"Lankan Model for Devolutioltion"

President Mahinda Rajapakse has reiterated his commitment to peace. He says evil cannot be conquered by evil and adds violence is not the answer to the ethnic strife. Productive discussion with the LTTE will help the government find a lasting solution provided the LTTE is also willing to enter into meaningful negotiations.

"I am ready for talks. I am ready for solutions. But I am never agreeable to war in this little island," the Head of State told The Nation in an interview. President Rajapakse also suggested a Sri Lankan model with wide devolution of powers to the regions instead of importing models from other countries.

"Why are we talking about the Indian model or the French model or the Canadian model of federal structures? Why donít we talk of a Sri Lankan model with more powers to the regions," he asked.

By Wilson Gnanadass

Exeerpts from the interview

Question: One of your pre-election pledges to the nation was to bring peace. But after six months of assuming duties there is only an escalation of violence and a possible outbreak of war. What are your comments?

A: I am well aware of the growing incidence of violence in the country especially in the north and east. However, I am fully committed to peace and I am looking into the possibilities of finding a solution for this war-ravaged nation. I am concerned about the spiraling cycle of violence especially during the festive seasons. The LTTE's attack on the Navy last Thursday came just a few hours prior to the dawn of Vesak. Then the assassination of TNA MP, Joseph Pararajasingham, also took place on the eve of Christmas. The killers had the audacity to enter a place of worship and carry out the shooting. So these are not only the violation of the cease-fire agreement reached between the government and the LTTE but also an attempt to incite ethnic and religious violence in the country. The other recent incident was the attack on the Udayan newspaper office. Now who will ever think of doing such a thing when there were foreign participants in the country to mark Press Freedom Day? I feel these attacks are aimed at arousing the feelings of a particular ethnic or religious group.

Q: While you blame the LTTE for the increasing violence, the LTTE on the other hand keeps pointing fingers at the government and accuses the government of being responsible for the escalation of violence. How do you view this?

A: How could the LTTE find fault with the government when statistics show that it is the Tigers who have engaged themselves in the most number of violations of the ceasefire agreement? According to the latest statistics the government troops have violated the ceasefire agreement only 600 times while the LTTE has violated it more than 6000 times. And our information is that the violation by government troops is a part of the counter attacks it carries out against the LTTE. So it is clear that the LTTE has been the first to throw the stone at the government troops. It may be easy for the LTTE to keep blaming the government for everything. But facts are stubborn. Nevertheless, the government is absolutely committed to achieving ultimate peace in the country. I must say that the government is committed to honouring the ceasefire agreement. The agreement is still in place and there is no doubt about it. I am also aware that the LTTE is trying to provoke the government troops and of course, the majority of the country. But we will act with restraint and with a sense of responsibility.

Q: How does the international community look at the present escalation of violence?

A: The International Community is fully aware of the present situation and has expressed concern. However, we have the international goodwill and this is why Sri Lanka was recently included into the Human Rights Council that directly functions under the United Nations. The donors and other foreign governments have warned the LTTE to avoid unwanted clashes with the government but the LTTE continues to violate the ceasefire agreement.

Q: The violence continues unabated and one wonders whether the ceasefire agreement in reality exists. What has the government decided to do now? Go for war?

A: There is no question of going for war with anyone. The government and I firmly believe in solving the crisis through political negotiations. If the LTTE is keen to bring an end to this protracted war then it must be willing to sit down for talks. It is only through proper negotiation that we could arrive at a solution acceptable to all the communities in the country. But if the LTTE is not willing to do this, I think the present conflict situation would continue.

Q: What type of a solution do you think is bound to bring an end to this problem? Some say a federal structure based on the Indian model is ideal for our country. What is your opinion?

A: First of all the LTTE that is in conflict with the government must be willing to accept any type of formula. Previous governments tried to place before the LTTE different types of formula but to date nothing has been acceptable to the Tigers. Now how can we find a solution if a party that is responsible for the war is not willing to sit down and discuss with the government? Just alone blaming the government is not going to bring any solution. I don't want to just talk about a particular model right now. Some are saying the Indian model is good while others are proposing various other models. But I am a strong believer in evolving a mechanism that would suit our climate and our people. Now the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, proposed a package but it never worked. Presidents who were in power before her too placed before the Tigers various proposals but nothing worked out. So therefore, I am not going to place any particular model to the Tigers. But instead we are asking them to first sit down to talk and then find out an exclusive model favourable to all of us. I am strongly committed to solving this crisis amicably. Under our system it could be called anything. Some may call it federal while others something else. I am also not a follower of models imported from foreign countries. Why not have our own model and call it the 'Sri Lankan model' with maximum devolution? I am sure if this is done effectively in consultation and with the cooperation of the LTTE, this system could be another separate model for the world. Why not think of something new? We really do not have to always borrow ideas and other models from foreign countries. What is needed is a simple package that would show the way out to this problem.

Q: During the first round of talks held in Geneva in February the government delegation led by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva agreed to demobilize groups with arms in the government controlled areas. But so far this has not happened. Why?

A: Yes, but can we settle everything just overnight? We can't. We are going step by step. First of all defining the word 'paramilitary' itself is a problem because we have so many armed groups also running political front offices. I cannot arrest or close down any office that is opened for political activities. I understand the LTTE feels the government should immediately close down Karuna's offices and disarm his cadres. I can only direct the police to arrest those in these offices only if they are found in possession of weapons or if weapons were found in these offices. I will not even use my powers to close down LTTE political offices even if they are operated in the heart of Colombo.

Q: The Japanese special envoy Akashi last week announced that the Co-Chairs have invited India to observe the forthcoming discussion between them to be held in Japan end May. Is Sri Lanka happy about it and if so why?

A: Yes, of course. We are happy that India is invited to play a role. India being our giant neighbour could play a lead role in finding a solution to Sri Lanka. I have always believed that India should contribute in this endeavour. You see, it is a fact that foreign countries are concerned about our problem. Therefore, we too must take note of this and act with a sense of responsibility. We must stop all violence and sit down to real business. But the LTTE does not seem to understand this.

Q: While you talk of peace, foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has gone on discussing defence supplies with India during his visit to India. Does it mean that Sri Lanka is also getting prepared for war?

A: No. The government will not wage a war with the LTTE. We are committed to peace. I repeat. But as a small nation we can be ready for any eventuality. And I believe every country must be doing this. And I think there is nothing wrong in talking of defence supplies with any country. This does not mean we are preparing for war. Almost all countries have weapons but all don't fight. For self-defence every country will be prepared with arms.

Q: What are the chances of both the government and the LTTE holding peace talks again?

A: I am very optimistic that both teams could restart talks again. We can't go on fighting or accusing each other. All these things should stop at one point and we must be able to return to the negotiating table soon. We have to be practical and think of the future of this country. I am not for war. But ever ready to sit and talk. Under a unitary system, any form of solution could be acceptable to me and my government and I assure there will be no room for war, ethnic riots or separation in this country.

Q: Are you receiving adequate support from the main opposition to find a solution to the crisis?

A: The main opposition has been to some extent sensitive to this issue. And I must say opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been cooperative. However, I feel the opposition could still play a more practical role in helping the government find solutions to various other issues plaguing the country.

Q: Are you of the opinion that a national government could be useful at a juncture like this to find a solution?

A: A national government, in my view, is not a strong and a vibrant government. Main political parties can always enter into some sort of working arrangements on certain specific issues. But the formation of a national government might not be ideal for a country like ours to sort out the problems. A vibrant opposition in my view is 'indispensable' so that there could be checks and balances. A national government is similar to a 'dictatorship'