The promised political solution

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Following the successful (October 25-26) visit to New Delhi of his special envoy Basil Rajapaksa MP and Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an extensive interview with Narasimhan Ram, the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Hindu’ on 27th October at ‘Temple Trees’ Colombo reiterated that his “government is firmly committed to a negotiated political solution based on devolution of power and ensuring the democratic, political, including linguistic, rights of all our Tamil brethren within an undivided Sri Lanka.” He also said: “As President of Sri Lanka, I am absolutely clear that there is, and can be, no military solution to political questions. I have always maintained this. A military solution is for the terrorists; a political solution is for the people living in this country."

This definitive answer would have infused hope in the minds of those who ignore the undercurrents in Lankan politics that originate from nationalistic Sinhala interests and confrontational politics associated with the power struggle. In both cases, the underlying factor is political power. In the case of Sinhala supremacists or the majoritarians, absolute ruling power is essential to uphold the control over the entire island. There are also the radicals opposed to any devolution of powers to the ethnic minorities/provinces. There will also be some Sinhala nationalists, who admire such positive statements as clever stratagems. This is evident from the fact the opponents of political solution have not objected to the President’s affirmative replies to Ram’s questions. The Hindu published the full interview with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 29 October 2008.

President’s 4-D approach

Rajan Philips in his analysis of the interview (”The New ‘Ram’ Sethu”, Sunday Island 2 November and Tamilweek 2-8 November 2008) has concluded: “Alas, Mr. Ram’s interview seems to have given President Rajapaksa enough room to wriggle out of a tight situation, showing off his new talking points”. The promised political solution is based on his new 4-D approach: Demilitarization; Democratization; Development; and Devolution. To the most significant question in the interview – “are they (the 4-Ds) in some order?” – President Rajapaksa affirmed the above order in his answer and Rajan Philips has rightly taken this to mean: “no devolution without development, no development without democratization, and no democratization without demilitarization”.

No wonder the JHU, the JVP and the Patriotic National Front have no qualms with the 4Ds when the political solution is at the last stage of the ‘peace process.’ Even the very first stage of demilitarization will not finish conclusively when no political solution is in sight. The Army Commander himself has said as a last resort, the LTTE will turn to guerrilla warfare. The deprived people will not turn against the insurgents without the requisite political changes that instill confidence about their safety, security, rights and future. They must feel that they are no longer under the same old discriminatory majority rule, unable to exercise their sovereign rights to meet their collective needs and aspirations. The present system undermines the sovereign rights of ethnic minorities.

On President Rajapaksa’s 4-D approach with political solution as the final phase, Tisaranee Gunasekara in her column in the Sunday Island November 2 has also raised valid questions. “Does Mr. Rajapaksa believe that a political solution to the ethnic problem (he is careful not to use the term ‘ethnic problem’) should follow rather than precede demilitarisation and devolution? True a political solution, however generous, cannot be implemented on the ground, so long as the Tigers remain a force, as Mr. Pirapaharan’s (recent e-mail) interview with ‘Nakkeeran’ indicates. But a political solution must be in existence, on paper, in order to create some of the conditions needed for the defeat of the LTTE, especially denting the Tigers’ will to resist, winning over civilian Tamils and neutralising the Tamilnadu factor”. She also said: “Their (LTTE’s) commitment can be undermined only if a doubt is created in their minds about the necessity of the war. And such a doubt is possible only if the Lankan state offers a substantial power sharing deal to the minorities, thereby making the Eelam goal superfluous and the war to achieve it unnecessary”.

The reservation this writer has to this idea of a suitable political solution just on paper is that it will not carry much weight among the Tamils given the poor credibility record, especially of the present government. It will be seen as another deceptive means to keep the ethnic minorities under majority domination. It is recalled that the 13th Amendment would not have been possible without India’s direct involvement. And now India is pressing for its full implementation and greater devolution. This was one of the key agreements reached in the meetings Sri Lankan special envoy Basil Rajapaksa had with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon recently in New Delhi.

