Playing politics with the Package
30 June 1996
The Tamil parties keep meeting the President and Minister G.L Peiris
regularly. Detail upon juicier detail is revealed with concomitant
regularity to enlighten, if not entertain, those who are concerned.
There are many among the Tamils who feel that this is another futile
exercise in resolving the ethnic conflict politically. This view is
reflected in the Tamil press and at meetings and seminars attended
by the minorities.
The Tamils who claim that the whole thing is nothing but a polite
wild goose chase in the marshy tangle of the islandís communal
political legacy, defend their position thus:
- that there will never be a consensus on the
unit of devolution; that Ashraff will continue to stymie efforts
to bring about this consensus among Tamils and Muslims; that the
UNP will ultimately evade the issue of repealing Articles 2 and
76; that the modification suggested by Chocksy is cosmetic,
having no firm basis in Law; that the government which realises
that the PSC has begun to stagnate, is subtly making use of
these regular meetings with the five Tamil party alliance and
the TULF to keep Tamil votes securely on its side.
A brief perusal of the opinions expressed in the
independent Tamil press and at some gatherings will help one grasp
the nature and extent of these doubts and objections.
Of these the most important view to emerge in the aftermath of the
latest round of meetings between the Tamil parties and the
government is that the P. A leadership , by harping on the problem
of securing the UNPís support for the devolution package, is more
interested in alienating the minority vote from the UNP than
reaching a Parliamentary consensus on the package. The government,
according to this view, is becoming less and less sure of its
standing among the Sinhalese and is therefore resorting to the
Premadasa formulas successfully combining the block minority vote
with the divided Sinhala vote. For this formula to succeed, there
has to be constant dialogue with the Tamil parties regardless of
what comes out of it. This, Premadasa did.
By putting the ball in the Tamil parties court on the question of
persuading the UNP which has become an increasingly slippery
customer these days, the government is creating an ideal ground for
breeding bitterness towards the UNP among the Tamils in the event of
the devolution planís failure. Now only the PA stands to benefit
directly from this (or so it may hope).
This is why some Tamil leaders are keen that
Chandrika should meet Ranil and make a serious attempt to secure his
support at least on some of the fundamental issues. (The Virakesari
made this point in its editorial yesterday.) They also feel that by
playing along with the government on this question indefinitely
would, in the final analysis, trap them in a situation where they (
the Tamil parties) might be left with no grounds to re-argue their
case with the PA — that is, they would lose their moral- political
leverage over the government which gives them a semblance of
The main responsibility of persuading the opposition in Parliament
lies with the governments said EROS leader Shankar Raji.
Despite all these problems, there are three things on which the
Tamil parties seem to pin their hopes once more.
Firstly, the suggestions made by Choksy are to be translated into a
legal draft and will be presented to the Select Committee by its
The stated position of the Tamil parties is that amending Article 76
and qualifying Article 2 with reference to that amendment will not
provide a solid legal status to the legislative power of the
proposed regional council - which means that when a dispute between
region and centre involving the formerís legislative authority is
referred to the courts, the judges will have to uphold the unitary
status of the Sri Lankan state ultimately, despite the qualifying
clause. And, as TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam pointed out to the
President, it is not, for the Tamil parties, a politically feasible
proposition - they having promised the Tamils a federal system of
However, some among the Tamil leaders feel that the legal draft of
the Choksy amendment could be submitted to the full bench of the
Supreme Court which has to review the matter before it is taken to
Parliament and that if the judgment is favourable, the view of the
majority should be added to the qualifying clause of Article 2 and
the amending clauses of Article 76. In this way, they say, the
uncertainty surrounding future legal disputes over the legislative
authority of the proposed regional council could be removed for
Secondly, a consensus with the SLMC on the question of the unit.
There is a feeling that the Muslim Congress will ultimately settle
for an arrangement where it will have its own southeastern regional
council. Most Tamil parties, except the TELO, are privately ready to
accept or at least acquiesce this plan. Although Mr. Ashraff and his
men have been saying many things on many occasions about the unit,
some Tamil leaders still cling to the hope that they do possess the
Himalayan powers of persuasion to wean Mr. Ashraff away from his
singular skill in equivocation which he has applied for long with
consummate legerdemain to the question of the unit.
Here again, the feeling among some is that if the government were to
Put its foot down on the question, the SLMC will agree to something
Once this is done, the UNP can be made to see reason they say.
This is a farfetched thing but hope, in the Tamil heart in
particular, springs eternal ( after more than forty five years what
else can one say of that which propels the seemingly interminable
pursuit of the Tamil parties).
Thirdly, a national referendum can be held on a comprehensive
package. This suggestion has been coming from some Tamils who are
directly and indirectly involved in Chandrikaís peace project. The
President herself seems to be toying with the idea. This referendum
will not be one that is constitutionally binding as the one which is
required to repeal or amend the entrenched clauses of the
constitution. The government would not be legally bound by its
results. Hence, if the outcome is positive then the government and
the Tamil parties and perhaps the international community would have
a special and effective moral - political advantage in persuading
the UNP to support the package. And if the result is negative, the
PA can tell the Tamils that it tried its best to get them a fair
deal but that its sincere effort was scuttled by the UNP and other
Sinhala nationalist groups. The hope among a few well informed Tamil
supporters of the PA, which to some degree is shared by the Tamil
leaders who are aware of it, is that over one million minority votes
can be secured in favour of the package at such a referendum. As we
pointed out in these columns earlier, the Jaffna peninsula should
have at least five hundred thousand votes on paper. This, given the
current security situation there , is a captive vote bank. Add Tamil
votes in the Wanni and east, the votes that can be delivered by
Thondaman and Ashraff he captive Jaffna vote and you get more than a
million in favour of the package. If this is combined with the
Sinhala votes which Chandrika and the various peace groups can
muster, the referendum can be, even by a slight margin, a success.
Thus such strategies keep the Tamil leaders occupied as usual.
As one can see, all this is a tangle of octopus, constitutional
nuances, electoral calculations, arguments, prevarication, maps,
legal issues etc.,
The Select Committee and the dialogue between the Tamil parties and
the PA do little to undo it but add further to its muddle as each
month passes by.
Once in a distant clime a honeyed voice, sweet and sugared by Ouzo,
read this to me from old Khayyam (Fitzgeraldís version of course) -
Myself when young , did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
about it and about: but ever more
came out by the same door as in I went
Id rather be condemned by the powers that be as an uncongenial
critic than be pampered as a purveyor of false hopes and half truths
to a war worn people.