Among the major issues to be canvassed at the Sri Lankan general elections in April 2004 will be the role of the international community. There is an influential section in the country that believes that Sri Lanka’s lifeline to peace and development lies through the international community.The question is whether a majority of people would agree with it. Certainly the past two years have seen an increase in the presence of international actors in Sri Lankan affairs, ranging from the Norwegians in the peace process to international NGOs in the reconstruction of the North-East.
The United National Party (UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe) campaigners are likely to emphasise the close ties they were able to forge with the international community, and in particular with aid-giving countries and multilateral donor agencies. Wickremesinghe’s ability to obtain two face-to-face meetings with President George Bush was a remarkable feat considering the relative unimportance of Sri Lanka in the past in the US global scheme. The pledge of USD 4.5 billion at the Tokyo donor conference last year and Japan’s singular contribution towards this fund have made the rapid economic development of Sri Lanka a viable proposition. There has been a corres-ponding negative side as well to the UNP’s close association with the international community. The stalling of the peace process between the government and LTTE that took place in April 2003 can be attributed at least partly to this. The LTTE justified its suspension of participation in the peace process by accusing the govern-ment of trying to establish an international safety net. The LTTE alleged that such a strengthening of the government’s position internationally was to the detriment of Tamil rights, as no government that felt itself strong would be fair to the Tamils.
At the same time, opposition parties have been critical of the UNP government’s acquiescence in the policies followed by the United States. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech at the United Nations where he justified the US war on Iraq reflected the price that the government was willing to pay for its international safety net. While recognising the importance of having the goodwill of the international community, few Sri Lankans would admit they were willing to pay such a price in terms of national dignity for the support of the international community. Leaders of the opposition parties have taken the stance that Sri Lanka virtually became a colony of the international community under the UNP government. The government’s inability to defend the interests of the third world at the World Trade Organisation conference in Cancun in August 2003, and its policy of agreeing to conditionalities placed on aid to Sri Lanka by the donor agencies, are some of the instances given to back this claim. In the past two years the government appeared keener to satisfy the requirements of international donors rather than to show empathy for the plight of Sri Lanka’s poorer population.
The chief coalition partner of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is led by President Chandri-ka Kumaratunga, is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which represents the extreme end of rejection of all that is foreign. During the 1988-89 period they considered the Indian government, which had sent in its army to implement the Indo-Lanka peace accord, as its enemy second only to the then Sri Lankan government. They banned the sale of Indian goods in shops and even made grocers change the name of Bombay onions to ‘Big’ onions. In the present period, the JVP appears to have mended its fences with India to a great extent and speaks positively of its leadership. Opposing the unfettered open market and foreign entry into the domestic market, JVP spokespersons have quoted Indian leaders with admiration as saying that what we need to import are micro chips but not potato chips. They have rejected any close association with the international community, especially the component that is Western led. China’s success in negotiating firmly with the World Bank and IMF is compared to Sri Lanka’s more appeasing manner, although the contrast between the bargaining power of China’s one billion strong population and Sri Lanka’s 18 million is not adequately appreciated.
The JVP’s vision appears to lie in recreating in Sri Lanka a society that is free from the taint of Western influence. This is the indication from its spokesperson Wimal Weerawansa’s expressed desire to take the country back to its pre-1505 culture and society. The significance of the year 1505 is that it brought with it a Portuguese naval fleet to Sri Lankan shores. In the centuries that followed came other colonising powers, the Dutch and the British, bringing with them the Christian religion. This type of JVP rhetoric is providing the social and emotional background for the series of militant attacks against Christian communities across the country. On the other hand, there appears to be a certain inconsis-tency within the LTTE hierarchy about the proper behaviour that should flow from its anti-Western attitude. The JVP’s supreme leader Somawansa Amarasinghe has spent the last decade in London, where he has educated his family who also presumably live there. If the JVP leader feared for his life in Sri Lanka after the abortive and bloody JVP in-surrection and sought refuge abroad it is understandable. But it would make the JVP hierarchy less hypocritical if their leader had sought asylum in a non-Western country such as India or even Myanmar.
The JVP is also taking the position that the Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire agreement is detrimental to the country’s national interests. During the past two years of ceasefire the JVP organised several demons-trations, rallies and processions against the ceasefire agreement in general and the Norwegian facilitators in particular. Their demonstrations frequently ended in front of the Norwegian embassy. But while the JVP was engaging in its anti-peace activism, public opinion polls showed that the ceasefire agreement was gaining in public support for having brought peace to the lives of people. The JVP’s election campaign at present takes the position that the ceasefire agreement is a traitorous document that needs to be rejected. However, instead of doing away with the ceasefire agreement and getting back to war, the JVP asserts that it will negotiate a new ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. Such a move would be very difficult to implement, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has cautioned against it. As the leader whose government negotiated with the LTTE, his view needs to be heard. In the event of any effort to negotiate a new ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, it is very likely that the LTTE will stick to the gains it has already obtained and seek further gains. If that fails, there may be no further ceasefire agreement.
While the JVP and sections of the SLFP will appeal to the voters on the basis of nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment, it is likely that President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself will adopt a conciliatory posture that is more in keeping with her position as the Sri Lankan head of state. The president has considerable achievements in the field of international relations. It was during her period of governance that the LTTE lost its advantage in the inter-national arena. It was she who invited the Norwegian government to facilitate the resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict, and who obtained the consent of India for this external intervention. In fact the SLFP-JVP alliance’s attack on the UNP’s proximity to the international community is likely to be balanced by the alliance’s perceived close-ness to India. The hostility to the LTTE that is presumed to drive Indian foreign policy will be used by the SLFP-JVP alliance to reassure the voters that they will be able to secure Sri Lanka’s most vital security interests with Indian assistance. President Kumaratunga’s takeover of the charge of ushering the prospective Indo Lanka Defence Agreement will reinforce the widely prevalent belief that the Indian government has a special affection for the president and her party.
On the other hand, there are persistent reports that India cautioned the president against going in for a general election at this time. By dissolving Parliament, even when the government enjoyed a stable majority and had four more years to go, the president acted to create an unnecessary problem. There is a very real prospect of a hung Parliament in which neither major party can achieve a majority by itself. This would create new problems, such as dependency on extremist forces, whether they be JVP or LTTE-backed parliamentarians. The en-hanced legitimacy such elections would confer upon the LTTE would also make the Indian strategy of containing the LTTE’s international influence especially on Tamil Nadu,a more difficult one. The international community that has stopped supporting militant organisations following the ‘war against terrorism’ would feel much more empathy for the LTTE as an organisation that has performed well at the elections, even if they are not quite free and fair.
It would be advisable for Sri Lankans to keep in mind the old adage that countries do not have permanent friends, they have only permanent interests. The international community has been unanimous in assist-ing Sri Lanka because it is a relatively rare example of a country that is on the road to solving a long-standing conflict. The international community wants Sri Lanka to be a country that solves its problems and does not cause them problems by spilling its terrorism and refugees abroad as in the past. In other words, the assistance that Sri Lanka will get from the international community is not conditioned upon which political party governs the country. Rather, it is conditional upon whether the political party that forms the government is solving the country’s problems without causing problems to others. If a new government were to rashly decide to scrap the ceasefire agreement and find itself going back to war, it will be creating new problems of war, terrorism and refugees. The international community, which includes India, will not be supportive of a government that ‘creates’ major problems when there was no rational need to do so.