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Fast-Tracking the Peace Talks

"TheTNA can never expect to represent them, which however a legitimate Government in Colombo alone can. Though at the same time, the TNA would still be at the driver’s seat – and how careful it is in steering the vehicle is what would determine where that Vehicle is headed."

By N Sathiya Moorthy

(September 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) UNP Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be applauded for reiterating his party’s commitment to support the APRC proposals on power-devolution. Coming as it does after the first post-war talks between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) delegation led by R. Sampanthan, the UNP offer should go a long way in helping to close a sordid chapter in the nation’s history and open a new page aimed at restoring peace and prosperity that had eluded the nation for thee decades at a critical stage in its contemporary history.

The Government and the TNA seem to be moving with caution while talking to each other. Neither can fail itself or the other, or the nation and the people as a whole. For justifiable reasons, the TNA is naturally fixated about IDP resettlement before it could think of political issues and solutions. The Government, in turn, has displayed no urgency in taking up the political process until after the predicted presidential polls and the scheduled parliamentary elections are possibly behind it. That could mean a wait till the middle of next year. Whether the nation can afford the delay is the question under the circumstances.

The coincidental declaration of US-based Sri Lankan lawyer Viswanathan Rudrakumaran that the LTTE was handing over the ‘Tamil nationalist movement’ to the Diaspora needs to be read in context. With the Sri Lankan Government indicating an intention to proceed against him under terrorism laws, Rudrakumaran seems inclined to distance the ‘Tamil Statehood’ cause from the LTTE. As is known, the LTTE continues to remain banned in many countries, including the US.

It is possibly in this context that Rudrakumaran has said that the ‘Provisional Trans-national Government of Tamil Eelam’ (PTGTE), which Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP announced post-war, should not be considered an LTTE institution. KP made the declaration in his capacity as the ‘International Affairs Head’ of the LTTE nominated by Prabhakaran. That was before his elevation as the new LTTE chief, before he was to be taken by the Sri Lankan security agencies. Rudrakumaran was a part of the decision-making apparatus and also the post-Prabhakaran interim arrangement in the LTTE.

The consequent idea of Rudrakumaran seeking to distance the ‘Tamil nation’ cause from the LTTE also seems to be aimed at trying to obtain greater legitimacy for the organisation in the absence of any LTTE link of the kind. With segments of the Diaspora not branded as LTTE but at the same time sympathizing with the cause and promoting the same, Rudrakumaran and his associates now seem to have some hope that at least a section of the international community may not be averse to empathizing with them more openly than at present – or, already – if they dropped the LTTE tag. Or, so seems to be the logic.

It is here that a more recent posting in the pro-LTTE Tamilnet website assumes significance and relevance. Standing in the name of the Editorial Board of the website, the posting begins as follows: “The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or any other political party claiming that they represent Tamils have no right to proclaim that they have moved away from the 1977 mandate for independence and sovereignty of the ‘Eezham Tamil’ nation… They may negotiate but without dropping the fundamentals, until any acceptable formula is freshly mandated by all Tamils, including those who are now in the Diaspora. Meanwhile, the emerging novel concept of trans-national governance will be misled if it is orientated merely with an idea of negotiation. It is not just a negotiation platform…”

In the same vein, the Tamilnet notes “with sadness (that) the proposal to form a transnational government by V. Rudrakumaran talks only of homeland and self-determination – a truncation of the vital parts of the Vaddukkoaddai Resolution”. Contesting what it calls the top-down approach of Rudrakumaran and company, the Tamilnet in fact refers to ‘Eezham Tamils’ in Norway … discussing the formation of a democratically-elected country council, adopting the goal for independent and sovereign ‘Tamil Eelam’, which has been mandated by 99 per cent of the ‘Norwegian Tamil voters’ (weeks before the conclusion of the war). If such elected councils in every country could device ways of forming a trans-national government, that will be more representative, democratic, secure and forceful.”

Clearly, there are both conceptual and procedural differences within the Tamil Diaspora over the post-war future of the ethnic movement. Maybe not by design but otherwise, the Diaspora discourse also seems to be keeping the Tamil community that chose to stay in Sri Lanka, out of those processes. There are at best references to the TNA, as in the Tamilnet posting, which was otherwise believed to represent the ‘Tamil Diaspora perception’ on the political front back home, but only as much. There is an uncomfortable feeling that at least sections of the Diaspora would want the TNA, or any other representative Tamil polity of the kind, to remain as passive an executor of the divided Diaspora intent – just as they were often accused of taking orders from the LTTE in the past.

The TNA as a political party representing the Tamil civilians who have yet chosen to stay behind in the war-ravaged country has the voice – though even that party cannot claim ‘sole representative’ status, which was among the LTTE’s undoing. TNA Parliament member, Sri Kantha’s call for other Tamil parties like the EPDP and PLOTE to join hands with the Alliance in finding a political solution thus assumes significance. PLOTE leader D. Sitharthan was the one who kicked off the discourse a fortnight or so earlier. EPDP’s Douglas Devananda, a Minister in the Rajapaksa Government, has expressed near-similar views, from time to time. The long and short of it all is that then problem lies in Sri Lanka – and the solution too -- lies in Sri Lanka. Looking elsewhere would only complicate maters as it had done in the past.

