Photo courtesy The Nation
Four years after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, Hindu temples are being destroyed in the North, Muslim retail stores are being attacked in the South and Sinhala Buddhist extremism has become organized into its own brand. In other words, ethnic-religious tension within the nation is still very much alive. The Round Table conference convened in 1984 by J. R. Jayewardene, the All Party Conference convened by President Premadasa in August 1989 and the draft constitution titled ‘The Government’s Proposal for Constitutional Reform’ fashioned under President Chandrika Kumaratunga are all initiatives by Sri Lankan Presidencies to deal with the ethnic conflict through constitutional reform. They are key not only because they paved the way for future reforms but also because they were the basis for change, the result of significant positive political will and because they promised the re-evaluation of past failures in constructing new strategies of dealing with an ethnic conflict that has blighted Sri Lanka for decades. Similarly, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) was instituted by the Rajapaksa administration to resolve the nation question. The APRC’s recommendations imagined a more pluralistic, accommodative and inclusive state within the constraints of a unitary framework. The expectations and hype fabricated around it led to an anticlimactic conclusion unworthy of its grand conception, steady evolution, and notable final products. This paper explores not why the highly commended APRC was so hastily dismissed, but what is actually was and why it is still important.
What is the APRC?
The 11th of July 2006 was an important day in the history of Sri Lanka. It marked the date on which the President made credible first steps towards seeking a political solution to the national question, and the date on which the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) came into existence. Fifteen political parties were initially represented at the APRC. It consisted of a seventeen-member expert panel to facilitate the process, one representative from each political party, and the chairman Professor Tissa Vitharana. The members of the APRC met weekly, almost every week, deliberating more than three to four hours each time.
Besides the prolific time and energy spent on the APRC the APRC was a momentous feat because it represented a local solution to resolving the national question. Unlike the recent Parliamentary Select Committee that was founded to address similar issues, it acknowledged several different perspectives, bestowing them each with a degree of political influence over what was assumed would become the future constitution of the Sri Lankan nation. It was a political arena in which these eclectic views, representative of Sri Lanka’s ethno-cultural diversity, clashed, converged and reached consensus. Perhaps not itself a lone-standing solution to the ethnic conflict, it was certainly a platform for dialogue through which solutions could be envisaged and advanced.
The APRC produced quite a few documents. The expert panel produced two reports, called the Majority Report, and the Minority Report in December 2006. Tissa Vitharana amalgamated these reports to produce “Main proposals to form the Basis of a future Constitution” (also called the Vitharana Proposals) in January 2007. A document known as the Interim report, “Action to be taken by the President to fully implement relevant provisions of the present Constitution as a prelude to the APRC proposals”, recommending that the government endeavor to implement the 13th Amendment and adequate funds be provided to facilitate the effective functioning of Provincial Councils was released in January 2008. Finally on July 19th 2010, R. Yogarajan UNP MP and M Nizam Kariapper Deputy Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress released a final report without government approval based on the final draft discussion papers and amendments made by the APRC at the final APRC meetings.
The unofficial Final Report, arguably the most important of the documents produced at the ARPC, recommends a Parliament at the Centre comprising the House of Representatives elected by the people and the Senate elected by the provincial legislatures. It recommends that the unit of devolution be the province, that law and order including public order and the exercise of police powers be devolved on the provinces, and that a provincial Government be entitled to exercise rights in or over State land that the province should take over within the province (subject to the rights of persons in lawful possession or occupation of such land). In addition, the Final Report recognizes the supremacy of the Constitution, and advocates that a Constitutional Court protect it, identifies Tamil and Sinhala as national languages and recognizes group and individual rights. Among these promises, the APRC Final Report conceptualizes the state as an undivided, unitary and integrated state structure where state power is shared between the Centre and the provinces.
Failed Promises and Expectations
“Finding a political and constitutional solution to the national question requires a multi-party effort and an inclusive approach”, announced president Rajapaksa at the inaugural meeting of the All Party Representative Committee in 2006, “I will take whatever measures necessary to bring peace with honour and justice to my country; your country; our country.” The solution to the national question, to the achievement of peace on behalf of all Sri Lanka’s people, he declared, would be the APRC. The APRC was promoted as the solution to ethnic conflict both locally and internationally to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, the government of Japan and the U.S’s Robert Blake, among others.
