During the election campaign of November 2005 that saw him scrape through to a narrow victory, Mahinda Rajapakse promised an “honourable peace” with the LTTE. This was in contrast to what he and his nationalist allies described as the “bended-knees peace” of his rival, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapakse also promised to present a viable political solution to the ethnic conflict within three months. On 1 May, more than 18 months later, the president’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, finally unveiled this proposal. Unfortunately, it falls woefully short of meeting even halfway the demands of the Tamil minority in general, let alone the LTTE.
There are three key requirements to finding a negotiated settlement to Sri Lanka’s three decade-long ethnic conflict. The first, and most difficult, is to persuade the LTTE to enter the mainstream of democratic politics and to renounce its use of violence. The other two involve the extent of Sri Lankan territory that could be regarded as under Tamil habitation, and the quantum of power that a regional government set up for that territory should possess. In Sri Lankan parlance, these two issues are known as those of the ‘unit of devolution’ and whether the constitution should be unitary or federal.
While the proposals do not even touch upon the thorny issue of persuading the LTTE to renounce violence, the approach to power-sharing is also less than satisfactory. Proponents of a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict have argued that the missing ingredient in reviving the peace process is a consensual political proposal that could lead to power-sharing. President Rajapakse appeared to have been of this view as well, which was why, shortly after his election, he set up the All Party Conference to develop a solution to the conflict. And this is why many were hoping for a more imaginative and courageous package than the SLFP’s proposals presented.
With regard to the unit of devolution, the aspirations of the Tamil polity are that the Northern and Eastern provinces, which amount to nearly 30 percent of the country, should be considered the Tamil homeland. The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that followed the signing of the accord, gave a degree of legal recognition to this Tamil demand by merging the two provinces, albeit on a temporary basis. This merger was accompanied by the requirement of a referendum in the Eastern province within a year, but that never took place. This year, the Supreme Court stepped in to de-merge the two provinces, much to the chagrin of Tamils.
Now, the SLFP proposal has sought to further undermine the legitimacy of the Tamil claim to the Northern and Eastern provinces by asserting that the unit of devolution should be at the district-level. Indeed, this is something which had already been implemented in 1981, but was given up in the legal changes effected by the Provincial Council system of 1987. The SLFP’s proposal would mean that, instead of one political unit for the Northern and Eastern provinces, there would be eight district units. In so suggesting, the SLFP seeks to reverse two decades of experience of governance with the provincial units. The ruling party appears to fear the aggregation of Tamil power that the devolution of real power to provincial units would have delivered.
The second bone of contention with regard to the SLFP proposal is the issue of central control over the regional units that are set up as part of a power-sharing arrangement. The SLFP proposal asserts that all devolution and sharing of power must take place within a unitary constitutional framework. This ‘unitary state’ would mean that Colombo authorities would wield overriding powers over the regional units, and would retain unilateral power to alter any arrangement. This is naturally unacceptable to the Tamil polity, which has long demanded a federal framework, in which unilateral central rule would be impossible.
President Rajapakse appears to have had the concerns of the Sinhalese community chiefly in mind when he finalised the SLFP’s stance. In a heterogeneous society like Sri Lanka, however, it is necessary that rulers take into account the concerns of minority communities. So far, not a single ethnic- or religious-minority party or group of any standing has voiced agreement with the SLFP’s new proposals. On the contrary, even parties within the coalition government have expressed reservations.
While President Rajapakse seems to have taken this course to preserve his alliance with the Sinhalese nationalist parties that assure him of a parliamentary majority, his short-term pragmatism is continuously eroding the confidence of many others, in his moral commitment and longer-term problem-solving capacities. Winning elections and holding on to power is one thing; winning the trust of others and solving intractable problems, is another.