The TNA made a significant departure from the past when its leaders and elected members of the Vavuniya municipal council honoured the Sri Lankan National Anthem at an official ceremony. Reports also said that some muttered the lines of the song with the rest. This could not have been imagined when the LTTE was around. That way, even the very TNA decision to contest the Jaffna and Vavuniya local government elections in the post-war era compares positively with their boycott of elections in the Eastern Province earlier. Reports also spoke about the cultural events that were staged on the occasion, reflecting the multi-ethnic fibre of the Sri Lankan nation.

While it may not be time for song-and-dance yet, there is now need for residual hard-liners in the Sinhala camp and the Sri Lankan Government to shed their blinkers and begin looking at their Tamil brethren without pre-conceived notions and suspicions. Enough blood has been shed already over the trivia that has dominated the nation’s ethnic discourse since Independence. The conclusion of the war thus demands that the past is left where it belongs. It is also the right time for doing so.

It is here that the Rajapaksa Government has to look at the unfolding scenario with care and urgency. Leave alone the ‘Tamil predicament’, which some sections in the Government combine may want to cash on in political and electoral terms, ruling UPFA circles are clear in their mind that post-poll, the composition of the new Parliament may not be greatly different, other than possibly ensuring an absolute majority for the combine in the 225-member House. No such majority is foreseen for any single party, including the SLFP leader of the ruling UPFA, despite the war victory.

In this background, dependence on the Opposition UNP and also the TNA, for instance, would become near-mandatory for the ruling combine to ensure a two-thirds majority, to have relevant constitutional amendments passed on power-devolution and other aspects of a political settlement. This is what the Government would have in the incumbent Parliament if there were a political settlement with the TNA and other Tamil parties and groups. Of course, there are partners and allies of the Government whose views need to be accommodated but the personality of President Rajapaksa may have in it to do so now as much as on a later day. A positive vote in a referendum on the constitutional amendments would also be easier now than later.

The President has in his hands the summary of the APRC report on power-devolution. There are thorny issues of a specific nature – involving the ‘unitary State’, re-merger, Police, and Land powers. The Government cannot escape a national discourse on them, now or later. Earlier the better when a mood of reconciliation dominates the national psyche, including the Tamil polity and society. This may not be the case months later. With three elections, to the Presidency, Parliament, and the Northern Province, in about a six-month period early next year, issues could well change between any two of them – and with that the national mood. Already, the IDP issue is proving to be a Gordion Knot. President Rajapaksa may thus have to act on the political issues and the APRC proposals, earlier than later.

For the TNA, it needs to shelve the planned peace proposals, which can at best be counter-productive, for a variety of reasons. As the local government elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya showed, there are Tamil political players in he North other than the TNA who are not exactly unacceptable to the local people, for reasons of their own. They, as also representatives of other Tamil-speaking people, including Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, need to agree to a common agenda if their proposed proposals have to make any headway, when finalised.

Barring the TNA, every party representing one or another section of the Tamil-speaking people, participated in the APRC process. It is yet unclear if they all accepted every recommendation that has now been summarized for the Government. It would not only save time for the TNA to start with the APRC proposals, as presented to it by the Government. It would also avoid the need for the TNA to re-invent the wheel, particularly considering the distaste that the ISGA proposals of the LTTE left, when it was presented.

Adopting the APRC proposals as the basic document for a national discourse on power-devolution would also help the TNA avoid the confusion or controversy that may otherwise flow a set of proposals that it may now have in mind. To say the least, other parties, particularly those of not representing the ‘Northern Sri Lankan Tamil interests’ may find it difficult and embarrassing to let the TNA represent them – which concession they did not confer even on the LTTE at the height of the latter’s political clout and military might. As the local government polls have shown, the TNA should also be aware of the post-poll possibilities in parliamentary strength for the Alliance, and the fate of individual leaders who may now be vociferous in their public positions and posturing.

Likewise, the TNA needs to acknowledge that political representatives of other Tamil-speaking people, comprising the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, cannot be expected to hand over the fate of their respective constituencies to the Alliance, for negotiating with the Government. One option then would be for the TNA to initiate a process of mutual-consultation but then the APRC document could well be a dampener if any of them is expected to move away so very completely from their acknowledge positions.

Beginning the political process with the APRC proposals and then for the TNA to expect all other stake-holders, including other Tamil-speaking parties to make the required compromise, may be an easier and better option. That the TNA too would have to make such compromises in any negotiated settlement of the kind should also go without saying. It is in the absence of a willingness on the part of the LTTE to make such compromises, often after it had committed to the same, was behind much of the war and violence – though the commencement of the same owed it to peripheral Sinhala groups who dominated the political thinking of the Sri Lankan State at wrong times in the nation’s history.

It is not end-game as yet for the political process. The talks have not yet begun, to be precise. While the TNA’s moral responsibility towards ensuring the early rehabilitation of the IDPs cannot be underscored, it should still consider the option of going on a parallel track on the political negotiations. With UNPs Wickremesinghe indicating that there are some rough edges still on this score, a TNA intervention, rather than a direct approach by the Government and the President, could help – particularly if the UNPs reservations are about power-devolution and not on Executive Presidency and the like. So would it easier for the TNA to negotiate with parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and other political parties of the Tamil-speaking people. Together, they all should be looking at the larger APRC picture, which seeks to address not only he concerns of the Sri Lankan Tamils but also of the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils.

The TNA can never expect to represent them, which however a legitimate Government in Colombo alone can. Though at the same time, the TNA would still be at the driver’s seat – and how careful it is in steering the vehicle is what would determine where that Vehicle is headed.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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