Joint Himalayan Declaration: A critique

Saturday, 23 December 2023 00:02 –      – 55

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The delegation comprising members of the Global Tamil Forum and the Buddhist clergy with President Ranil Wickremesinghe during the meeting in which the “Himalaya Manifesto” was presented on 8 December 

What’s all this sudden hype about the six sentences called the “Joint Himalayan Declaration”? A supposed “declaration” signed almost 8 months ago on 27 April in Nagarkot, Nepal. Signed between a few lesser representative Buddhist Sangha chapters or “nikayas” and Tamil individuals permanently domiciled in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia calling themselves the “Global Tamil Forum” (GTF).

These six sentences written as “Statements” propose nothing new and nothing worthy of the long-standing political conflict in Sri Lanka. They have no serious mention of the 25 year long armed conflict in the North-East, concluded militarily 14 years ago in May 2009. A prolonged war brutally concluded that left serious post-war issues identified by the LLRC as well. This “joint declaration” is nowhere near what the North-East would want as answers to their long running political demands, further complicated by post-war damages.

The whole declaration is only about: 1. Promoting plurality 2. Selecting an appropriate development model to overcome economic crisis 3. New constitution with adequate devolution of powers and “faithful” implementation of provisions of the present constitution till then 4. Devolving powers in a united and undivided country 5. Envision a Sri Lanka reconciled, and lastly 6. Complying with international and bi-lateral obligations ensuring the country takes pride of place among prosperous nations.

Numerous peace initiatives

Nothing here is new and worthwhile discussing. Far more serious and in-depth discussions have taken place since the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact signed in 1957 that was backtracked by PM Bandaranaike with the UNP galvanising Sinhala protests and Buddhist monks threatening a sit-in at “Tintagel” Rosemead Place. The next compromise worked out as the Dudley – Chelvanayakam Pact in 1965 was abrogated again in 1968 due to protests by the SLFP, LSSP and CP. The past 50 plus years would have seen over a dozen direct and mediated peace initiatives.

In January 1984 with President Jayewardene in the chair, an All Party Conference (APC) was held in Colombo with mainstream political parties in Sinhala South and democratic Tamil political parties participating. At this first APC in Colombo, leader of the TULF Appapillai Amirthalingam presented a written statement that traversed the long history of Sri Lanka’s national conflict. Amirthalingam in his written statement says, “They seem to forget that 5 June 1956 marked the first mob violence against the Tamils.” It was when the Federal Party (ITAK) organised a “Sathyagraha” at Galle Face Green against the Sinhala Only Act presented in Parliament. A large, organised mob attacked the Sathyagrahis with sticks, poles and stone throwing. The most saddening quote from that statement is, “….and when I walked into Parliament with a handkerchief tied round my head and my clothes soaked in blood, the then Prime Minister (Bandaranaike) quipped ‘honourable wounds of war’….” Amirthalingam then goes on to ask, “Can anyone who values truth say that this was the result of the Tamils resorting to violence? Or because the Tamils demanded a separate state?” There was neither an LTTE then nor a demand for a “separate” Tamil State on board.

Thereafter, bi-lateral discussions were held in Thimpu, Bhutan in July 1985 with the attendance of all armed groups. Thimpu discussions established the “Homeland” issue as non-negotiable and the basis for any future negotiation.

Ranasinghe Premadasa elected President in December 1988, initiated direct negotiations with the LTTE in Colombo beginning April 1989 that continued in a staggered form till June 1990 and an APC with the LTTE as an observer at the BMICH in August 1989, attended by mainstream political parties in Sinhala South. The SLFP participated in the first two meetings and withdrew thereafter. In October 1994 President Chandrika Kumaratunge initiated direct talks with the LTTE that carried extremely high hopes for peace both in the South and in the war torn North. Yet, as S.J. Emanuel once wrote, this peace initiative with much hope, ended as a hopeless event, with Chandrika not taking the LTTE seriously to negotiate with a competent team sent from her side.

Oslo Declaration

Thereafter, with Norwegian facilitation, negotiations began in August 2002. At the third session in Oslo on 5 December both parties agreed on a federal system of power sharing. The Norwegian Government thus issued a statement that announced “….the parties have agreed to explore a political solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.”

