Most analyses of the continuing Sri Lankan political deadlock focus on its disadvantages from a Colombo-centric perspective. The crashing stock market and the suspension of economic investments and foreign aid bode ill for the country’s macro developmental prospects. But it is not only President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and their respective parties that stand in danger of falling into public disfavour as a result. Even the LTTE appears to be feeling the pressures of the present impasse. On the one hand, the lack of progress in the peace process means that the LTTE can utilise the opportunity to consolidate itself in the north-east, the entirety of which it has access to under the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. In the absence of peace talks with the govern-ment, and with the suspension of Norwe-gian facilitation for the duration of the political crisis, the LTTE will have a relatively free hand to expand its recruitment drive, and set up customs, taxation, police and judicial institutions.
On the other hand, the absence of peace talks has also blocked the creation of legally recognised institutions that the LTTE can have a stake in, and which are necessary if the LTTE is to be the agent of economic change in the region it controls. A study carried out by the Sri Lanka-based Consor-tium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) has shown that people, whether in the north-east or outside, see the conflict in their lives as being primarily due to economic factors such as poverty, unemployment and land-lessness. Any organisation that seeks to be close to the people has to recognise this reality. As an organisation that needs to set itself on the path to maintain its leadership role through political means, the LTTE has to be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the Tamil masses. While the two years of ceasefire has brought them immense solace, people also want their economic lives to improve as fast as possible. So far, the Tamil Tigers have been unable to show the people that it is bringing them this boon. The war-ravaged north-east remains for the most part in the same state it was at the commence-ment of the ceasefire.
The international community that pledged billions of rupees for the north-east, made the dis-bursement of their funds conditional upon pro-gress in peace talks. They also envisaged the setting up of new joint government-LTTE institutions, such as the North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF) and the Sub Committee on Immediate Rehab-ilitation and Humanitarian Needs (SIHRN). However, these new mechanisms are either non-functional or are yet to be established. The inability to set up these mechanisms has sowed seeds of doubt as to the govern-ment’s capacity to be a partner with the LTTE in developing the north-east.
In recent days, the LTTE’s political leaders have been saying both publicly and privately that they are prepared to negotiate with President Kumaratunga in respect of the peace process. These statements made in different contexts in London, Kilinochchi and Colombo by top LTTE leaders would constitute a shift in the stance of the LTTE, away from a policy of restricting their dealings with the Wickremesinghe govern-ment alone. After the president’s party suffered defeat at the 2001 general elections, the LTTE had made no secret of its antipathy to the president, one that she reciprocated in full measure. The seven years of govern-ment headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga saw the war with the LTTE escalate to a maximum, including an assassination attempt on her in November 1999. However, it was Kumaratunga who subsequently invited the Norwegian government to facilitate a peace process with the LTTE. However, it is also true that during the president’s period of governance neither side was able to make progress on the peace process, with the war continuing to escalate.
When Prime Minister Wickremesinghe came to power in December 2001, the country and economy had reached rock bottom. His most important accomplish-ment, for which he deserves every credit, was to swiftly end the war and to revive the economy. However, two years into the peace process, it appears that the LTTE is seeing the disadvantages of limiting their negotia-tions to the government headed by the prime minister. Undoubtedly it was the govern-ment headed by Wickremesinghe that achieved the crucial breakthrough with them that led to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, and that was a document requiring great political courage to sign and implement. The entry of LTTE cadres into government-controlled areas and the opening of the A9 Highway to Jaffna were radical affirmations of trust in the peace process and willingness to take risks for peace.
Two years after the signing of the Cease-fire Agreement the LTTE has reasons to be discontent. The LTTE’s primary justification for pulling out of the peace talks in April 2003 was the lack of implementation on promises made during the six rounds of negotiations that took place between September 2002 and March 2003. The new institutions of governance that were agreed to be set up for the interim period in the north-east have yet to be implemented. Now the political crisis that has pitted the president against the government has stalled any further possibility of establishing those institutions on the ground.
By affirming their preparedness to negotiate with the president, or with any other leader with a mandate for peace from the people, the LTTE has created a situation that could help to resolve the present political deadlock. In effect they have eliminated the prime minister’s primary justification for standing firm on the issue of the three ministries taken away from his government by the president. The prime minister’s uncompromising position up until now has been that the defence ministry should be restored to his government for the peace process to commence. He has stated that the LTTE will not wish to negotiate with a government that did not fully control the armed forces. However, the new message coming from the LTTE is that they have no objection to the president wielding powers of defence, so long as she and the prime minister agree to the arrangement and to uphold the Ceasefire Agreement.
In essence, the Tamil Tiger’s position is that negotiations are possible with a joint governmental and presidential team in which the president and prime minister have worked out a new cohabitation agree-ment. It is also significant that Kumara-tunga has been repeatedly affirming her support for the Ceasefire Agreement since her takeover of the three ministries in November 2003. Already, several advant-ages can be seen in the sharing of power between the president and the government. One is that the Ceasefire Agreement now has bipartisan support from both the government and main opposition party. As a result, the popular acceptance of the ceasefire has registered its highest level of support ever. The possibility of expanding this bipartisan support to the decisive issue of constitutional change is too attractive to be foregone at this juncture. The president and the prime minister in particular must be large-hearted enough to work together to get the peace process back on track.
The challenge for political and civil society is to ensure that a new framework for cohabitation is worked out between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe to replace the old one. The cohabitation framework that prevailed from December 2001 to November 2003 was one in which the president did not use her legal and constitutional powers. Perhaps she was demoralised by her party’s electoral reject-ion at the general election of 2001. Perhaps she felt she did not have the answers at that time to take the country out of the deep pit of ethnic war and economic disaster that her government had taken it to. Neverthe-less, two years later, the country has changed for the better and the president appears to have regained her ambition and confidence to be at the helm of affairs. With her takeover of the three ministries, and the prime minister’s inability to regain them, the old cohabitation framework is no longer applicable. Unhappy though he may be with the sudden turn of events, the prime minister and his government should accept the new reality and work together with the president to devise a new framework of cohabitation for the good of the country.
In particular, a unified approach by the president and the prime minister will ensure that the peace process can be restarted and that decisions taken at peace talks with the LTTE can be implemented with a two-thirds majority in parliament. At present, the people are anxious about the possible dissolution of a parliament elected just two years ago, in the aftermath of the formation of the People’s Alliance-Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna combine. The two leaders should realise before it is too late that the people expect them to solve problems today rather than to bitterly contest each other politically in a struggle that could otherwise extend for several years.