APRC another false hope

In his reply to Ram’s query about the contours of the political solution, President Rajapaksa explained: “I would like to see more devolution to the people. It must go to the grassroots level, because they must decide on their development work, what they need. We must allow them to participate in the whole process. For that I appointed an All Party Representative Committee. I have given them time but unfortunately they couldn’t give me a final proposal in that time. But they have given me an interim proposal, which we are implementing. We are implementing it in the Eastern Province. Within one year of clearing the Province, we had local government elections and Provincial Council elections. A Tamil Chief Minister is in office and development work has been taken up on a priority basis. We will set up a committee to benchmark what more can be done to deepen the devolution and democratic process in the Eastern Province”.

On President Rajapaksa’s reference to the APRC, written off by many discerning Sri Lankans after he rejected the Expert Committee (majority) report and the Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana’s report, Rajan Philips has said: “Particularly insulting is the reference in the reporting of the interview to the tardiness of the All Party Representative Committee Process, and the assurance by the President that ‘I myself will take charge of the political process and see it through politically’. …”the real reason for the tardiness of the APRC was the President himself. Rather than probing what went wrong and how different the APRC process will be from now on, the interviewer simply lets the President off the hook and swallows the President’s words - hook, line and sinker”.

Promise on the 13th Amendment

In my previous article on the ‘Basis for national unity and lasting peace’ Tamilweek October 26, attention was drawn to the inaction on the promised implementation of the 13th Amendment despite the APRC recommendation made on the instruction of President Rajapaksa. According to APRC Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana, the President’s thinking then was that “the 13th Amendment was sufficient for him to act in the interest of winning over the Tamil speaking people and also to convince the international community of his commitment to a political solution to the conflict”. The Provincial Councils system without all the devolved powers in the PC Act passed two decades ago will continue to remain a white elephant. The Political column in ‘The Sunday Times’ November 2 also stated that India “won a commitment from the government of Sri Lanka for the implementation of the 13th Amendment and greater devolution of powers to the provinces." Incidentally, this consent too has annoyed the Sinhala supremacists. On October 30 the JVP reiterated its anti-Indian stand saying the joint statement issued after talks between senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa and Indian leaders appeared to be a betrayal of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and dignity as a nation. The JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe told journalists that “India had insisted on the need to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and Mr. Rajapaksa had given in to Indian pressure in this regard instead of taking a firm stand”.

The Sunday Times also drew attention to the fact that “this is not the first time New Delhi has sought and obtained similar assurances. In fact, the non implementation of such assurances prompted Premier Singh, according to diplomatic circles, to avoid a meeting with President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly sessions in September”. The main problem with the present leadership in Colombo is the great emphasis placed on rhetoric without any intent to execute the said proposals. The promise to devolve adequate powers to the new Eastern Provincial Council went under many moons ago. The way it was announced gave the impression there would be greater devolution for the East compared with other provinces. The democratization of the liberated East started and ended with the holding of local government and Provincial Council elections. These were held without decommissioning the weapons with the paramilitary groups.

According to the Special Report No. 31 of the award winning human rights organization UTHR(J) released on October 28: “In the East, where the Government’s public relations men boast of development and the restoration of democracy, there is greater fear, uncertainty and a deliberate cultivation of communal tensions”. This volatile situation in the East portends a dismal future for democracy and security in Lanka as a whole. On the habit of giving promises the report said: “This is a President who pulls rabbits of varied colours out of his hat to flag messages of passing convenience that he does not want to be directly associated with. Deceit has a price. His ritual boast of having restored democracy to the East by implementing the 13th Amendment, rings patently hollow against the reality. That says much of his intermittent promises of a political settlement. The small print negates any substance”.

Sinhala patriots condemn the US Ambassador

Earlier, the Sinhala patriots reacted angrily to the sensible suggestions on the approach to permanent settlement of the conflict made by the US Ambassador in Colombo Robert O. Blake in his speech delivered at the interactive meeting held in the University of Madras, Tamil Nadu. He said - “some in Sri Lanka believe that the Government should first defeat the LTTE and then proceed with a political solution. The U.S. view is that the Government could further isolate and weaken the LTTE, if it articulates now its vision for a political solution”.

