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Government Gazette

'Colvin, Unitary State and APRC Baby'

Prof. Tissa Vitharana


Name - Prof. Tissa Vitharana
Schools - Trinity College, Kandy & Ananda College, Colombo
Professional status - Doctor of Medicine (MBBS, MD, PhD & Dip. Bact)
Entered Parliament - 2004
Portfolio then and now - Minister of Science & Technology


Prof. Tissa Vitharana

He was destined to heal and relieve people suffering from pain. This gentleman whom I met at his residence at Nawala is quite simple and it was difficult to believe he has tread on the political path. I first inquired from the policeman on duty at his gate whether the Minister was in.

The Constable replied-'Yes'. I then said it can't be as the Minister's official vehicle was not there and asked the PC to double check. "Our Minister does not use his official car for personal work. He came and sent the car back to the Ministry", was the reply.

There was an old 15- station wagon parked under the porch. That is the personal vehicle of this exemplary man in politics, a doctor of medicine, Prof. Tissa Vitharana. I, for a moment wondered that if all our politicians followed the disciplined lifestyle of this great doctor of medicine, what a bright future was in store for Sri Lanka and her people.

Clad in a T-Shirt and a sarong, Prof. Tissa Vitharana greeted me with a mellifluous smile to sit for this -Eye to Eye- chat. His dream had been to become a doctor to relieve people of their pains. Some of his patients, though cured, had contracted the same illness to return for treatment.

Prof. Vitharana had seen that there was a socio-economic problem surrounding such diseases. Being the Registrar to the Professor of Medicine of the then Ceylon University, serving at the Colombo General Hospital, he finally diagnosed the cause was a political problem in the country.

He saw irregularities in society, injustices and lack of opportunities and found it difficult to follow the state of the world. He began to study the doctrine of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and many others. From that point he was looking forward to achieve economic development for all people through a World Socialist Order to eliminate all social ills.

Prof. Vitharana is a man who fears to tread on paths, where Angels do fear to tread. But, in his thought, word and deed, his character displayed he would not allow 'unholy elements' to obstruct his path as he possessed scientific experience to drive away such elements, to accomplish the noble task he has embarked upon with much confidence. It was in that perspective, the learned Professor began to answer the following questions:-

Q: What is the current status of the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC)?

A: We have been meeting for one year and three months and had 46 meetings. Fifteen political parties have been associated with our discussions, of which two have now dropped out. One is the JVP and the other is the UNP.

Till the end of August they have been within the APRC but not participated at some of the meetings. Now they have said publicly they have dropped out of the APRC. Initially I presented a document and other parties have been giving their views and amendments to that document.

Among those we identified certain core issues and we have been discussing those issues. Majority of the parties that are involved in discussion today are members of the government. We had very controversial issues that came up but, we are progressing smoothly.

Some controversial issues were addressed at meetings chaired by the President and some by the committee headed by the Prime Minister. As a result of those discussions there has been a measure of agreement on what should go into the final document. That is basically what is happening now.

Q: How have other parties which are and were in the APRC contributed towards finding a lasting solution?

A: This is an exercise where everyone is trying to reach a consensus. They are basically trying to reach a southern consensus. This is very important as one of the arguments that the LTTE has always used was that there was no point in going into core issues or key issues with any government because the opposition was not a party to those discussions.

They held that any agreement reached with a Government was of no value because when the opposition comes to power such agreements will not be honoured. The move by the President to set up the All Party Conference was extremely good as it helped to undermine that argument of the LTTE.

Now, on behalf of the All Party Conference, the APRC is in the process of trying to reach a consensus. Every party has come before the APRC with its own particular positions.

The discussions are based to help resolve such differences of opinion and come to a common position with a considerable degree of compromise among the different parties. There are several issues where suitable compromise has already been reached. There were one or two issues there were very strong insistence that surfaced via media.

Hopefully such issues too would be resolved and included in the ultimate exercise. My concern is that I look at the whole issue as one in which we have to provide a set of proposals which the Tamil people will feel adequate to meet their aspirations and at the same time address the grievances and problems they have at present. It is to the extent that we achieve such a document it would be possible to win them over.

In our battle against militant groups, so long as the militant groups retain the support of the people for whom they are struggling, they cannot be defeated. On the other hand, if we find and achieve a situation in which the people can find an alternative acceptable to them, then the militant groups will get isolated.

