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
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?
A: 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
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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
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 ?
A: 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
A: 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
Q: Where do you think the APRC has gone wrong and how do you
think things could be rectified?
A: 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?
A: 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
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
Q: What is the progress of the visit to India?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: I won’t say we failed the first time. The meeting did not
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
A: 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
Q: What course of action has India promised to take regarding
the de-merger of the North and East?
A: 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?
A: I do not want to comment.