Death of Devolution

The devolution package means all things to all people in Sri Lanka, while the cynical pursuit of peace continues.

Some weeks ago in Sri Lanka there occurred an event with heavy political overtones that went largely unnoticed by the media. A mock funeral ceremony was staged by an assorted group of Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, including monks, in the southern city of Matara. The 'corpse' in this case was the devolution package, the constitutional reforms proposal that aims, among other things, to introduce maximum devolution amounting to quasi-federalism for the island. All the ritualistic exercises of a traditional funeral ceremony were observed but there was one crucial difference: instead of eulogising the dead person as is customary at funerals, speaker after speaker expressed glee over the death of the devolution package.

For Sinhala hawks, the very idea of devolution or power to the periphery has been anathema. They believe that any form of devolution will weaken the centrist state and strengthen Tamil separatism, ultimately leading to the division of the country. The mock funeral was therefore a jubilant manifestation of Sinhala hardline perception that the envisaged devolution package was not going to materialise as effective legislation. And they have reason enough to exult.

The constitutional reforms scheme, first publicised in August 1995, is more or less ready to be presented in Parliament. There, it has to be passed by a two-third majority, after which it would have to be ratified at a nation-wide referendum before becoming law. Since the ruling People's Alliance (PA) does not command a two-third majority, a bipartisan consensus with the chief opposition, the United National Party (UNP), is necessary. The UNP, however, has been evasive over the issue of lending support, while other minority parties have been expressing reservations over certain provisions of the package.

Faced with this uncertainly, the government has been threatening to resort to other constitutional means to get the reform bill passed. These measures which, according to President Chandrika Kumaratunga constitute a "constitutional revolution", consist of three options: 1) to go for a snap presidential election which the PA hopes to win because of the popularity enjoyed by the charismatic Kumaratunga over her chief adversary Ranil Wickremasinghe. The proposals would then be presented in Parliament seeking UNP support, failing which the Parliament would be dissolved and polls announced seeking a two-third majority on the issue; 2) to stage a consultative or non-binding referendum on the devolution issue, and win well. Thereafter, the devolution package would be submitted in Parliament with the expectation that the UNP would be morally bound to support it. If the UNP persisted in non-com-pliance, fresh elections would be called; and 3) to submit the constitutional reform proposals in Parliament now, and inveigle a section of the UNP into supporting it. Failing that, both presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held on the assumption that favourable results will emerge.

War for peace

The Kumaratunga government's twin-track policy towards the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) continues apace. This strategy, described as "war for peace", consists of seeking a consensus on greater devolution to isolate the LTTE politically, while at the same time, conducting a war aimed at weakening the Tamil Tigers militarily to ultimately pressurise the rebels into accepting a political settlement.

In the earlier stages, this approach had gone down very well both internationally and nationally. But gradual disillusionment set in as expected progress could not be achieved. Militarily, the LTTE continues to be a resilient force, and unconquerable in spirit, despite having lost territory. Politically, the UNP continues to prevaricate, nullifying in advance the presentation, and passage, of the devolution bill in Parliament, with Wickremasinghe even recently stating that the party was opposed to the scheme. There is thus a stalemate, politically as well as militarily.

Meanwhile, the Tamils have become increasingly alienated from the State. The ongoing war has caused unprecedented hardship for them. The government can argue that this phase of the conflict is due to the intransigience of the LTTE, but it is not an argument that is going to appeal to the Tamil community. It is the consequences, and not the causes of the conflict, that are felt and remembered. Moreover, the Tigers have in recent times launched a series of assassinations against Tamil political leaders supportive of devolution, including that of the co-architect of the government package, Neelan Tiruchelvam who was killed on 29 July. A climate of uncertainty has arisen among Tamils over what their role should be if and when the devolution package is presented in Parliament.

The government had been hoping for some convincing victories over the LTTE in the North. This, it was felt, would influence voting patterns in the Sinhala south, which would not stand in the way of devolution if it was perceived that the package was passed after the government had established a position of strength on the ground. They would be unlikely to support devolution if they felt that it arose out of compulsion. But the tardy progress of the military, coupled with sporadic reversals at the hands of the Tigers, has delayed political action on this count.

While the government dilly-dallied with its political strategy, the UNP was making headway in terms of the minority, notably Tamil, votes. This vote bank had deserted the UNP en masse in the presidential stakes of 1994, enabling Kumaratunga to win a record 63 percent of the votes. Recent local and provincial elections, however, demonstrated that the minority votes were now shifting in favour of the UNP.

This shift in itself is paradoxical as one would expect the Tamils to support Kumaratunga, since it was her government that formulated the far-reaching devolution proposals while Wickremasinghe's UNP has obstinately blocked its passage. But the reality is that, rightly or wrongly, the Tamil people has veered around to a state of mind that sees only two things as crucial to its interests. First, it wants the war stopped and secondly, it wants negotiations to be resumed with the LTTE for, in spite of their track record, the Tamils generally perceive the Tigers as being amenable to a negotiated settlement. The UNP has realised this general sentiment and is exploiting it to the hilt. Its stated position on the ethnic issue now is that the war should be suspended and negotiations with the LTTE reactivated.

This was the precisely the platform on which Kumaratunga had campaigned in 1994. Today, the tables have turned and the UNP is using Kumaratunga's own mandate against her, even though it is clear that the UNP is resorting to political gimmickry and not articulating a principled position. The UNP has rejected several attributes of the devolution package as being too concessionary to the Tamils, whereas the LTTE has dismissed the package as falling far too short of Tamil aspirations. Talks between the two parties which are so diametrically opposed on the fundamentals are doomed to lead nowhere. Nevertheless, most Tamil people, straining under the effects of a military campaign, seem to prefer an immediate mirage to a distant oasis.

Cynical peace

Of more immediate concern to the PA is the fact that both the presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2000. Recent provincial councils in the seven Sinhala-majority provinces show that the PA only enjoys a thin-edge majority over the UNP. Resurgent political forces like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are also gaining in strength. It seems that without a crushing military victory over the Tigers—a highly unlikely proposition at the moment—there are no chances of the Sinhala voting pattern shifting in the government's favour.

That is where the Tamil vote turns vital, and which also explains why the PA is revising its strategy. The first indication of this came when the government went back on its word that the devolution proposals would be presented in Parliament before 19 August. With Tiruchelvam dead, there remains no one from among the Tamils with the stature to effectively exert pressure on the government to do otherwise. The Kumaratunga regime is now preparing to emulate the UNP and go in for talks with the Tigers as a prelude to presenting the devolution proposals.

Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a senior minister, has gone public saying that the LTTE should be consulted before the devolution package is presented in Parliament. Other ministers, including Kumaratunga's trusted lieutenant Mangala Samaraweera, have participated in a massive public demonstration calling for peace talks. An initiative begun by sections of the business community is also being actively supported. It envisages a bipartisan consensus to be achieved between the PA and the UNP before 30 September and then a delegation to go to meet the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan. Recently, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, himself an ethnic Tamil, hastily summoned a press conference, announcing talks with the Tigers at an "appropriate juncture". Even the army is showing signs of de-escalating military activity. It is also showing flexibility in reaching a negotiated understanding with the LTTE on opening a direct land route to Jaffna, instead of trying to establishing one through force as in the past. All these clearly point to a directional change.

The LTTE has not failed to seize the moment. It has sent out feelers that it is ready for talks. The organisation's political adviser, Anton Balasingham, has relocated to London, where he is engaged in seeking the good offices of various countries and organisations to act as third-party facilitators and mediators for negotiations without preconditions. So tremendous has been this push for peace talks by the LTTE that several influential members of the Sri Lankan peace lobby have openly interpreted the killing of Tiruchelvam as a declaration by the LTTE that they too want to be part of the devolution process.

Sceptic's Prabhakaran

It is now clear that the government will not proceed on the devolution path without talking to the Tigers. This is where the real danger to the devolution exercise lies. Analysts who have observed the LTTE and Prabakharan, find it difficult to believe that the Tigers want a participatory role in the devolution process. It is more likely that the LTTE wants a reprieve that would nullify the devolution exercise permanently. The LTTE supremo is not one to ever compromise on his ideal of a separate country and no amount of devolution can compensate for this. But even those who understand this well, hesitate to argue against peace talks because no right-thinking person wants to be viewed as being anti-peace.

The talks that will be part of this cynical pursuit of peace by both the government and the LTTE will be flawed from the very beginning because they will have been necessitated not by principled positions, but by practical expediency. The end-result would be a rigid hardening of positions after the fling for peace is over, leading to a vigorous demand from the southern side that all attempts at devolution be halted until the Tigers are routed.

Should such a victory be achieved, however unlikely it may seem now, the Sinhala hardliners will triumph, and insist that devolution is redundant. Leaders like Tiruchelvam strove ceaselessly to try and ensure that such a scenario did not unfold. But the extreme forces that have appropriated the political leadership of the Tamils will have none of this. They are intent on pursuing a dangerous dream of trapeze artistry without the safety net of devolution that Tiruchelvam and others were trying to set up. As long as the artistes are flying high, everything appears fine, but if and when a fall occurs…what then?

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