The Truth is Bitter
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Assisted by Natasha Akolawala

A vociferous campaigner of power sharing to heal the ethnic wounds of this island since his early days in politics, Dilan Perera cut his teeth in the power game at the provincial level a decade ago and made the promotion of a new political order his key concern.
Holding a commerce special degree, he also qualified as an attorney-at-law and used his twin qualifications to become a controversial politician with a fresh outlook.
He was Opposition Leader, Uva Provincial Council before entering Parliament in 1994. Perera also played a significant role in the ‘Sudu Nelum’ Movement and ‘Book and Brick’ program which were aimed at educating the masses on the need to share power.
Perera’s commitment to negotiated peace and his strong advocacy of a federal solution earned him the portfolio of Deputy Minister of Justice, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration in 1999.
With the UPFA electoral victory in April 2004, Dilan Perera was appointed Deputy Minister of Ports and Civil Aviation. He also serves as a member of the parliamentary committee on public enterprise (COPE), the privileges committee and the public petitions committee. The young legislator also functions as SLFP District Secretary, Badulla District and SLFP organizer for the Hali Ela electorate.
Business Today interviewed the Deputy Minister of Ports and Civil Aviation on the road map to peace, the proposed joint mechanism, and the JVP-SLFP alliance.

Q:As someone who has been consistently advocating a peaceful solution to the ethnic question, what are the reasons you identify for the delay in starting the peace process?

A:Until the tsunami affected the country, the main problem we faced in restarting the peace process was the hardline stance taken by the LTTE on the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). The way that the UNP handled the peace talks resulted in the LTTE walking out of the peace process in Tokyo in April 2003. However in November, the LTTE made the ISGA proposal the single condition for peace negotiations and since then it has been a stalemate situation.
The ISGA proposal, it is common knowledge, caused more disagreements than agreements. It was not only the SLFP, but the UNP, several Tamil and Muslim political parties as well the JVP disagreed with it.
Till the tsunami devastated the country, the LTTE’s position was that if they were to resume peace talks, it had to be based on the terms drawn up in the ISGA. This was the chief reason why the government of that time did not find common g round to restart the peace process immediately.
Personally, I feel that whatever the prevailing circumstances may be, it is important to at least start the initiative of peace talks. We have often played for time and dealt with the country’s most crucial issue in a protracted manner, that over t he years, it has intensified.
However, as one alliance, the UPFA, we experience several internal difficulties in doing so mainly due to differences I n opinion with regard to the ISGA. But after the tsunami, an opportunity has emerged. The LTTE was forced, like all other political parties, to abandon its rigid ideologies, change their political agendas and move towards the formation of a joint mechanism.
Urgent humanitarian and developmental needs prevail in the LTTE-controlled areas, which must be immediately addressed. This has made the discussion on a joint mechanism once more possible and it is happening in relation to post-tsunami relief work. This mechanism could be used as the first stepping-stone towards kick-starting the peace process. A new window of opportunity has been flung open and my fervent wish is that we would make use of the opportunity.

Q:But isn’t there opposition within the present government itself about a joint mechanism? Don’t you find your severest critics and opponents within your folds?

