Playing to the Sinhala gallery

A mistaken political judgement has lead the Sri Lankan President endanger the peace process. Sagacity is now required from both Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as Vellupillai Prabhakaran while this mess in Colombo is sorted out.

After grappling with 20 years of conflict Sri Lanka was beginning to see positive steps towards economic growth, peace and stability when President Chandrika Kumaratunga, exercising her constitutional powers, took over three ministerial portfolios and prorogued Parliament on 4 November 2003. This came in the wake of the long awaited LTTE proposals on an interim administration for the North East which were handed over on 31 October 2003 to the Norwegian facilitators to be forwarded to the government. The business climate had improved, and major foreign investors were finalising their plans for employment generating investments in the economy. It was at this juncture that power politics in Colombo rudely interrupted a process that seemed to have regained its equilibrium after a long deadlock.

Fortunately, the peace process is not yet a victim of the political changes, though the economy that has been weakened by the sudden collapse of the stock market is likely to deter long-term economic investments for some time until stability is seen to be re-established. Despite the LTTE sending in its interim administration proposals, the peace talks were not expected, in any event, to recommence before the new year. But when the President's take-over was announced, and troops brought out onto the streets, there was apprehension that the ceasefire itself might be endangered. The president responded to these concerns in a positive manner by affirming her commitment to the ceasefire, to the peace process and to the rulings of the international monitors. To a considerable extent, this was a reversal of her earlier stance in respect of each one of them. In the coming weeks until the political crisis is resolved, it will be very important for the President, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE to act with utmost caution in relation to military matters.

There are potential flash points that could trigger off a war that the people do not want and only vested interests want. It will be difficult for Wickremesinghe's government to ensure stability in the peace process without control over the defence ministry. This may explain the decision to notify the general public and the international community that President Kumaratunga and her team should take charge of the peace process at this time. However, such a decision on the part of the government to abdicate its responsibility regarding the peace process is not a responsible one. The decision to call on President Kumaratunga to take charge of the peace process may be to show the world at large that she is unable to take on that task, but this is a dangerous political ploy that could cost the country dearly. Realistically speaking, it will be next to impossible for the President and her team to negotiate successfully with the LTTE, whom they constantly describe as terrorists and have vowed to wage war with. Further, it took them no more than two days to reject the LTTE's interim administration proposals in toto, clearly showing a certain ineptness when it comes to conflict resolution.

Sinhala gallery
The short shrift that the president's team gave to the LTTE's proposals, which was the product of six months of labour and much advice that they solicited from around the world, may have been intended to please the gallery of Sinhalese nationalists. But it failed in the ABCs of conflict resolution, which is to show respect for the opponent with whom a negotiated settlement is sought. It is interesting to note, in contrast, that the LTTE's move to present its political proposals was immediately welcomed by the international community, including the United States, as a step forward in the peace process. They collectively urged a return to the negotiating table. In those proposals, the LTTE clearly refrained from frontally addressing emotive issues.  They made no mention either of their own military or of the right of the Sri Lankan military to be present in the North East; or of the Sinhalese settlements in the North East. The proposals also did not call for a change in the national flag or anthem or the special place accorded to Buddhism in the Sri Lankan Constitution as any mention of these could have generated an emotional response from Sinhalese nationalists.

The proposals, in sum, call for the establishment of an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North East in which the LTTE would have an absolute majority of members. Thereafter, the proposals indicate that complete autonomy is sought in virtually every aspect of the political and economic life of the people. The LTTE proposals call for separate institutions to be set up for the North East in respect of the police, judiciary, elections, taxation, local and foreign grants and loans, and trade, among others. There is an assurance that internationally mandated standards of human rights, accountability, multi-ethnic representation and free and fair elections will prevail. But all the institutions that are to be set up to ensure such practices of good governance will be under the sole control of the ISGA.

For nearly six months the LTTE focused its attention on the formulation of its interim administration proposals, holding a wide range of consultations with local and international experts in its capital of Kilinochchi and also in numerous foreign countries, including France, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland. The document they have produced is a concise exposition of Tamil thinking over which there is, of course, the final authority of the LTTE. There is no doubt that the proposals are maximalist in spirit, as indeed could have been anticipated from an organisation that has waged a long war for the cause of complete Tamil separation from Sri Lanka. But they are an opening offer in negotiations in which there has got to be give and take. With its proposals for an Interim Self Governing Authority, the LTTE has given concrete form to its expectations in a manner that is essentially compatible with peaceful coexistence in a united Sri Lanka. The fact that the LTTE has recognised the right of the Sri Lankan government to appoint members to the ISGA, and has not challenged the right of the Sri Lankan security forces to be present in the North East, are specific indicators of a preparedness to accept a united country.

Further, even with regard to the new regional institutions they have proposed, such as the police and judiciary, there appears to be an openness to dialogue with the government on how to set them up and on their composition. It is unlikely that the government will either have the ability or the intention to set up new institutions that supersede the existing ones during an interim administrative period. New institutions that require legal and constitutional change are more appropriate for the final political settlement. There is much to commend in the LTTE's proposals, in particular their willingness to give weight to the principles of good governance, representative democracy and accountability. They are the result of a great deal of effort and provide a basis from which to engage in dialogue with other parties to the conflict, such as the government and the Muslims. The fact that the LTTE has invested so much time and effort in a political endeavour is to be appreciated by those who seek a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict.

