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UNP derailed peace talks

I wish to tender my claim for the record of reporting the ‘Peace Talks’ for over 50 years. If anyone else has a better claim I am prepared to withdraw mine.
I reported the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam talks of 1957. I was then a cub reporter at Lake House. I was sent with senior reporter R. Sivagurunathan to cover that historic event. We went to Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s ancestral house at Horogolla in early May to cover the first round of the talks.
I still remember the Prime Minister helping the ailing Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam to get out of his car. We were not permitted to be present during the talks. But later we were briefed about the proceedings by the participants.

We were told that the Prime Minister made the opening statement. He told the Federal Party delegation about his inability to discuss the setting up of a Federal State or regional autonomy or take any step that would abrogate the Official Language Act. Chelvanayakam, we were told, expressed his inability to abandon the federal demand or the demand for official status for the Tamil language.
We were told that both sides decided to explore the possibility of adjustment while not abandoning their respective positions. Prime Minister had suggested to the Federal Party to examine the government’s Draft Regional Council Bill.

Chelvanayakam told him that it lacked “teeth”. Prime Minister asked Chelvanayakam to send him a draft on Regional Councils with “teeth.”
The meeting ended on that happy note. I was assigned to follow up the story. I reported the developments on a daily basis. I got friendly with Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan and V. Navaratnam who drafted the new Regional Councils Bill.

They prepared the draft within two weeks. It was based on the Northern Ireland Constitution. It proposed the establishment of a regional council for the northern and eastern provinces. It mentioned the subjects reserved for the Central Government and vested the rest with the regional council. The subject of law and order and land were allocated to the regional council. It suggested that the Central Government should have a Minister of Tamil Affairs.

My editor asked me to cover the second round of the talks which was held in the first week of June by myself. The meeting was held at the Prime Minister’s Office in parliament. Federal Party’s draft was considered. The Prime Minister said he was not in a position to accept the proposal to set up a single council for the north and east. Chelvanayakam agreed to work out an alternative. The Prime Minister also told the Federal Party leaders to avoid using words that carried the connotation of a separate state.

The revised draft was considered on June 27. The discussion commenced at 7:00 p.m. at Prime Minister’s Office on the first floor of the Senate House.
We reporters waited at the foot of the staircase. Prime Minister, Chelvanayakam and others came down at 9:00 p.m. We jumped up with the question: What happened?
Prime Minister: We came down to have tea with you.
They went up in half an hour. We waited.
They came down at 2:15 a.m.
Prime Minister started: My friends! I am sorry to have kept all of you awake.
But it is a historic night for you, for us and for the country.
Ranji Handy of the Observer cut him short: Tell us the result.
Finance Minister Stanley de Soysa: We have reached an agreement.
Prime Minister turned to Chelvanayakam and said, Chelva! They will not believe till they here from you.
Chelvanayakam: We have reached an agreement. Prime Minister will hand over the copies of the agreement.
The Prime Minister handed us copies of the historic Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Agreement with the comment, “This will usher permanent peace to our country.”
That was not to be. UNP’s new leader J.R. Jayewardene saw to that. The Kandy March and the satyagraha at Rosemead Place forced Bandaranaike to abandon the agreement.
Eight years later, on March 24, 1965, I covered the Dudley Senanayake talks. It was a hurried political affair.

The parliamentary election was held on March 22, 1985. The results were out the next morning. UNP won 66 seats against 56 by the SLFP led coalition. The Federal Party won 14 seats. The UNP needed the support of the Federal Party to form a stable government. Lake House editorial director Esmond Wickremesinghe advised Dudley Senanayake to obtain the support of the Federal Party. He telephoned Naganathan and conveyed Dudley’s desire to meet Chelvanayakam to discuss the formation of the government.
Chelvanayakam flew to Colombo from Jaffna that evening (March 23). Chelvanayajam met Dudley Senanayake that night. Dudley Senanayake made the formal request for support. Chelvanayakam replied: “We will support you if you are prepared to solve some of the problems of the Tamil people.” Dudley Senanayake agreed but did not ask about the matters that needed to be solved.

The next day when Wickremesinghe met him Chelvanayakam told him about his disappointment. Wickremesinghe arranged another meeting that night (March 24).
At that meeting four issues were raised: the position of the Tamil language, the establishment of Regional Councils, state aided colonisation and problems of the Tamil government servants.
Dudley Senanayake was reluctant to establish Regional Councils. “I have opposed it all these days. How can I accept it now?” he said. Just then he received information that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was trying to win the support of the Federal Party. He wanted to beat Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Then he agreed to establish the Regional Councils. But he wanted the name changed to District Councils.

I covered the signing of the Dudley Senanayake-Chekvanayakam Pact on the night of March 24. But Dudley Senanayake did not implement it for three years and then told the Federal Party that he was not in a position to implement it. When I asked Chelvanayakam for his reaction he said, “Dudley has let us down.”
Since then I have reported the proceedings of two All Party Conferences and two Parliamentary Select Committees and the All Party Representatives Committee. I can safely say that UNP should take the blame for this long delay. At every turn it played politics. And now, young Gayantha Karunatilake, UNP’s spokesman, has come out with another delaying strategy. He wants the government to consult all political parties, religious leaders and intellectuals.