10 April 2007
Despite its stated intent to the contrary, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) is proving an effective means by which the Sri Lankan government can avoid coming up with a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
And the international community is going along with this delaying strategy.
Soon after Mahinda Rajapakse won the 2005 Presidential elections vowing to defend the unitary nature of the state and defeat the LTTE, the international community put intense pressure on him to forge a southern consensus with the main opposition UNP on the ethnic question.
The objective was to come up with a position on which to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
Rajapske neither wanted to negotiate with the LTTE nor, for that matter, with the UNP. Rather he wanted to weaken both – the LTTE by renewed military action and the UNP by political maneuver.
In a bid to escape international pressure, President Rajapakse setup the APRC in early 2006.
He rationalized the move through the logic of ‘inclusiveness’ – now a popular term amongst international actors in Sri Lanka.
The APRC included all the Sinhala parties including the centre-right UNP and the ultra-nationalist JVP as well as anti-LTTE Tamil party-cum-paramilitary groups. (The TNA, which swept the elections in the Northeast, wasn’t even invited.)
But Rajapakse knew full well that bringing together parties with such diverse and hard-line views would make the exercise of consensus building a futile one.
It would, however, buy him time to pursue a military onslaught against the Tigers.
Rajapakse knew that as long as the LTTE was being gradually weakened, international pressure to negotiate with it would decrease accordingly.
In fact, he correctly guessed, there would be increasing international support for his military project instead.
Prof. Tissa Vitarana of the LSSP, an ally of Rajapske’s ruling SLFP, was appointed chair of the APRC.A panel of constitutional experts, appropriatedly including Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, was also formed to support the APRC.
However, whilst the UNP put forward its proposals to the APRC for solving the Tamil question, the SLFP has pointedly desisted from providing its own.
As if to underline that the whole exercise is to buy time, the SLFP’s submission, whilst being repeatedly promised, has been postponed numerous times.
Meanwhile, as Sri Lanka has slid ever deeper into all out war, there have been a chorus of international calls for the government to come up with a political solution to form the basis of peace talks.
During his visit to India last year Rajapakse promised restless Indian leaders that his government’s proposals would be produced within two months.
Four months later, when Foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama visited Washington he made a similar promise to the US leaders saying that the government’s proposals to resolve the conflict would be put forward “within a few weeks.”
Rajapakse made an identical promise to South Asian leaders at the SAARC summit last week.
One of the first tasks the APRC participants undertook was to visit India to study the governance model there. Not the power-sharing model between the Centre and the States but, rather, India’s third tier of governance – the Pachayat Raj. A village level governing body.
As he has repeatedly indicated, this is Rajapakse’s idea of a solution to the decades long ethnic conflict.
Meanwhile, after a year of deliberations, the APRC is nowhere near a consensus.
Even the seventeen member expert panel tasked with producing a set of proposals to form the basis of discussions for the APRC could not agree on the fundamentals of the Tamil question and ended up releasing four separate sets of recommendations last December.
One of the reports signed by the 11 members of the expert panel – and hence called the ‘Majority Report’ - called for asymmetrical devolution through legislative provincial council system.
A provincial level power sharing falls far short of the federal solution that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE agreed to explore during the much celebrated peace talks in 2003.
But even this suggestion proved too much for the Sinhala nationalist parties. The JVP walked out of APRC and even the government quickly distanced itself from the reports- Rajapakse himself lambasted the experts for releasing their report to the press.
Meanwhile, the UNP, for its part, wants hold on to its position as the favourite of the West-led international community in Sri Lanka and has been lackadaisically attending APRC.
Even this month, the United States, once again, publicly put its hopes in the APRC producing a negotiating position to put before the LTTE.
It is in this context that the SLFP General Secretary, Mithripala Sirisena, announced last week that the ruling party’s proposal would be put forward on May 1.
But he warned that the proposals would be in keeping with President Rajapakse’s hardline election manifesto - ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (Mahinda’s Thoughts).
That nationalist manifesto denies the existence of a traditional Tamil homeland in the island’s Northeast and espouses a strong unitary state.
Simply submitting ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ to the APRC is not a step towards negotiations with the Tigers. In fact the submission is neither a proposal for talks nor is it likely to unite the APRC into a consensus around one.
But in the past year, Rajapakse has been aggressively pursuing his main project: the renewed war against the LTTE.
The recent military offensives which led to the LTTE withdrawing from large swathes of the east has not only convinced many Sinhalese that a military solution is feasible, but many key international actors too.
There is a big difference between an end to a war and a just solution to one.
The international community is not interested in a just solution per se. It is primarily interested in stabilization of the region and the state prevailing over its non-state actor challenger. This is the basic logic of ‘fighting terrorism.’
So the international community is tacitly backing Rajapkse’s war against the LTTE while loudly calling for a negotiated solution - and, tellingly, endorsing the manifestly ineffectual APRC.
The Sri Lankan state’s engineering of mass displacement of the eastern Tamils through indiscriminate bombardments is an integral part of this internationally-backed strategy.
The Tamils are being forced to a point where any solution, no matter how unjust, is preferable to the deprivations of war.
Irrespective of the contents of the proposal that Colombo finally puts to the Tamils, whether it satisfies even the basic demands of the Tamils or not, the international community will in all likelihood express support for it and encourage the Tamils to accept it.
According to international community’s calculations, a weakened LTTE will either have to accept the proposals as a basis for talks or reject it and invite further deprivations on the hopefully war weary Tamils.
Knowing full well that the LTTE will not accept any proposals that do not satisfy core Tamil demands, Sri Lanka is expecting to receive continued assistance for its renewed war.
The recent comments attributed to Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse – the President’s brother - that the war will continue for another three years should be seen in this context.
Even if the LTTE agrees to discuss the proposals that the APRC may one day produce, the Tigers will undoubtedly demand the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) be fully implemented to ensure normalcy for the Tamils is first restored.
But President Rajapakse, who has been opposed to the CFA from the outset, has ensured the truce’s irrelevance since coming to power.
Yet he does not want to formally abrogate the pact and openly declare war. Not without an explanation the international community cannot dismiss.
This is why the idea of a referendum to nullify the CFA is being floated now.
Following a systematic campaign against the CFA and the government’s project of recent territorial gains in the east as major successes in crippling the LTTE, the Sinhala electorate will undoubtedly reject the CFA.
Indeed all these calculations by Sri Lankan government and its international allies are based on a growing confidence that the LTTE can be militarily weakened if not destroyed.
But this is not the first time this assumption has underpinned strategy in Colombo and other capitals.
And when lessons of the past are not learnt, history has a habit of repeating itself.