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17th December, 2006  Volume 13, Issue 23

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Interview

ĎWe expected a united reportí

Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera

Constitutional Affairs and National Integration Minister D. E. W. Gunasekera says that although the new emergency regulations and the governmentís decision to enforce the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) are not in the best interests of the country, when the situation demands, the government is required to enforce some restrictions. "When we discussed this question we have tried to minimise the effects of these regulations on the ordinary people, media and all democratic acts like picketing and demonstrations as far as possible. That is why unlike in previous times we decided to give these powers to be exercised by the highest level like DIGs," he said in an interview with The Sunday Leader.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

Q: How do you see the new emergency regulations and the decision to enforce the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)?

A: Any regulation under the emergency is not in the best interests of the country. Naturally because when you speak of the established laws, but when the situation demands of course the government is required to enforce some restrictions. The government was called upon to do so. When we discussed this question we have tried to minimise the effects of these regulations on the ordinary people, media and all democratic acts like picketing and demonstrations as far as possible. That is why unlike in previous times we decided to give these powers to be exercised by the highest level like DIGs. Earlier it was up to the OICs to enforce it. Now of course the President and the IGP can keep a close watch and take action if there are any abuses in enforcing the law. So to that extent we have tried to minimise the effects of these regulations.

Q: How certain can you be that these regulations brought in the name of combating terrorism will not be used to curtail civil liberties?

A: Thatís why I said that any regulation might lead to the curtailment of civil liberties. That I agree, but when the situation demands the government has to respond. It has been so in the past as well. For the democratic functioning terrorism is a big impediment and then the government has to make sure the smooth functioning of democracy. That is the reason why the government introduced the regulations to be used very sparingly and to be used for the curtailment of terrorist activities.

That is why we went to the extent of applying the UN regulations. If you go through, you will see that the UN has approved most of the regulations. We also have included various laws passed earlier like the one on money laundering passed earlier. So far, since the enforcement there have not been any complaints because we are monitoring very closely and the cabinet itself is not at all happy about enforcing the law, even the President.

Q: We have already had many cases reported of disappearances and abductions not only in the north and east but also the south. Will these regulations therefore not increase the fear psychosis that is developing among the people?

A: The disappearances and the abductions have happened prior to the enforcement of these regulations. I donít think so. Sometimes these regulations might act as a deterrent to these abductions.

Q: You were one person who opposed the banning of the LTTE in cabinet last week. Nevertheless, wonít the new regulations, especially the reintroduction of the PTA impact adversely on the peace process?

A: The peace process is already at a standstill. I canít say what transpired at the cabinet, but my belief as I have openly said is that Iím against the banning of the LTTE because we are in the thick of the peace process. No doubt there have been ceasefire violations since the agreement was signed in 2002. The SLMM itself has reported the violations.

In any peace process, judging by the international experiences violations take place and that is why there is a monitoring team. The real reason why the talks collapsed is due to political reasons. However, my conception is that the LTTE has not abandoned its Eelam project and is not prepared to accept an alternative yet. Obviously they must be testing what the new leader is like.

Pirapaharan said in his Mahaveer message in 2006, soon after President Mahinda Rajapakse was sworn in, that the President was a pragmatic leader and that the LTTE would give him one year, but they did not even give him 10 days. That is why I came to the conclusion that the LTTE has not yet abandoned Eelam. Also they must be thinking of creating a situation in order to put the whole question to the UN Security Council. This is my personal view after judging everything.

If they can push it through to the Security Council on the basis of state genocide that come within the ambit of the UN, the UN can intervene. We have been warning the government to be extremely careful not to allow others to intervene because this is an internal matter. We know what happened in other instances. Things can go out of hand. The LTTE agenda is not yet clear, that is the reason the government has been compelled to do things. When things happen the government canít keep quiet. We have not declared war. Iím against the declaration of war, but one can interpret that this is an undeclared war.

Q: The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) is expected to meet this week. Can you see anything worthwhile coming out of this exercise now that the JVP has withdrawn from the committee?

A: I really regret that the JVP walked away and it is my fervent hope that they would come back to the talks. The national question demands the consensus of all political parties. It is my position though that it primarily lies with the two main parties in the country, but you must try as much as possible even to contain the extremist parties in the south as well as to arrive at some consensus in the larger interest of the country.

But where the whole thing has failed if you go back to history, from the point where the whole problem began, really the SLFP and the UNP have been in power alternatively and these two parties have failed to bring a consensus between each other. Now the SLFP and the UNP have signed a MoU that has given the best opportunity for them to assert themselves and search for a political solution.

In these circumstances, the JVP, which represents about 8-10% of the voting population and having 30 odd MPs in parliament, has the opportunity to once and for all solve this question. It is a matter of regret at this point. The government does not want to discard the JVP or the JHU. I personally I believe that the primary responsibility lies with the SLFP and the UNP. If they can command about 80% of the vote in the country, then others will change their minds and follow. If the two main parties, the Muslim parties and all the non LTTE Tamil parties could come to a position, then 90% of the problem is over disregarding the JVP and the JHU, but we must try to contain and let them not be a nuisance or a menace.

Q: Is there any credibility to this process given the governmentís decision to distance itself from the majority report of the expertís committee?

A: No, I think there is a whole lot of misinformation there. I know when the All Party Conference was convened I was present there and I made the opening remarks at the first meeting. Immediately after the APC, the President announced the formation of the two expert panels and the political representative committee. I was a member of the representative committee but resigned as I was a minister and wanted my party to continue with the process while I monitored from outside.

