Chandrika Kumaratunga has stood by her pledge to work with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for tsunami recovery in the northeast of Sri Lanka. A ‘joint mechanism’ envisages co-ordination between the government and the rebel outfit for the distribution of aid and relief material in areas where the LTTE is strong, besides proposing a decentralised system of decision-making on the matter of rehabilitation.
President Kumaratunga appears to be taking personal responsibility for the joint mechanism by signing an agreement before presenting it to Parliament. This is both a victory for her as well as an achievement for those who have actively supported constructive engagement with the rebel outfit. What is remarkable is that this was done without recourse to extralegal methods of silencing the opposition, an option exercised by some previous leaders of government, not to mention the LTTE.
Despite the clear advantages of the joint mechanism, the president came under tremendous pressure not to co-operate with the LTTE. Two abortive fasts unto death by prominent Buddhist monks ended without Kumaratunga shifting from her position. With the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna QVP), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, threatening to withdraw support if the joint mechanism was approved, the very survival of her government was put at stake.
However, despite the political risk, Kumaratunga decided to work with the LITE for post -tsunami relief. While this has led to the JVP withdrawing support, the government continues be in power as the main opposition party has decided not to use the issue as a political lever for one-upmanship and partisan gains.
Espousing an ideology that is a unique blend of Marxism and Sinhalese nationalism, the JVP had notched up considerable electoral success in the general elections of 2004. Formerly a militant outfit, the party came to occupy an important place in the government and was even able to increase its popularity. There were signs that the party might moderate its extreme stance on certain issues after attaining a position of responsibility. Its formal acceptance of the reality of globalisation was one such positive feature. However, the trend towards moderation was never unanimously supported within the party, and the decision to pull out of government clearly reveals that the hardliners have the upper hand.
On the issue of the joint mechanism, the JVP argued that an agreement would pave the way for a separate Tamil state headed by the LITE, on the basis of the Montevideo Convention of 1933. Had the JVP been less hamstrung by adherence to such outdated dogma and more aware of present international trends, they may have noticed that the convention is itself an ambiguous document. It does not enable separatist movements to form their own countries by pointing to the existence of joint mechanisms.
The JVP leadership would also have done well to realise their grave strategic errors in the contest with the president over the joint mechanism. The party got stuck in its own rhetoric when Kumaratunga refused to comply with its deadline to abandon the proposal, and was compelled to leave the government even before the deal with the LTTE was actually signed. The JVP thus lost an opportunity to use the influence it commanded to negotiate changes in the joint mechanism prior to its signing.
The unfortunate reality is that the JVP’s political wisdom and maturity has not grown apace with its increased voter base. They have failed to understand that federalism is about preserving the unity of the country and democratic accountability, as much as it is about sharing of powers between the centre and the regions. By refusing to accept the possibility of constructive engagement with the LITE, the JVP has actually eroded its own political gains of the last few years. Opinion-makers must try to wean the party away from its dependence on the outdated and destructive ideology of Sinhalese ulta-nationalism. The JVP, for its part, must seek to understand that the joint mechanism, with its federal features, is a positive step that could eventually help bring the country under a system of shared democratic governance.
President Kumaratunga’s ability to withstand the challenge posed by death fasts, protest marches and a pullout by her alliance’s second largest party was strengthened by the overwhelming desire for peace among common Sri Lankans; the mature, issue-based support of the United National Pary (UNP), the main opposition party; and not least, a change in the attitude of the LTTE itself.
The government received a boost after the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made it clear that he would not utilize his party machinery to oppose the joint mechanism for partisan political gains. For several years now, Wickremesinghe has been following a principled approach to the ethnic conflict by not indulging in reckless oppositional politics. He has consistently refrained from attacking or attempting to discredit his political opponents by resorting to chauvinistic nationalism. This principled position, coupled with a pragmatic assessment of the present political situation, has helped create bipartisan support for the joint mechanism and the peace process.
The opposition also seems to have realised that it would be unwise to topple the government at this time. No party today can cobble together a stable majority in Parliament due to political rivalries and irreconcilable differences between possible coalition partners on the joint mechanism. It therefore makes sense to permit Kumaratunga in her position as the powerful ‘executive president’ to take the lead in addressing the issue without reference to the numbers, or lack thereof, in Parliament.
The marked shift in the attitude of the LTTE is also another significant development in the evolving political equation. A comparison of the joint mechanism provisions with those of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) proposed by the LTTE reveals a major shift in the stance of the rebel outfit. The LTTE claims to have become flexible because the joint mechanism deals with humanitarian issues arising out of the December tsunami tragedy. Nevertheless, the LTTE’s willingness to adopt a step-by-step approach to power-sharing rather than a maximalist solution is a remarkable development that must be appreciated.
Crafting the censuses
The agreement on the joint mechanism is expected to give a push to the larger peace process. Had Kumaratunga caved in to the pressure, the ultra-nationalists and extremists of various hues could have come to occupy the centre-stage of Sri Lankan politics, projecting themselves as representatives of the majority will. The government – LTTE understanding, on the other hand, could be the nucleus of a new system of joint governance that appeals both to ethnic minorities and the majority community.
The joint mechanism agreement is a well-crafted document that includes many safeguards and incorporates checks and balances. The one-year term, the two-kilometer limit, minority veto and international monitoring provisions leave little room for dangerous abuse of the system. Instead, the proposal provides an opportunity to forge bonds of trust and partnership between the main stakeholders, which are the Colombo government, the LTTE leadership, the Muslim parties, as well as the other political parties and civil society at the district level.
Work done in the six months after the tsunami struck has clearly revealed the close linkages between the ethnic conflict, issues of good governance, and economic development. Despite large sums of donor assistance, the state structures have been unable to provide adequately for the speedy recovery of people’s livelihoods. This can be attributed to the absence of effective decentralisation to enable affected communities to take the initiative in the recovery.
The failure to decentralise, in turn, stems from the ethnic conflict and the reluctance to devolve powers to the northeast. The joint mechanism is a measure that provides a way out, by giving the affected population direct access to resources and by building institutional capacity to assist them.
With the setting up of the joint mechanism, Sri Lanka will be taking the first steps towards a bottom-up system of governance. The agreement provides for decisions on projects to be undertaken at the district level rather than at the central level. At the district level, the decision-makers will not be the distant elites and bureaucrats but rather local government officials, social workers, politicians, and of course, the LITE. Under this mechanism, local needs and realities would be better understood and taken into account.
The working of the joint mechanism will serve as a litmus test for the LTTE’s sincerity to operate within the larger polity in the future. The indications thus far are that the rebel .leadership is willing to go in this direction. But even while lauding the positive spirit of the LTTE, it will be important in the larger context not to forget the role of the JVP in reconciliation. While the joint mechanism will come through despite the opposition of the JVP, ushering in peace will require working with the JVP. The party might not want to go along with the spirit of federalism, but the fact is that it will remain a major political actor in Sri Lanka in the days to come. Indeed, the JVP has the ability to derail the peace process by creating dissensions within Parliament as well as by mobilizing supporters on the streets. Meanwhile, those who wish for peace, development and democracy in Sri Lanka must find ways to engage simultaneously with LTTE and the JVP, and to encourage a dialogue between them. Howsoever remote that possibility may seem at the moment.