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Ethnic Issue: Reviving the Political Process in Sri Lanka



by N. Sathiya Moorthy

(September 02, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka is at crossroads on the ethnic front. The increasing incidence of military marginalisation of the LTTE on the one hand and the simultaneous attainment of relative peace and stability in the Eastern Province on the other have lent a new urgency for reviving the political process to end the current stalemate as never before since President Mahinda Rajapakse assumed office in November 2005. The combination of a military approach and political initiative having paid rich dividends thus far, the Government is already faced with the need for making a choice – or, at least in laying greater stress on one of the two courses available to it – in the coming months, if permanent peace has to be achieved.

President Rajapakse began well with an invitation for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, for the two of them to sit across the table without foreign facilitation, and negotiate a political settlement. That was in November 2005. Though Prabhakaran purportedly reacted favourably to the offer in his annual “Heroes’ Day” address on November 27 that year, the LTTE unleashed militant/terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and the East. This was followed/accompanied by reports of indiscriminate killing of Tamils, reportedly at the hands of the armed forces, or at their behest or blessings, in the undivided North-Eastern Province. The aborted suicide-bomb attack on the Sri Lankan army chief, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, in end-2006 marked a new chapter in the military operations. The Government forces have not really looked back since launching an air offensive in the East that very day – where it had an accomplice in the breakaway ‘Karuna faction’ of the LTTE. It was believed that the LTTE had expected a military offensive in the North, and was prepared for it, instead.

On the political front, the Rajapakse dispensation started with the revival of the peace process, initiated under Norwegian facilitation. The two rounds of peace talks at Geneva in 2006 proved to be a non-starter, however, with both sides displaying signs of a non-serious approach that was discernible all through. The increasing military successes over the succeeding months only encouraged the Government to unilaterally abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed with the LTTTE in January 2006. In between, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court had abrogated the merger of the North and the East, effected under the Provincial Councils Act, which in turn flowed from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The Rajapakse Government was prompt in effecting the de-merger, as ordered by the court. As if to drive home the point on the ground, the Sri Lankan armed forces also succeeded in pushing out the LTTE from the East.

It was in this background that President Rajapakse initiated a political process without taking the negotiations route earlier this year. If anything, the political process was set in motion earlier this year after his Government had abrogated the CFA. As part of the process, the President had the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC), to recommend the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and elections to the Provincial Council of the de-merged Eastern Province. APRC Chairman and Left-leaning senior Minister, Dr Tissa Vitharana, acknowledged the President’s instructions in this regard. Simultaneously, the Government also declared its intention to install a “nominated” Provincial Council for the North, pending a satisfactory conclusion to the ongoing war and consequent conduct of elections in the Province. Akin to the States in India, Provinces in Sri Lanka however have little or no power despite the Thirteenth Amendment, providing for such powers as Police and Land to them in 1987. Of the original nine Provinces in the country, regular elections and even Census work have not been undertaken in the North and the East for long.

Acceptance of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

Until he signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) months before the presidential polls in 2005, Candidate Rajapakse was not known to have spoken anything against the island’s Tamil minority, either in public or otherwise. However, as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he had led protests against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987, on which the Thirteenth Amendment was based. The rival United National Party (UNP) was at the helm when the Sri Lankan Government initiated the Accord and also the Act. Barring aberrations that were however marked, the UNP had stood by them both. For Rajapakse thus to personally initiate the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment meant that there was also unanimity of views on the subject between the two ‘Sinhala political majors’ in the country. As is known, the impossibility of a ‘southern Sinhala political consensus’ was among the reasons why a satisfactory political solution could not be found to the vexatious ethnic issue on earlier occasions. That included an initiative by Rajapakse, too. After signing a MoU with the ruling SLFP, the UNP Opposition pulled out of it within weeks, when the Rajapakse leadership wooed party MPs to shore up a parliamentary majority.

The Sri Lankan Government also followed up on the promise of Provincial Council elections in the East. In a controversial elections marked by widespread charges of intimidation, the ruling SLFP-led combine won the elections. S Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, a renegade LTTE cadre heading the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), the political arm of the the breakaway ‘Karuna faction’, became the first Chief Minister of the de-merged Eastern Province, after the combine defeated an alliance led by the UNP. Led respectively by the two ‘Sinhala majors’, the two alliances had parties representing the dominant Muslim community in the East. If the TMVP represented the ‘Eastern Tamil aspirations’, if that were so, the four-party Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA), identified with the LTTE, boycotted the elections, citing de-merger as the reason. As they were not tired of pointing out, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and the consequent Provincial Councils Act, provided for the merger of the two Tamil-speaking Provinces, and that the Rajapakse dispensation had got it de-merged through judicial intervention, to deny the Tamil community what had been its due. However, TNA/LTTE-sympathetic Tamil voters in the East were believed to cast their electoral lot with the UNP-led combine, in which the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was a main force in the East.

Where from Here?

Post-poll, there is peace in the Eastern Province. The early signs of revived violence targetting the Muslim community after the TMVP-led Government came into office have ebbed. Chief Minister Pillaiyan displayed maturity in handling the situation. He visited the mosque at Katthankudy after the spate of violence. It was here that the LTTE massacred tens of Muslims in 1990 even while driving out their brethren from the LTTE-controlled Jaffna town in the North. With the ‘Karuna faction’ identified as the culprit in the anti-Muslim violence in the East, and the Pillaiyan-led TMVP taking the blame for intimidation of election-eve in May 2008, the Chief Minister’s visit to the Katthankudy mosque was seen as atonement for past deeds. The ‘communal incidents’ have come down since. However, there are occasional claims/reports about TMVP cadres taking to violence, or taking to intimidation and kidnapping for ransom. Officially, all armed cadres of the TMVP have been asked to stay in the neighbourhood jungles, lest they should be blamed for political violence in populated-areas, or end up falling victims to stray LTTE cadres in sleeper cells.

Reports indicate that the Colombo Government has simultaneously kept its promise on initiating developmental projects in the East and rehabilitating past victims of victims of war and violence many of whom have been living in camps for ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP). For now, the focus is on infrastructure development, including roads and houses for the IDPs. The Government is also known to be keen on facilitating large-scale industrial development in the Province, to ensure jobs and prosperity for a generation of Tamils who have been left out of the growth that was due to them but for the ethnic war and violence since the mid-Eighties. What they, as also their brethren in the North, got instead was death and destruction. There is a political message in this. By reintroducing multi-party democracy in the East, which under the LTTE saw even other Tamil leaders and intellectuals brutally killed, and initiating developmental projects, President Rajapakse clearly seems wanting to send out a message also to the Tamil-majority North. It assumes added significance as the area under the LTTE control in the North too is shrinking under heavy assault by the armed forces, with each passing day.

The choice is between a negotiated settlement, where the LTTE will be involved – and a unilateral political solution, as in the East, where the Sri Lankan central Government would hand out, or hand down, political doles to the Province. With peace and early signs of promised prosperity showing up on the Eastern horizon, already there are demands for devolving powers as indicated in the Thirteenth Amendment. Chief Minister Chandrakanthan’s was among the early voices in the post-poll scenario for the devolution of Police and Land powers, among others, on the Provinces, as promised under the Thirteenth Amendment. The Chief Ministers Council lost no time in electing him the Convenor. Barring Chandrakanthan, the Chief Ministers from the seven other Provinces – except the North, which does not have one as yet – are all Sinhalas. They too had revived their demands for devolving all powers under the Thirteenth Amendment at least since Provincial Council elections in the East came to be notified.

A lot about the future will depend on the translation of the President’s intention and the Government’s successive announcements on power-devolution at the ground level. Though the ethnic issue had started off as a Tamils’ protest against the ‘Sinhala Only’ law (1956) and the ‘Standardisation regulation’ (1971), the focus has since shifted to power-devolution. The denial of power devolution of the kind promised under the Thirteenth Amendment thus far has come to be projected by the pro-LTTE Tamil groups like the TNA as a continuing part of the ‘Sinhala chauvinist past’ to deny them their due. A reversal of the mood could conversely have a positive impact on the Tamil mindset, starting with the East and possibly extending elsewhere, too. With the UNP already standing by the Thirteenth Amendment, and the TNA and a host of Tamil and Sinhala parties attesting it, there are only a marginal few that are opposed to power-devolution. In opposing power devolution as indicated under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and followed up through the Thirteenth Amendment, parties like the JVP and the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ monks-led party of Jathika Hela Uramaya (JHU) have only stalled the progress of peace first, and consequent prosperity of the island-nation, which otherwise is steeped in avoidable war and violence. While the hands of the ruling SLFP is seen also behind the recent split of the monolith JVP, any delay in implementing the Thirteenth Amendment in letter and spirit could cause eyebrows to rise in non-partisan groups and countries that have otherwise acknowledged President’s Rajapakse’s style of finding a political solution to the ethnic issue.

