A glimmer of hope has broken through the gloom that clouded hope for a political resolution of Sri Lanka´s bloody ethnic crisis, which has cost an estimated 50,000 lives on both sides of the line in the last 17 years. On 19 January, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP) who challenged Chandrika Kumaratunga for the presidency on 21 December, indicated his willingness to support the government´s constitutional amendments, which the president has consistently maintained was the key to a political solution to what is often called the “Tamil problem”. (Cause for hope is also springing from as far away as Scandinavia, as Norway has expressed its desire to play an intermediary role in talks between the government and the LTTE.)
Wickremesinghe, however, is not as optimistic as the president that the constitutional changes she proposes is the way forward to peace. Pledging his party´s parliamentary support for her proposals, the UNP leader expressed his reservations on the likelihood of the constitutional changes laying the groundwork for peace. “Our stand is that this problem cannot be successfully solved by the process you intend to resolve the issue. But since you don´t have any other solution, we would not block the process”.
There is more than a strong dose of realpolitik in the seemingly conciliatory gesture that had come at a time when relations between Kumaratunga´s ruling People´s Alliance (PA) and the UNP had sunk to a new low. The UNP accuses the government of widespread malpractice in the presidential election where the incumbent, who had narrowly escaped death at the hands of a suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), comfortably won with a 51 percent plurality against Wickremesinghe´s 42.
The main opposition party has even filed a petition against Kumaratunga´s election. The case itself is likely to drag on for a long time. (When Sirima Bandaranaike challenged President Ranasinghe Premadasa´s 1988 election, it took the Supreme Court three years for a determination.) Also, most experts believe that the judges will assess whether established malpractice (assuming the petitioners are able to prove at least some of the charges in their plaint) were sufficient to have altered the result. Even newspapers that opposed Kumaratunga have conceded that the 700,000 plus votes she had over Wickremesinghe would have ensured her victory even on a level field. The gap between the winner and the loser was unexpectedly wide, explained by analysts as partly due to a sympathy wave that benefitted the president following the assassination attempt.
In the December elections, a group of UNP defectors, including five members of parliament, calling themselves the “alternate” UNP, broke away from the p arty and supported Kumaratunga. This group had been trying to entice other UNP MPs to join them so that Kumaratunga could get the 15 or 16 votes that would provide her with a two-third majority in Parliament enabling her to amend the constitution. Wickremesinghe´s move has taken the wind off the sails of potential defectors, some of whom have been angling for an extension of the sitting parliament as part of the price for defection.
Immediately after her election, Kumaratunga did make a much-acclaimed acceptance speech in which she asked Wickremesinghe to join the government and help forge a lasting peace. This had provoked speculation that she was seeking a national government. “The political fight is never an easy one. I therefore sincerely commiserate with Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe on his unsuccessful effort to win the presidency. And yet I say to Mr Wickremesinghe that he should take heart. He must take heart because the very significant support that he and his party commands can mean only one thing and one thing only: that the people of this country still intend him to play a major role in our effort to forge a new Sri Lanka of tranquillity and tremendous opportunity that stands close at hand.”
But within a week Kumaratunga changed tack, severely attacking the UNP and its leadership over national television and broadly hinting that the opposition party and a section of big business interests were part of a conspiracy with the LTTE to get rid of her. In a rambling three-hour plus talk show, which was suppose d to be a discussion but which turned out to be a monologue, all the positive signals of moving towards consensus politics were reversed. The government then began manoeuvring to hit the UNP with a “Conscience Bill” enabling defectors to keep their parliamentary seats, which they risk losing under the present law. This legislation, for which a two-third majority is needed, was also expected to command support from more UNP defectors. Given Wickremesinghe´s newest move, there was no indication whether this B ill will be presented as this is being written.
It is clear that the constitutional changes the UNP says it will not obstruct are likely to be different from the “package” the government has been promoting for the past several months. The UNP is demanding that the new constitution or amendments to the existing basic law should provide for independent elections, police and judicial service commissions and guarantee a free press. Given the way the North Western Provincial Council election was conducted in January last year and the less-than satisfactory manner in which the presidential election was conducted, the UNP knows that without an independent election and police commission in place, a fair parliamentary election by August is impossible.
In all this, the point remains whether LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will accept any deal that Sri Lanka´s Parliament may unanimously offer him. He is an implacable foe, very likely to insist on all or nothing. What he seeks is a separate state in northeastern Sri Lanka and it is unlikely that this would be on offer. So it will be back to square one and the military option. Lt Gen Srilal Weerasooriya, the army commander, said as much in a recent speech- that no peace will be possible without crushing the LTTE.