Once they get isolated from the people they become vulnerable. Like the famous saying of Mao Tse Tung they become like fish out of water. So long as they are in the water, you cannot see them, you cannot catch them. But, once they are out of the water it makes things easy.

That is basically the situation confronting us. We have to work out a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil people to give them confidence to live as one people of one country. While doing that we have to retain the support of the Sinhala and Muslim people. This is the delicate task we are engaged in. It has to be achieved out of the consensus that we reach. Well, we will see how well we are able to progress.

Q: Do you view the controversy over the 'Unitary State' as an obstacle to the progress of the APRC?

A: It is unfortunate that people are guided by these terms which have lost their original meaning. The term 'unitary' basically signifies that the Central Government can withdraw whatever powers that are devolved to the provinces.

Therefore, the Tamil minority as well as the Muslim minority feel that the danger exists as long as the term 'unitary' stands. In their reckoning, shall I say that 'unitary' has become a bad word. On the other side, for the Sinhala majority in particular, 'federal' has become a bad word. So anything that is given with the label of 'federal' is being viewed with suspicion.

This has become a cause for dissent and failure to reach a consensus. I really feel that we should not allow such words to come, in reaching a solution.

There are two or three points we have to keep in mind and one is that countries which have been thought to be unitary, for instance take Britain, today there are Parliaments set up in Scotland and in Wales, now also in Northern Ireland where considerable power enjoyed by Westminster has been handed over to those regions where some people claim that the framework has lost its unitary identity. Others are saying that at any point, theoretically the Westminster can withdraw such powers.

Whether it can be done in practice or not is another question. On the other side we have India, which is supposed to be federal or quasi federal, where, if it feels that a State Government was acting to the contrary it could dissolve a State Government and impose direct rule which even in a classical federal set up is not permissible.

These differences have got blurred and to stick to words like the word of God is very unrealistic and unreasonable. On the other side, if you take the example of Canada where you find several states or provinces, Quebec is one of them the French speaking crowd.

In Quebec there is a separatist movement. They want to set up a separate state, which means a country. There, those who are opposed to the separatists are the federalists.

Federalists want to remain in Canada and have a federal administration. They want Quebec retained in Canada and the separatists are the opponents of the federalists.

Whereas in our country, federal is viewed as a dirty word by some sections of the political scene claiming it is equivalent to separatism, which is not so in reality. These positions some of these political parties taking are not based on facts and what exactly happens in reality in other countries. It is really a process of generating fear.

If you look at the whole problem that arose in Sri Lanka, a fear that was generated has been used as a weapon to prevent a solution to the problem. In 1956 there was no ethnic problem; there was only a language problem.

At that time what the Tamil people wanted was Tamil to be an official language alongside Sinhala. There were some Tamil federalists at that time and they were considered extremists and by and large the majority of Tamil people rejected them. All they wanted was a solution to the language problem.

At that particular time extreme elements in the South claimed that if Tamil was made an official language every single Sinhala will be forced to learn Tamil. the second claim was that the Tamil people will be able to get the jobs of the Sinhala people.

Such was the fear generated to prevent Tamil being made an official language. That was how political parties acted in the past to come to power. I am sorry to say that such a situation still prevails in this country.

Q: Professor, would you accept that the late Dr. Colvin R. De Silva made a big blunder by including the 'unitary state' concept to the 1972 constitution? From 1948-72, this country was one nation even without that term.

I put this question to you fearlessly to a socialist of your calibre, as Dr. Colvin was the person who advocated the theory of - One Language, Two Nations AND Two Languages, One Nation. Being aware of the developments after the 1956 language issue, it is my position that Dr. Silva committed this blunder when drafting 1972 Constitution to please those in the then Government.

A: Ah...Ah.. .Ah (laughs the Professor)...Well, the LSSP and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva were not for a unitary state. This was a decision where the major party in that coalition Government was very strongly advocating as they are doing now.

Therefore, a decision was taken to have the support for a new Constitution which would sever our links, dependence and subordination to the British and get complete independence, because 1948 was no complete independence. It was partial independence. To become completely independent and become a republic, the LSSP felt it was more important to give in on that issue and that is what Colvin himself wanted.