It is not without reason. The LTTE has remained adamant about the restoration of the CFA position on the ground for returning to the negotiations table. Recently, LTTE political wing leader B Nadesan indicated as much when he expressed a willingness to revive the ceasefire and negotiations. The Government, for conceivable and not-so-conceivable reasons, would hold talks with the LTTE only if the latter laid down its arms. As far back as the involvement of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in the Sri Lanka of the late Seventies, the LTTE had also gone back on such gestures as ‘laying down arms’. The Sri Lankan Government would thus require credible guarantees for the LTTE keeping its word this time round – even if the LTTE were ready to lay down arms ahead of negotiations. Whether the Rajapakse Government would be willing to let the Norwegian facilitators, or any other foreign country or group, to play a role in the process is anybody’s guess at the moment. Even while repeatedly reiterating that it was willing to negotiate with the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Government has lately begun asserting that the latter would cease to be treated as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil-speaking people. Other political parties and groups of the Tamil-speaking people too would find a place at the negotiations table. Whether the LTTE would be ready to accept such a position thus remains to be seen.

Today, the Sri Lankan Tamil community is faced with a curious situation – which may also be a part of the reason for the repeated governmental assertions for willingness to restart the negotiations. There are no credible Tamil groups or parties that are ready to join the peace process. Non-LTTE Tamil groups that are identified as moderate and many of them part of the Government are ready to join the negotiations, but their representative character remains to be proved. The LTTE-sympathetic TNA is seen as more representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil community (as different from the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Tamils of recent Indian origin, or ‘Highland Tamils’) is steeped in the past. The voice of TNA leaders has become shriller with each fallen town or military post under LTTE control. A combination of the moderate Tamil forces may be the best bet for the community to negotiate an equitable political package with the Sri Lankan Government and the Sinhala polity. The Government of India also seemed to be working towards it, if it could help it. On a recent visit to Colombo, a three-member high-power team of the Indian Government, led by National Security Advisor (NSA), M K Narayanan, impressed upon the Tamil leaders, starting with those of the TNA, to work together for finding a negotiated, political solution to the ethnic problem haunting them for long.

Unnoticed by many, the Sri Lankan Government has also quietly shelved its publicised plans for having members nominated to the Provincial Council for the North, pending elections to the Provincial Council. The latter does not look possible until relative, if not permanent peace, returned to the Province. It could not be expected to happen in turn until the ongoing war and continuing violence ended in the North. In the place of nominating members to a Provincial Council that was yet to be constituted after the de-merger, President Rajapakse set up a three-member Special Task Force (STF), headed by Tamil Minister Douglas Devananada, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) for undertaking development works in the areas cleared off the LTTE’s presence and control in the Northern Province. Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse, a brother of Mahinda Rajapakse who is considered the architect of the ‘Rise of the East’, is a member of the committee. The appointment of a committee in the place of a promised Provincial Council has helped the Sri Lankan Government minimise the embarrassment for New Delhi as otherwise, a separate Provincial Council for the North after the one for the East would have sealed the fate of the North and East merger completely.

The present arrangement also keeps the doors open for possible re-merger, if it were to become a part of the final political solution for ushering in permanent ethnic peace in the island-nation. It is another matter if the Sri Lankan Government would at all accept the continuing demands for re-merger from the LTTE and the TNA, among others. Nor is it clear if the Eastern Province would vote in favour of merger in a free and fair referendum, if and when held, as required under the Provincial Councils Act, for ratifying any move of the kind. As may be recalled, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court had cited two justifications for striking down the merger. One was that the merger was not effected through a law of Parliament, as required, but only through an order of the Executive President, extended by a year at a time since 1987. The second justification flowed from the LTTE not laying down arms, as required under the Provincial Councils Act. In asking the LTTE to lay down arms before recommencing negotiations, President Rajapakse may have been guided as much by the spirit of the judicial pronouncement as by political realism that could cut both ways.