A delicate equilibrium
However, in a society where the spirit of power sharing is yet to be learned and practiced, obtaining an absolute majority is a potential license for unilateralism. When this potential is coupled with autonomy, the result can be a high degree of control. It is noteworthy that the LTTE's proposals make no provision for integration with nationally prevailing structures. Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that the Wickremesinghe government's response to the LTTE proposals was cautious and restrained. In its own proposals regarding an interim administration for the North East, the government specifically excluded matters pertaining to police, land, revenue and security from the purview of the interim administration. But in the LTTE's counter proposals, all the above, with the exception of security are specifically considered to be the domain of the ISGA. Further, in the government's proposals, while an absolute majority is conceded to the LTTE, provision was made for a minority veto on matters that affected the interests of the Muslim and Sinhalese communities living in the North East.

On the ground, the Muslims and Sinhalese of the East, who presently constitute over 60 percent of the population in this region, have strongly protested their inclusion into an LTTE-dominated administration. The Muslims in particular have been vociferous about their opposition, as in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) they have a political party that draws virtually all its strength from the East. The SLMC's first response to the LTTE's proposals has been to say that they do not meet Muslim aspirations. The government's cautious response to the LTTE's proposals could also be due to its apprehensions about a backlash against them from Sinhalese nationalists bolstered by opposition political parties. Pro-war Sinhalese nationalists who call for the military subjugation of Tamil nationalism very recently physically attacked leading Sinhalese and Tamil cultural artistes who had gathered together for an inter-ethnic cultural festival in Colombo. What this increasingly frustrated minority needs is the politically motivated backing by the major opposition parties to run amok and riot on the streets, as has happened on past occasions when governments appeared to make concessions to Tamil demands for regional autonomy.

Given dangerous possibilities inherent in such a delicate equilibrium, this is not the time for political ploys to expose the president and her team. Difficult though it is, Wickremesinghe has to negotiate a settlement with Kumaratunga while at the same time continuing to take the peace process forward. The basis for such a negotiated solution would be recognition of two realities. The first is that the president is indeed vested with enormous executive powers until the end of her term of office in December 2005. She obtained those powers legitimately by winning the presidential election in December 1999. There is no getting around that fact, which permits her to take over the three ministries and more if she so desires. The second reality is that the president's take-over bid was, in the final analysis, a failure. Kumaratunga and her advisors did not intend to merely take-over three ministries and have the process end with that. They had anticipated that members of the government would cross over to their side and provide the president with a parliamentary majority. The president and her team believed they could actually form a new government of their own. This did not materialise and so the president has no parliamentary basis for governance. While it is true that the Sri Lankan presidency is vested with enormous powers in theory, the experience over the last two years shows that a hostile parliament is even more powerful. The president's call for a grand alliance of all political parties in parliament and for a government of national reconciliation came only after this failure, and will justifiably be discounted because of it.

Aims versus gains
A compromise between the government and president could be achieved on a three-fold basis. First, it would be necessary for the government to find a face-saving solution for the president. She would not wish to be seen to be relinquishing the three ministries she took over. Therefore, it may be possible for her to keep the three ministries, but have three deputy ministers perform the day-to-day operations of the ministries. This was the case with the ministry of defence during the period of the last government. The deputy minister for defence was clearly in charge of defence. He stayed in that position despite dismal results without the president interfering.

The second basis for a negotiated settlement would be to accede to a request made by the president at the very commencement of the government's term of office that her nominee should be on the government's negotiating team. This is a fair request, and would add to the representative character of the negotiating team. If the Muslim community could demand that it have a representative at the peace talks, surely the main opposition party is entitled to have one too. It is a sign of the government's own unwillingness to recognise the basic principles of cohabitation that it disregarded this early request of the president in a most cavalier fashion. The presence of a presidential nominee would ensure that the solution would be easier to legitimise amongst the Sinhalese people as well.

The third basis for a negotiated settlement would be to find a direct role for the president as a democratically elected leader of the country who herself commenced the peace process with courageous leadership. It was during her period that it became uncontroversial to talk about an 'ethnic conflict' rather than a 'terrorist problem'. It was she who frontally confronted the critics of a federal type of political solution, proposed a semi-federal model, and lest we forget it was Kumaratunga who invited the Norwegians to be facilitators. The president deserves recognition both locally and internationally for the very positive role she once played. A new role for her, best suited to her strengths, but mindful of her weaknesses, needs to be found.

There is a need for urgency in the task of resolving this particular unexpected conflict. Political stability must quickly be re-established for Sri Lanka to fulfil its economic promise and for the people to enjoy fully the peace dividend. The conflict between the president and government appears too much of an elite struggle for power at all costs. Instead of trying to defeat each other totally, and escalating the conflict, our political leaders need to negotiate with each other in the same way the government is negotiating with the LTTE. And they need to keep in mind, especially the president and her team, that the mandate of the people at the last general election was for a negotiated peace and not for a war for peace.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian