War-torn Sri Lanka nowhere near political settlement

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The reality that Sri Lanka needs political solution to the problems pestering the entire population in varying degrees and that there is no militarily solution is widely recognized. Any devious move to avoid the required changes to the failed system of governing centrally will only prolong the suffering of the people. The unity and peace the country needs for moving forward will continue to elude with dire consequences. The huge losses incurred by the country in the past will also continue. Many concerned citizens have suggested changes ranging from some internal adjustments within the present system to constitutional reforms that entail a decentralized structure. The theorists have also conveyed ideas that do not help to seek an early political solution but only confuse further the muddled minds of the people. Their confusion arose as a result of the irresponsible emotive utterances of power hungry politicians seeking the support of the electorate. The political power sought by misleading and damaging ways was also for serving their own interests.

Weak system serving few

The fact that the country is facing several problems, besides the long-standing ethnic issue is widely known. This is not due to some misfortune or forces beyond the control of governments. The system itself was set up and nurtured to serve the few who by hook or by crook get into powerful positions. Nepotism and cronyism have also helped few others to thrive. Ironically, it is the flawed system that is hindering the constitutional changes needed for stability, good governance, national unity and peace. It is the lack of these essentials that have inhibited the development of the economy. Because of the past neglect and the ravages of the prolonged war, the need for rapid development is now great. Sadly, some still continue to give special importance to their narrow political aims.

The war is helping to divert the attention of the people from the failures of governments to deal with pressing social, economic and law and order problems. How long can this diversionary tactic work? There are signs that the working class is not prepared to wait long and endure the suffering for the sake of continuing this costly war. The military victory sought by the government is not going to solve the problems that led to the conflict. The country’s future depends on conquering many political and economic challenges sensibly with the cooperation of all leading players. The permanent confrontation between the two main rival parties which is a trait of the country’s political culture is also responsible for the present chaos and lack of progress in many fields.

The present coalition politics in Sri Lanka also reveals the loose political system unsuitable for addressing national issues. The coalition government with the SLFP as the leading partner has several minor parties with opposing views on the main national issue. The JHU, MEP and a section of the SLFP support Sinhala majority rule in the entire country. On the other hand the leftist and Tamil and Muslim parties want a structure that recognizes the diverse ethnic structure of the provinces. Some UNP defectors are in the coalition because they are opposed to the present organizational arrangement within the party, which they say is undemocratic. Earlier when the JVP joined the coalition government led by SLFP, it too had its own agenda and one was to prevent the arch enemy the UNP gaining power.

In the case of the CWC which represents the upcountry Tamils, this has been the normal practice since the time the present constitution was adopted, regardless of the main party in power. This is because of the priority given to the urgent need to improve the living conditions of the plantation workers and their families. The leaders are conscious of the fact that they will be isolated and remain helpless, if they are not in partnership with the main ruling party. Their people have a long way to go to catch up with other communities in Sri Lanka.

In his article, “The war is winnable: Lankan troops gaining impressive ground” in the ‘Daily Mirror’ of 12 July 2008, the ultra Sinhala nationalist Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Patali Champika Ranawaka from the JHU said, Sri Lankan Tamils were not subjected to any national oppression. “They were given privileged status by Dutch and British colonists and Tamil elite wanted to maintain the status quo even after independence in 1948. LTTE military machine was not organically evolved through the Tamil society. Instead it had been created to wage a proxy war (1983-90) against Sri Lanka’s foreign policy vis a vis India and later supported by a few western nations with vested interest. Therefore, deconstructing the artificially inflated military capability of the LTTE by way of determined and cohesive military campaign is always a possibility”.

He also said that he does not want any real move on the political front now as this would hamper military victory. To quote: “At this critical juncture, no political solution aiming to devolve more powers to Federal or other means should be allowed. Process should be demilitarization, democratization and development”. According to him the key to (military) victory lies in “the unity of the Nation and the support of the national movement”. In so far as the ethnic problem is concerned, which until recently was widely considered to be a national problem, this is like putting the cart before the horse. Moreover, if there was any real national movement, it was before independence. Perhaps the movement referred to is the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist patriotic movement’

The present government has more than 100 ministers and deputy ministers but it cannot be regarded as a national unity government with all partners having the same interests and long-term aims. They are exceptionally divided on the ethnic issue. Some even do not want to acknowledge its existence. Because of the opposition to devolution within the United People's Front Alliance (UPFA) government, a new movement to encourage it to devolve power to the Provincial Councils was launched in Colombo on last Thursday, July 24. Speaking at the inaugural meeting attended by parties to the Alliance as well as civil society activists, Minister Dilan Perera said the new movement will strengthen those in the government who support devolution.