“The U.S. also believes that an improvement in the human rights situation -- that has disproportionately affected Tamils -- would help to hasten reconciliation and give Tamils a greater sense that they will enjoy a future of hope and dignity within a united Sri Lanka”. Stressing the importance of political settlement for the future of Sri Lanka, he said at the very beginning itself: “America’s experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has taught us that terrorism cannot be defeated by law enforcement and military measures alone”. The US Ambassador also said - “One way forward is for Sri Lanka to complete the work of the All Parties Representative Committee which has reached agreement on 90% of a blueprint for constitutional reform that most Sri Lankans believe offers great promise. It remains for the country’s two main Sinhalese parties to agree on the document, which has proved a significant hurdle thus far”. (The full text of the speech was posted by Federalidea on October 24 www.tamilweek.com). It is recalled, there was prior agreement on 95% of the draft Constitution Reform Bill submitted to Parliament in August 2000 by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga; yet it was abandoned because of the last minute sabotage by the main opposition party, the UNP. Shamelessly, copies of the draft Bill were set alight in the House.

The JHU led by Buddhist priests said that “the sentiments expressed by the US envoy, in support of Tamil Nadu, had run counter to the brave deeds of the security forces who were defeating the LTTE on the war front, and added that it clearly proved that the US Ambassador’s intention was to plunge Sri Lanka into a crisis”. JHU General Secretary Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera said in his statement: “Going beyond diplomatic service and interfering with the internal affairs and matters concerning terrorism is challenging the sovereignty of this country”.

The JVP in its statement condemning the views expressed by Ambassador Robert Blake in Chennai stated: “We the JVP are of the firm belief that no other country whether it be the US or India has any right to influence the Sri Lankan government on how to solve our national question. If anyone is against the military action undertaken by the Sri Lankan government against terrorism they are aiding terrorists. We also stress that the Sri Lankan government does not have any other option but to defeat terrorism since the LTTE is committed to terrorism and the creation of a separate state”. The silence of Sinhala patriots on President Rajapaksa’s 4-D approach to political solution is remarkable.

Truth bared

In another interview with the India Today magazine, President Rajapaksa after his special envoy Basil Rajapaksa gave assurances to the Indian government about their concerns on the tragic developments in the North said: “I don’t call it a war. It is a military operation we have launched to wipe out terrorists. Kilinochchi is the LTTE headquarters. We are also advancing from the East to take Mullaitivu. Progress is slow because we want zero civilian casualties.” Asked if he would yield to pressure from Tamil Nadu political parties to have a ceasefire, the President said: “We know they (the LTTE) will not honour a ceasefire now. Let them lay down their arms and surrender. We will declare a ceasefire’” He added, “Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had not requested for a ceasefire during a recent telephone conversation with him and had instead only expressed his concern about the Tamil civilian population”.

He let the cat out of the bag when he said: “I believe that if the southern political parties that form the majority do not accept a political solution then we can’t implement it. I don’t want to thrust a solution on parties. If I can have all the parties agree to a solution to solve the problem it would be by the people. Otherwise there will be riots and no government will be able to implement it,” It is obvious that from day one, he had no intention of giving guidance to pull the country out of the mire and lead on the right path to peace, stability and rapid progress. He wants a political solution acceptable to the southern polity that has now the Sinhala nationalists as a force to be reckoned with in national politics and government. This too is the result of his pampering the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists throughout for political advantage.

The ethnic Sinhala majority that is now being pressurized by the Sinhala nationalists will decide what kind of solution is needed to settle the national issue. According to the President it is the ethnic majority who will have the final say on the problems confronting the ethnic minorities. Even here, majoritarianism is the criterion in decision-making. As things are, it seems there is no chance of a consensual political solution, if at all there is one it will be imposed by the illiberal Sinhala majority or by the intervention of an external power. No efforts are being made towards reconciliation and building trust. On the contrary the war-related developments have polarized more the Sri Lankan society, which is the hallmark of the present government. This is what the LTTE leader expected in 2005 but it failed to produce the desired result, because of the worldwide categorization of the ‘liberation’ movement as a ‘terrorist’ group.

