Government is committed to restart peace talks - Dinesh Gunewardena

Urban Development and Water Supply Minister Dinesh Gunewardena says peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) depends on the response from the Tigers to the government’s call for direct negotiations and an immediate halt to killings. He says the government has made it very clear that the doors are open for direct talks provided the Tigers respond positively. He said the government is committed to defeating as well as rejecting terrorism and separatism and restoring democracy from north to south and west to east. “But not at any cost. We will maintain the sovereignty of the country and the territorial integrity of the country,” he told The Nation in an interview.

By Wilson Gnanadass
Following are excerpts:

Q: The New Year has dawned with the sounds of bomb blasts and killings. Where do you think the country is heading to?
The hope for the New Year and the wishes for the New Year across the country are for peace and democracy. We have gone through much conflict and enough tragic events have taken place in this country but still the determination to restore democratic rights and to safeguard all citizens of the country and to arrive at a final political solution to the ethnic crisis is the highest agenda of 2007.

Q: Though Mahinda Chinthana spoke volumes on resolving the crisis through political means, what the country has witnessed during the past one year is war. What is your observation of this situation?
The Mahinda Chinthana was able to restore the stalemate of the talks back to the negotiating table to find a programme for a final political solution. We are all committed to defeating, as well as rejecting terrorism and separatism and restoring democracy from north to south and west to east. It will take a long time for any armed group to come into the democratic process and accept the norms of democracy. But that does not mean that Mahinda Chintana will give up its commitment to restoring the rights of all citizens of our country and the development of the north and the eastern provinces of our country. It is also committed in benefiting the average man who has gone through a difficult period in the last two decades. Many programmes have been planned and are to be implemented for the benefit for the average citizen of the North East province. The Gama Neguma (Upliftment of the Village), is not only for the South but also for North and East.

Q: Are there any chances for peace talks this year?
The government is committed to restart peace talks as announced. But the government’s responsibility and commitment to defend and uphold the country’s sovereignty and integrity, as well as its commitment to ensure a better life for its citizens, whichever part they are living in, is a continuing process. Therefore, peace talks can resume this year as stated by the government. But the response has to come from the LTTE. There are also other representatives of the Tamil and Muslim people today who are to be recognised.

Q: But the LTTE says all doors are shut for talks after the Supreme Court gave a ruling on October 16 against the merger. In this backdrop, do you still see any chances for talks?
The Supreme Court order, declaring the unconstitutional temporary merger as illegal, is a fact that cannot be rejected for the sake of politics. Interpretations of the Constitution and the law are the supreme responsibility of the Supreme Court of our country. The Supreme Court has interpreted what had taken place. Parliament has also voted in the budget accordingly. The MEP, ever since the 1987 declaration by President J. R. Jayewardene, suspending certain legislative sections of the relevant Act, condemned at the very beginning and took the position that President Jayewardene’s emergency regulations were wrong. We have had elections in the North and East. Over 10 to 12 elections have been held. The verdict of people of the Eastern province supporting their positions has been expressed. Therefore, what stands today is a reality. It should not be a reason for not returning to find a peaceful settlement by any party.

Q: The government has not been able to sort out some of the burning problems in the country. For instance, the cost of living is escalating, the tourism industry is crashing and the economy is in poor shape. But yet the MEP continues to support the government. Why ?
The progressive forces have put forward an alternative economic programme under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Today, the world has accepted that problems of the poor in the cities and rural areas have to be solved. The millennium development goals prove this argument and therefore, development priorities have to be readjusted, which Mahinda Chinthana has recognised. The rural sector has been recognised in the economic development process. We did not cut down on development activities in 2006, and 2007 will be the same but with an increased infusion of capital. When President Rajapaksa took office, we were going through the most difficult times facing world oil prices, the highest in the last 100 years. This has affected the cost of living. All other productive indexes have shown the highest production and very high exports. This shows Sri Lanka’s economy is stable enough to withstand these difficult times. I accept the cost of living is high. The government will make every effort to bring down the prices of essentials, which is needed by the common man. Our rice harvest has been the highest. Therefore, the problems of 2006 should ease off with the slow decrease in oil prices and the high economic growth that we are maintaining. Sri Lanka in the tourist sector should look more to the growing markets of India, China and East Asia. Tourism and hotel industry should tap this sector, which would give a continuous cushioning to the hotel and tourism sector. The government has recognised this and is promoting business in these regions today.