Where does this 2023 “Joint Himalayan Declaration” stand when the 2002 Oslo Declaration is about a federal solution? This GTF initiated declaration is as old as the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987 that led to the 13th Amendment. Thus, the GTF manipulated Joint Himalayan Declaration would once again reduce the Sri Lankan national question to 13 A “Plus” with “faithful” implementation of provisions of the present constitution proposed as “temporary”.

Surprisingly, neither the Tamil political parties nor the Tamil Diaspora groups raise the Oslo Declaration as binding on the GoSL. The Oslo Declaration is not a legal agreement between the GoSL and the LTTE. It is a political pledge by the GoSL to provide Tamil people the constitutional right to govern themselves within a federal system in a unitary, undivided country.

Democratic Tamil “nationalism” since the defeat of the LTTE has gained political dominance to present their framework for a “federal solution” within a “united, undivided and an indivisible Sri Lanka” as Sampanthan has been always saying. The irony is every political party and group in both the South and the North have completely and conveniently forgotten that there is consensus arrived at for a federal system of government as the ultimate answer.

But what kept this national issue unsolved and festering into a pus oozing eczema, with GoSL agreeing for substantial power devolution compelled to enact 13 A in July 1987, but pruning it when implementing? Why is the GoSL agreeing for a federal system in 2002 December, thereafter avoids even discussing it? These were not political positions that Governments came to on their own political understanding and convictions. They were positions the Governments were pushed into by other external factors with geo-political interests within a global economy that for labour and capital had no geographical boundaries. Therefore, in close-door high profile negotiations, the Southern Sinhala leadership could not deny the fact that the Tamil people do have a historically identified geographical area of habitation in North-East Sri Lanka and they have a right to administer their own areas within a single, democratic nation State.

Sinhala-Buddhist racism 

With every sabotage of negotiated settlements since 1957 by Sinhala-Buddhist racism, the next round required more authority for Tamil areas to make certain they would not be robbed of power. Therefore, from the Regional Councils agreed upon with the B-C Pact of 1957, through PCs within a unitary State in 1987, the GoSL in 2002 had to agree to a federal system of governance.

While that was politically unavoidable for Governments, no Government and no Southern political leadership engaged the people in discussing these proposals to get their consent for implementation. Gradually, reducing themselves as Southern Sinhala political parties, they feared they would lose their Sinhala-Buddhist vote base if they proposed devolution for the North-East. In the South, all political parties have been competing to be more “Sinhala nationalist” than the other, to gain Sinhala-Buddhist votes. Therefore, with a dominant Sinhala-Buddhist social psyche established, close-door negotiations and politics in the South are two different and contradicting approaches, except when political leaderships feel the divisions in the South require some assistance from the North-East to go beyond what the South could deliver to form a government. There again, mere manipulations to retain the Sinhala-Buddhist image as large as possible.

A classic case is this present package hyped as the “Joint Himalayan Declaration” presented to President Wickremesinghe and discussed with the Speaker and some members of Parliament, over a week ago. This comes with President Wickremesinghe failing with his plan-A to continue discussions with Tamil political parties. Tamil leaders moved out saying they don’t see any seriousness, sincerity and nothing more than “strengthening PCs” in all that the President says.

With the 3 Southern mainstream political parties gearing for elections, President Wickremesinghe knows he needs traction in the North-East to remain a decisive factor in post-election politics. Though with a vague declaration the GTF promising they do not stand for a “Separate Thamil State” provides President Wickremesinghe with a “plan-B” that he could begin another round of discussions on power sharing for the North-East. Meanwhile, as Finance Minister he used the Budget speech to project himself as a convinced Buddhist. He told Parliament his Budget 2024 is based on the Buddhist concept of “Samjeewikatha” and set aside allocations for a Buddhist University and a Buddhist Library in Anuradhapura and a Buddhist heritage museum in Kandy. He also promised a new opening for cultural tourism based on Buddhist heritage.

Lack of seriousness and sincerity

As said by Tamil political leaders, there is definitely a lack of seriousness and sincerity in Southern politics in working out a pragmatic conclusion to the Tamil question. The fact remains, they are also not serious and sincere to the Tamil cause. If they are, there are two finely drafted documents idling since 2010 of which they should demand immediate implementation. The first is the LLRC Report and the second is Prof. Tissa Vitharana chaired APRC final Report. Together they provide the best alternative the Tamil people could ever expect and that with Southern consent. Who would say Mahinda Rajapaksa is anti Sinhala-Buddhist to have them done so comprehensively? Himalayan Declaration in fact is mere crap compared to what these two documents offer as redress and as political solution.