A:Yes. It is mainly because of un-addressed doubts that have been created by the notion that the government cannot trust the LTTE and vice versa. But if we do not make any attempt to rectify this matter and continue rejecting all opportunities, there will be no way to win the hearts and minds of people from both divides.
Presently, the JVP, our main alliance partner, is expressing uncertainties about the joint mechanism as they feel it will eventually lead to a separate state. The SLFP, however, believes that this mechanism will be the first stepping-stone to build confidence between the two sides, a nd enable the possibilities of working together and then fi nding more favorable grounds in the peace process. If we can convince the JVP that these endeavors can be fruitful to the peace process and the country, then the JVP will come around.
Speaking of which, the JVP leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe has made a significant statement recently. He has urged t he international community to provide Sri Lanka with a road map that could effectively lead the country towards a permanent solution to the ethnic question. Amarasinghe has said t hat in other conflict-ridden states, the international community has given such road maps, indicating stages and specific goals to achieve. The JVP’s stand is that instead of such a positive role, the Sri Lankan government is simply being dictated to and that the JVP found it difficult to support a process like t hat.
I would like to appeal to the JVP leader and his party to see the truth. The joint mechanism is all about paving the way or that road map he is talking about. The UPFA will not be rudderless when it comes to negotiations. The mechanism that is proposed will be the first step in that road map. The JVP should see it as such and come forward to support the government’s move.
The SLFP as a political party that has always thought about t he country first and the party second, must now take the right step, and that is to continue with the joint mechanism. Political decisions have to be taken at the right time, if not, it will be counter-productive. If it is delayed it will be unfavorable also.
I am aware that this political decision is extremely risky and is a brave decision to make, yet I’m confident that the President is ready to take that decision.
We must first attempt to talk with the JVP and reassure t hem that this joint mechanism is not a stepping-stone to a separate statehood; rather it is only for a specific purpose where all parties, citizen representatives and NGOs will participate.
Today there even exists a tsunami disaster zone and this is a lso a joint mechanism for a specific purpose. This joint mechanism will pave the way for the government to work together in LTTE-controlled areas whilst striving to repair relations and display goodwill. I strongly feel that we should rally round the advocators of a joint mechanism and make it a reality fast.
The ISGA document recognizes the Sri Lankan state as a small island, but if the joint mechanism begins, the LTTE will recognize and work with the Sri Lankan state. Although people don’t like to admit it, the truth is there are LTTE-controlled areas. The separation has already caused many complications. The truth is bitter. But it remains the truth.
A point to note is that a joint mechanism of sorts is already unofficially working. Soon after the tsunami, many of t he armed forces worked side-by-side with the LTTE for relief work. That means, not only does it exist, it is also possible for us to formalize it.
When I visited the Jaffna peninsula with the Prime Minister, we were informed by people in the LTTE-controlled areas that the lives of a number of LTTE carders were saved by the armed forces. When we visited several tsunami welfare camps in the Ampara District, we found the STF personnel and LTTE caders in their uniforms helping tsunami victims together. The mechanism is already operating; it is only to make it official. I don’t see any reason why a humanitarian working arrangement like this should be opposed.

Q: As someone who is closely connected to the UPFA’s peace drive, would you confirm what Norwegian special peace envoy Erik Soleheim stated recently about the joint mechanism, that it is about to be finalized?

A: The joint mechanism is facilitated by the Norwegians and is being discussed by the Kilinochchi Peace Secretariat and the Colombo Peace Secretariat. Originally the JVP rejected the Norwegians acting as facilitators but after the formation of the UPFA alliance manifesto, the JVP has shown a more positive response towards the Norwegians. They have realized the importance of a negotiated political settlement and that the LTTE should be the main party to talk with.
T he JVP who were 100% against the UNP-led ceasefire agreement has now changed their standpoint and expressed solidarity in continuing to uphold the ceasefire agreement while trying to pay attention to its weak points and gray areas as pointed out by the SLFP consistently. So in reality, the SLFP has managed to make the JVP a more flexible party in this regard. It remains one of our significant political strengths.

Q: Would you not agree that when you first form a coalition government that there should be some kind of consensus reached with regard to key issues so that it will be easier to govern?

A: That was the President’s approach when she formed this alliance. The President has very strong views on the ethnic issue and she wanted everything to be put down in black and white when we were negotiating the JVP-SLFP alliance document. But it was people like me who were of t he viewpoint that we as responsible politicians should find common grounds on fundamental issues but simultaneously express and resolve our disagreements and then form an alliance. A section of the party felt that we needed this broad alliance to defeat the UNP. It was considered the top most priority as we felt that the country was going down a precipice and sovereignty was threatened.
I feel that the need of the hour at that time was to form the UPFA. But forming a coalition does not mean that the SLFP cannot express its own view and is held a prisoner within the confines of such a coalition.

Q: How is the government planning to achieve a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict, especially with the biggest constituent party opposing each of its moves?

