Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's bid to secure a consensus on a devolution package to solve the ethnic problem in his country is bound to fail if the main opposition party, United National Party (UNP), continues to boycott the All Party Committee (APC), and the main Tamil party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is kept out of it.
"What is going to come out can by no means be deemed to be based on a consensus," is the refrain one hears in UNP and TNA circles here in Colombo.
On Tuesday, Rajapaksa had formed a multi-party political panel and broad-based the existing experts' panel, to draft what he termed as a fully democratic and consensus-based devolution package.
But the political panel, comprising representatives of various political parties, did not include the UNP and the TNA.
While the UNP boycotted it, the TNA had not been invited.
Sources in the UNP said that the President was not sincere in securing its cooperation because he was constantly trying to undermine it by getting its MPs to defect to the government side.
Some high profile defections have already taken place, and more are likely.
Last week, Susantha Punchinilame was enticed with a Deputy Minister's post on the day the President was to have a one-to-one with the UNP's leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on a national consensus on the peace process.
This made the UNP declare that it was withdrawing support to the government, and that it would not participate in the APC.
Furthermore, the UNP feels that it has nothing more to say on the issue of the devolution package as it has already publicly committed itself to the Oslo Declaration of December 2002, which envisaged a search for a "federal solution".
The UNP has also said that it is ready to discuss the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) for the Tamil-speaking North East. But the ISGA is anathema for Rajapaksa and his allies.
Lastly, the UNP feels that Rajapaksa will not carry the consensus seeking exercise very much forward, since he is committed to a unitary constitution because of his alliance with the Sinhala nationalist parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).
"The whole thing is an eye wash. Mahinda hopes to keep the international community and India at bay by saying that a committee is looking into devolution seriously, and a consensus is being worked out," said a UNP insider.
The expectation in the UNP is that once the international community eases the pressure, Rajapaksa will abandon the consensus building exercise.
As regards the TNA, the immediate reason for not being a participant in the committee is that it had not been invited.
TNA MPs think that an invitation was not extended because of its close association with the LTTE, which could make it take a hard line.
The LTTE, in its own "Oslo Declaration" dated June 9, 2006, had said that it was running a de facto state in the Sri Lankan North East, and that it was fighting for "self determination" outside the constitutional confines of the state of Sri Lanka.
One of its top legal advisors, the US-based V Rudrakumaran, has presented a paper arguing that the international community cannot impose a framework on the LTTE.
He argues that the international community cannot say that a solution has to be within a united Sri Lanka, because it has not done so in the case of rebel movements in other parts of the world such as Southern Sudan, Serbia-Montenegro, and Papua-New Guinea.
Clearly, President Rajapaksa cannot accept this position given his express commitment to the maintenance of the unity and territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
He said so in his speech on Tuesday, and added that his stand had the endorsement of the international community, including India.
In fact, this was only stated framework for the exercise he had initiated. Territorial integrity and sovereignty were the barest essentials.
Rajapaksa moves forward from stated positions
The experts' panel, which previously had only one Tamil, has been expanded to include three others Tamils, in response to complaints that the aggrieved community was very poorly represented.
Political observers say that Rajapaksa's steps in this direction in double quick time, follows pressure from the international community, particularly India and the US.
In a clear message to the LTTE that it could not expect undemocratic and gargantuan powers in areas it controlled, Rajapaksa told the members of the two panels to ensure democracy and human rights, which he said could not be sacrificed at the alter of expediency.
"In the settlement of the conflict, we cannot for short term expediency sacrifice our cherished democratic values and our commitment to the rule of law," he said.
"Nor can we ignore the human rights standards sweeping through every corner of the globe."
"There is justifiable cause for our insistence on these issues arising from the wanton killings of Tamil political and other Tamil leaders whose only crime was that they held views contrary to the LTTE," he said.
"We will insist on democratic values, political pluralism and the tolerance of dissent being established within the shortest possible time throughout the country," he declared.
Devolution should address the issues of identity, regional minorities and the disproportionate concentration of resources and decision making powers, he suggested.
He made it clear that there could be no division of Sri Lanka in the process, and added that this line was endorsed by India and other members of the international community.
The President said that he believed in a multi-party and inclusive approach to the task of drafting the new devolution package.
He was seeking a 'homegrown' constitution, which would look at the models existing in other countries, including those in the region.
Rajapaksa announced that his government was allocating $1.25 billion for the development of the war-ravaged and Tamil-speaking North East and said that he wanted the private sector and international agencies to participate in this developmental work.
He then appealed to the LTTE to respond to his "rightful expectations" in regard to having a system, which would accord with those existing in civilised and developed societies across the world.
Composition of panels
The political panel includes representatives from the Muslim-dominated National Unity Alliance (NUA); the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) and the Up Country Peoples' Front (UPF), and Western Peoples' Front (WPF) all three representing Indian Origin Tamils; the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) all representing Sinhala nationalism; the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL); the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC); the All Ceylon Muslim League (ACML); the Eelam Peoples' Democratic Party (EPDP) representing the North-Eastern Tamils; and the National Congress (NC).
The experts' panel, which previously had only one Tamil, now includes four. The new appointees are Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan, Dr K Vigneswaran, and Dr N Selvakumaran, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Colombo University.