The politics of reconstruction

Print edition : July 01, 2005

At a camp for tsunami survivors in the LTTE-controlled Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. - SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The impasse caused by the proposal for a "joint mechanism" to reconstruct the tsunami-ravaged north and east strains the efforts to find a lasting solution to the strife in the island.

Nature abhors a vacuum. - Francois Rabelais.

FOR well over two years, Sri Lanka's peace negotiations have been struggling in a vacuum. Since the unilateral pullout by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in March 2003, there has been no discernible progress in the efforts to resume peace talks, with the government and the rebels sticking to their positions. The situation, which reached the brink a couple of years ago, continued to be dangerously poised on the edge. And before the tsunami hit the island on December 26, 2004, all indications pointed to a further hardening of stance by the rebels. The killer waves changed it all, throwing up fragile hopes of a fresh beginning for a bleeding nation.

Six months after the island's worst natural disaster, the impasse caused by a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) proposed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga - in which Colombo and the Tigers would be involved in resource distribution and project allocation for reconstructing the tsunami-ravaged northern and eastern coasts - has added strain to the politics of peace-making.

The P-TOMS, details of which are closely guarded, broadly envisages involving the LTTE to ensure equitable resource and project allocation from the international contributions to reconstruct the tsunami-ravaged northern and eastern coasts. It proposes equal representation for the government, the LTTE and Muslims at the apex level, with five LTTE, three Muslim and two Sinhalese nominees at the regional level. The more important context of the P-TOMS is its impact on the peace process, its legitimisation of the LTTE in administrative affairs and its impact on the southern Sri Lankan psyche.

The idea of a "joint mechanism", as the P-TOMS is popularly known, was welcomed by the main players of the Sri Lankan polity (the government, the Opposition and the rebels). Proponents of the plan argued that though it was not a part of the peace process, it would lay the foundation for resumption of talks by involving the rebels in administrative matters. Its opponents disagreed. The hardline, left-nationalist constituent of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the Buddhist clergy-led parliamentary party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), saw the "joint mechanism" as selling out a part of the land to the "terrorist". The broader interpretation of the proposal, particularly by the hardliners, was that it would lead to the ultimate "division of the country".

The plan's opponents argued that the P-TOMS would result in the "formalisation" and "expansion" of the LTTE's role in the north and east to areas that were currently beyond its control. According to military estimates, about 1,056 km of Sri Lanka's total 1,568-km coastline was affected by the tsunami. About 130 km (13 per cent) of the island's total affected coastline is under LTTE control. The government controls 60.6 per cent of the 330-km affected north-eastern coastline and the remaining 39.4 per cent - covering the Mullaitivu district and parts of other northern and eastern districts - are under the LTTE's control.

The JVP took the position that it was the government's responsibility to carry out the reconstruction task all over the island, including rebel-held areas. Considering the ground situation, that would have been a disastrous non-starter. It was argued that as government activity was going on in rebel-held areas even during the escalated military conflicts, there was no need for a special mechanism. Civil servants appointed by the government, and state medical and food supplies were in full operation during the conflict and could be utilised to carry forward the reconstruction activities, the JVP argued.

Another objection was to grant the LTTE the status of "sole representative" of the Tamils in the north and east, which is resented, though silently, by anti-LTTE Tamil parties. That the LTTE continues to remain an armed group with an expanding arsenal - the presence of an airstrip has been confirmed and there are reports of acquisition of aircraft - is a matter of growing concern to those opposed to the P-TOMS.

On the other hand, sections of Tamil opinion, not necessarily confined to the LTTE or its supporters, see in the objections a continued political "majoritarianism" that opposes any accommodation with the Tamils. Early signs of a hardline Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism are evident from the recent unauthorised erection of statues of the Buddha in an already volatile eastern Sri Lanka by "fringe elements", who are tacitly supported by sections of the polity.

In Colombo, Buddhist monks protest against the "joint mechanism".-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

THE protests against the "joint mechanism" became vehement particularly after India expressed its "understanding" and "support" for the President's efforts. In its own way, the Indian position brought the debate around squarely to where it always belonged - Sri Lanka's domestic politics. As the JVP and the JHU are also contestants for the same political constituency, the slogans and forms of protest were largely similar.

The JHU chose the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy as the venue to start its protest campaign. On June 6, a group of monks launched a "fast unto death" campaign to ensure that the "joint mechanism" was dropped. Two days later, the National Bhikku Front (NBF) - known to be the Buddhist monk arm of the JVP - started a "fast unto death" in Colombo. The main demand was the same as that of the JHU. The NBF went a step further and said the mechanism was a "conspiracy" by the two main leaders, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader and former Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, to "deny power to the JVP and the incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse".

Like most other political issues in Sri Lanka, a maze of factors lies behind the opposition to the P-TOMS. The first is the ability of the JVP and the JHU to dip into the majoritarian mindset in order to enlarge their respective constituencies. As Mahinda Rajapakse is seen as a possible candidate with the support of the JVP in the presidential election next year, the NBF sees the "joint mechanism" as a means used by Chandrika Kumaratunga to marginalise the JVP, given its opposition to the proposal. In the absence of the JVP's support, it is argued, the Opposition United National Party (UNP) will endorse the President's proposal and enable her to carry it forward. Adding fuel to this thought is the speculation that the UNP may shake hands with the President to form the "joint mechanism".

An added complexity is the emerging divisions within the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). All the President's supporters say she is fully convinced that the "joint mechanism" is required and that she will most certainly implement it. However, there are sections within the party that are not comfortable with the proposal. These silent dissidents broadly fall into two categories - those who oppose it entirely and those who endorse the proposal but point out the political reality that a JVP pullout would lead to the collapse of the government.

Recently, Mangala Samaraweera, a key ministerial confidant of Kumaratunga, resigned his post citing "personal reasons". A few days before he quit, Samaraweera said that though he supported the "joint mechanism", he was not for it if it led to the fall of the government. Although it is not clear if his resignation is linked to the joint mechanism, there is a view that this could be one form of dissent.

The options for Chandrika Kumaratunga include going ahead with her plans, with the calculations based on the possibility of support coming from parties other than the JVP and the JHU. However, this involves the political risk of expecting the support of the UNP. Another possibility is to defer the decision until a consensus is reached.

But given the current indications - with a section of Buddhist monks launching a protest fast, the JVP threatening to quit the Ministry, and reservations being expressed even within the President's own party - this could be politically dangerous. The most difficult part of the search for a consensus is the LTTE scaling up its pressure, with not-so-encouraging signals coming from the rebel leadership over the government's delay in accepting the P-TOMS.

Although seemingly peripheral issues now, these do not bode well for a nation aspiring to draw the curtains on decades of mutual mistrust, bloodshed and conflict.

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