"Civil society, key to advancing a Federal solution"- Rupesinghe

[TamilNet, Sunday, 05 September 2004, 00:46 GMT]
"The people in North and East want to control and plan their own future and develop their part of the country. This is the primary impulse behind the ISGA. An interim administration should be seen as a win-win solution to both sides... ISGA proposal has been developed and is the result of 25 years of civil war. The LTTE has presented its proposals for the first time. This has to be respected and acknowledged," said Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, Civil Socieity Forum Chairman, talking to TamilNet this week.

Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe
Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, Chair of the Foundation for Coexistence, formerly the Secretary General of the London based organisation International Alert. Dr. Rupesinghe has authored and edited numerous publications in the field of conflict resolution.
TamilNet: You have spoken in support of a federal structure in Sri Lanka. Do you think the main political parties will accept it?

Rupesinghe: The discussion and demand for a Federal structure has a long history in Sri Lanka. S.W.R.D. Bandarnaike in 1920s called for a Federal Structure. Then in the 1930s there was a proposal for a Federal structure from eminent persons from the Central province. Then of course the Federal party raised the issue during the discussions with the British. We have gone a long way towards accepting a Federal system in Sri Lanka.

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in 1957 was the first step in accepting that there was a need for a comprehensive power sharing arrangement. The BC pact was based on separate Councils for the two districts of the North and the East with an Apex Council. This proposal was opposed by the UNP who organised mass opposition to it and this proposal. UNP was then thrown out of power. If we had adopted the BC pact at that time there would have been no civil war and we would have certainly been a leading economic power in the region.

There has been a lot of progress on this in the South. The 1995 and 1997 proposal, and the August 2000 forms the basis of moving towards a Federal system within a united Sri Lanka. The UNP in the Oslo talks accepted the exploration of a Federal structure. The Indo Sri Lanka Accord also argues for a significant power sharing arrangement. I would argue that there is sufficient consensus amongst the two main political parties. Of course there needs to be further elaboration and negotiations.

Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe
I think another major problem in power sharing is that the Sri Lankan state is a highly centralised state. Significant resources are not only centralised but is not distributed equally amongst the regions.

The Western province more than 50% of the resources although the Hill Country Tamils produce a large portion of the export revenues. Further we have over a million migrant workers and they produce a large proportion of the revenue but their welfare is neglected. The main towns absorb 90% of the revenue. The Sri Lankan bureaucracy is another major obstacle. The administrative system is highly inflated with the largest numbers of employed in Asia, it is inefficient and over 95% are Sinhalese. How can such a system voluntarily hand over power and dilute its own power? A lot of work needs to done to prepare the administration for a power sharing arrangement where some of its powers will be transferred to the North East.

TamilNet: What type of constitution is suitable to Sri Lanka in your opinion?

Rupesinghe: The philosophical premise in working towards a constitution is that all peoples should have a constitution which provides for equality and freedom for all its citizens. The constitution should recognise the distinct identities of the peoples, whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or others.

Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe
The Constitution should be based on adequate power sharing mechanisms, respect for human rights and pluralism for all communities.

In deriving a constitution to fit Sri Lanka, we can use the rich and diverse experiences of India, Switzerland, the USA, the Germans, the South African etc. Scholars and politicians in the South and the LTTE in the North have visited these countries and have a pretty good idea of these comparative systems.

The current debate in Sri Lanka in only concerned with power sharing in the North and the East. This is because this problem of power sharing lies at the heart of the Tamil National Question. However the rights and representation of other communities in the South such as the Tamil speaking peoples in the Hill country and other minorities should be addressed.

A Federal system is the only answer to Sri Lanka. The unitary state has failed politically and economically. Holding fast to a unitary state has led to a bankrupt state, wholly dependent on foreign funds, the misuse of resources, wastage, resulting in low economic growth. The war has had a devastating effect in the North but also in the South. Resources have been diverted to the war at the expense of investing in education, health and social services. The extent of the resources diverted to the war effort could have helped to educate our entire younger generation.

TamilNet: Prime minister Rajapakse called on India to facilitate the peace talks. What is your opinion about India's role?

Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe
Rupesinghe: India is the largest power in the region. I do not think that India will be coming forth to facilitate talks. Why should they? When they were treated so badly for their intervention during the period after the Indo Sri Lanka Accord? I think it will take a long time for them to forget that humiliation.

