| by N. Sathiya Moorthy
( December 16, 2012, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Intended or otherwise, the ongoing controversy attending on the hasty and unanticipated impeachment motion against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake has taken the focus away from the ‘national problem’ and the efforts aimed at finding a negotiated settlement to the vexatious issue that has witnessed one of the longest drawn-out wars in South Asia, and possibly beyond. The reported efforts of some ruling coalition partners to revive the PSC process and talk to the TNA in this regard should not only be welcome thus. It should be a great relief in more ways than one.
The effort would come to be identified with the political Left after a point. Yet, the initiative is reported to have emanated from EPDP Minister Douglas Devananda, whom the TNA leadership love to hate but who all the same is sworn by power-devolution for the Provinces. So what if Douglas D also swears by 13-A, there are negotiations and negotiations and everyone needs to be taken on board, if 13-A too has to be amended, one way or the other. That would include, and may even start with the TNA, which has a greater say for relatively fewer numbers, and for historic reasons.
If the EPDP represents the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ community in the Government, the SLMC on the one hand and the CWC on the other, represent the two other ‘minority communities’ in the country – namely, the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, both speaking Tamil language and having a common linkage with the Sri Lankan Tamil community, which alone the TNA represents. Yet, two other Muslim parties in the Government, namely, the All-Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) and the Muslim National Congress (MNC) have opposed 13-A, particularly on Police and Land Powers for the Provinces. They have their reasons.
The concern of the Government in wanting the TNA to join a PSC was that they all needed to address the legitimate concerns of the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, as much as those of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The Sri Lankan State could not afford to give the impression at this continuing critical moment in national history that you needed to take on the Government politically, diplomatically and militarily for your voice to be heard – heeded or otherwise. Having stood by the Government at crucial hours when the country was facing the JVP militancy first and the LTTE militancy later, these communities could not be left to fend for themselves, as they have done all along. That is unfair and provocative.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have set the ball rolling when in his Budget speech he indicated that he was not necessarily for the abrogation of 13-A, but only for its amendment to make it ‘people-friendly’. That by itself is a wide term. While some parties in the Government, including President Rajapaksa’s SLFP, may have freedom on this score until a final decision is arrived at, Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s statement that the PSC would decide on the fate of 13-A could trigger a new controversy over the unsure nature of the Government’s approach and commitment. A better way would be for senior Government Ministers and spokespersons to be more specific on the matter.
According to news reports, the parties that have taken the initiative to talk to the TNA account for around 30 members in Parliament. In terms of taking committed positions on power-devolution as enshrined in 13-A (or to be upgraded), the numbers may be fewer for the Government if it was to move away from this position. Coupled with those already in the political Opposition, the reduced numbers for the Government, if it came to that, may have tales to tell in terms of political stability, if push came to shove.
The reverse would also be true. Would such a course lead to collusion between the pro-devolution group in the ruling combine and those wedded to lesser powers for the Provinces, if at all they were to be given any? It is hard to tell at this stage, but such calculations could have consequences for the stability of the Government, which at present is more stable than most before it. Not that this theoretical perception hopes any promise for the political Opposition – to count the chickens before the eggs are hatched.
Anyway, issues are different and perceptions of political parties are also different when it comes to power-devolution on the one hand and political realignment on the other. The latter is far to seek. Instead, such thoughts and arguments could derail the current process aimed at bringing the TNA on board, and evolve a parliamentary process aimed at power-devolution acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society and polity. Worse still, such temptations could lead to greater ethnic and consequent political polarisation all over again.
Interestingly, news reports have also spoken of some MPs belonging to the SLFP in the ruling UPFA combine making it to the initiative meeting. There are other closet backers for the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala community buying peace with the Tamil stake-holders in nation-building on equitable, if not equal terms. Definitions may differ but there are those who feel that ‘equity’ in the short and medium-term could well involve ‘more-than-equality’ for the Tamils who have fought enough and suffered enough.
It is in this context that the ‘November 27 episode’ in the Tamil-majority North, particularly the Jaffna University, needs to be viewed. The Tamils, including the TNA need to explain how the observance of the LTTE’s “Heroes’ Day” on the university campus could support international advocacy for equality for the community on the whole in a united Sri Lanka. If the idea was to mourn and pray for the dead civilians, who may have been buried under the deep debris of the three-decade-old war, even May 19, the day in 2009 when ‘Eelam War IV’ came to an end may have been better than November 27 – which was observed exclusively by the LTTE in its time, and related only to the LTTE martyrs.
Yet, the question remains whether the security forces had over-reacted to the emerging situation on the university campus that day. Independent of what the security perceptions in the matter are, it was unwise moves of this kind on the part of the Sri Lankan Government agencies that alienated the Tamils and angered their youth in another era. The results are there for all to see – not just the Tamils, but the Sinhala community and polity, and also the Sri Lankan State and the Government.
Either the security forces have eradicated the LTTE terror modules, or they are unwittingly impregnating the birth of new groups even when the Tamils who are settled uncomfortably in the country – unlike their Diaspora brethren – may not want it. TNA leader R. Sampanthan did the next best thing after his ‘May Day’ demonstration of commitment to a united Sri Lanka at Jaffna when he spoke unhesitatingly about the LTTE targeting the Tamils in the country, including him and his party leaders – that too in Parliament, to be recorded in the ‘Hansard’.
It is unclear thus as to what more the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and chauvinists in the Government and outside, and also the conscience-keepers of the Sri Lankan State’s security interests and concerns expect the TNA to do in terms of proving their loyalty to the nation, its unity and territorial integrity. It is not to ridicule such other persons, but if they have specifics to offer or demand from the TNA and the rest of the Tamils in the country – leave the Diaspora out of it – then they could come out with those specifics. If they do not have anything coming to mind at the moment, they should identify their concerns and vocalise their expectations. The other way is to sit quietly on the sidelines and let the current process take shape, try or tire itself out or both.
President Rajapaksa is on record that he is all for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue. He has a point, politically and otherwise, that such a solution should carry all sections of Sri Lankan society and polity with it, so that it does not go the way of 13-A. Yet, as President of the Sri Lankan nation, as different from being the head of the SLFP and/or the UPFA, he needs to demonstrate the kind of statesmanship, which alone will put an end to the current impasse. All told, it does not automatically mean that he has to sign on the TNA’s dotted-lines or whatever.
As the President who had won ‘Eelam War-IV’, President Rajapaksa had negotiated electoral support for his re-election with the TNA. That it did not work out is a different issue; but he would definitely have thought about what he would be able to offer the TNA in return for its electoral support at a crucial juncture in the nation’s contemporary history and a critical stage in his own electoral career – at times, more critical than his first successful presidential poll outing in 2005. In doing so, he would have also thought about what would have been acceptable to the TNA in terms of power-devolution and a political solution. Maybe, those unmentioned proposals may hold the key – though the timing may not have been right then, unlike now.
Ironically, the politics of power-devolution have become less intense now than the politics of accountability. Yet, one may hold the key to resolving the other. Addressing accountability issues may not answer power-devolution and a political solution. The reverse may however be true. Conversely, accountability issues also continue to flow from the ethnic issue. In the absence of a solution for the latter, the former too would linger. Sri Lanka, now and beyond, can ill-afford to procrastinate, especially if it is to progress on the developmental road that President Rajapaksa has outlined for his leadership and Government, his people and his nation!
(The writer is Director and Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation, an Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)