The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in their aforementioned report have quite rightly stated that the recent tragic developments are also getting the Tamils isolated from the Sri Lankan state, because the war against the Tamil Tigers is becoming "an ideological crusade" against the ethnic minorities. The rise in the Tamil fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu should be a cause for concern to both New Delhi and Colombo. The isolation of Tamils in Sri Lanka has left them with no choice but to depend on the support of Tamils in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Paradoxically, the Sinhala chauvinistic forces that indirectly pushed the Lankan Tamils to campaign for Tamil Eelam in the North-East are now drawing in Tamil Nadu to come to the assistance of the helpless Tamils in Sri Lanka. The leaders in Tamil Nadu including the Chief Minister M. Karunanithi have announced that the Tamils in India are prepared to even sacrifice their lives to safeguard the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

Indian factor

For a long time, New Delhi has been consistently saying that there is no military solution and a political solution to the protracted ethnic problem capable of fulfilling the aspirations of all ethnic communities is needed. But Colombo bluntly ignored the advice. The Congress-led coalition government in Delhi functioning with the support of some regional parties including the present main ruling party in Tamil Nadu, the DMK did not want to get involved deeply in the Sri Lankan conflict for various reasons. One is the bitter experience of the previous Congress government led by the late Rajiv Gandhi in trying to end the conflict politically, which cost his life and of about 1200 Indian soldiers sent to the unsettled North-East as members of a large battalion of Peace Keeping Force.

The visit of President Rajapaksa’s brother Basil Rajapaksa MP, who is also his Senior Advisor to New Delhi came in the wake of the agitation in Tamil Nadu demanding the Indian government to intervene and stop the war in Northern Sri Lanka that has been causing huge losses and immense suffering to the civilians there. The humanitarian crisis, with over 230,000 displaced persons many without adequate shelter and sanitary facilities has also been of great concern to many foreign governments and international organizations. With the onset of the N-E monsoon rains their plight has worsened.

Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) President K V Thangabalu told reporters (October 29), the Centre would not interfere in the battle between Sri Lankan forces and LTTE. "We cannot stop the war that is going on in Sri Lanka." However, “the UPA Government was taking all steps to protect innocent Sri Lankan Tamils caught in the conflict and was interested in implementing Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord”. The agreement reached in New Delhi on October 26 struck a balance between this inability to stop the war and calming down the tension in Tamil Nadu. This suited remarkably President Rajapaksa’s plan to continue relentlessly the military offensive against ‘LTTE terrorists’ on which he has placed his and his government’s political fortunes in the near term.

However, the general mood in Tamil Nadu is for India to take the initiative to stop the war and bring about a permanent political settlement. Several protest meetings, demonstrations and shutdown by traders were held even after the October 26 deal. On October 31, shops closed in protest over the sufferings and difficulties faced by Tamil civilians in the North. And on November 1 Tamil film stars, including superstars Rajnikanth and Kamalahassan, joined a protest fast in Chennai. There is, no doubt, an element of local party politics in the organized mass protests in Tamil Nadu but this has not overshadowed the true feelings of the people for the plight of their brethren in Sri Lanka. If not for the LTTE factor, the feelings would be total and as high as it was soon after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. Addressing a gathering on October 29, the Chief Minister M. Karunanithi said his party always stood for peaceful settlement through dialogue. He said, “The Indian Government should make efforts to initiate the dialogue process between the warring parties and the Tamil Nadu Government would extend its support.” He also said “DMK always stood for the protection of the ethnic Tamils. We want the ongoing war to end and peace to prevail there.”