Under the present system, the opposition members can show their muscle only when new legislations or amendments to existing ones are considered for approval by the House. They have done this regularly, except when the circumstances are not favourable as in the case of the 17th Amendment. The support given then and the disinterest now of the SLFP-led government in implementing it show the dubious nature of national politics in Sri Lanka. The method of choosing the MPs via the present district cum preferential system also ensures that no single party gets the two-third majority needed for Constitutional Amendments without the support of the opposition. The point is the present system is unsuitable for supporting consensual politics. It caters to the needs of the leaders of the party or parties wielding power, especially if the leader of the main party in the coalition is the Executive President of Sri Lanka.

No will for political/constitutional settlement

Recent statements of the President days before the SAARC meeting in Colombo, despite the conflicting stands of his Ministers on the ethnic issue have failed to raise hope for normalcy and peace in the war-torn island. This time the government insists that the rebels must first lay down their arms. The LTTE which does not trust the Sinhala political leadership has categorically rejected this condition despite their alleged huge losses in the ongoing war. Without the will and mutual trust the talk about a ‘negotiated settlement’ is meaningless. In the case of the Northern Ireland conflict, the antagonists realized they have to trust their opponent for the sake of ending the prolonged suffering of their people.

Some of the suggestions of citizens for changes to the present divisive system are in principle sensible but lack realism as these have ignored the damage done to the integrity and unity of the nation. The forces that have on previous occasions obstructed political settlement of the Tamil problem are now in a revitalized form. But Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha as Secretary-General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) in the document - ‘The Enemies Within - why political compromise failed over half a century’ - released on July 14 has said that the situation has changed primarily because of the weak UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and the absence of forces that are “in a position to agitate against positive government initiatives”. His optimism is based on his preferred perception that “the government has shown that measures to promote rights and empowerment for minorities within the context of a united country will not entail opposition”, though “the opposition mutters darkly about the JHU and the MEP”.

He also thinks because of the present enlightened leadership of the Sinhala nationalist parties, “there is no problem whatsoever about those parties being pro-Sinhala (for much needs to be done for deprived Sinhala majority regions too) provided they are not anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim. He has admitted that all elements supporting them may not understand this distinction but “since the leadership does, there should be no difficulty about the government taking firm action to stop any intimidation.” He concludes his perception of the developments on the political front since the time the present government started its own peace process through the APC, APRC, Expert Panel and Presidential commission with the following statement. “There is no better time to move than when the country at large has confidence in a government that has achieved so much in terms of security as well as equity in the face of considerable odds”. Anyway, one has to give credit to Professor’s ability to see things positively, despite the present turmoil, bickering and financial and economic crises in the country.

[Sunset over Batticaloa lagoon: HA pics]

Look eastwards for solution!

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha has in his document has also conveyed the way the present government intends to seek a solution to the vexed problem with the support of Sinhala nationalists. It was the JHU and MEP that pressed for the inclusion of the new Tamil party, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) in the APRC (All Party Representative Committee). The Committee resumed sittings on July 14 after a lapse of several months with the participation of the new TMVP member, Batticaloa Mayor, Shivageetha Prabhakaran but without the JHU and MEP members. The TMVP contested the Eastern Provincial Council election in partnership with government and secured the Chief Minister’s post.

Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan is also in the company of Wimal Weerawansa, former propaganda secretary and parliamentary group leader of the JVP and now the leader of the breakaway JNP (National Freedom Front), another Sinhala nationalist group backing the Rajapaksa administration from the opposition bench. The Sinhala nationalist parties supporting the Rajapaksa regime are anxious to demonstrate they are not racist anti-Tamil parties, though they are dead against India’s meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. Even joint collaboration on economic affairs is viewed with some suspicion. Both the JHU and Wimal Weerawansa’s JNU are in the forefront campaigning vociferously urging the Sri Lankan government not to go ahead with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. The link between the TMVP and the government, particularly with the JHU helps to support the Professor’s claim that the present Sinhala nationalist leaders are not anti-Tamil.

Criticizing the US House of Representatives: Resolution 1338 dated July 10, 2008 submitted by 3 US Congressmen, Neville Ladduwahetty has said (The Island 23 July 2008) that the resolution if approved by the Congress will only prolong the conflict when the government is on the way to establish ‘normalcy and democracy’ as it has done in the Eastern Province. An international monitoring presence in Sri Lanka in whatever form “would only extend the conflict indefinitely. Therefore, humanitarian considerations of the people of Sri Lanka call for the conflict to be brought to a closure as early as possible, as has occurred successfully in the Eastern Province. The US Congress and the International Community have an obligation and a responsibility to respect humanitarian considerations and desist from intervening in GOSL efforts to bring normalcy and democracy to the areas that are yet to be liberated from the LTTE”. Will the prevailing model of ‘normalcy and democracy’ in Sri Lanka guarantee national unity and real peace without basic changes to the present constitution? A political solution acceptable to the Sinhala nationalists will not necessarily tally with the aspirations of the ethnic minorities in the light of all what happened over the past five decades. There is a general tendency among some nationalists to ignore the past tragic developments.

