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Southern politics and peace

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The 13th Amendment/Provincial Councils Bill which was an insignificant devolution foisted upon the Sri Lankan polity in the late 1980s did nothing to devolve power meaningfully and has, if anything, added another layer of bureaucratic inertia to the chains that run vertically from the state centre to an increasingly dependent and eviscerated local government sphere.

Aside from this, there have been attempts since 1994 to either draw up devolution proposals or implement ceasefires as a prelude to doing so. This was the logic behind the People’s Alliance (PA) devolution proposals of late 1990s to 2000 and the United National Front (UNF) Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE.

Such moves have marked a hypothetical, but not practical, consensus on the part of elements of both mainstream Sinhala parties towards implementing meaningful reform to the postcolonial legacy of the over-centralised state, which has been historically dominated by Sinhala nationalist hegemony.

However, this groping towards a common position on the need for reform emerged not out of some altruistic desire to reform the polity for the sake of minority rights, but from a myriad of pressures.

To begin with, there was the increasing realisation that federalism/devolution is no longer simply a theory but that a de facto autonomy is already in place because of the increasing stalemate that exists militarily between the Tamil Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka (This very much came to the fore at the end of President Kumaratunga’s disastrous war-for-peace strategy in 2000-2001). It was dawning that the issue was no longer one of preserving a unitary state but of finding a way to preserve a united Sri Lanka through devolution.

Secondly, although it has been clear that a military-driven war economy has had many winners and has itself acted as an obstacle for peace, a realisation has emerged that a negotiated peace settlement remained the only way for Sri Lanka’s further integration into the global capitalist economy. This was especially apparent in the UNF’s initiation and implementation of the CFA between 2001 and 2004. (The Katunayake Airport bombings and insurance rises as well as drought and the decline in Foreign Investment are other factors.)

Thirdly, there are also obvious external pressures that have been brought to bear in the form of aid conditionalities tied to the peace process and diplomatic pressures from the leading donor states that have flowed from the internationalisation of the peace process.

But none of this has eradicated the tendency of Sri Lanka’s main southern parties to engage in ethnic outbidding through the undermining of each other’s attempts at peace negotiations. Ethnic outbidding occurs when the party in opposition, seeking electoral and political legitimacy, seeks to undermine and destabilize the peace efforts of the ruling party. The derailing of the PA’ s draft constitutional bill of 2000 is an example.

These dynamics continue to create serious obstacles to any constitutional reform and it is for this reason that the politics of the South has been considered key in developing a viable peace process and a central recommendation is for bipartisan and inclusive frameworks in the south that could, at the same time, also address the grievances that fuel the flames of Sinhala nationalism.

However, whilst the mainstream Sinhala parties have both been inching towards recognizing the need for constitutional change, we have also witnessed the ascendancy of parties like the JVP and the SU/JHU, who have very much taken up the baton of Sinhala nationalism in a forceful and vocal manner.

We can’t, of course, explain the rise of these parties solely through this recourse to Sinhala nationalism itself. The JVP, especially, finds its constituency and support in a myriad of molecular sites of marginalisation economically, socially, culturally and politically. There are also issues of regional disparities, caste, rural underdevelopment, the mismatch between vernacular education and the employment provision in the economy, and so on.

A key factor has been disillusionment with the mainstream parties, with clientelistic politics, with corruption and political violence, and the failure to deal with the myriad of inequalities and sources of marginalisation.

The main point in relation to the peace process is that Sinhala nationalism has become one of the key vehicles for the articulation of the force of these discontents. This Sinhala nationalism reinforces conceptions of the state as munificent, bounded, protecting and unitary. It also aims to recover sovereignty in a move towards re-establishing the state’s redistributive and centre-led welfare and developmental power.

The JVP have therefore opposed (apart from a break between 1977-83 and in the 1994-5 period, when self-determination was discussed) federalism as a solution, opting instead to propose a form of decentralization to the local level.

Nationalist dynamics have also produced and recycled profound reactions against the internationalisation of the peace process and aid distribution in the Northeast. Both the JVP and the JHU opposed a federal solution and the role of Norway as mediator in their conditions for a presidential election pact with Mahinda Rajapakse, for example. The JHU and the JVP also successfully mobilized for a Supreme Court injunction against the aid sharing mechanism, PTOMS, in 2005. PTOMS could have heralded a major breakthrough as both a much needed vehicle aid distribution to the North and East and a platform for revitalizing the peace process more generally.

Nonetheless, the JVP’s position should not be taken lightly. It has been argued that the JVP’s perspective is relevant to the broader debate about the extent to which donor states, international actors and NGOs should continue to contravene traditional notions of sovereignty and the extent to which aid should remain harnessed to conditionalities like ‘good governance’ or in the Sri Lankan context to progress in the peace process. This should alert international actors to the extent to which Aid frameworks and international pressure can produce reterritorialising cycles of nationalist reaction. But there is also little doubt that the JVP remains resistant to a federal solution and to a settlement which would be meaningful to the LTTE.

And although the JHU and the JVP have taken up the slack in the mainstream parties’ Sinhala nationalist mobilizations, this does not mean that the UNP or the SLFP have effaced Sinhala nationalist mobilization from their political agendas. Far from it, as the Presidential election of 2005 demonstrates.

Nevertheless, the JVP and the JHU have taken the lead in the regeneration of the ‘magnetic attractor’ for discontent that is Sinhala nationalist mobilization. An example is the Patriotic National Movement which was, at one time, a JVP-dominated machine that draws mainstream political activists back into vocal nationalist mobilization especially when in opposition and in the run-up to elections (2002-4).

Mobilizations such as this are capable of shifting the whole political discourse in a more overt nationalist direction. This was apparent in the run-up to the UPFA’s victory in 2004 when many SLFP stalwarts like Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Bandaranaike, Dilan Perera and Arjuna Ranatunga, for instance, took to the PNM platform. And for the JHU this is a major part of their strategy - simply to shift everything rightward – a dynamic also apparent in the 2005 presidential election as well.

These dynamics continue to recycle and reproduce Sinhala nationalism and with it the tendency for ‘ethnic outbidding’. As such, without a more profound shift in Sri lanka’s political culture, it very much remains to be seen whether the renewed negotiations can produce anything substantial towards ending Sri Lanka’s conflict.

Dave Rampton is a visiting lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. The JVP and southern politics are the focus of his doctoral research. This comment is compiled from his presentation on February 9, 2006 at SOAS as part of an academic panel on Sri Lanka’s conflict.

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