An Official Spokeperson for the High Commission of India in a Press Release on 25 January 2008, called the APRC “a welcome first step”, a statement issued by the Japanese Foreign Ministry said “the Government of Japan appreciates this as an important step towards the political solution of the conflict” and U.S’s Robert Blake said “Sri Lanka now has an important opportunity finally to achieve peace and that opportunity must be seized.”  But although on the international stage the APRC was being promoted as an important political step towards resolving the ethnic conflict, some local observers were more skeptical. They argued that the APRC was merely a tool used to counter international pressure on Sri Lanka, and to distract the international community away from the war that was reaching its climax in the North.
In an interview in May 2010, Suresh Premachandran of the Tamil National Alliance, said “The APRC is a farce of the Sri Lanka government.” He argued that it was always used as a façade for India and the International Community, and that if the farce was continually tolerated that “they [the international community] will only be abetting the genocidal program of Colombo.” Others also shared this view. For example, Dr. Paikiyasothi Saravanamuttu, director of Colombo-based think-thank, in the Saturday edition of Daily Mirror said that Professor Tissa Vitharana’s omission from the ministerial list “reinforces the contention that the APRC [All Party Representative Committee] was set up for the sole purpose of placating the international community and India in particular.”
After three years of deliberation and 128 meetings, the APRC ended uneventfully and without fruit. The government failed to publish the final proposals even over a year after the APRC Chairman presented the draft report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2009. In January 2010, President Rajapakse publicly rejected proposals put forward by the APRC and instead said, “after the present election I am going to put forward my own solution to the problem”.  On July 20 2010, the much-awaited Final Report of the APRC was tabled in parliament by United National Party (UNP), and thwarted by the government on the grounds that the report did not have authority to be tabled. The APRC was forgotten, and the promises extolled to the international community and to Sri Lanka about striving for peace and justice through finding a political solution to the national question remained unfulfilled.
Why the APRC is still important
Under the façade of Victory Day parades, development and construction, newly erected monuments in praise of the military, and reconciliation aligned cultural and sporting events, a deep underlying disharmony permeates Sri Lankan society, fracturing the nation along linguistic and ethnic lines. This is reflected in the polarization of Sinhala and Tamil local news-media on events such as the U.S. resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, the Halal controversy and the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections. The trauma of the Tamil community from over thirty years of war, the rising hostility against Muslims, and the outrage of the International community will continue to foster unrest and discord if there is no clear political resolution reflecting genuine conciliation with Sri Lanka’s minority groups. That seemingly superficial ethnic tension can lead to large-scale military movements, which then threaten the unity of the state, is a truth ascertained through Sri Lanka’s turbulent history. At this juncture, four years after the war and in the midst of reconciliation efforts, preventative strategies for the future are necessary.
In June 28 2009, the JHU Spokesperson, Nishantha Sri Warnasingha said “There’s no validity in APRC after elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 18. [The] APRC was set up back in 2006 to bring about a political settlement when the LTTE had significant military power.” The insinuation, therefore, is that without the military parity of the LTTE, political concessions to the minority, and especially Tamil, communities do not need to be made. However, that line of thinking is in itself responsible for encouraging minority communities to take up arms. If military power is a requirement for political parity and for devolution and power sharing, then does this not incentivize fringe communities to take up arms?
For genuine reconciliation, the words of the president in 2006 still ring true. Political accommodation of historically oppressed groups must parallel assimilatory and difference-blind models of national citizenship. Peace, honour and justice for this country, our country, require a political solution that is agreeable to all the parties representative of our multi-ethnic society if we are evolve into a truly pluralistic state. The defeat of the LTTE does not imply that the Tamil community ceases to have sincere socio-political concerns. Land grabbing in and militarization of the North are genuine issues that the Tamil community, and thus the Sri Lankan nation, face today. The Parliamentary Select Committee has been criticized heavily because of its inability to give voice to opposition views. To date, in light of its non-majoritarian, representative and multipronged approach and the fact that it is the most recent document on power sharing receiving Southern consensus, the APRC Final Report is still one of the most relevant modern strategies for tackling the continuing national question. One way forward is to actually officially publish the Final Report produced by the APRC; another step would be to evaluate seriously the suggestions contained within it as the basis for future negotiations. In light of the crisis of the dilution of the 13th Amendment and the failures of the PSC, it is imperative to hold the President to the words he uttered in 2006, and to the promises preached in the hopes of a better future for every Sri Lankan.
 Charles Haviland, President rejects APRC proposals, January 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2010/01/100115_mahinda_tamil.shtml