Tisaranee Gunasekara, has also said – “the belief that the Indian factor is neutralised is a folly. There is no question that India would not be appeased by something other than a substantial devolution package for the Sri Lankan Tamils”. The leftists and moderates in Sri Lanka are also pressing for a political solution Western People’s Front Leader and Member of Parliament, Mano Ganeshan, said in his statement: “Tamils of this country thank the Indian central government and the Tamilnadu state for the (caring) aid. But food and medicine is not a substitute for the all important political solution to the national question of Sri Lanka. The need of the hour is political power devolution beyond 13th Amendment to the Tamil and Muslim people.” His commitment to human rights and determined efforts to stop abductions and killings of civilians are also praiseworthy.

Speaking to reporters in Chennai on November 1, the CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat said the LTTE should not be tackled militarily but politically and the Indian Government should press upon Sri Lanka for a political solution to the ethnic Tamil issue. Accusing the Tamil Nadu Government of not exerting "much" pressure on the Centre over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, the CPI on November 2 said it will reach out to like-minded parties to press the state administration to convene another all-party meeting on the matter. The previous meeting took place on October 14. The head of the Tamil Nadu unit of the party D. Pandean also said “the DMK-led Government should have exerted more pressure on the Centre on the Sri Lanka Tamils issue” in pursuance of the resolutions passed earlier by the all-party meeting. MDMK general secretary Vaiko said, on November 1, that “the island nation would heed to the request for a ceasefire, if India imposed economic sanctions on that country. The Indian Government had extended crores of rupees as interest-free loans to Lanka. Therefore, India could exert pressure for a ceasefire by threatening to cancel the trade agreements with that country and imposing economic sanctions”.

Responding to the allegation by several parties that the Tamil Nadu State government has not exerted sufficient pressure on the Centre, the Chief Minister M. Karunanithi on November 2 said, “it was wrong for anyone to state that the resolutions passed at the October 14 all-party meet on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue had been sidetracked”. Writing in the DMK organ 'Murasoli', he said that the “Tamils in the state have a common goal that each and every Sri Lankan Tamil should be saved. We are all working to achieve these objectives."

The belief that the problem will somehow subside and vanish eventually seems to be prevailing. This is evident from the happenings in the ‘liberated’ East, The stratagem is to please and make the TMVP leaders accept whatever administrative arrangements offered by the Center and not demand more that undermines the present unitary structure. But the plan is not proceeding smoothly. Already the TMVP is divided on the devolution of land and police powers with the founder, the newly appointed MP Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias ‘Karuna’ taking a accommodating stand.

The following comments of Tisaranee Gunasekara on the Tamil Nadu factor in the political settlement of the ethnic conflict are highly relevant and should serve as forewarning to those who believe it could be dodged. To quote: “Basil Rajapakse’s visit to Delhi did not end the Tamilnadu crisis but merely caused it to de-escalate temporarily. The fate of Lankan Tamils will remain a key issue in Tamilnadu politics, assuming ever greater importance as the war escalates and national and regional elections in India draw near. Mr. Karunanithi has launched an immensely successful relief fund for ‘Eelam Tamils’. …The BJP has declared that "India had the ‘moral right and responsibility’ to intervene in Sri Lankan Tamils issue and should not remain a ‘silent spectator’ to the sufferings of the civilian Tamils in the island" (The Hindu 29.10. 2008). Clearly what Mr. Rajapaksa has obtained is nothing more than a breathing space; if there are civilian killings in the North and/or if the APRC becomes an exercise in futility (again), the Tamilnadu factor will get reactivated, in a far more dangerous form.” If the BJP wins enough seats in next year’s general election to oust the Congress Party from the central administration, India is likely to be more assertive on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

It is clear from the above analysis delaying further the political settlement is to invite complicated troubles that will have grave implications for the future of the island nation. The way to safeguard the future of the Sinhalese is certainly not preserving their absolute supremacy in the governing system. This is archaic and importantly counterproductive. The white supremacists tried to maintain their authority through dominance in South Africa and ultimately in the face of global opposition to apartheid, the repressive rulers had to yield. The economic loss to Sri Lanka as a result of prolonging the ethnic conflict has been immense. We need change fitting for the 21st century that not only restores the past glorious image of the island as a serene attractive place with diverse demographic and regional features but also gives hope to all for a better future.

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