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Today's UNP is no exception

For advocates of the liberal peace in Sri Lanka, the choice in next week’s Presidential election might have seemed quite clear: Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) over Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Why? Because Wickremesinghe represents the liberal vision of a market-friendly all-inclusive pluralist society while Rajapske is a Sinhala and economic nationalist.

But these observers would have got a rude awakening this week when one of the Sri Lanka’s supposed arch-liberals, Milinda Moragoda – the former minister for Economic Reforms (read unadulterated neoliberalism) – and a government negotiator in the talks with the Tamil Tigers, launched a gloriously nationalistic interpretation of the former UNP administration’s successes.

Mr. Moragoda took credit for engineering the materialization of the anti-LTTE Karuna paramilitary group, for creating an international safety net to constrain the LTTE and even crowed over the sinking of two LTTE ships whilst engaged it in the peace process.

Whilst many Tamils have always been cynical of the UNP’s bona fides, even those who had placed their faith in the Premier Wickremesinghe and his UNP-led coalition had grown increasingly skeptical as the peace process dragged on.

And Mr. Moragoda’s assertion, delivered no doubt for the benefit of the Sinhala nationalist voter, that the UNP government has in fact delivered few dividends to the Tamils while at the same time undermining the LTTE, will reaffirm their suspicions that Wickremesinghe’s administration was cut from the same cloth as previous Sri Lankan governments.

Regrettably, many of the points Mr. Moragoda is seeking to score amidst the feverish electioneering taking place in the south are grounded in fact. Despite having agreed a comprehensive ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, the UNP government failed to implement many of it crucial clauses, particularly those pertaining to the return of normalcy to the Northeast, and the dismantling of the Army-backed paramilitaries. The UNP government allowed several joint sub-committees setup in the earlier rounds of talks to fall by wayside due to bureaucracy and inaction. More seriously, it sought to marginalize the LTTE from efforts to solicit international aid.

Mr. Moragoda this week also justified the LTTE’s assertion that the Sri Lankan government sponsored the Karuna insurrection against the Tiger leadership. He also boasted of the destruction of two LTTE vessels. The naval attacks, conducted whilst the ships were in international waters, were arguably the most provocative of the ceasefire violations.

The point is, the comments by Mr. Moragoda, a senior UNP member and a close confidante of Mr. Wickremesinghe, fly in the face of common wisdom that the UNP is the unambiguous choice of liberal peace advocates.

Mr. Moragoda is one of the key architects of this image of the party amongst the international community in recent years - though the centre-right credentials claimed by the UNP hark back to the almost religious reverence with which Junius Jayawardene embraced market economics in the late 70’s.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s administration is credited with being the first Sri Lankan government in the two decades since the ethnic conflict erupted to have maintained a stable and comprehensive ceasefire with the LTTE. But many Tamils argue he had little choice but to call a truce given the impossibly weak economic and military position in which the state was when his government came to power. They also point out that political history of the island is strewn with political deals signed by Sinhala and Tamil leaders and subsequently abrogated by the former once the agreements had outlived their usefulness.

Reeling from the annihilation of its air force in the July 2001 Katunayake airport attack and with its army demoralized after the disastrous defeat of operation Agni Khela a few months earlier, Sri Lanka was in no position to continue an armed conflict. The economy had been battered by the airport attack: tourism had collapsed and the hiking of insurance premiums was threatening to wipe out the country’s export driven industries. Indeed, civil unrest was not an impossibility unless something changed. Conversely, engaging the LTTE in ceasefire would enable the UNP to build its much vaunted international safety net, give the Sri Lankan economy a respite from the intensifying conflict and arrest the Tigers relentless military advances.

These uniquely challenging circumstances are crucial factors which served to differentiate the policies of Wickremesinghe’s administration from those of its predecessors. These include the UNP government led by J.R. Jayawardene, Wickremsinghe’s uncle, which enshrined the present Sinhala Buddhist constitution and the presidential powers to protect it. Jayawardene is also held responsible for engineering the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom - which he characterized as fitting retribution for Tamil demands for greater autonomy. Subsequent UNP leaders, such as President R. Premadasa, were equally nationalistic.

