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The first of many hurdles

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Sri Lanka’s new President last week made the first of what is hopefully a series of policy reversals necessary to shift his administration away from the hardline positions on the peace process he adopted during the November presidential polls and towards a practical peace process. Mahinda Rajapakse invited the Royal Norwegian government to resume its crucial role as facilitators in talks to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Interestingly, his Sinhala nationalist allies, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and, more importantly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) did not protest, instead maintaining a studied silence over the move which reneges on key undertakings in the pre-election pacts he signed with both parties.

Despite espousing extremist nationalist positions during his election campaign and his strong personal beliefs, observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict had hoped that Rajapakse would take a more ‘realistic’ or pragmatic approach once in office. Initially such optimism was dashed, particularly in the wake of his victory and inaugural speeches. Moreover, fresh optimism stemming from his reversal on Norway’s role as facilitator is likely to prove misplaced.

Rejection of Norway is only the first of many issues that needs to be reversed. Some of Rajapakse’s other election pledges included the refusal to countenance a federal solution to end the ethnic conflict and the rejection of any aid-sharing mechanisms with the Tamil Tiger controlled areas of the Northeast – in particular the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS). The Rajapakse government faces the challenging and potentially embarrassing task of extricating itself from its self-imposed policy hurdles before arriving at the position from which previous administrations were even able to being engaging in peace negotiations. The final and potentially most substantial hurdle to a permanent will be that of a getting an agreement acceptable to the Tamils also accepted by the Sinhalese at referendum.

Much has been made of Sri Lanka’s powerful Presidency. If Rajapske were to see the light, some argue, the powers of his office would enable him to push through a peace deal. But this neglects the substantial difficulties Sri Lanka’s political system poses. Should President Rajapakse decide that a meaningful peace process and power-sharing with Tamils are the most sensible route to a stable Sri Lanka, he has the unenviable task of convincing his hardline coalition partners, the combative main opposition and the Sinhala majority in the South of the merits of this u-turn.

The invitation to Norway back into Sri Lanka is arguably the first step to initiating talks with the LTTE. However, it was not made without first making exploratory inquiries as to the possibilities of replacing the Norwegians. The rejection of overtures by President Rajapakse’s government toward the Indian government and indication by New Delhi that it preferred the continuation of the status quo were a crucial factor in the Sri Lankan government’s new pragmatism.

The JVP/JHU silence is intriguing. Some suggest it is a sign that even the more hard line elements of Sri Lanka’s political spectrum are now aware of the geopolitical realities that grip the island. However this optimism is misplaced – the Marxists have been more than ready before to challenge international community at the right time. Others suggest their passivity stems from the implicit admission by some of Sri Lanka’s top generals last week that the armed forces, lacking modern weapons and good intelligence, was not yet ready to meet the LTTE on the battlefield. A peace process may provide the time needed to make ready.

So what can be achieved through such a peace process? On the core issues, an unassailable impasse is glaringly obvious. Rajapakse has rejected federalism and even his shift from a defence of a ‘unitary’ to a ‘united’ Sri Lanka – and that, moreover at Delhi’s urging – is slight enough to be meaningless. He has, in any case, rejected the notion of a Tamil homeland and by implication a Tamil national identity, cornerstones of the Tamil position. But no one seriously expects these issues to be taken up anyway, with more pressing issues needing to be addressed – the fraying ceasefire, for one.

But even beyond the truce, there is the issue of aid flows to the war-shattered Northeast – or, rather, the lack of aid. Rajapakse has rejected any potential aid sharing mechanisms with the LTTE. The last such effort at a mutual rehabilitation effort was the P-TOMS. It was ambushed by a legal challenge by the JVP and then dispatched to the scrap heap shortly after Rajapakse came to power. Instead, the new administration has offered to develop the Northeast as part of an island wide developmental exercise. The Tamils are unenthusiastic about this solution, as it deliberately fails to recognise that the conflict has been fought predominantly in their areas and, as a result, the Northeast will require specific attention to redress the substantial imbalances with the South.

The central issue now is of course the ceasefire. From the LTTE’s perspective this is primarily about implementing the February 2002 truce i.e. about disarming the Army-backed paramilitaries and restoring normalcy to Tamil areas by withdrawing Sri Lankan troops from civilian spaces. For the state, it is about halting the killing of intelligence officers and political assassinations. It remains very much to be seen if talks will begin and, if so, how far they can progress, given the yawning chasm.

