Feature Article

"No solution other than the devolution of power is possible" - Batty Weerakoon

[TamilNet, Friday, 07 November 2003, 00:01 GMT]
"LSSP shares the realist approach that given the nature of constitutional amendment no solution other than the devolution of power is possible. As to how comprehensive it can be is subject to negotiation," said Batty Weerakoon, General Secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), in a wide ranging interview with TamilNet when TamilNet caught up with him on his private visit to the United States before the LTTE submitted its proposals for the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the NorthEast.

The LSSP, the oldest leftist party in the island, is one of the main constituents of the Peoples' Alliance (PA). Mr. Weerakoon was a Minister of science and technology and later Justice Minister in the last PA government.

The relationship between the PA and LSSP has been strained since the December 2000 election as the President failed to accommodate Mr. Batty Weerakoon in the national list of parliamentarians, violating an election understanding signed between the two parties.

Mr.Weerakoon has consistently attacked PA's chauvinism as PA tried to form an alliance with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party and has criticised PA's lack of an informed position "regarding the ongoing peace efforts and the UNF government's economic program."

However, his views of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as an acceptable one if not for its faulty implementation, and his justification of 1972 consitution claiming that the fundamental rights chapter guarantees the Tamils the rights and freedoms, raise questions on his political standing on the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

A Tamil political analyst remarked that, "the 1972 Sri Lankan constitution as a whole is designed precisely to prevent the Tamils from realising their rights and legitimate aspirations. This basic truth has been borne out well since 1972 when the first Sinhala Buddhist constitution was promulgated." Further the analyst added that the leftist parties which traditionally speak for the rights of minorities have dismally failed in Sri Lanka to bring about changes that protect the rights of NorthEast Tamils.

Following is the full version of the interview:

Batty Weerakoon
TamilNet: Can you give us your perspective of the origins of the LSSP and how the party has contributed to the evolution of politics in Sri Lanka?
Weerakoon: The LSSP was formed in 1935 from within the Suriya Mal campaign of the Youth League Movement organized by sections of the Ceylonese intelligentia with its centres principally in Colombo, Jaffna, Batticaloa and the more urban areas down South.The LSSP commenced a militant anti-colonial struggle drawing its support from the urban working class and the plantation workers and the depressed peasantry. It presented for the first time in Ceylon a programme which addressed the problems of the working class ( eg. as seen in the demand for the 8 hr working day) and of the peasantry (in respect of the neglect they suffered from colonial policy touching agriculture). It countered the British colonial strategy of divide and rule to which the Tamil leadership in the State Council had fallen prey and for which the Sinhala bourgeoisie had no answer or palliative. The LSSP's perspective was struggle for the immediate achievement of national independence. It exposed the divisive strategies of the colonial ruler for the maintenance of its exploitative interests in the country. It projected a national movement free of communalist division. Its opposition to the British war effort and its declared policy of using the conditions of the war for achieving its revolutionay objectives, and its rapid growth earned for itself proscription and the arrest and detention in jail and the outlawing of its principal leaders. The conditions of proscription which continued upto 1945 with the tacit support of local bourgeois political leaders allowed the British rulers to pursue their divisive strategies with the co-operation of the Sinhala and Tamil communalist politicians.

The Soulbury Constitution was the result of this. It is under that Constitution that plantation labour of Indian origin (i.e. the entire labour force ) was disenfranchised by a UNP government in 1948 despite the much vaunted Sec. 29. The Sinhala Only Act too was made part of the law despite sec. 29. The Sinhala Only Act and the LSSP's agitation against it earned for the LSSP the wrath of the Sinhala masses. By then the LSSP having emerged from proscription had strenthened itself electorally and gone into successful people's action as proved by the Hartal of August 1953. The LSSP was aware that its opposition to the Sinhala Only (as official language) policy would as Dr N.M.Perera stated at the time banish it to the political wilderness for a considerable time. Dr Colvin R de Silva predicted in Parliament that the Act would truncate the country into two bleeding pieces. The LSSP maintained its support for the demand of equal rights for the Tamil language too on a national basis. It did not favour the objective in the Federal Party's Pact with Bandaranaike and thereafter with Dudley Senanayake to solve the problem on a regional basis.