Q: How do you view the JVP’s withdrawal from the APRC, citing foul play?
The JVP has had an independent stand on many issues. And it is a force that has to be recognised today, whether we like their policies or not. The UPFA was formed knowing the JVP’s political programme but agreeing on a common programme. This brought about the victory in the 2004 general election and the presidential election of 2005. Problems of the people represented by different forces emerge in any society. Democracy has to recognise this and accommodate these forces and their views. Therefore, the JVP cannot be rejected just because they represent certain views. They have come back to the parliamentary process and have accepted office in a coalition government and have representation in all democratically elected bodies while voicing certain aspirations of the new generation, especially the under-privileged. In the economic and social sector, they should be accommodated in the democratic implementation of policies. The JVP’s withdrawal was precipitated by the irresponsible behaviour and release of three reports of the so-called experts. If experts could not agree on one report, how can experts expect others to follow them blindly? The true story is that without any approval or knowledge of the APRC, these reports were released. I think the JVP as well as the JHU, and even the MEP, have condemned the behaviour of the so-called APRC’s hidden clique that has upset the APRC, which was slowly but progressing well. To reject a group because of its extreme views is not democracy. We must make all attempts to accommodate and bring all to a realistic position.

Q: Where do you think the APRC has gone wrong and how do you think things could be rectified?
The principle of the formation of the APRC should be first restored without sectarian approaches within the APRC that has brought it to a standstill. The late entry of the UNP and the secret release of conflicting expert’s reports, have to be either set aside or agreed afresh to start with. This is the view of the MEP.

Q: What is the progress of the deliberations by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) under your leadership?
The first select committee on electoral reforms that was set up under my chairmanship during the last regime had long deliberations and an interim report was presented to parliament. Some of the proposals include recommendations that an electoral system for parliamentary, provincial and local governments should be formulated including first past the post and PR. It was also suggested that more weight should be given to the first past the post. After the dissolution of parliament, the new parliament set up the present select committee, which I chair and 10 months of deliberations brought about a majority agreement of 150 representatives elected based on the first past the post and 75 based on PR at district level. It was also recommended to reintroduce a parliamentary election system and the ward system, with a small percentage of PR in the local government. On this basis, we drafted a proposal which was ready in October 2006. The draft which was later discussed, with the key political parties in parliament, has got dragged because the UNP leadership came out with a proposal of 125 first past the post and 100 PR. This was proposed after the draft was prepared. The UNP members in the select committee had deliberated with us for over 10 months and agreed to the principles embodied in the draft proposals that were presented but the UNP leadership thought otherwise with alternative proposals. So the committee and I have made all attempts to discuss with the Opposition Leader to reach a consensus. We have had three discussions and all three have adjourned without any finality and we await the return of the Opposition Leader, as he has assured to sit down and find an acceptable way out. I have proposed to the Opposition Leader we are ready to sit non-stop every day with him and his team to work out a final draft. I hope this would work.


North-East merger was the cornerstone of peace process – Sampanthan

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader and parliamentarian R. Sampanthan says his team managed to impress upon the Indian Premier of the sufferings of the Tamils in the North and East during their short visit to India two weeks ago. He says India has promised in turn to impress upon President Mahinda Rajapaksa, about her concern for the on going military action, and especially, the suffering of the Tamil people.
He said that India has recognised the fact that the merger of the north and East as per the Indo Lanka agreement, was a cornerstone of the peace process and sustaining the merger would help Sri Lanka find a final solution to the dragging ethnic crisis.

