned up.
But apart from tactfully getting Prof Vitharna’s agreement to cut down on the food, I did have one serious discussion with him, which was to suggest that he introduce the idea of a Second Chamber. This was not entirely to his liking, given the animosity of the Old Left to the Senate that they had abolished in the seventies, but I managed in time to convince him that Senate based on Provinces (rather than being a rubber stamp similar in constitution to the main House of Parliament) could play a useful role.
I discussed the matter at length with many parties – seeing the now respectable radicals of the eighties such as Somawansa Amerasinghe and Mr Sidharthan, and meeting Rauff Hakeem early one morning in what I remembered as an ice cream parlour – and there was general consensus on the matter. But though I think it figured in the APRC Report, unfortunately that generally constructive report was hijacked by those who thought its main points were the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the restoration of the 17th Amendment. Unfortunately the Old Left still thinks the former a priority, which is one reason why the other ideas they have, which are sensible, have no traction. So they do not pursue what has been agreed by all, which if implemented could promote confidence and lead to other positive measures on an incremental basis, but rather indulge their desire and pursuit of the whole, with similar results to Frederick Rolfe.
The person who did not need convincing at all about the Senate was the President, who understood at once how such a body would contribute to the unity of the country while strengthening consultation mechanisms. He actually included it in his next Presidential manifesto, where it lay forgotten until I resurrected the idea in 2011. Before that I had been told by the Ambassador of a country that has been very positive about us throughout that it was difficult for him to argue on our behalf when we had done nothing positive in the political sphere since the war ended. He suggested that we should move on the Senate, and when I mentioned this to the President, he asked his Secretary why nothing had been done about it. We had a short discussion then on the most effective composition of such a body, and I left with the distinct impression that the President had asked Mr Weeratunge to proceed with the matter – this was long before the negotiations with the TNA began – but I fear that nothing further was done on that front.
When the matter came up at the negotiations, the reason it was agreed that I should send the draft to the TNA – through Sumanthiran who was in effect their Secretary – was that I already had the draft which had been looked at by the APRC as well as the President. That draft is not accessible now, but I will find it and send it in for dissemination as soon as I am back in Colombo.
In fact the draft had also been looked at by a group of Parliamentarians and Civil Society activists which I had set up with the assistance of a range of diplomats, who hosted us at various venues. The Senate had been the main topic at a discussion hosted by the American Ambassador, who indeed became the most helpful supporter of this initiative – until I had to refuse her hospitality when she wanted Dilan Perera blacklisted, but that is another story.
Sadly, instead of allowing for discussion of that draft, Prof Pieris produced a paper that included different ways of setting up a Senate including on a District basis. This was ridiculous, since obviously the TNA was not going to accept such a Unit for a political body. But still, their positive reaction – whilst stressing that this could not be a substitute for the 13th Amendent – augured well. It was a great pity then that the idea was not taken any further, and that Prof Pieris at the next meeting came out with details regarding local government, another subject I had suggested, only to be told – by Sajin if I recollect aright, not GL himself – that nothing new should be introduced at this stage.
Finally, I should note – as my trusting missives to Sajin indicate – that there was no bad blood between us at that stage. I had no idea then of Prof Pieris’ fear of me, which only became clear when the President told me that when he saw another Professor he got frightened. In 2011 I took him at face value, and my understanding of how he destructive he is only came with the American Ambassador’s sad response when I told her she should rely on what he (and Mohan Pieris) said rather than crediting Wimal Weerawansa and those opposed to the LLRC recommendations with authority. They had, she said, lost all credibility. That is not another story, since it is relevant to how discussions should proceed, and clearly discussions are imperative now. But that element cannot be pursued here, though I hope Prof Fernando and others like him will explore in detail how best we can proceed.
Though I did not credit her entirely, and indeed upbraided her for having upset follow up on the LLRC through the excessively critical American reaction, what she said was food for thought.