Deadlines to meet

Published : Jan 10, 1998 00:00 IST

For Sri Lanka, the year that has just passed was one of extended deadlines on the military and political fronts.

THE year 1997 began with a lot of promise for Sri Lanka. Despite the ravages of the ongoing war, the economy was perking up. More positive hopes, however, hinged on an end to the ethnic conflict. The People's Alliance (P.A) Government's two-fold strategy of weakening the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily and isolating it politically by achieving a wide consensus on devolution was expected to register significant success, and optimistic deadlines were set. But it turned our to be a year of mixed fortunues; it ended without the political or military deadlines being met.

The first quarter of the year saw the Government embarking on a military campaign in the northern mainland, the Wanni. The campaign more or less coincided with the announcement of local council elections in the seven provinces other than the North-East. This led to charges that the Government was trying to set deadlines to suit its political objectives. The accusation was that the Government had launched the military campaign to score battlefield successes against the LTTE so that it may use that victory to gain political mileage among Sinhala voters.

Operation Edibala (heroic force) was a limited exercise to gain control of the northwestern highway between Vavuniya and Mannar. The Tigers, unexpectedly, did not offer any resistance and allowed the soldiers a virtual walkover. The Army captured that stretch of the highway easily. The Tamil village of Parayanaalankulam, at a strategic intersection along the road, became a pivotal military camp.

In a controversial move, the village, whose entire population is Tamil, was re-named Sapumalpura overnight. Sapumal Kumara was the Sinhala prince who conquered the Jaffna kingdom in medieval times and went on to crown himself as Puvanekabanu. The historical significance was explicit. Political rivals alleged that the Sri Lankan State Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, the driving force behind the military effort, fancied himself as a modern-day Sapumal Kumara. Tamil sentiment was hurt by the re-naming. After protests, the Government explained glibly that the name had not been changed at all.

The P.A. scored major victories in the local council elections. The Opposition United National Party (UNP) did unexpectedly well in areas with a fair concentration of Tamils. The Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), which had in the past more or less controlled the votes of Tamil estate workers of Indian origin, suffered unexpected reverses. The image of the Plantation Patriarch S. Thondaman as the CWC chief who could deliver a block of Tamil votes was dented.

The P.A. won 51 per cent of the votes cast in the seven predominantly Sinhala provinces. The elections demonstrated that the ruling party retained its hold on the electorate. The results also provided an index of public opinion and indicated the possible outcome of any island-wide referendum on the proposed devolution package. The fact that the ruling party won half the votes in the Sinhala areas was interpreted as a positive signal. Since the bulk of Tamil and Muslim voters in the North-East was expected to support the devolution proposals in a referendum, it was surmised that the country at large would endorse President Chandrika Kumara- tunga's initiative conclusively.

In the case of the constitutional reform exercise that aims to introduce extensive devolution of powers in the country, the original deadline of March 1997 was extended. Constitutional Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris said that the constitutional package would be released before the Budget scheduled for November. In mid-1997, however, there was a flutter of political excitement over what came to be called the Fox initiative.

Towards the end of the Conservative Government's tenure in Britain, British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Liam Fox visited Sri Lanka thrice. It was a rare brand of shuttle diplomacy reminiscent of G. Parthasarathy's efforts in 1983-84. Fox was able to persuade Kumaratunga and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe to sign letters agreeing to evolve a bilateral approach with regard to the conflict.

Under this arrangement, the Government was required to consult the Opposition leader and keep him informed of any efforts to resolve the conflict with the LTTE. The Opposition was obliged not to undermine any such effort and to guarantee the continuance of the policy if and when it came to power. A specific reference to direct talks with the LTTE fuelled speculation that British-facilitated negotiations with the Tigers were imminent. Hopes were raised but nothing materialised. The Government did not pursue the matter purposefully. After the Labour Party came to power in Britain, the Fox initiative fizzled out.

The Government's reluctance to formulate a bilateral approach and enter into talks with the LTTE seemed to stem from two factors. The first was that despite calling for UNP cooperation to resolve the crisis, the P.A. was not prepared to stop its game of political one-upmanship. As such, it apparently did not want to share with the UNP any responsibility or any credit for the process. Moreover, the personal relationship between Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe had soured as never before.

The second and more potent reason for the hesitation was the ground situation. Both the pro-militarist and pro-devolution lobbies in the Government were averse to initiating direct talks with the LTTE because the tasks in hand remained unfinished. The war had not advanced to the point where the LTTE could be deemed to be sufficiently weakened on the military front. Politically, the Parliamentary Select Committee on constitutional reform had not reached a consensus on the new scheme of devolution.

In such a situation, abandoning the original two-pronged approach against the LTTE and commencing talks with it would have been tantamount to admitting the failure of current government policy. Besides, the militarist and political schools of thought had to be reconciled first. Otherwise, all that had been achieved was in danger of being ruined. So the Government went ahead with its original course of action, setting new deadlines in the process.

The Government reiterated that the new devolution proposals would be submitted to Parliament in October 1997. It also launched a military operation, "Operation Jayasikuru" (certain victory), on May 13. The deadline set for achieving the military objective was three months. Once again the Government was accused of imposing military deadlines to suit its political objectives. It was stated that victory in the Wanni would help the Government sell the devolution package to its Sinhala constituency.

THE military operation, the most ambitious such operation to be launched in Sri Lanka's contemporary history, started with a bang. Troops swiftly captured and consolidated their position in two key towns, Omanthai and Nedunkerny, in the Wanni. The operation itself had a two-fold strategy. One was to open from the south a land route to Jaffna through Tiger-controlled territory. The aim was to secure and control the stretch of road between Vavuniya and Killinochchi on the Jaffna-Kandy A9 highway.