A:In order to achieve a permanent peace agreement with the LTTE, compromise is necessary but it does not mean that we as a government have to agree to every term made by them.
We need to continue to build relations, talk with the LTTE, and study their conditions. The UNP played all their trump cards together so when the LTTE walked out in Tokyo, they did not have any backup strategies to stop them. For instance they should have kept in good faith the matter regarding the ban on the LTTE in their hands and when the LTTE were walking out of the summit in Tokyo they could have prevented them by offering to lift the ban.
During discussions with the LTTE you must be on a strong pedestal. It is the same with peace talks around the world. Governments need to be in a strong bargaining position before talks begin. But the UNP made the LTTE stronger before the LTTE came for talks, and at the negotiating table there was little the UNP government could do but to agree with the LTTE’s demands.
During the formation of the JVP-SLFP coalition, we felt that both parties should place in writing each other’s stance. The JVP-SLFP perspective on the ethnic issue is in a power sharing mechanism, a federal government. The JVP opposes it but the JVP believes that a settlement to this issue will be the decentralization of administrative powers. Both parties signed the document with these two standpoints but after the government was formed, both parties agreed to go along with the view of the majority.
With the ISGA, the JVP and SLFP had more to agree. But after the tsunami, once the LTTE was pushed to the option of a joint mechanism, the SLFP and the JVP should now agree on more aspects to establish the joint mechanism. It is up to the JVP to realize that a government lead by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga will not allow any mechanism that will subsequently lead to the division of the country. The J VP should have more confidence in this alliance. If the joint mechanism is moving away from its target of uniting the country and instead leading towards dividing the country, then the JVP has every right to object. But they must give it a chance.
Experience in Sri Lankan politics has taught me that there exists a tendency to oppose any government move. The JVP must realize that we are not in the opposition anymore. We are now in government and must work together so we cannot reject every proposal either party presents. We are a small country. We are proposing a federal form of government. We need support from India, the US, EU, Japan, China etc, in order to survive in this fast paced, globalized world, especially with our close neighbor India with whom the SLFP has always maintained cordial relations.

Q: Christiana Rocca, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, during her recent visit here was explicit that the government should speak with one voice.
Don’t you need to talk to your partners in government to come up with something concrete and propose it to the rest of the world?

A:Definitely. I think we should talk to the JVP and try to I ron out any hindering doubts. We must talk with all other parties concerned also. The President has already written two letters: one to the JVP secretary and one to the head of the Muslim peace secretariat, saying that no concrete decision on the joint mechanism will be taken until she clears concerns expressed by all parties.

Q: In the event of going ahead with the proposed joint mechanism, if the JVP decides to break away from the alliance, do you think it is still worth the trouble?

A:You have two options: you do the right thing and face the consequences or you don’t do the right thing and still face the consequences. I believe the first option is best because you will have done your duty towards your country. But if you are not brave enough to do the right thing, then the outcome you face will only benefit your party in the short term.

Q: Earlier you referred to the ban on the LTTE and the lifting of it. Do you think a government can come to some consensus with a terrorist organization?

A: The LTTE ban was withdrawn by the UNP regime but what I meant was, it would have been better for them to start talks, while keeping the trump card of the ban in their hands, in order to play it when necessary. We lifted the ban, started the talks, and in Tokyo the LTTE voiced their reservations, accusing the government of failing to keep its promises on infrastructure and development endeavors. In a d ialog or conflict resolution table, both sides will have to use various means to keep the other side in the process and ensure their respective side is stronger at the table. This is something that the UNP fell short on during talks with the LTTE. Of course there were positive elements that came out in the talks: one was the Oslo agreement where the LTTE said they were for a federal form of government.
In the history of talks between the LTTE and the government there have been positive outcomes and less encouraging ones too. But in every round of talks it is natural that people will learn from past mistakes and try to improve the situation at the next meeting. We now have an opportunity of working together and through this, it will unite us, in turn erasing the doubts from both parties. When we visited the tsunami-hit areas especially in the north, most of those past suspicions are no more. The navy in Trincomalee is working together with the LTTE to rebuild shattered lives. It is only by working together that trust builds, and this exercise can be a building block for the joint mechanism arrangement.

Q: As a politician who has been advocating a peace drive in Sri Lanka, do you feel that any government should conduct an educational drive to educate the masses about the need for peace? What has happened to the initiatives undertaken by the People’s Alliance (PA) before?

A: I cannot agree more. As a responsible political party, we organized a number of awareness programs, especially in the rural areas, on the need for peace and cohabitation, a political solution to the ethnic conflict, and the need for a new constitution. Examples include the ‘Sudu Nelum’ project, the street drama program and the ‘Book and Brick’ program to rebuild the Jaffna Library, between 1995-2000. However, of late we have not been able to organize such programs mainly because of the ISGA issue.
I feel that the previous government succeeded in pushing certain peace initiatives through because the people in the country were more informed and refused to return to war due to those peace awareness programs the SLFP conducted.
Even though people had doubts during those two years, they did not protest against the UNP government on peace efforts. The UNP reaped the harvest of the peace seeds that the PA cultivated. I think the PA should be given the credit for those initiatives and they are one of the most positive and successful things attempted by our regime. We have managed to soften them and made this nation more tolerant of the concept of power sharing.
The SLFP central committee has now decided to restart the educational drive we once had. The President held a one-day workshop where the organizers of the SLFP were briefed on the notion that the party is working towards a joint mechanism as it is the first stepping-stone to the peace process. We covered 16 districts within two days. Our min isters, deputy ministers etc, addressed district level seminars at which 50 SLFP activists from each electorate were summoned to one location. We have also commenced an awareness building exercise for the party carders and we hope to start some sort of an awareness program using our trained organizers to disseminate the message of peace to villages.
What is important to bear in mind is that if the JVP and SLFP cannot reach a consensus, two things can occur: the SLFP goes ahead anyway with the joint mechanism or the SLFP agrees with the JVP and avoids it.
In my personal view, I feel that the JVP and other parties seem to have overlooked one very important fact. It is that the people of this country directly elected President Kumaratunga to be the head of state. She held the presidential election 15 months prior to its actual date and asked the people “Will you give me the mandate to bring about a new constitution that will involve bringing permanent peace to the country?” She received that mandate. Because of the President’s political ethics, she continues to speak with the alliance partners to reach an agreement. But that does not mean her mandate has been reduced or its validity halved. However, if they continue to oppose her decisions, she will have to use the mandate she received from the people to move ahead for the sake of peace.

Q: In the event that the JVP does not come on board with regard to a joint mechanism, what constructive efforts would you take?

A:At the moment I am surprised that the UNP has made no official statement with regard to the joint mechanism. I t hink a responsible opposition should air its views. We would be richer for it.
As for the allies of this government, I think it is time to make some hard decisions. If the JVP quits the UPFA government, then the President can request the party commanding the majority in parliament to form a government. I am prepared to sit in the opposition for the sake of doing the right thing for the country. It may be a bold statement by me but it is vital to support a positive and constructive effort to drive the country forward. We must try to convince our partners or else go ahead with the joint mechanism for the country’s sake. The resolution of t he conflict in my opinion is of paramount importance. I k now some others in our government feel the same way. If it calls for many sacrifices, including political office, let it be so. We should put our country first.

Q: You have been proposing that prior to a final so – lution, some interim mechanism is necessary and the proposed mechanism is that you must work with the LTTE. By any chance if the pro-Sinhalese movement largely opposes the move, what would be the outcome?

A:The Sinhalese people should realize that a return to war would affect the Sinhalese more than the Tamils. The majority of the people in this country are SinhalaBuddhists. If unrest arises and a joint mechanism is not pursued, the economy will be adversely affected, which in turn will affect the majority more than the Tamil minority. Is the person who tells the Sinhala-Buddhists that the joint mechanism is not appropriate and opposes the only mechanism for peace, trying to say that we prefer war? To have peace, we must initiate peace negotiations; to start peace negotiations, we must have a means of doing it. Simply chanting “peace, peace, peace” like a mantra won’t do. You must take focused steps towards the commencement of peace talks, which is the need of the hour. The results of not acting soon to bring about peace will be the return of violence. Desperate people may turn to others who cannot professionally handle the peace process. We must be confident that we can handle the peace process properly. We as a government will never sell the country. We will not agree to all the terms and conditions that the LTTE wants. We are confident that we will not let the LTTE divide the country. We are confident that through the joint mechanism, we can come to a compromise with the LTTE and find a suitable middle ground. We are a strong government and political party with a very strong leader who wishes to begin working on a permanent peace settlement. Initially we were a minority government; 105 members in parliament but now we have more than 115 in government. We have Tamil parliamentarians, Muslim members, Jathika Hela Urumaya Mps and even UNP members joining us. The reason is clear. Our government has a vision for Sri Lanka and one that will necessarily work.

Q: You have been speaking on the need to be politically realistic. Doesn’t it also mean that in peace negotiations, legitimate governments are often made to compromise more? Isn’t this what we have witnessed in the past?

A: I’m certain that there are many SLFP members who are willing to give up cabinet office for the sake of bringing about peace. I am not indicating that we must break the alliance; this alliance will in time reap fruitful results. When we first formed the alliance there was internal pressure from both sides but we took the challenge and made it happen.
This is a government of the people who is going to work towards its peace objectives. We will work towards peace for all citizens and take into consideration the aspirations of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and all other communities that make this island their home.
The tsunami taught us a valuable lesson – to work together. Out of the tsunami-affected areas, 60% of those areas affected are in the north and eastern provinces, and some of those areas are controlled by the LTTE with full military, administrative and political power. So let’s move forward with the ground reality in mind.

Q: As a solution to the ethnic conflict, the SLFP pro – poses federalism. What is the federal formula that you propose?

A: Presently we are working on a Sri Lankan formula of federalism because we need a system suitable to our country. Although it is beneficial to study other national examples of federalism, like Switzerland, they may not be appropriate. For instance in a major French-speaking canton in Switzerland, minority German-speaking students are forced to learn in French in a public school, else they have to opt to study in a private school. One system that most of our power-sharing pundits don’t study is what is prevailing in our neighboring country – India, which is far more suitable for us. The Indian system allows all ethnic groups to take part in government and diversity is a strong point in the Indian system, which has kept India together. As for the geopolitical realities too, we are closer to India than any other.
I feel Sri Lanka must evolve its own model, which should be closer to the Indian model than any other. That also means introducing a system that is enriched by all the positive things we may find in other systems that could be locally adopted.
As for con-federalism, the SLFP stands opposed to it.
Even in the 1997 and 2000 draft constitutions presented in parliament, the PA had a section where we stated that if a particular region wants to form its own government, the center would have the autonomy to take over the power of that region. In a con-federal system that cannot be done.
The people have the right to go to a referendum and decide whether they are going to cede or not. All the constitutional drafts that were presented by the PA government in 1995, 1997 and 2000 were along federal lines and that remains our position to date.

Q: Would you agree that while pursuing peace almost in a sudden fixation, your government appears to have forgotten its other priorities?

A: The three main priorities of our government are the peace process, electoral reforms and the reformation of the executive presidency. I feel that peace is the beacon lighting the path that leads to economic development. Without peace, we cannot discuss any other matter. If permanent peace is not a reality, all efforts with regard to economic development plans will be in vain. The outcome of the peace talks will have to come to light through a new constitution, which should change the structure to a “united” constitution. It is a huge change and one that President Kumaratunga has boldly advocated.
Electoral reforms are very necessary. We don’t require a 100% first passed-the-post system but something similar to t he German model where there is adequate representation of all the parties, and the minorities are accommodated. If such changes can be achieved through a new constitution, the country’s economy will prosper.
Also, we must have a more democratized presidential system which will obtain the approval of everyone. The president should be elected by the people and have executive powers while the prime minister and a cabinet of ministers have certain executive powers too so that it will become a balanced system. The present constitution doesn’t need a dictator to give it expression. The constitution itself is dictatorial. We propose to take away some of those dictatorial executive powers from the system and weave a more democratic system. We certainly hope to achieve these goals in the near future and though it may not appear so, these priorities remain priorities and will be dealt with accordingly.

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