Walking a tightrope

Print edition : October 18, 1997

UNLIKE the "Three Princes of Serendip" (Serendip is said to be a former name of Sri Lanka), President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Velupillai Prabakaran, are in no fairy-tale in which a happy discovery of peace is made by chance. But the three now seem to hold Sri Lanka's immediate destiny in their hands, each in his or her own way. An all-important question is: "Can they act together?" The answer, albeit hemmed in by many qualifications, is: "Maybe, if they decide to do so."

Issues of war and peace, never a novelty in contemporary Sri Lanka, are now back in focus with the Government's announcement on October 2, of its carefully crafted proposals for meeting the territorial aspirations of the country's minority Tamils and Muslims without compromising with respect to the sensitivities of the majority Sinhala population.

Angry at Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera's criticism of a clergy-backed Sinhala commission's anti-devolution views, a section of Buddhist monks launched public protests.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The powers that are to be devolved from the Centre to the provinces, or rather politically different regions under a proposed new nomenclature, have been identified. Falling far short of a federal polity, the Sri Lankan state can, under this blueprint, assume the dimensions of a more pronounced participatory democracy away from the Centre.

Briefly, the Tamil-majority Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts along Sri Lanka's eastern coastline will hold the key to the country's proposed new political arrangement. If they vote, in a planned referendum, for merger with the historical North, an overwhelmingly Tamil-speaking entity, then the Muslims and a Sinhala group, all living in the traditional East, will be given similar but separate opportunities to determine their political future within a united Sri Lanka. If, on the other hand, the people of Batticaloa and Trincomalee decide against a merger with the North, the existing experimental North-East Province, a surviving legacy of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, will split, with the entire traditional East becoming a distinctive new unit.

This complex formula is, prima facie, designed to balance the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils and Muslims against the Sinhala political psyche, which is constantly fed on concerns over the slightest hint of genuine autonomy for Tamils. India's geopolitical shadow over Sri Lanka is an aspect that Sinhala opinion-makers make much of in this context, in spite of the Gujral Doctrine.

It has been relatively easy for the Government to come up with a formula for reinventing the Sri Lankan state as "a union of regions". But it is an entirely different, even Herculean task, to get it passed by Parliament and approved in a nationwide referendum under the existing Constitutional requirements. Above all, the mood of the LTTE, which continues to be targeted militarily by the Government, and the political militancy of a section of the Buddhist clergy will matter, not to mention the United National Party's own game plan of taxing the Government's ingenuity and patience.

Taking umbrage at Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera's criticism of a clergy-backed Sinhala Commission's anti-devolution views, which he described as being worthy of the "dustbin of history", a section of Buddhist monks have already struck. Public protests by Buddhist monks suit the UNP's game plan. The latest proposals emerged as a sequel to the Government's consultations with key Tamil moderate leaders such as M. Sivasithamparam, Neelan Tiruchelvam and R. Sampanthan, besides M.H.M. Ashraff of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and others. The Tamil leaders never suggested mini-referendums of the kind in focus now, and the UNP was not associated with the Government's exercise at all. However, Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, the main architect of the proposals, says that the Government will be in a position to initiate a new dialogue with the LTTE after productive consultations with the UNP.

The key to fresh talks with the LTTE lies in the Government's ability to build a consensus with the UNP on the substance of the talks. The Government and the UNP are still shadow-boxing; and the LTTE has not gone back on its stated appeal to Britain, Sri Lanka's old colonial master, to use its good offices for a settlement of the "Eelam Tamils issue". The U.K. brokered an exchange of letters between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe on what it saw as "establishing a bipartisan policy towards the LTTE". Britain's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, David Tatham, recently spoke on the need for "a convincing offer" from them (the Sri Lankan Government and the UNP) to the Tamils. Behind the diplomatic scenes, neither the Government nor the LTTE has formally asked for British mediation at this stage, but many Sri Lankans regard Tatham's statement as a conspicuous straw in the diplomatic wind.

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