I presided over one meeting of these committees and gave a briefing although it came directly under the President. The expert panel consisting of constitutional and legal experts was asked to study the question. When the letters of appointment were given to them, they were asked to study the question and make recommendations to the APC. Them being the intellectuals of the country holding high positions, we expected they would be able to present a united report, so you see that even the intellectuals in the country cannot come to a consensus. It reflects the reality of the Sri Lankan society.

They would have sincerely tried to come to some consensus, but failed. That report Ė the majority report, the minority report and the observations by two distinguished members like K. H. J Wijedasa and M. D. Peiris are all interim reports and they are tabled before the committee. The whole problem was when it was leaked out to the press. All 17 members have a copy and when it was given to the political parties, Iím not surprised of the leak out. The other thing is questions over the subscription of signatures by three public officials. It is now a serious allegation against the innocent public servants by the JVP and the JHU. But really, the President in the letter of appointment has appointed them as members of the panel. Naturally if they are members of the panel then they are bound to express their opinion.

That does not mean the majority report has become government policy. A recommendation becomes government policy when it is approved by the cabinet. This has not even come to the President. Even I got the report after it was published in the media. It is an unfortunate event. You cannot find fault for doing what the officials have been asked to do. Now the APC will have to consider all these reports Ė the majority and minority reports and the observations Ė and the political parties, I heard the UNP has decided to come back, will have to study it.

Q: What is your view on the majority report of the expertís committee? Do you think it should be further diluted or be the basis of further negotiations?

A: There are certain issues that need consideration and certain issues that would be difficult for the people to digest. You must understand the process. We will have to finally sell this to the country and amend the constitution, which needs two-thirds majority in parliament and then the Supreme Court will say to go for a referendum and we will have to go to the people.

The solution should be acceptable to the Tamil people. I underline this. It is not what the LTTE demands, but what the Tamil people really need. That is what most of our politicians donít understand. We always try to find a political solution based on what Tamil people need and not the LTTEís demands. Everyone has agreed that there is a problem in need of a solution and the solution should be acceptable to all.

Over 76% of the people are Sinhalese and if they reject it at a referendum, you canít do it. We are yet at the formative stage. Iím happy that the UNP has come back to the APC, but I have suggested to the President as well as the leader of the opposition that once these recommendations come, the two main parties should discuss it in depth.

Q: UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has welcomed the majority report and said it could form the basis to develop a southern consensus with the SLFP. But given the governmentís response can you see it wanting to develop on this report?

A: It is still possible. The government has not rejected the proposals. Not only that, there are several good points in the observations, the minority report and the majority report. The government is not bound to accept the majority report. The government appoints committees sometimes to make recommendations, sometimes the government accepts the minority report. It is not dependent on minority or majority, but the content. Therefore Iím inclined to believe that there are very good points in the minority report and the observations. We will have to consider. The parties in their final analysis may prepare some proposals, and if the UNP and SLFP agree to it, half the problems are over. I think that is why with regard to the electoral reforms and the 17th amendment we are doing the same thing. We are trying to bring about a consensus. We donít want to force it down on the minority parties. As long as they agree, it is easier to push it through parliament.

Q: Donít you think the governmentís policy on the ethnic conflict is driven by the JVP and the JHU?

A: I donít think. The SLFP policy is not that. The President considers the national question something that demands the intervention of all political parties. We know in the past when the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam pact was signed, Rajaratnam made a nuisance of himself over it. Then the UNP got upset and organised a march and Bandaranaike gave up the agreement. Even a small minority party can become a nuisance and a menace later, then the majority parties get scared.

If you go back, the contents of the Bandaranaike-Chelvan-
ayagam pact have been implemented although they were opposed then. It happened to Dudley Senanayake as well. Today it looks very puerile for us to have rejected them then. Again in 1987 I was the only opposition member who voted for the 13th amendment amidst life threats. I was in parliament at 6 a.m. that day due to threats. That is the country we live in. The small parties become a menace and the larger parties get frightened. Same pattern is happening today.

Q: Despite the tight security cordon in the city and the new regulations, the JVP led Patriotic National Movement (PNM) held a demonstration against the expert committee report and marched towards Temple Trees and handed over a petition to the Presidentís secretary. Does this not show complicity with the government?

A: Now on the other hand you will say the government is trying to use these regulations against the people. This is one instance where the government has not used the emergency regulations. No doubt we allowed them to because they have the perfect right to oppose it and we donít challenge it. We donít agree with them but they have the right to oppose.

Q: Are you then saying that even the Anti War Front could hold a demonstration and march to Temple Trees unobstructed?

A: Well the government has not given in. The government has not decided to ban the LTTE in spite of the pressure to do so. Well, the regulations have not been used to prevent the people and last weekís protest was allowed by the kindness of the President.

Q: As Constitutional Affairs Minister how do you see the failure to constitute the Constitutional Council even after the SLFP and the UNP signed an MoU, which speaks of a framework for good governance?

A: Iím chairman of the select committee going into the operations of the 17th amendment The 17th amendment ran into a crisis and party leaders in parliament took a decision that we must have a select committee and the President, agreed and now the sittings have been completed and we are preparing the report. Before presenting it we have identified all the problem areas. The 17th amendment was a hasty piece of legislation, so we needed to look into it. There are so many flaks ó we are going to remove them and make it workable and by January 1 will present the interim report and once that is sorted all the councils will come back.


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