Hope amidst explosions

President Mahinda Rajapakse's decision to open the A9 Highway to Jaffna as a one-time measure to send humanitarian supplies to Jaffna has come as a surprise, albeit a welcome one. For weeks, humanitarian organisations had been pleading with the government to open the road. But not only did the government keep the door shut, it also made it more difficult for those organisations to reach different parts of the northeast. However, a day before the 'donor co-chairs' were to meet in Washington, and prior to the president's visit to India, the locks were released. There is positive news that the Panel of Experts appointed by President Rajapakse to assist the work of the All Party Conference will be coming out with a progressive scheme of devolution of power and internal self-determination. It is also reported that the power-sharing envisaged in this proposal would exceed that proposed in the draft constitution of 2000, which was the farthest that any government has gotten in terms of a concrete proposal for devolution of power. These proposals are to be put before all the political parties, and thereafter presented for discussion to the LTTE. There are many hurdles to be crossed before these proposals become a reality. They may become diluted, in the same manner that the draft constitution of 2000 was diluted. On the other hand, almost all political parties in the country accept the need for the devolution of power and power-sharing as the solution to the ethnic conflict. The memorandum of understanding signed last month between the ruling party and the main opposition, headed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will come in useful at the stage of obtaining an all-party consensus. The draft constitution of 2000, which was put forward by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, was scuttled by the then-opposition of Wickremesinghe in tandem with other nationalist parties. On this occasion, however, the new agreement is likely to prevail. Wickremesinghe has been steadfast in his commitment to a federal solution, after his government and the LTTE reached a historic agreement on exploring a federal solution in December 2002. President Rajapakse has made it clear that he will proceed to negotiate a political solution on the basis of the decision made by the All Party Conference. The uniqueness of the president's position is that he is willing to accept whatever the consensus turns out to be. If there is no consensus, he will most likely choose the majority opinion, which is in favour of the power-sharing proposal. Therefore, the major question mark will be over the LTTE's reaction to the proposal. At the moment, relations between the government and LTTE are extremely hostile. While the government has indicated its willingness to equal the LTTE in fighting fire with fire, for the first time in a long while the Colombo government is facing the reality of being reprimanded in parallel to the LTTE by the international community. This is due to the international perception that the government is not doing enough to prevent human-rights abuses. So even while a compromise solution is being sought in the political realm, simultaneously both sides appear to be preparing for a long and difficult war of attrition against the other. At present the only real pressure on the government and the LTTE is coming from the international community, although this does not appear to be having a positive impact on either side. Both the government and LTTE have shown a readiness to challenge the international community and to disregard both their criticisms and sanctions. Ultimately a change in the behaviour of the government and LTTE is most likely to come about if they make the decisions themselves. If there is to be a reduction in violence and human-rights abuses, it has to come from decisions freely taken by the government and LTTE. The Panel of Constitutional Experts is now reported to be on the verge of proposing a new scheme of power-sharing that is the best that Sri Lanka has seen. The president's readiness to open the A9 Highway may be seen as a herald of better days ahead. But both of these positive initiatives can flop unless sincerely intended and reciprocated. If the LTTE can rise to the occasion and express its own readiness to deal constructively with the openings to peace, however slender, a better future for Sri Lanka may yet be possible.

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Himal Southasian