We are told endlessly that, once the war in the North ends, either by the defeat of the LTTE or by their giving up their weapons, negotiations with all concerned parties would be initiated. We have also been informed recently that the open military confrontation with the LTTE may be expected to come to an end next year but a guerilla-type war could persist for twenty years or more thereafter. It means that, for a long time to come, all of us would just have to get used to bombs going off periodically in public places, trains, buses and so on, and to live under emergency rule for the duration. Furthermore, Tamils will continue to be subject to a special level of discrimination and harassment that other sections of our society will not have to face. This is hardly the kind of peace for which the people of this country have been tightening their belts and enduring so much misery over the decades.
The Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) believes that, whatever means are employed to bring the war with the LTTE to an end, and whatever negotiations follow, with whatever parties, the peace that is necessary for national unity and rapid national progress will not materialise unless a favourable environment is created beforehand for the credible and effective implementation of the agreements which one hopes to reach during such negotiations. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past where accords were concluded and laws were passed without a sound legislative and executive substructure in place to ensure that there would be foolproof compliance.
CIMOGG is of the view that the solution to the National Question can be divided into two components. The first component includes whatever needs to be done to solve the problems of all citizens in general and to set up properly empowered non-political institutions which will safeguard the public interest. This component of the solution would not address any specific minority problems but would help remove the more serious constraints that all citizens face, irrespective of their background. Much of this phase of the solution can be completed unilaterally by the Government without waiting for the war to end because existing laws already give the Government considerable rights and powers to do so without waiting for anyone else’s approval.
Apart from the subsisting laws on which the Government can rely, there are other important new laws which are known to be in a high state of preparedness for processing by Parliament. Indeed, there are also older laws which have been well studied and which could be improved suitably at short notice. Among the critical items to be taken up are the implementation of the 17th Amendment (upgraded, if possible), the passing of the Right to Information Act and plainly worded laws conforming to the various UN Covenants and Protocols that Sri Lanka has ratified (without trying to avoid the issue by presenting convoluted legal arguments about how all the rights conferred on the citizen by these Aforeign imports can be derived from some obscurely worded parts of the present Constitution). Public Interest Litigation should also be facilitated by appropriate legislation. The protection of Free Speech and Media Freedom requires specific and clear legislation (without having to rely, once again, on far-fetched interpretations of existing laws).
If the Government is sincerely interested in peace, it will not hesitate to commit itself to take these first steps. The next step would be to persuade all non-Governmental parties to extend their support, particularly to those legislative processes which require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The more cynical of our readers would justifiably start guffawing uncontrollably at the idea that the Government and the Opposition would cooperate on anything other than getting their salaries and privileges enhanced, and securing yet more duty-free car permits. These readers would argue quite rightly that, if the Opposition parties help the Government to achieve peace, they (the Opposition) would thereby surrender their chances of ever again winning any elections against the incumbent party or coalition. The question is how to get over this hurdle.
The logical way to get the Opposition, the media and the general public to cooperate would be to get them to support all laws which will benefit not only ordinary citizens but also establish powerful independent institutions to provide a level playing field for political activity, both during elections and at other times. Cooperation on the first component would not involve committing the Opposition to dividing the country or giving power to any particular group, armed or not. Hence, the Opposition would have a lot to gain by cooperating to make a success of the first phase as described above. All these things can be done very quickly if there is sufficient political will, principally on the part of the major parties, to extricate Sri Lanka from the mess that it is in socially, politically and economically, particularly in respect of the many areas in which our freedom to speak, and to act, are so rudely circumscribed.
If we do not have the first component firmly finalised before negotiations commence, we would get dragged prematurely into the second component of the solution to the National Question, without the ground being properly readied beforehand. The second component would automatically get confined only to negotiations in respect of contentious regional issues such as land, police powers, electoral boundaries etc and not to matters which affect the freedom and well-being of all citizens. Providing the first phase is completed honestly and speedily, the second phase would become much less confrontational because the mechanisms would already be in place for successful implementation of whatever is agreed.
When completed, the first component will help to give better equity, justice, security, freedom of speech etc to every Sri Lankan citizen, irrespective of race, religion, gender, class, family connections, education and wealth, as well as freedom to every political party to contest elections without having to deploy members of the underworld or policemen under threat to violate election laws. Once those in conflict with State or the Government see that a genuine effort has been made by the Government and the Opposition to create and firmly sustain a more equitable and law-abiding society, the people will themselves apply pressure on all fractious groups to be more flexible and accommodating in pursuing the path of negotiating peace during the second phase, rather than warring for it.
Once we have a sound foundation on which the second phase can be founded, the UN, the EU, India, the International Community and others will have little excuse for getting involved in problems which we ourselves could solve with just a little goodwill, a little more intelligence and lot more hard work.