The real East

Citing the comments in the interview Andrew Whitehead of the BBC had with Martin McGuinness, former IRA fighter and now Northern Ireland’s elected Deputy First Minister, Shanie in her weekly column in The Island 12 July has very rightly said that “we need leaders on all sides who are courageous and discerning enough to realise the futility of prolonged conflict and who are willing to compromise to arrive at a solution acceptable to the majority among the different communities”. Martin McGuinness had mentioned that he had told both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka that given the nature of the conflict it is meaningless to think of a conclusive military victory. Apparently his advice has fallen on deaf ears. Sadly in Sri Lanka there are not many leaders of the kind needed to act responsibly in the interest of all citizens and the country but there are many to mislead the people and give false hope that normalcy and peace are possible through “spectacular military victories”. Contrary to the claim of the government and some ‘patriots’ “people in the East know and the people with discernment outside the East know that there has been no conclusive victory there. Civilians still have to look over their shoulder lest they fall foul of the LTTE or a paramilitary group” (Shanie).

Apprehensive about what awaits them in Muthur-East? [More Pics]

A report compiled recently by Swaminathan Natarajan for the BBC Tamil service conveys in some detail the unsettled situation in the east a year after the nationwide celebration of the "dawn of the east" on 19 July 2007, following the liberation from LTTE control. Establishing elected Provincial Council and other local bodies was claimed as the return of democracy to the East liberated from LTTE control. According to the BBC report, internally displaced people living in the refugee camps lack basic facilities like toilets and clean drinking water. Those who have been resettled are yet to receive support from the government. Many school buildings damaged or destroyed in the war are yet to be rebuilt. In many places students sit under temporary shelters made of asbestos. As a result the students suffer from a number of health problems. Many houses partly or totally damaged by different kinds of bombs, shells and bullets are yet to be repaired or rebuilt. People are living in fear, despite the presence of the security forces; some of them are still staying in private property without compensating the owners. “In some places the government has built roads and hospitals. But the operation to win hearts and minds, it seems, has a long way to go”.

The cash-strapped government has recently withdrawn its earlier directive allowing Provincial Councils to raise their revenue through increase of Business Turnover Tax (BTT) because of the resulting additional burden on the people who are struggling to make ends meet with unaffordable hikes in the prices of food and other essential items. Given the present national problems, even after the military campaign ends the Treasury will not be able to provide the funds needed by the PCs. At a meeting the visiting four-member World Bank delegation had with opposition politicians in the backdrop of the anticipated financial assistance to develop the newly-liberated East, the visitors inquired about the likely future of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC). Specifically, they asked whether the Council will come up with a five year plan for development. The visitors were told that the Council has no money, and has no budget! At present the government is trying hard to convince the world there is a credible democratically elected Council in the liberated East whose Chief Minister is a Tamil and an ally of the government as well as the Sinhala nationalist (not anti-Tamil) parties.

Need for new Constitution

There is definitely a wide awareness among the Sinhalese moderates that a new Constitution is needed, if the country is to move forward steadily without the set backs experienced in the past. K. Godage a former Ambassador and regular writer on the current problems and developments has emphasized the need for a new Constitution in his article published in ‘The Island’ 14 July 2008. On the muddled political situation he has said forthrightly: “What passes for Democracy in this country is a mere shell of the real thing; the kernel has been removed by our politicians over the years. The political culture of this country has been built on adversarial, confrontational politics without regard to the national interest. Our politicians have missed the wood for the trees. This is the unfortunate tradition which they seem to want to perpetuate. The cement that has held this form of confrontational politics together has been, the vulgar pursuit of political power, for with it goes the opportunity to mount the gravy train and get rich quickly”. He also said: “We must reject majoritarianism, it is not democracy, and at the same time we must reject divisive racial or ethnic politics and ethnic political parties forever. Confidence building measures must be arrived at through the consensual approach. It is within a democratic framework, where power is shared and merit the deciding factor that we can find the necessary space to rise again”.