TamilNet: Why did LSSP support the "Sinhala Buddhist" constitution in 1972?
Weerakoon: The 1972 Constitution had as its principal objective the freeing of the economy from the imperial strangle-hold of Britain. The take over to the State the Sterling Company owned plantations and related mercantile establishments were the means sought for meaningful change. This was achieved by leaving no capability under the law for Britain to intervene in the process of change. By the time the [Constitution] Assembly was convened to draft the new Constitution the Federal Party had accepted the positions in the Senanayake-Chelvanayagam Pact and these provisions were incorporated in the Constitution in respect of language. A chapter on Fundamental Rigts too was incorporated and provisions made for the prohibition of legislation which by being discriminatory infringed them. The National Assembly (Parliament) was left free to amend the Constitution with only a two thirds majority - (no Referendum). The LSSP was prepared to make specific provision for the devolution of political power on a district and/or provincial basis but the FP having put forward the proposal for a federal union of five fictional divisions of the country walked out of the Assembly and boycotted it when its proposal was not entertained. The chapter on basic principles of State policy envisioned comprehensive devolution of political power to the people and their territorial regions. The LSSP does not view the 1972 Constitution as a 'Sinhala Buddhist' constitution as charged in the questions posed. This Constitution assures to Buddhism the foremost place without prejudice to other religions. Fundamental Rights apply here too.

TamilNet: LSSP was part of the United Front Government during 1970-77. This government dispossessed thousands of estate workers and drove them to abject poverty – many survived because they were settled in Vanni by Gandhiyam. Why did LSSP join such anti-worker activity?
Weerakoon: Although the nationalisation of the plantations was initiated by the LSSP in Cabinet the implementation of it took place after the LSSP was expelled from the Government in 1975 under imperialist pressure on the SLFP leadership. In the said implementation plantation labour in Nawalapitiya and Gampola areas were excluded from the plantations for no valid reason. This was done by SLFP MPs in these areas and LSSP had no responsibility in regard to this. The LSSP protested both in Parliament and through its trade unions.

TamilNet: What is LSSP's stand on the current peace process?
Weerakoon: LSSP was at all times supportive of peace processes initiated by the various governments. In 1984 it participated in JR Jayawardene's All Party Conference and proposed the devolution of power on a district and/or provincial basis and this was adopted by the govt but not pursued through the necessary amendment of the Constitution. LSSP supported the 13th Amendment to the Constitution when it was enacted in 1987 under Indian pressure, and participated in the Provincial Council elections that followed despite being targetted by JVP terrorism. Co-operated unconditionally with President Kumaratunga in the 1994 PA government in the drafting and presentation to Parliament of the Constitutional Amendment of Aug. 2000. It is supportive of the peace process initiated by the present government.

TamilNet: Can you give tell us LSSP's thinking on possible political solution to the conflict?
Weerakoon: LSSP shares the realist approach that given the nature of constitutional amendment (two thirds majority in Parliament and approval by Referendum) no solution other than the devolution of power is possible. As to how comprehensive it can be is subject to negotiation. The two major Sinhala parties - UNP and SLFP are committed to this and cannot backtrack. Consensus between these two parties is necessary. Among the Sinhalese the term "federalism" has been demonized but devolution of political power can achieve the necessary degree of autonomy for the N and E provinces. LSSP has no objection in principle to the N and E provinces in whole or in part being brought together as the unit of devolution for these provinces; but it does not believe that this is possible except through a democratic process in which the Muslim and Sinhala people in the EP have the freedom to participate in matters pertaining to them or affecting them.

TamilNet: How did you, as a Marxist, support the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)?
Weerakoon: LSSP denounced it at the time it was enacted - cf. Dr Colvin R de Silva's pamphlet titled "Militarisation". In the people's eyes it was justified by the terrorist attacks on the Sri Maha Bodiya, the Dalada Maligawa, killing of monks in Arantalawa, and the massacre of Muslims who were at prayer in their mosque in the EP. These were mindless acts of terrorism - wholly provocative and could not be justified in relation to any political struggle.

TamilNet: The question is about your stand. Are you saying that you agree with the draconian provisions of the PTA that allow security forces to arrest any Tamil with flimsiest of reasons, incarcerate him/her in jail for 3,4 or more years, burn the body of any dead without proper inquiry, are all justified because of the acts you accuse the LTTE of?
Weerakoon: This is an over statement of the effect of the exercise of the powers under the PTA. The LSSP does not deny that the PTA was abused. Its fault is that it lends itself to abuse. In in several instances the FR Court or the Committee for Prevention of Harrasment has intervened and given redress. The LSSP does not justify the PTAbut the acts of the LTTE gave to the PTA a rationale and justification which it otherwise would not have had.