Given Delhi’s polite rebuff, it is clear that President Rajapakse administration can be forced to toe the line by the international community’s pressure and Colombo’s hurried diplomatic scramble this week suggests he is well aware of the limitations of his position. For a start, with an ambitious new budget aimed at promoting the development of party strongholds in the rural south, the ruling coalition is critically dependent on foreign aid. But those cheered by Rajapakse’s u-turn on Norway and the JVP/JHU silence, ought to reflect on the serious difficulties that the new President faces even if he was to roll over and accept the international crib sheet as his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga occasionally did.

To begin with there are President Rajapakse’s own political interests to consider. He undoubtedly wants a supportive, even, compliant Parliament, though he will settle for an nonobstructive one. With parliamentary elections a possibility in the near future, he cannot afford to damage his credibility with too many policy reversals so early into his tenure. Dramatic u-turns could tar his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as unprincipled and untrustworthy – even by Sri Lankan party standards. Most importantly, it would lend weight to the JVP assertions that they are the only credible force in Sinhala politics capable of delivering on their election pledges.

Rajapakse would not want to alienate the JVP and JHU anyway. With a much better relationship with both than his predecessor, his chances of securing a second term and in the near term a parliamentary majority are substantially boosted by maintaining these relationships.

Then there is the main opposition. The United National Party (UNP), long the darling of the international community seeking to produce market economy and a liberal peace in Sri Lanka, made a telling mistake in the closing stages of the election campaign: it scrambled –clumsily and unsuccessfully - for the Sinhala nationalist heartland, shedding its veneer of economic and political liberalism, offering subsidies hand over fist and thumping the anti-LTTE drum. After its defeat, the UNP is more than likely to make stronger efforts in the coming period to woo back voters who have flocked to the SLFP and JVP in recent years. The UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is facing his sternest internal challenge yet, with the hawkish Karu Jayasuriya positioning himself as a potential and much needed successor.

However, there is always the potential of an alliance between the SLFP and the UNP emerging and curtailing the ‘outbidding’ dynamic on the peace process. Alliances between the two main Sinhala have been called for and mooted in the past. All such initiatives have hitherto failed, but with the new personalities involved, the chances may be better. However, the lowest common denominator on the ethnic question – what degree of powersharing to offer the Tamils – is likely to be reduced even further by the JVP.

The Marxists’ exponential growth in Sri Lankan politics has surprised many political analysts. Should their rate of growth continue, they could potentially become the second largest party on the island, by passing the SLFP and rendering an alliance with the UNP futile. It is not unthinkable – if Rajapakse u-turns on all those issues necessary to roll the peace process even imperceptibly forward, a bewildered and irritated Sinhala electorate may switch ever more behind the JVP.

There is little faith amongst the Tamils that any of these factors are likely to change in the near future. In the unlikely event that Sri Lanka’s new president jettisons his right-wing manifesto, he faces the dilemma which bedevilled the previous SLFP President, Chandrika Kumaratunga: any compromises on hardline policies are likely to lead to the downfall of his government. Even if the JVP and JHU continue to maintain a helpful silence, why would the UNP commit political suicide and help him – the greater good of the country has never brought the two main parties together and the tradition, even tendency, for ethnic outbidding by bashing the deal offered to the Tamils will undoubtedly recur.

The international community needs to recognize that Sri Lanka’s southern politics are continuing to edge toward the extreme right. Even the bluntest aid conditionality has failed to provide sufficient resistance to this slide. Punitive actions – and threats of further actions – against the LTTE has conversely, contributed to this. Ultimately, of course, the southern parties are aware that aid will not be withheld to the point of too much pain – donors do not want to be responsible for the country sliding into complete anarchy.

The international community will thus need to make some dramatic and controversial shifts in present policy to arrest the country’s slide back into conflict. The cocktail of theocratic, Marxist and nationalist elements within southern polity compels this. The donor community will need to sidestep the state and channel assistance to the Northeast. The latent Sinhala fear of the strengthening of the Tamils may prove to be the only means of shifting southern politics back towards the centre.

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