Q:- Be that as it may Mr. Minister, you have now embarked on a mission to find a solution. Will you base your solution on a unitary, united or federal structure in your final draft?

A:- Each party is there in the APRC with its own voice. Everyone is equal in those discussions. They have right to their own positions. Now we are discussing to understand each others point of view to see where necessary adjustments could be made to work out a really indigenous solution.

It's not something thrust from outside. We meet as various groups of representatives of the people of our country. In the interest of those people we are trying to work out a solution, not everybody but the majority of the people will accept.

Q:-The international community is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the APRC. How do you view the interest of that community towards this internal problem of this country?

A:- I would like to say that international community has its own agenda and every country has its own agenda. They too have common interests shared to humanity in general.

Here, I see that the international community can play a very important role in resolving this problem. We are all part of a world. India is our nearest neighbour and a significant number of displaced persons are living in India.

Therefore, India is involved in this problem. In a way the big powers who are involved in providing economic assistance would like to see such assistance is distributed evenly to everybody and not grabbed by a particular group. In that situation they wish to see a resolution of the problem.

At the same time we must keep in mind that they have their own agendas in mind. They have their economic and political factors which we have to keep in mind. During the colonial era, those countries succeeded in subjugating our country to the principle of divide and rule. Those practices have not died out with the direct end of colonial rule.

Those dangers also exist and we must keep them in mind. The APRC will work out our own solution, among ourselves in a cordial atmosphere. I am happy to say that there is a cordial atmosphere still prevailing within the APRC.I hope it will be sustained until we finalise our document. We must prepare ourselves to bring out a document to be the basis for future talks and a future Constitution for our country.

Q: In a process towards the preparation of a final document where do the Tamil parties stand before the APRC?

A: From the point of view of the people of the North and the East, the EPDP is there with other Tamil parties outside that area. There are four Muslim political parties included in the fray. Unfortunately, the Tamil National Alliance has not been a part of this process.

I personally would have liked if they were a part of this exercise. I did speak to bring them in, a bit late in the process. I made a concrete suggestion to their leader Sambanthan but, there has not been any positive response.

Other parties have been very interested from the beginning. One is the TULF headed by Anandasangaree, and the others are the EPRLF and the PLOTE. They have submitted their stand to us in writing. Those have been taken into consideration. I have had regular meeting with those leaders throughout the process.

They have been very supportive of the APRC process. They have said that any reduction in the unit of devolution which is the province in the present constitution would be totally unacceptable. In the same way they are unhappy with the status of the solution being unitary. Those are their positions and we must interact with them to work out some positions acceptable to them. If we cannot win over the moderate parties, it will make things impossible to win over the Tamil people.

Q: Let us now conclude this talk on a more positive note. Everyday we hear and read that the APRC final document would be born soon. You seem to scream in labour pains silently to deliver at the earliest. Even a caesarean operation is not recommended.

To me it looks like the sound of the distant drums.. so near yet so far.. So when will you deliver this baby?

A: (Minister cracks into laughter) All I can say is that it is getting nearer. One of the reasons I tried to set two deadlines was for the simple reason that the UNP set us a deadline.

Here I must say that I am very disappointed that the UNP did not actively participate in this process. Initially they made a very useful contribution. The document they submitted was very balanced and useful in taking the process forward. In the second document they submitted they said they had accepted the document I prepared as a satisfactory basis for future discussions.

Now their decision to back out actually upset the balance in the APRC. It weakened the process and I am very sorry that it happened. It would have been very much better if they had remained. I thought when they set deadlines they would comeback to the process.

If the two main parties that form Governments in the country become partners to the common document that will give an assurance to the Tamil people that whatever Government that comes to power will honour the proposals that are drafted as proposals by these two parties. I was trying to meet those deadlines pressing members of the APRC to draw the UNP back into the forum.

Well...... there was dissent from certain parties within the APRC that delayed the process. We must now hold discussions to reach a final consensus document of maximal use in solving this problem. Now I am not so bothered about deadlines.

I am prepared to allow it to take its own course. But, my own feeling is that it should not be allowed to drag on because various people who want to disrupt the process will have more time to do that. At the same time if it drags on, people will begin to lose confidence.

We need people to actively support this... and the quicker we can work out a solution, better it will be from the point of view of everybody.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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