The Futile Search for Consensus in the APRC


by Rohini Hensman

(Courtesy: The Island of 30 January 2008)


What a fiasco!

We were promised the long-awaited APRC proposals would be released on January 23rd, and what did we get? The 13th Amendment was taken out of the corner where it had been mouldering for twenty years; the cobwebs were dusted off, and it was presented to us as the solution to our problems, despite the fact that it failed in the North-East because it did not ensure meaningful devolution (apart from the fact that the LTTE scuttled it), and was unpopular even among the Sinhalese in the South! It has been reported that the APRC was forced into this ignoble position by the President: Does he think we are all idiots? Why appoint the APRC and waste tax-payers’ money on 63 meetings over eighteen months if the only purpose was to revive the failed 13th Amendment?  Once again, the government of Sri Lanka seems determined to prove the LTTE right when it wrote off the APRC process as eyewash.

We should reject this report, even as an interim measure, for the same reason that we rejected the LTTE’s Interim Self-Governing Authority: because it constitutes a massive obstacle to a democratic solution of the current crisis. Before you take interim steps to reach a certain goal, you need to know what that goal is; otherwise you are in danger of moving in the opposite direction, and that is precisely what this proposal does. Credible interim proposals cannot be made until the final goal is clear, even if it is a long way off.

We must, therefore, demand that the real APRC proposals - not the APRC acting as the mouthpiece of the President, who is free to make his own proposals but surely has a mouth of his own - should be presented by the end of this month at the very latest. If the president does not permit this, the Left and minority parties who are still part of the government should resign and the proposals should be presented independently. I am fully aware of the risk this entails for minority party leaders who are already being targeted by the LTTE, given Rajapaksa’s vindictive policy of withdrawing security from politicians who refuse to toe his line. But, the only alternative is that they betray their own constituencies in order to be part of a government that is determined not to be fair by the minorities.

Tissa Vitharana has been denounced by Ranawaka, and no doubt the Left parties would face more vilification or even violence from the JHU and JVP, but they, too, cannot remain in an anti-democratic government without betraying their socialist principles. What is important is not that the APRC should reach consensus, but that the results of their deliberations should be presented to the public for democratic debate.

Three Positions on the State(s) in Sri Lanka

There are essentially three positions on the state(s) in the territory of what is now Sri Lanka. The first is that of the LTTE, which strives to constitute the Northeast as a separate state of Tamil Eelam, an exclusively Tamil state in which minorities can be subjected to discrimination, persecution and ethnic cleansing. The second is that of the JHU, JVP, MEP and their fellow-travellers, who strive to establish the whole of Sri Lanka as a unitary Sinhala-Buddhist state in which minorities can be subjected to discrimination, persecution and ethnic cleansing. The third position essentially seeks to establish Sri Lanka as a united, democratic state in which citizens of all communities will enjoy equal rights - including religious, cultural and language rights - in all parts of the country. Some variants of this position want Sri Lanka to be a federal state, but most parties are willing to forego full federalism provided there is adequate and meaningful devolution of power, especially to areas where there is a preponderance of minority communities.

The first position, represented in parliament by the TNA, has been excluded from the APRC so far, since Mahinda Rajapaksa did not invite it to participate. This detracted somewhat from the legitimacy of the exercise, since it did not include a large bloc of Tamil MPs. But, it could also be argued that the TNA MPs owed their position in parliament to election-rigging by the LTTE, and would not have the freedom to represent their constituents freely if their position deviated from that of the LTTE. In mid-2007, APRC Chairman Tissa Vitarana invited the TNA, too, to participate.

The second position is represented by the JVP (which has withdrawn from the APRC), JHU and MEP, some elements of the SLFP and possibly also of the UNP. They insist on the definition of the state as ‘unitary’, retention of the special place given to Buddhism, and tight limits placed on devolution; indeed, the proposal of the SLFP, subsequently withdrawn, that the unit of devolution should be the district, would effectively have made it impossible for any substantial devolution of power to take place.

The third position is taken by the Left parties and most of the minority parties. While there may be differences of emphasis among them, they concur in ruling out both a division of the country and a unitary state, and in wanting substantial devolution at the provincial level combined with decentralisation at a lower level and power-sharing at the centre. The EPDP is ambivalent about this position. Without dismissing it, the party wanted the APRC to recommend implementation of the 13th Amendment, with the establishment of interim councils in the North and East.

Preconditions for Consensus

Arriving at a consensus between parties holding radically different positions is conditional on their being willing to shift their positions in the interests of agreement. Without that willingness, any consensus is pie in the sky, and the search for it is a futile exercise. So, what are the chances of the APRC reaching consensus? In principle, Prof. Vitarana is quite right to invite the TNA to participate, since it is supposed to be an All-Party Committee. But Prabakaran has made it very clear he is not willing to budge from his goal of a separate Tamil State ruled by the LTTE. It is, therefore, impossible to envisage a consensus between the TNA and the other parties in parliament.

What about the rest of the parties? The JVP, JHU, MEP and sections of the SLFP insist on a unitary state with limited devolution of power to the provinces, while the Left and most minority parties do not want a unitary state and want substantial devolution of power to the provinces. This is not just a quibble over a word; If Sri Lanka is defined as a ‘unitary’ state, this will automatically give the Centre powers to overrule and even dismiss provincial governments which act contrary to its wishes. Any devolution would then be purely illusory, since it could be clawed back at will by the Centre.

Thus, in reality, there is as little chance of consensus between these two blocs of parties as there is between either of them and the LTTE/TNA. Any ‘consensus’ that emerges would be at the cost of the Left and minority parties selling out their constituencies by agreeing to a unitary state which is opposed by them.

