A parting of ways

Print edition : July 15, 2005

President Chandrika Kumaratunga. - JEWEL SAMAD /AFP

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's pullout from the ruling alliance in Sri Lanka following differences with the SLFP on the issue of involving the LTTE in the post-tsunami rehabilitation is a sign of the hurdles in the way of a resolution of the ethnic conflict.

JUST after midnight on June 15, Sri Lanka's second experiment in a coalition governance ended with the separation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). A few days earlier, the JVP had issued an ultimatum that President Chandrika Kumaratunga should withdraw a proposal to share international assistance for reconstructing the tsunami-ravaged northern and eastern coasts with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Over the past year, the SLFP and the JVP - the two main parties of Sri Lanka's nine-party United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition - did not have a comfortable co-existence. The alliance finally cracked under the strain of contradictions over the President's proposed Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS). The mechanism aims at equitable distribution of resources and projects among the tsunami-affected districts. The JVP's main objection was that it involved a key role for the LTTE.

But Kumaratunga stood her ground and refused to yield to threats from her coalition partner. As the deadline neared, it was more than obvious that the JVP would have either to leave the government or lose face. "We are no longer part of the government," a JVP spokesperson told Frontline in the early hours of June 16. A 14-month coalition exercise, which was always under strain owing to a fundamental contradiction in the approach to a resolution of the ethnic conflict, had ended.

The JVP has 39 MPs, eight of whom were Ministers - four in the Cabinet and four Deputy Ministers - in the coalition government. But it has kept alive the prospects of a return to the government.

Making a detailed statement after his party left the government, Somawanse Amarasinghe, the JVP leader, said: "We leave with a sense of deep regret of work not fully completed." Raising the issue of "sovereignty and security", Amarasinghe said: "There is no point in staying in this government, which cannot safeguard the sovereignty and security of this country."

On June 10, the party's polit bureau raised a number of objections to the proposed P-TOMS deal. One of them was that the geographical spread of the damage did not justify the need for such a mechanism. "The total tsunami-affected area in Sri Lanka is 1,124 sq km, of which a rather small 281 sq km is in the un-liberated area," the JVP said, referring to areas under LTTE control.

In addition, the JVP's position was that it was "impossible and unethical" according to accepted democratic principles to hand over the "writ of a sovereign government" to an "illegally armed organisation". Doing so, the JVP said, would be "on a par with the ultimate intention of the Tamil terrorists to establish a separate state."

JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe.-SENA VIDANAGAMA /AFP

Thus, when the JVP pulled out of the government, the reason it cited as the parting shot set the stage for a possible polarisation of the island-nation's polity over whether the LTTE should be engaged in and given a key role in the post-tsunami reconstruction phase or not.

HOWEVER, the differences between the JVP and the SLFP run deeper. To start with, the UPFA coalition was cobbled together in January 2004 for an electoral purpose - the defeat of the then ruling United National Party (UNP) and the return of the SLFP. For the JVP, which considers itself a party-in-waiting for a government on its own strength, the coalition was but a step towards that end.

Though both the JVP and the SLFP are driven by left-of-centre ideologies, in Sri Lanka's own specific definition of the term, the two parties differ fundamentally on the most important national question - power-sharing with the Tamils. While the SLFP, under Kumaratunga's leadership, sees devolution of powers as the way out, the JVP insists that nothing more than decentralisation is required. Thus, the fundamental contradiction between the two parties is in the very nature of the state they wish to govern. The SLFP's stated move towards a `union of regions' is in sharp contrast to the JVP's reiteration of the need to preserve the unitary state. This fundamental difference was glossed over when the UPFA alliance was formed and relegated to a clause that said that the JVP would abide by the view of the majority on the national question. Leaving aside the interpretation of what constitutes the majority, the reluctance of the JVP to accept Kumaratunga's reform plan foretold a parting of ways.

After its departure from the ruling alliance, the JVP did not hold back its criticism. "Regrettably, our earnest request to maintain the integrity of this country had fallen on deaf, autocratic ears," Amarasinghe said. He also struck a note of warning on the political consequences of the pullout. The party said it would withdraw support to the SLFP at all levels.

The JVP was a critical bloc for the government. However, its pullout will not lead to a collapse of the government, as the remaining parties in the UPFA would be the single largest grouping in the 225-member House. Moreover, the UNP, which ran a difficult coalition government before it was dismissed, would be a reluctant aspirant. The focus of the UNP is more on the presidential election; it has announced party chief Ranil Wickremasinghe as its candidate.

THE state of flux in Sri Lanka's politics is best represented, ironically, by the JVP's position after it announced its withdrawal. In a strong indication that it will return to governance if its demand was met, Amarasinghe said: "Let us wait to hear from the other side," referring to a possible response from Kumaratunga on the proposed joint mechanism.

To reiterate his point further, the JVP leader said: "There can be an understanding between the two parties in the future also. This is not going to be the first and the last coalition between the JVP and the SLFP."

The JVP's exit marked the end of the second coalition experiment between the SLFP and the JVP.

However, with clear indications of an imminent polarisation on the issue of engaging and involving the LTTE, much of Sri Lanka's politics would be shaped by the ability of the mainstream moderates to take forward the reform and devolution agenda.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor