The decision by the Sri Lanka's main opposition United National party (UNP) to make public its opposition to a federal solution to end the ethnic conflict was inevitable. The move reveals the political - and moral - bankruptcy of the southern political establishment more generally and, in particular, the UNP. It also resolves one of the enduring debates about the Norwegian initiative: could peace have been possible with Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP? The answer is no. An agreement might have been reached, but it would never have been implemented. Since independence, Sinhala leaders have abrogated every agreement on power-sharing reached with the Tamils. The UNP is clearly no different.
There are compelling reasons for the UNP's volte-face, not least a need to win back Sinhala voters amid confidence the LTTE can be defeated, thereby removing the need for concessions to the Tamils. The most important reason, as the party confessed with palpable relief, is that it was never committed to federalism. The 2002 agreement by the LTTE and the then UNP government to 'explore' federalism - later dubbed the 'Oslo Declaration' - was hailed by the international community. It was clear, however, that the UNP, with its tiny Parliamentary majority (well short of the requisite two thirds) could never push an agreement, even if reached, through. Moreover, with the ultra-nationalist JVP and the now ruling SLFP opposed to any deal the UNP struck, there was no hope of the Sinhala electorate endorsing the deal at a referendum. The UNP was therefore free to make any offer to the LTTE, confident it would not have to deliver, and reap the ensuing international kudos.
The international community was unconcerned by these technicalities: the famous Tokyo Declaration commended both sides "for their commitment to a lasting and negotiated peace based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka." Indeed, when the LTTE then called for an interim administration and submitted its ISGA proposal, it was lambasted for departing from the Oslo Declaration - even though an interim administration could easily have been a precursor to a federal unit. The Tokyo Declaration - with its steps to a solution - was denounced by Tamil nationalists as a 'road map to disarmament for the LTTE'. The events this month justify that criticism. If a federal solution had merit on its own terms as a solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis, then that still holds - indeed, if anything, after the past couple of years, there is a greater case for strong federalism now. However, if federalism was posited in 2002 as either a device to split the Tamil liberation struggle (i.e. the 'intransigent' LTTE from the 'moderate' Tamils) or part of an elaborate exercise to defang the Tigers, then the events this month make different sense.
Of course advocates of federalism will decry this logic and protest that the Tamils themselves have not done enough to bolster the conditions for a federal solution. Their criticism misses the point. Any solution that satisfies the simplest Tamil aspirations will require a re-write, rather than tweaking, of Sri Lanka's unabashedly Sinhala supremacist constitution. None of the main Sinhala parties is prepared to do this, even if it will take the country into lasting peace, to say nothing of 21st century governance. Instead, fifty years after a Sinhala leader became prime minister on the inherently chauvinistic pledge to make Sinhalese the official language, Sri Lanka's main political parties are still outbidding each other to be the most tough on the Tamils. Those who have, from the outset, questioned the UNP's bona fides, have been criticized as hardliners, even 'spoilers'. But they have been thoroughly vindicated this month.
Interestingly, it is the international community, as evidenced by US Ambassador Robert O' Blake's recent comments, which is encouraging the UNP to go public with its rejection of federalism. This because the international community wants a 'regime change' in Sri Lanka, with the UNP back in power. But this has less to do with solving the ethnic question or ending Tamil suffering that a need to re-establish competent control over Sri Lanka's economy and state machinery. Whilst President Mahinda Rajapakse might be the right leader to prosecute a war against the Tigers, he and his clique are, to the international community's utter frustration, screwing up the country in the process. To this end, the hope is fresh parliamentary elections - off the back of a failed budget next month, perhaps - will put the UNP back in office.
But it is actually irrelevant to the Tamil question - and to a peace process - which Sinhala leadership is in office unless it is one prepared to defy the Sinhala nationalists and take a principled stand on a just solution. And the UNP is certainly not that.