There has to be a genuine concern and a broad national outlook even for viewing past developments realistically without bias or dogmatism. Realism must come from proper understanding of both internal and external situations that are likely to influence future developments. As I have mentioned in earlier papers entrusting vital national tasks solely to politicians as was the case in the drafting of the 1972 and 1978 constitutions is bound to result in disturbing situations sooner or later. No new constitution of a country can be expected to deal with all problems that emerge at some point in time. For example, there are several amendments to the US and Indian constitutions but the basic structure remains as supporting pillars of the nation protecting its unity and diverse character as well as the basic freedom and rights of all citizens in the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The problem in Sri Lanka has been the absence of inputs from independent knowledgeable persons who are not tied to some partisan interest or dogmatic ideology. Shamelessly, self-interest also influenced the draft 1978 Constitution which was approved with the five-sixth majority the ruling party had in the then Parliament. There was no Senate, the upper House to review the draft as it was abolished in 1972.

The Sunday Island 13 July 2008 reported that Prof. Tissa Vitarana, the Minister of Science and Technology, who is also the Chairman of the All Party Representative Conference (APRC) told: `The way things are evolving, we’ll need a new Constitution.’’ The Minister who is from the LSSP and has been a strong advocate of equality of all citizens hopes the ``fixed mindset’’ on the unitary and federal models would change by settling for ‘maximum possible devolution’ in an integrated set-up. The crucial question is: will the Sinhala nationalist leaders in the government and the opposition support this proposal? It is relevant to remind here that the APRC Chairman’s recommendations merging those in the Advisory Panel A (majority) and Panel B (minority) reports submitted in 2006 was unacceptable to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was keen on maintaining his close ties with the Sinhala nationalists. He persuaded the Chairman to recommend the FULL implementation of the dormant Thirteenth Amendment as an interim proposal of the Committee. Since its acceptance a year ago, there has been no serious move to increase their limited powers and make them more responsible and useful to the people. Anyway, without financial devolution even if the powers are devolved fully, the system will be dysfunctional.

Can the13th Amendment be the real gateway?

Under the title ‘A military pathway to nation building’ Professor A. M. Navaratna-Bandara (Ref. Daily Mirror 17 July 2008) has exposed the thinking of the present leadership on handling the ethnic question without the constitutional changes sought by the Sri Lankan moderates and the international community. The success of the military campaign is also thought to be crucial for strengthening the hold on power

His candid observations on the 13th Amendment are very telling. “During the last twenty years the 13th Amendment has proved that it cannot devolve powers to the provinces. The legal, administrative and fiscal tensions prevailing in the provincial administrations are well documented now. The functions assigned to the provinces such as education, health services, agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, live-stock development etc. have become meaningless due to legal and financial constrains imposed by the 13th Amendment itself. The 13th Amendment is a mockery to democratic devolution.

The Provincial Councils (PCs) were instrumental in strengthening the grip of the Central government over the Provincial populations through the political men and women hand picked for the positions in the PCs by the party leaders or the Executive President. The PCs have become agents of the Centre”.

Initially, the 13th Amendment served to seek a military solution to the separatist (it was then not labeled terrorist) problem taking advantage of India’s offer under the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 to disarm the Tamil militants. The main reasons for the failure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force to achieve this objective and consequentially the inability to reach the ‘military solution’ mentioned by Prof. Navaratna-Bandara are now part of the Eelam war history. The point highlighted by him is that the Provincial Council system was not introduced from the felt need for devolving powers to enable the people in the different provinces, especially in the merged North-East to manage independently their affairs in specified social, economic and law and order fields. This is evident from not only the failure to implement fully but also even some devolved subjects were taken over by the center making the PCs ineffectual.

The following comments reveal the financial and bureaucratic constraints that also make the PCs ineffective, despite the considerable drain on the government budget. “The PCs never received the money allocated in the national budget fully. Every year the PCs lost millions of rupees due to the delay and non release of funds on time by the Treasury. The PCs were not provided even a legal draftsman to draft their statutes. The PCs do not have powers and finances to establish their own administrative arm. The tax base provided by the 13th amendment is not enough to manage their day to day affairs, let alone development”. Since the PCs have to depend on the money provided by the Central government, “the full implementation is not possible even if the President used his executive authority”. Now the PCs too are serving the few self-serving politicians at great cost to the public. According to recent reports vast sums allotted by the government to PCs “were utilized to import vehicles for their members, foreign jaunts and a range of other activities including seminars and workshops in five star luxury hotels”.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not unaware of these problems when he wanted the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as an interim measure at the critical time when the APRC was close to submitting the final set of devolution proposals. It is this exigency that has tempted “President Rajapaksa who boycotted PCs in 1988 and came to power with a big noise on ‘protecting unitary state’ in his third year in power to jump into the 13th Amendment bandwagon”. Anyway, the truth is the ‘full implementation of the 13th amendment’ is not possible without fundamental changes to the present system. The moment of truth for all looking eastwards for the dawn of normalcy and the climate conducive for peaceful resolution of the conflict is not far off.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]