India's main concern today is to resolve the Kashmir dispute. India's main focus today is to be great economic power with a ambitious goal of gaining 10% economic growth. India has however argued that maximum devolution should be provided for the North East. They may be prepared to go beyond the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. But at some point India will have to come forward to guarantee the unity of Sri Lanka. What is significant is that all parties want India's involvement. In the last few years that have played a significant role in economic cooperation.

TamilNet: What is your opinion about the ISGA proposals submitted by the LTTE?

Rupesinghe: The ISGA proposals has been developed and is the result of 25 years of civil war. The LTTE has presented its proposals for the first time. This has to be respected and acknowledged. They have consulted experts and have received a mandate from the Tamil speaking peoples. My own judgement is that about 70%of the ISGA proposals there is broad agreement. If you study the proposals made by the Sri Lankan government, on the issue of land, taxation, judiciary, the unit of devolution, the role of the police etc. there is substantial agreement. There is about 10% which are grey areas. There is about 20% where there are serious differences. For example control of the seas could be a problem. The relations of the Council for the North East and its relation to the centre is not clarified. The representation of the Sinhalese people living in the north east has to be clarified. The role of the Muslim community and there representation, protection and security requires further elaboration.

The ISGA is primarily an interim arrangement for the transfer of financial resources to the North and East. The people in the North East have experienced two kinds of uneven developments. The first is the deliberate neglect of the North and East in the last 50 or so years. On top of this there is the devastation caused by the civil war where the infrastructure, buildings and homes of the peoples in the North have been destroyed. Further large areas are inundated with landmines which constitutes a grave risk for its peoples. The education system, health and social services are depleted and economy continues to be stagnant with no developments in fisheries and agriculture. On top of all this they have to deal with over a million regufees who yearn to return to their homes and where over 35000 still live in make shift homes.

The peoples in the North and East therefore want to control and plan their own future and develop their part of the country. This is the primary impulse behind the ISGA. An interim administration should be seen as a win-win solution to both sides.

Southern political parties are once again trying to play football with the ISGA. The ISGA proposals form the basis for discussion. It means that the details are subject to negotiations. There is no point debating this issue over the media. Interested parties are now using the ISGA to mobilise the people not only against the ISGA but push the country to the brink of war. It only excites fear and apprehension which are then used for political purposes.

Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe
TamilNet: You met the government's peace secretariat director Jayantha Dhanapala. What is his view on the peace talks?

Rupesinghe: He told the delegation that the Sri Lanka President is very keen to resume talks as soon as possible. Her position has been communicated through the Norwegians. He felt that there were some small differences yet to be clarified regarding the agenda. He also told us that the government is also preparing its own document with regards power sharing arrangements.

TamilNet: What do you think the Governments views are?

Rupesinghe: I think that the President is keen to resume talks and is committed to take the peace process forward. The fact that she resigned as the Chair of the Alliance is a step towards retaining her own independence as President. The President derives her mandate directly from the people. The Presidency is an instrument to go beyond petty party differences. If she is to exercise her mandate as the President of the entire country she should be outside the interests of any specific section of the people. 95% of the people are for peace in the country and she will receive an overwhelming support if she moves in the right direction.

The UNP has also indicated its willingness to support her. This move by the UNP should also be welcomed. UNP Ministers have expressed that support several times. I am sure that the CWC and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress will do likewise. She will secure a majority with the critical support of the Tamil National Alliance.

TamilNet: Recently, you met LTTE's Political Head Mr. S.P. Thamilchelvan and the NorthEast Secretariat on Human Rights (NESHOR) in Kilinochchi. Have you planned anything else towards promoting resumption of peace talks?

Rupesinghe: The delegation was given the opportunity to raise many questions where the conversation lasted for three hours. The delegation made it clear that the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese people want to live in peace and in coexistence with the Tamil Speaking peoples. We impressed upon the LTTE leadership to respect the Ceasefire Agreement in all its ramifications and refrain from acts which would jeopardise the CFA.

We feel that civil society has to play a significant role in explaining to people about the need for a Federal solution. We have to make the need for a Federal solution a major campaign. Civil society as a whole should support all efforts at reaching a negotiated settlement.

TamilNet: About taking forward the peace talks, are you going to meet foreign diplomats in Colombo?

Rupesinghe: We will have a meeting with the foreign diplomatic community about our civil society forum. We will also brief the other major political parties.


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