Following are excerpts;
Q: What is the progress of the visit to India?
The outcome of our visit is that we were able to convey to the government of India the actual position pertaining to the Tamil civilian population, both within government controlled territory and LTTE controlled territory. Among the issues raised in India were the targeted killings of Tamil civilians belonging to different walks of life, including members of parliament, human rights activists, journalists, students and aid workers, members of the clergy and other civilians in government controlled territory. Also, the aggressive military action inclusive of aerial bombardments and heavy artillery fire using multi-barrel rocket launchers and the extensive deaths of Tamil civilians were brought to focus. We also raised the issues regarding people being deprived of livelihood and the fact that people were experiencing regular shortage of food, medicine, fuel and other essentials. We also informed India that the government had to be pressed to send supplies to these areas but they were frequently turned away by the Armed Forces. The fact that non-government organisations were not permitted to go into these areas and the fact that even the ICRC and the SLMM were not permitted to go into these areas to help the people and consequently the immense humanitarian suffering, which has been inflicted on the Tamils in the North and East were also raised. We did also say that the government was, in our view, not concerned about the suffering of Tamils though we made efforts by meeting the President. However, writing to him and raising the question saw no change in the situation and India should take note of this fact. Secondly, we were not all satisfied that there was a credible political process to find a political solution. Hard line views were on the ascendancy and even the majority report of the experts’ committee had come under strong attack from forces allied to the government. The government has distanced itself from that report and consequently, we did not see any credible prospect with regard to the peace process. Thirdly, we said that steps like the de-merger of the North-East based upon a judgment of the Supreme Court on technical grounds were in progress and that the merger of the North-East was the cornerstone of the peace process. We said the peace process will inevitably crumble if this was continued and that we were very concerned that this could sound the death knell of the peace process. We wanted the government of India to take note of these factors and to do all within its power to remedy the situation.

Q: Is the TNA satisfied with the response from India?
The Prime Minister who was associated with the National Security Chief and some other key officials said on more than one occasion, that India has impressed upon the President of Sri Lanka that there could be no military solution and that there had to be a political solution for the problem. Also, India was concerned about violence against Tamil civilians and the Premier said that this matter too has been conveyed to the Sri Lankan government. He emphasised that India was committed to the merger of North and East as per the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and added he was in agreement with our view that the merger was the cornerstone of the peace process. The Prime Minister also gave us the assurance that India would do all that she could to impress upon the government of Sri Lanka to restore normalcy in the country as soon as possible. The PM himself told us that he was happy with the meeting because he has become more acquainted with the problems faced by the Tamils in Sri Lanka

Q: The statements made in India by the Prime Minister or even Karunanidhi has not made any impact here as the government and the LTTE go ahead fighting. What is your comment?
I don’t want to comment on that.

Q: The first time when the TNA wanted to meet the Prime Minister, the party failed but on the second attempt you achieved it. What is the secret?
I won’t say we failed the first time. The meeting did not take place.

Q: It is also learnt that the fact that Karunanidhi helped the TNA meet the Indian Premier directly has hurt Vaico, who has constantly shown his support to the Tamil cause. How do you view this?
We have not in any way isolated Vaico and several other leaders in Tamil Nadu. They continue to be our friends. Karunanidhi is the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and is an elder statesman and our meeting with him and the PM through Karunanidhi was just a step in the course of our political activities. I think it was a wise step. It does not mean we sidestepped other leaders. After all, we want the help of everybody.

Q: What course of action has India promised to take regarding the de-merger of the North and East?
Well, the Prime Minister was totally in agreement with us that the merger was part of the Indo-Lanka agreement and sustaining the merger was the cornerstone of the peace process. He said that India was committed to the merger.

Q: Has your meeting with the Premier through the influence of Karunanidhi tilted the balance of power in India in your view?
I do not want to comment.
- (WG)