Of India and the International Community

India has maintained a non-interfering approach to the ethnic affairs in Sri Lanka following the ‘IPKF experience’ and the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’. However, New Delhi had continued to remain itself acquainted with the daily developments in the southern neighbourhood. New Delhi was prompt in declaring the political initiative of President Rajapakse in January as the ‘welcome first step’. More recently, a three-member, high-level delegation from India, headed by National Security Advisor (NSA), M K Narayanan, visited Colombo, where they held discussions with President Rajpakse, and his brothers, Basil, the Presidential Advisor, and Gothabayya Rajapakse, the Defence Secretary. News reports claimed that visit focussed mainly on the SAARC summit at Colombo, scheduled for 1-2 August. However, the Indian team was believed to have utilised the opportunity to update itself on the political initiatives taken by Colombo for finding a political solution that was acceptable to all communities, to end the evolving ethnic stalemate.

The team also met leaders of the TNA and other Sri Lankan Tamil groups (as different from those of the Tamil-speaking Muslim community, and of the Highland Tamils, barring Minister Arumugan Thondaman. It looked as if India wanted, after great deliberation, that all Tamil parties and groups should first unite among themselves if they had to make any great impact on the ‘divided Sinhala polity’. Unlike Colombo, India had never considered LTTE as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Instead, from time to time in the past, successive Governments in Colombo, independent of political affiliations and leadership identification, had treated the LTTE at least as more equal than other groups in terms of their place at the negotiations table. Thus for, all groups except the LTTE had been kept out of any formal discussions. The presence of any of their leaders at any negotiations between the Government and the LTTE in the past had flowed owed not to their political identity but to their position as incumbent Ministers. The recent statement of President Rajapakse at Tirupati, inviting the LTTE for talks but only after ‘laying down arms’ should be a welcome sign. It is a departure from the past as the Government does not seem to insist any more on the LTTE ‘surrendering weapons’ before recommencing negotiations. The Government seems to indicate that it was willing to consider the ‘Eastern model’, where the TMVP continues to operate politically without surrendering weapons – but without using them, either. The idea seems to be for both sides to generate mutual trust before expecting the militants to lay down their weapons for good. As if to seek a clarification on this point, LTTE’s Nadesan reiterated that they would be ready for talks but without surrendering weapons.

Should the current hopes materialise into more substantive positions on the peace front, it may require a host of players to facilitate the process. President Rajpaakse has repeatedly asserted that his Government would not be comfortable with involving any third nation, particularly those from the West. This, he reiterated in reference to India when media persons quizzed him at Tirupati. Instead, Rajapakse declared one more time that his Government was all for direct talks with the LTTE. Against this, the LTTE is known to feel comfortable only with the Norwegian facilitator from the past, around. At least until the mist is cleared on the issue of mutual suspicions, the LTTE leadership may find it difficult to send a representative team for any future negotiations inside Sri Lanka. Elsewhere, the death of chief negotiator Anton Balasingham in 2006 would stymie the LTTE’s efforts at entering the negotiations process. Balasingham was based at London and also provided continuity to LTTE’s political efforts at reaching out to Governments, and also to negotiations with the Colombo dispensation.

The rest of the western world have been providing the ‘international safety-net’ about which UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe used to talk about while signing the CFA in 2002. Together, countries such as the US and Canada, France and the UK, Australia and Indonesia have all worked with the Sri Lankan Government over the past couple of years to suffocate the funding and weaponisation activities of the LTTE, based in turn on the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. There are also indications of intelligence-sharing with Sri Lanka. This in turn did help the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) to target the ‘commercial liners’ of the LTTE used for smuggling weapons into the country. At the same time, the West in general and the European Union in particular, have not taken kindly to reports of serious violations of human rights in the country. They have threatened the Government with aid-cut and concessions in bilateral trade if the situation was not set right. While there has been a marginal improvement in the situation over the past few weeks, it is also slowly dawning on the international community that their excessive focus on the human rights situation over the past couple of years may have detracted from the real work on hand – pertaining to the ethnic issue, which has been hanging fire for three decades and more, what with the Diaspora community becoming political pressure-points in individual constituencies and countries in the West, and the LTTE too running a ‘parallel administration’ of a kind with ‘tax-collection’ and extortion demands with punishment promised to relatives of their targets back home in Sri Lanka. (28 July 2008)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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