TamilNet: Emergency Regulations?
Weerakoon: These are enacted under the Public Security Act which has been part of the Constitution from 1972 to the present day. In the 1958 attack on the Tamils by Sinhala racisits Dr N.M.Perera charged the SLFP-MEP government that the declaration of a State of Emergency was done 48 hours too late.

TamilNet: There is a view that nationalism is an ideology constructed and deployed by a certain class to promote its interests among a people. Would you see Sinhala nationalism in this sense or something more pervasive, cutting across the spectrum of social classes?

And how do you see the growth of nationalism among the Tamils during the early phases and during the last two decades of armed struggle?

In a recent interview, Prof.Jeyadeva Uyangoda has said, “There are basic assumptions of Sinhala Nationalism – such as Sri Lanka is an exclusively Sinhala polity. The ruling class is questioning some of these assumptions. I think the problem is their understanding of the Tamil question – they still consider it a minority question. I would say that it is a question of two nations. The Sinhala ruling class has not yet come to that level of understanding.” Can you comment.
Weerakoon: The LSSP recognizes the use of the term 'nationalism' by both Sinhala and Tamil communities in relation to their ethnic identity. The LSSP has not adopted this usage and sees the present ethnic conflict as the result of a comprador bourgeoisie's failure to accomplish the bourgeois project of the 'nation state' which reflects a political as different from ethnic identity. A democratic political system that accommodates pluralist society through devices such as the 'devolution of politic power', 'internal self-determination' / autonomus functioning for ethnic / cultural groupings identified with specific territory are the basics to be recognized in a political solution to our ethnic problem. The two-nations approach of Jeyadeva Uyangoda in the passage you are citing has in it a spurious tribalist residue which perpetuates conflict and writes off the Muslim community. It is discourse that provides no credible solution to the problem at hand. Within this discourse extremist political elements/forces gain ground. The JVP has exploited this opening. Its struggle is not with the Left Parties but the SLFP in capturing the latter's communalist support base. It has to be admitted that due to their anti-chauvinist positions the Left Parties are disadvantaged electorally both in Sinhala and Tamil areas.

TamilNet: In a statement issued in April 2002, you said “Deproscription of the LTTE should be considered only when the organization has proved that it has disengaged itself from terrorist politics.” In hindsight do you think UNF was wrong in deproscribing the LTTE that opened the way for peace talks?
Weerakoon: This was a measure contemplated by the PA government to be carried through with the commencement of negotiations with the LTTE. The LSSP advanced this position when consulted on the question. The deproscription of the LTTE by the UNF government on the commencement of negotiations is not different from this. LSSP approves it.

TamilNet: The LTTE is seeking an Interim Administration mechanism to rebuild northeast; the Sri Lanka Government continues to imply that this has to be done within the constitution. Tamil constitutional experts point out that an interim mechanism established within the parameters of the constitution would be ineffective. Do you see an impasse developing here?
Weerakoon: Ordinarily the LSSP would have no objection in principle to the functioning of an IA . But with the LTTE's demand that it should play a predominant part in the IA and considering that it remains an armed organization it is not possible to see how an IA could function within the FR guarantees, and with due respect to democratic and human rights of the people of both these provinces. An IA functioning outside the country's Constitution as reportedly projected by the LTTE is an impossibility. The law does not allow it.

TamilNet: In recent statements you have indicated that no agreements in power sharing with LTTE should be reached without the LTTE agreeing to decommission arms. Given the predominant view of Tamils that LTTE’s military power is considered necessary to sustain strategic balance in the peace process how will you explain your position?
Weerakoon: The LSSP does not see the possibility of the LTTE giving up its arms till a final political settlement is reached. For successful negotiations this is a factor that has to be seriosly considered. The LSSP has been apprehensive of what Dr Colvin R de Silva characterised (1987) as the 'internationalisation' of the ethnic conflict. However the LSSP is of the view that in the role assigned to the international community by both the UNP and the PA governments from 1987 there should now be the possibility of giving to both GOSL and LTTE guarantees on what is negotiated (including what relates to a phased decommissioning of LTTE arms).


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