Does ‘Unitary’ Mean ‘United’? The first excuse for wanting to preserve the unitary character of the state is that abandoning the unitary state - and even, according to the JVP, allowing devolution of any degree - would lead to the division of Sri Lanka. This argument reveals its proponents to be historical ignoramuses. The most striking counter to it, is the example of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which, under Tito, granted a high degree of autonomy to its constituent republics and to the Serbian provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, and remained united. After Tito’s death in 1980, the Serbian nationalists attempted to curtail regional autonomy, leading to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Most significantly for Sri Lanka, Kosovo now stands poised on the brink of independence from Serbia after an armed struggle conducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army, a force with a strong resemblance to the LTTE. Here there is a clear link between more autonomy and unity, while less autonomy leads to separatism.

Indeed, we see the same pattern in Sri Lanka, too. Sri Lanka’s first Constitution did not define it as a unitary state, nor was there any special place for Buddhism, and there was no separatist movement while it prevailed. The Republican Constitution of 1972 proclaimed Sri Lanka to be a unitary state, which, along with Sinhala as the sole official language, the special place given to Buddhism, and withdrawal of protection for minorities, amounted to establishing it as a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Within a few years there was a separatist movement for Tamil Eelam and an armed struggle to realise it, which continues to this day. Once again, the correlation is clear: No unitary state, no separatism; unitary state, armed separatist struggle.

So, the argument against removing the word ‘unitary’ is NOT an argument for preserving the unity of our country, but the very opposite: It is an argument for dividing Sri Lanka by defining it as a Sinhala-Buddhist state, thereby sustaining the separatist struggle of the LTTE. Those who truly wish to defeat the LTTE would want to remove the unitary label from our constitution as soon as possible.

Reluctance to change the Constitution

The other reason given for opposing the deletion of ‘unitary’ from the constitution is that it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament as well as a referendum. It is true this would take time, but if we, therefore, give up the struggle to change the constitution, we are, in effect, giving up on democracy in Sri Lanka. To take just one example, the virtually absolute power held by the Executive President means that the entire population is at the mercy of this one individual. This is not merely a denial of the democratic rights of the people, but also a negation of good governance. The Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) deserves our gratitude for its magnificent efforts to reactivate the Constitutional Council (CC), which was seen as counterbalancing the absolute power of the President, but that is not enough. Will the presidential appointees to posts that should have been filled by CC appointees be replaced? It seems unlikely. Nor will good governance in other areas be ensured.

Take, for example, the bizarre episode in London when the president wanted to return to Sri Lanka after a personal trip to see his son graduate. The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was over-booked, and chief executive Peter Hill, while offering to accommodate Rajapaksa’s immediate family, refused to offload 35 confirmed passengers to accommodate his entourage. And he was quite right to do so. Imagine trecking all the way to the airport and queuing up to check in, only to find that your seat and those of 34 other passengers had been hijacked by the president’s hangers-on! Wouldn’t you think twice about flying Sri Lankan Airlines in future? It would be the end of the airline as a commercial enterprise! But, Mr Hill’s reward was to have his work permit and visa withdrawn, as a result of which Emirates, which appointed him, is withdrawing from the partnership with Sri Lankan Airlines.

This is just one example of the mind-boggling corruption and nepotism that is sending Sri Lanka’s economy down the drain. It is not just working-class and middle-income groups who are paying for it; even businesses cannot be run under such conditions. Nor is it just a problem for the present: Even the future of Sri Lanka is being mortgaged by the high-interest loans taken by this rapacious administration that is sucking the life-blood out of our country. This is the result of the progressive undermining of democracy that has occurred from Independence onward.

First, the minority communities were disempowered by depriving Hill-country Tamils of their citizenship and franchise, passing the Sinhala Only Bill, and so on. These were not just attacks on minority rights but on equality, which is the bedrock of democracy. The 1972 constitution not only deprived minority communities of more rights but also centralised enormous power in the hands of the ruling party, thus disempowering Sinhalese, too. Finally, the 1978 constitution put absolute power in the hands of the executive president. Again, it is not just minorities who pay. On the contrary, in financial terms, the Sinhalese pay more, since there are more of them. Furthermore, there is the ever-present danger of tens of thousands of Sinhalese being slaughtered, as they were in the late 1980s.

Restoring Democracy in Sri Lanka

If all this is to be reversed, the executive presidency has to be abolished and democracy restored,  which means that we need a new constitution along the lines proposed by the Tissa Vitarana report. The chances of achieving this are not so hopeless as the Sinhala chauvinists would have us believe. Except for the TNA, all the minority parties would support such a change, as would the Left parties. While sections of the SLFP would oppose it, others would surely support it, since their own proposal for constitutional change in 1995 was very similar. At that time, the UNP sabotaged the whole effort in an utterly shameful way; if they do the same again, they would face well-deserved oblivion, so perhaps the leadership will think better of it; even if they don’t, there will be some party members who support a democratic constitution. So a two-thirds parliamentary majority supporting the change is not impossible, if not immediately, then after the next elections. As for getting it approved by a referendum, I feel confident that if the issues are explained and the people of Sri Lanka are allowed to make an informed choice, they will surely vote in favour of democracy.

However, before this can happen, the real APRC report has to be presented to the public. Where there is no consensus in the APRC, the different positions of the different parties should be presented honestly. The Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration should publish the proposals in all three languages, and all those who have any commitment to peace should ensure that they are debated thoroughly by the public. This may take time, but if the process starts immediately, it should be complete before the next parliamentary and presidential elections. In the meantime, it should be made very clear that the president will be held responsible for any violence whatsoever against signatories of the report.

If the real APRC proposals are unveiled by February 4th, we will have something to celebrate on Independence Day. Otherwise it will be a day of national mourning for the murder of democracy over a period of sixty years.