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Sri Lanka: Coming to a Full Circle – SAAG

[MISC, Saturday, 1 August 2009 12:28 No Comment]

The government of Sri Lanka under President Mahinda Rajapaksa said it was going to war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the battle cry of freedom. It spoke of a vision of a Sri Lanka where peoples lives would not be determined by the language they spoke. However, after the war is over, with a great deal of sacrifice of men and material resources, the emerging socio-political environment does not indicate the vision coming true; it may well remain what it was just a vision. 

By now it is clear that the word devolution has joined the rank of words to be wished away – like federalism – into political obsolescence. And the word minority also might join the list soon. That seems to be the new emerging order that is seen across the board not only with the ruling coalition but among the major political parties. This was best illustrated by the United National Party (UNP) presided over by Ranil Wickremesinghe. As Prime Minister he agreed to federalism as fundamental to the peace process in 2002 but now he and his party had no hesitation in jettisoning it at the altar of political expediency. And the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is no better.  

This comes as no surprise to Sri Lanka watchers as political parties, like many of their leaders, have done similar acts of political somersault more than once.(I should confess our own Indian political parties and leaders are no better. The latest in this genre was the Tamil Nadu political leader Ms Jayalalithaa�s sudden volte face on the question of Tamil Eelam on the eve of recent parliamentary poll. ) Apparently, it has become part of the political culture although it is extremely doubtful whether the common man is taken by such double whammy on the eve of elections. But in Sri Lanka in the past, the political double speak was the main reason why Tamil people lost faith in the political process. Ultimately Tamil youth took up arms to fight for their beliefs, right or wrong, because they saw only failed political process.  

President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to be in no hurry to implement the 13th amendment of the constitution in full, despite repeated promises to do so after the eastern province election. There might be sound internal political reasons for this; the President appears to be getting ready to advance the date of Presidential election to early next year as indicated in his recent interview to cash in on his popularity to get elected as president for a second term. And probably he would like to retain his Southern Sri Lanka votes in tact.

But does the President require a popular mandate to implement what is authorised in the constitution? In case a peoples mandate was necessary for the President’s course of action, parliamentary poll would be the true barometer. That would help his party gain a majority in parliament without the President sacrificing part of his present term. Of course, a strong presidential mandate first would ensure the SLFP sweeping the parliamentary polls. Thus it would enable the President to do away with the dependence upon other smaller parties. It might also reduce the influence detractors of his policy who have migrated from various political parties to the SLFP bandwagon as well as the opposition – the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the right wing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). 

With nearly twenty percent of Tamil population living as displaced persons behind barbed wire in welfare camps, elections would be democratic if they are free. Would they be free before the presidential poll? That is a question the government has to answer because there are contradictory signals coming from different limbs of government. And there is also the traditional gap between intent and action of the government. 

The President has with equal alacrity turned the all party committee for devolution, which he constituted on assuming office in 2006 with a lot of fanfare, into one more committee of irrelevance if not non-action, as recently confessed by its chairman Tissa Vitarana. His report submitted is said to cover a wide range of subjects that ail Sri Lanka from the executive presidency to revision of constitution to the rights and powers of people living away from Colombo. This well meaning effort is in the danger of consigned to the archives of history to company with President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s attempts at constitutional amendment that had almost everyone’s consensus. 

Curiously, India which had initially been speaking of devolution later to downgraded its desire to implementation of the 13th amendment. And when even that is in doubt India has become strangely muted, except that it came up as a point in the sidelines of the conference of non-aligned nations attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Rajapaksa.

But all these are exercises in politics and not of the promised pathway to ethnic reconciliation. It is not good intentions that is lacking in Sri Lanka but their implementation. President Rajapaksa has sought to wish away the term minority as applied to non Sinhalese citizens of the country. This is an admirable sentiment but it does not appear realistic in the absence of political, structural, constitutional and social actions needed to make it a reality. Unless the vision of a minority free Sri Lanka is fleshed out with appropriate missions to turn into a reality, it would remain a distant vision only. And sadly, this is what it is turning out to be, it appears.

The ethnic divide has established deep roots of distrust between the two communities that are yet to bee uprooted. So when the state once again sidelines the basic issue of Tamil quest for equitable treatment there cannot be but a feeling of d�j� vu among the people on this issue. These are partly reinforced by the continued presence of nearly 300,000 Tamil IDPs still in welfare camps with no hope of returning back to their war ravaged villages �within six months as promised earlier. 

Their doubts on the new dispensation increase further when Dayan Jayatilake, who turned in a stellar performance at the UN to save the face of Sri Lanka, was sacked overnight. Of course, he was �guilty� of trying to sell the states own merchandise the implementation of 13th amendment (plus?). Such actions only turn the feeling of discomfort of those who question government policy decisions into to insecurity. A nation needs conscience keepers to question and introspect. And a free media is the vehicle of conscience keepers; and they are ill served if the Damocles sword of Press Council keeps the media in tenterhooks.     

After decades of agonising conflict Sri Lanka needs an ambience free of fear and suspicion, where all people will have a fair share of power in decision making. And that unfortunately is not happening.

The process of polarisation of Sinhala and Tamil communities had been going on for over half a century. It had been clouding the emergence of a united Sri Lankan identity after it became bread and butter of Sinhala and Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. It has resulted in Sri Lanka going through a full circle from politics to extremism to militancy to insurgency to terrorism to war to politics now. Should Sri Lanka go through this agonising cycle all over once again? This is a question the people and rulers of Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore. 

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: www.colhariharan.org E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)

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