The second objective was to gain control of three other roads branching off from the A9 highway and leading to Mullaitheevu, northeast of the Wanni. The Mullaitheevu region was the last bastion of the LTTE and it was called the heartland of the Tigers. One of the roads began from Paranthan, north of Killinochchi; Paranthan was already under Army control. The other two roads started off from Puliyankulam and Mankulam in the interior of the Wanni. The objective was to control all these roads and confine the LTTE in boxed-in segments. This was expected to restrict the LTTE's mobility and to make it impossible for the Tigers to exercise their sway over the population.

After initial victories at Omanthai and Nedunkerny, the troops suffered reversals. The LTTE launched a counter-offensive, "Operation Do or Die". Infiltrating Army lines of control, the Tigers struck back at Army camps, inflicting severe damage and seizing huge amounts of weapons and ammunition. The LTTE also entrenched itself firmly in the target destinations of the armed forces. At one stage the LTTE was defending four fronts. It also checked the advance of the government troops in major and minor skirmishes. In early December, it set up a decoy camp, enticed the expeditionary troops and virtually annihilated them.

The combined casualty figure for the Army and the LTTE in terms of the dead and the wounded number in their thousands. The current operation is the longest and costliest military exercise undertaken in Sri Lanka so far. In addition, the human suffering in terms of civilian displacement and shortages of food and medicines has been very great.

At present, 34,000 men from the 53rd, 55th and 56th divisions of the Army are fighting roughly one-third that number of Tigers in the Wanni. In addition, another 10,000 personnel are guarding the captured road. The Army has skirted Puliyankulam, which remains in LTTE hands, and approached Mankulam.

ALTHOUGH earlier deadlines of October and December have not been met, Defence Minister Ratwatte, the eternal optimist, has announced a new deadline. He has said that the geographical reunification of the north and south by means of a ground-based supply route will be possible before February 4, 1998. February 4 will mark the golden anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence from Britain.

Politically, the deadline for the devolution proposals was met only partially. The political parties involved found themselves unable to agree on crucial points. The UNP found itself at loggerheads with the Government on five aspects of the proposals. These related to the structure of the state, the unit of devolution, and powers regarding land, finance and law and order. Some Tamil parties objected to the unit of devolution, which envisages a trifurcation of the present Eastern province after holding referendums.

Although an overall consensus was not possible, the Government achieved an all-party consensus regarding the procedure for tabling the Select Committee report on October 24. The reservations and dissenting opinions of the various parties were attached to the main report in the form of riders. Thus, the appearance of a lack of consensus was averted and the Government was able to present to Parliament the basic scheme of the proposed extensive devolution.

It is expected that further discussion and debate on the proposals will lead to a consensus. Since the existing Constitution stipulates a two-thirds parliamentary majority and ratification by a referendum for any constitutional change, an understanding with the chief Opposition party, the UNP, becomes essential. The P.A. and its Tamil political allies have 133 seats out of 225 in Parliament. If the UNP and the P.A. evolve a bipartisan approach, then the parliamentary hurdle can be cleared. Thereafter the referendum would be another simple step.

In the absence of cooperation from the UNP, Kumaratunga has been hinting at a "constitutional revolution" - a consultative, non-binding referendum on the devolution package. If the Government succeeds in this, it will be able to exert moral pressure on the UNP to support the proposals. There is also the possibility that through the referendum the Government will seek the approval of the people to convert the current Parliament into a Constituent Assembly and then pass the devolution proposals with a simple majority. An extreme option would be to dissolve Parliament and go to the polls on the issue. The UNP has said that it will oppose any move to amend the Constitution through extra-constitutional means.

At year's end, a positive sign was the UNP's reported plans to propose a set of alternatives to the Government. Media reports indicated that the UNP would recommend asymmetrical devolution in a need-based approach. This envisages a special set of proposals for the North-East province. The UNP would also like to continue with the Provincial Council scheme, which was put in place under the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, without reviving the other controversial provisions of that agreement. It would like to do away with the concurrent list of powers vested in the councils and devolve greater powers to the regions.

The UNP does not want to convert the unitary state into a union of regions as envisaged in the P.A.'s proposals. Constitutional experts say that a real devolution of power will not be possible without changing the explicitly unitary structure of the state. The UNP apparently wants to convert unitary Sri Lanka into a united and indivisible Sri Lanka, thus avoiding references to 'unitary' as well as 'union of regions'. The UNP is not in favour of re-demarcating the Eastern province. It wants the merger of the North-East to remain in force until the ground situation becomes suitable for a free and fair referendum in the East.

The UNP has advocated some form of talks with the LTTE with or without international facilitation. The P.A. does not reject such a possibility outright, but is not certain when talks should be held. The Government overtly states that the major southern parties must arrive at a consensus before a dialogue with the LTTE could begin. Observers feel that the Government's real intention would be to achieve significant military successes against the LTTE in the meantime.

THUS, a year that began with optimistic deadlines on the military and political fronts ended with the deadlines being extended. The new military deadline for the "reunification" exercise is February 1998. If this deadline is met and the UNP displays signs of flexibility and compromise, the political deadline to submit to Parliament the new devolution proposals would be March. Both deadlines are inter-related and inter-dependent.

The success of the military deadline depends on the military performance of the LTTE. The Tigers are in a position to upset Defence Minister Ratwatte's timetable. If that happens, the political exercise will be further delayed. At the same time, the political deadline depends on the political performance of the UNP. The party is in a position to impede the calculations of Constitutional Affairs Minister Peiris. The hope among the peace-loving citizens of the island can only be that the 1997 phenomenon of unfulfilled deadlines does not extend to 1998.

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