Political will required

Sri Lanka becoming another Singapore is possible if there is genuine reconciliation and power-sharing with Tamils, including winning over the Tamil diaspora.

By Ashok K Mehta

(March 31, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) With Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on an unprecedented winning spree on the battlefield and at the hustings, can he secure a two-thirds majority in the parliamentary elections on April 8? The complex proportional representation system virtually rules out such an outcome on the strength of just his own party. Mr Rajapaksa wants to drop reliance on defectors and inconvenient allies which had forced him to appoint 113 Ministers out of his alliance’s 131 legislators. Technically he needs another 19 seats to reach the magic figure of 151 in a 225-member House. So rampant is political opportunism that UNF leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has made his party members sign an affidavit to preempt any post-poll defections.

Sri Lanka is divided into 168 constituencies among 109 districts. Of the 225 seats, 196 are directly contested and the remaining 19 come from the national list. The three main parties in the south of the country are Mr Rajapaksa’s UPFA, UNF, and Gen Sarath Fonseka’s DNA. With the General in military custody facing charges of treason and fraud, the Fonseka factor was given an inadvertent boost by his arrest.

The election excitement is really in the north and east where, despite voters’ lists being incomplete, Tamils and Muslims will be voting independently for the first time. Big Brother LTTE is not watching. The North and the East are represented by 31 parliamentarians of which the TNA, the LTTE proxy, held 23 seats in the dissolved House with the balance split between Muslims and Sinhalese. This time around, the TNA has split into four groups and reverted to its old name of Federal Party.

The non-LTTE groups in the fray are EPRLF, TULF, PLOTE and other smaller parties. EPDP led by Jaffna’s own Douglas Devananda, a Government Minister and a future Chief Minister of the North, will contest under the UPFA. In the East, Chief Minister Pillaiyan, the renegade LTTE commander, will fight under his TMVP banner. Unlike in the past, the Tamil vote will get divided among different parties while the Muslims will vote either for the UPFA or UNF, or the SLMC.

Current poll predictions give the UPFA an outright margin over other parties but missing the two-thirds majority target. Provincial elections in the North will be held later in the year depending on the outcome of the parliamentary elections. Many reasons are being suggested for the two-thirds majority required to change the 1978 Constitution devised by President Junius Jayawardene. Mr Rajapaksa, like his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga, wants to curtail the executive presidency; change the electoral system and enact Amendments enabling power-sharing with the Tamils; and last but not the least, remove the limitation in the Constitution restricting the President to two terms in office.

People fear that Sri Lanka could be drifting towards a single-party state with a nominal Opposition and power concentrated in the ruling Rajapaksa family. Blinded by the success of the military solution, Mr Rajapaksa has completely ignored the question of national reconciliation. His track record towards devolution indicates that he has sought to buy time pretending that the ethnic problem did not exist and it was terrorism which had to be quelled by crushing the LTTE.

To impress India and the internal community he appointed two panels — the All Party Representative Committee and an Experts Committee — whose recommendations have become archival material. Most recently, he announced the establishment of yet another committee to study the root causes of the ethnic conflict. This is a big contradiction because Mr Rajapaksa has said there is no ethnic conflict. He has dazzled his southern admirers, juggling with the four Ds: Demilitarisation, Development, Democracy and Devolution, forgetting the last D.

India has been taken for a ride with frequent pledges that the 13th Amendment would be implemented soon. Mr Rajapaksa made this commitment to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who announced it in Parliament last year. Foreign Minister SM Krishna stated in Parliament last month: “We keep urging the Sri Lankan Government for a political solution.” Members in the Tamil Nadu Assembly periodically endorse the same sentiments.

The 13th Amendment enacted in 1988 ensured that powers relating to police, land and finance were not devolved to Mr Varatharaja Perumal, then Chief Minister of the erstwhile North-Eastern Province. Twenty years on, Chief Minister Pillaiyan has even less power than Mr Perumal, the difference being that Mr Pillaiyan’s one-time mentor, Karuna, who was made the Minister for national integration had said: “Tamils are interested in development, not devolution”.

New Delhi has good reason to be angry over devolution being pushed to the back-burner despite its unpublicised role in helping Sri Lanka win the war against the LTTE. This was a big strategic investment, even bigger than the deployment of the IPKF and sacrifice of 1,200 lives. All that South Block likes to hear are rosy commentaries on the unique and time-tested relationship between ‘sister countries’.

It is the UN and the West that Mr Rajapaksa has steadfastly defied over transparency and accountability in the conduct of the war who are now turning the screws on the Government over alleged violations of human rights. The US and the UK keep pressing Colombo on reconciliation, early rehabilitation of 11,000 LTTE rebels and a free and fair trial of Gen Fonseka. UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon is to establish an experts’ panel to advice him on alleged excesses during the war. The EU has withdrawn trade concessions which will hit Sri Lankan textile workers. Former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Sarath Silva recently observed that the Government has to uphold human rights and the right to freedom of expression in order to reclaim trade benefits.

Stung by Western criticism of its record in governance — not lifting the emergency and anti-terrorism laws even one year after the war and creating new high security zones in the north and the east — Colombo has employed an image makeover company Bell Pottinger. Tourism has registered a 68 per cent increase and National Geographic billed Sri Lanka as the number two tourist destination in the world. Mr Rajapaksa has promised doubling the per capita income from $ 2,000 to $ 4,000 in his current term.

Sri Lanka becoming another Singapore is possible if there is genuine reconciliation and power-sharing with Tamils, including winning over the Tamil diaspora. With or without a two-thirds majority in next month’s elections, Mr Rajapaksa must show he has the political will to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils.