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Open door to extremism

With the Sri Lankan Presidential elections less than a month away, the two main candidates have both released their manifestos. While on the peace front both appear (nominally at least) to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, a key position they have in common is the promise to achieve a consensus on the resolution of the ethnic question.

In his much-anticipated Presidential election manifesto, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse said that in forging a solution to the ‘crisis in the north and east’ he hoped to follow “consensus of the majority” - which, moreover, he proposes to seek out by talking to “all democratic parties, … parties which are not represented in Parliament, … the Buddhist clergy, other religious dignitaries and sectors [and] members of the civil society.”

Meanwhile, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe wants a “consensus reached between [the two main Sinhala political parties] on the ethnic problem.” Promising to “ensure that at all times, the views of the Muslim community are taken into consideration,” he has also guaranteed “Muslim representation in the peace talks.” While not spelling out an all-inclusive approach like Mr Rajapakse, Mr. Wickremesinghe promises - as does his rival - “a solution acceptable to all communities of the country.”

On the face of it, this call for greater participation in the final solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict nods to liberal ambitions of including as many voices as possible in decision making. The call also addresses one of the main criticisms of the ill-fated 2002/3 peace talks, that decision making has been an elite affair. In short, the LTTE and Sri Lankan government – and Norwegian facilitators – decided on key matters in ‘secret’ discussions.

The two candidates’ declarations might thus be interpreted as a response to calls for allowing ‘civil society’ to have a role in deciding what is perhaps the most important question for most of the island’s residents inhabitants. It also resonates with democratic principles.

But a closer examination of the dynamics of this approach reveals not only the impossibility of achieving consensus, but a strategic logic that portends exactly the reverse of a successful peace process: an impasse.

To begin with, it is extremely unlikely that either Mr Rajapakse or Mr Wickremesinghe will be able to achieve the consensus they seek. The Buddhist clergy, the Sinhala nationalists and political rivalries between the main Sinhala parties will in all likelihood ensure that a full consensus is elusive.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalist doctrine deems the island of Sri Lanka a sacred endowment entrusted to them by the Buddha for the fostering of his religion. Any threat to the unitary nature of the island is therefore an attack directly on their self-view as the chosen protectors of the island. As such, any power-sharing with the Tamils cannot be countenanced as it is tantamount to neglecting, even betraying their duty. In short, a ‘true’ Buddhist could never agree to any weakening of the unitary state. Conversely, the Tamils, seeing themselves as a national formation, will not settle for anything less than a form of power sharing which recognises them as equals on the island.

There are practical issues also. A consensual solution, or indeed any solution short of Sinhala dominance - secured moreover by their spearhead - is also not in the interest of the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP is a party which emerged from, and relies almost exclusively on, the dissatisfaction of the Sinhalese populace with the major Sinhala parties – and, to a great extent, dismay with their handling of the Tamil issue. A permanent solution that could end the conflict and invigorate the economy is not in the JVP’s interests.

Nor will a consensus on a solution be in the interest of either main political party. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have historically won elections by being the more vigorous champions of Sinhala interests than the other. This process of ‘ethnic outbidding’ started as long ago as 1956. Having signed a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers and ushered in two years of peace, Mr. Wickremesinghe ought to have retained his admittedly slim grip on parliament in 2004. That it was his signing the truce which fuelled the SLFP-JVP campaign that brought his government down is an indication that anti-Tamil one-upmanship is still a vote winner in the south.

Therefore, even if Sri Lanka’s two main political parties were to reach agreement on a resolution to the Tamil question, all that will achieve is to open the field for other Sinhala nationalist forces to sweep the polls – unless of course the agreement was on a united tough stand against the Tamils. Indeed, the risks of being ‘ethnically outbid’ will ensure that any agreement will be on the basis of the lowest common denominator. It will certainly not recognise the Tamils as a people, let alone their self-determination.

At a more fundamental level, consensus seeking is almost superfluous in a country practicing representative politics – in the south at least. The basis of representative politics is that leaders are endorsed to make decisions on behalf of their people. The selection of leaders ought to therefore automatically mandate them to make hard decisions that reflect either group values, or are in the best interests of the group. And the endorsing of one set of leaders is to reject their rivals’ policies. Thus it can be argued that by seeking a consensus, purely because the issue is contentious, the candidates simply do not want to make these hard choices.

Tamil suspicions about the Sinhala leaders’ calls for consensus stem from historic experiences which suggest this is a strategy for eliciting an excuse to not follow through on the peace process. In short, the point is not to pursue a manifestly impossible consensus but, rather, to use the search for one to allow extremists to either indefinitely delay or reject an unpalatable decision. This dynamic was exemplified in the early 80’s when President J R Jayawardane was being pressured by the Indian government of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi to consider a set of proposals on devolution of power to provisional units. The outcome of that saga is outlined in Anton Balasingham’s 2004 book ‘War and Peace’.

“Jayawardane and his senior Ministers opposed the proposals, yet the government, under Indian pressure, agreed to convene an All Party Conference (APC) to discuss the framework. … The conference convened on 10 January 1984 and lasted for one year with 37 sessions being held. During the rounds of discussions Jayawardane allowed all political parties and groups, including hard-line Buddhist monks, to deliberately complicate the negotiating exercise. At one stage the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) walked out of the APC, opposing the devolution package. This gave an initiative for Jayawardane to back track from the peace initiative, complaining of lack of consensus. Eventually the mediatory effort initiated by Mrs Ghandi to resolve the Tamil question through negotiations collapsed when Jayawardane’s Cabinet, on 26 December 1984, decided to drop the proposals.”

As pointed out earlier, anti-Tamil outbidding in 2005 is no different to that in 1984 or 1956. Nothing today suggests that either the UNP or the SLFP will be more cooperative than in the past. Indeed, if anything, from their point of view, the stakes are even higher now, with the JVP and JHU rising as credible nationalist alternatives should the two parties unite on a workable solution that makes ‘concessions’ to the Tamils.

Furthermore, a call for a consensus ensures the vocally nationalist parties can be blamed for a solution failing to emerge. The proposal of seeking endorsement at a referendum is an insurance policy: the spoiler parties along with the Buddhist clergy can be relied on to turn the Sinhala majority against any solution that proposes power sharing. The tyranny of the majority can thus be invoked without incurring the odium of international peace advocates.

Indeed, while Sinhala voters may not want another war (as the pro-peace votes for the UNP in 2001 and the SLFP in 1996 suggest), they do not want to make concessions to the Tamils either (though of course what constitutes a ‘concession’ depends on the say so of the Sinhala political parties and the clergy). Hitherto the bar has been impossibly low. Even support for devolution needs closer consideration: devolving limited power to several regions (say the island’s districts) is one thing, but any power sharing that recognises the Tamil identity (for example through a Northeastern entity) is another.

Both Mr Rajapakse and Mr Wickremesinghe have declared they are seeking a solution that would satisfy everyone. But there is an irreconcilable tension – the Tamils seeking recognition as a community equal to the Sinhalese and the Sinhala nationalists denying this very position. Moreover, the seeking of a consensual decision downgrades the ethnic question from that of an oppressive state facing a rebellious people protesting discrimination to that of a national malaise that needs the involvement of all actors to resolve.

While a stable Sinhalese leadership is essential to forging a lasting solution, the candidates’ seeking of involvement by all actors will open the door for extremists to exploit the principles of liberal society to derail the peace process. Tamils suspect this is the point. Mr Rajapakse and Mr Wickremesinghe’s promises to seek a consensus are, from their perspective, rhetoric designed to achieve the best of all worlds: to assuage the liberal aspirations of the international community while at the same time reassuring the Sinhala extremists that they retain a veto on any solution.