But a close examination of Mr. Wickremesinghe and his brand of UNP also reveals latent Sinhala nationalist tendencies. For example, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government put forward its devolution proposals in 2000, Mr. Wickremesinghe and the UNP opposed the package – as did the ultra-nationalist Janantha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP). Even though the Tigers had already rejected the proposals – first unveiled in 1995 and then repeatedly watered down as to be meaningless – the UNP nevertheless opposed the package as conceding too much to the Tamils. Indeed in the late nineties, the UNP put forward its own counter-proposals for devolution – which were even more tightly bound to a unitary state than Kumaratunga’s.

Upon closer inspection, Wickremesinghe’s manifesto for next week’s election doesn’t appear to have progressed significantly from the UNP’s past positions on the ethnic question. It even advocates devolution within the framework of the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord, a bilateral agreement with India which proposes a system of provincial councils with laughable powers. But the UNP, it seems, is still wedded to Jayawardene’s legacy.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s liberal credentials are further brought into question by his policies on religion. While magnanimously allow Hindus, Christians and Muslims to practice their religions, his manifesto still insists that Buddhism be accorded a privileged status, including efforts to establish Sri Lanka as the global home of Buddhism.

The UNP’s claim to be Sri Lanka’s ‘moderate’ main party is further eroded by its conduct in opposition after April 2004. The party didn’t challenge Buddhist right-wing legislation such as the anti-conversion bill, aimed undoubtedly at curbing the work of Christian organizations in Sri Lanka. And what ought be understood from the UNP’s failure to support the P-TOMS agreement on sharing international tsunami-related aid with LTTE-controlled areas, when the deal came under fire from the JVP-led Sinhala nationalists? Indeed, the UNP’s only contribution was to complain about the lack of Sinhalese in the structure.

Furthermore, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party has never defended foreign governments, including facilitator Norway, and other international actors, such as the World Bank, that have come under attack from the Sinhala right wing for their efforts in support of the peace process.

However, the most telling aspect of the UNP manifesto is its call for a united front with the other major parties on the island - Mrs. Kumaratunga’s SLFP and the JVP – on the ethnic question. Considering the JVP’s vehemently anti-Tamil, anti-peace stance and Mrs. Kumaratunga’s brutal ‘war for peace’ history, one wonders how Mr. Wickremesinghe closing ranks with these parties could advance a liberal peace. The Tamils, for their part, are understandably apprehensive of such a coalition.

Supporters of Mr. Wickremesinghe may counter that the UNP is indulging in pre-election populist rhetoric in order to secure power so that it may reengage with its longer term project of a sustainable peace process. Furthermore, it can be argued, unity amongst the main Sinhalese parties is essential in order to have the parliamentary majority to implement the constitutional reforms a final solution will require.

However, as recent history of Sri Lankan politics attests, southern parties have failed to reach agreement on anything but the more Sinhala nationalist of principals. There is no reason to believe things will be different in the near future – if anything, the communal polarization is even deeper than before. Whilst the Tamils expect substantial autonomy as part of a permanent solution – a position endorsed by international analysts such as the Washington based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), any emergent southern consensus can only be on the barest deviation from the unitary state. This is irrespective of the UNP’s less than unambiguous acceptance of a federal solution in itsmanifesto.

The recent effort by the UNP to woo the island’s Sinhala nationalist vote has exposed key aspects of the previous government’s ideology. Clausewitz famously described war as continuation of politics by other means. Mr. Wickremesinghe and the UNP have inverted the axiom. For them, the peace process was a way to continue the Sinhala nationalist project i.e. politics through the peace process was effectively a continuation of war by other means.

Tamil confidence in a negotiated solution with the UNP have been undermined, not merely by Mr. Moragoda’s statements, but by the day-to-day history of UNP action and statements spanning several years. The comments this week by Mr. Moragoda and his peers have confirmed Tamil suspicions that UNP, like its right-wing predecessors, also reverted to type after coming to power.

Sri Lanka, it would appear, is stuck in a vicious cycle of nationalist majoritarianism and anti-minority outbidding. And with no mainstream party principled enough to break the cycle, the result has been a series of Sinhala rightwing governments with policies aimed at appeasing their hardliners. The UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe is no exception. Whilst this might be a bitter pill for advocates of the liberal peace, it is one they must swallow – the Tamils already have.