Conflict within

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's agreements with the JVP and the JHU for their support in the presidential election reiterate the unitary structure of Sri Lanka, which is in sharp contradiction to the SLFP's position of a federal solution to the separatist conflict.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

"Peace cannot be built on exclusion. That has been the price of the past 30 years."

- Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams quoted in the Daily Telegraph, April 11, 1998.

ELECTIONS in Sri Lanka are a time of agony as the bitterly divided polity descends to its murkiest in a competitive assertion of Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. However, since the 1994 presidential election, the public discourse during elections has been largely on a change from the unitary state and centred on the degree of devolution that is necessary. More than a decade later, in the run-up to the December presidential election, the debate seems to have come full circle with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), emphasising the status quo on the country's unitary structure.

In early September, Rajapakse signed poll pacts with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a former partner of the SLFP in the ruling coalition, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the all-Buddhist clergy parliamentary party, that in essence make a commitment on the unitary structure of Sri Lanka. As a result, parties at either end of the political spectrum - the JVP-JHU and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - have begun to direct the agenda during the political campaign.

Interestingly, the reiteration of the unitary structure in the two agreements that Rajapakse signed is in sharp contradiction to his party's position during the last decade, of a federal solution to the separatist conflict. President Chandrika Kumaratunga criticised the pacts and her brother and Foreign Minister, Anura Bandaranaike, who was a presidential aspirant three years ago, termed them a "betrayal" of the SLFP's principles.

By all indications, the pacts foretell an imminent polarisation of emotions into unitarist and non-unitarist. In the event, and given the speculation about a snap parliamentary poll and the fact that the date of the presidential election is yet to be announced, it is an uphill task for Rajapakse to get to the presidency.

Rajapakse's pacts mark a return to the pre-Kumaratunga mode of conflict resolution. If the JVP wants a solution that is within the unitary structure of the island-nation, the JHU goes a couple of more steps back: it rejects the concepts of traditional and historical homelands and rules out self-determination to any group of people in Sri Lanka. While there is a template for the JVP's idea of a solution - administrative decentralisation - in the form of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, there is none for the JHU's prescription. The JVP's insistence on a unitary state would imply a return to the Accord, which, ironically, the JVP, the SLFP and the LTTE opposed bitterly when it was introduced in 1987.

ON September 8, Rajapakse and JVP general secretary Tilvin Silva signed the electoral agreement at Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister. The JVP's 13-point charter includes doing away with the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), which was aimed at sharing international financial assistance with the LTTE; preserving the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state; not granting the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) or "any such political or administrative structure to the LTTE" without a lasting solution; abolishing the Executive Presidency; stopping privatisation of the economic "nerve centres"; and a non-aligned foreign policy.

The two leaders agreed that P-TOMS - on which there is an interim restraint by the Supreme Court - shall not be reactivated, enforced or implemented. However, "a new programme shall be formulated as a priority task" to review the existing programme and "to activate it forthwith through the assistance and intervention of the government".

On talks with the Tigers, the JVP believed that it was necessary to talk "not only with the LTTE, but also with all other relevant parties" to resolve the "national question". It also said that neither an ISGA, an LTTE demand, nor "any such political and administrative structure" would be given without an agreement on a "lasting solution".

The agreement also states that "it is hereby agreed to protect, defend and preserve the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state under any solutions to be presented, formed or formulated" to solve the conflict. Also, it says, the 2002 ceasefire agreement "shall be reviewed and revised fully" and "completely re-done" by "removing and eliminating" clauses that are "prejudicial and harmful" to national security, "foster and nurture separatism", and are "inconsistent" with the Constitution. The JVP believes that Norway, as facilitator, has "shown unprecedented bias and partiality towards the LTTE," and wants the Prime Minister to "reconsider seriously whether Norway should be allowed to engage in those activities further... ."

The agreement says that human rights, democracy and law and order have become "non-existent phenomena" owing to the LTTE's terrorist activities in the north and eastern provinces and would have to be given priority. "Appropriate action" should be taken to ensure multi-party democracy and "to create an atmosphere for the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim peoples to live without any fears and perplexity", it said. The JVP wants the executive presidency to be abolished as an "essential priority task" as, in its view, the post is "most destructive and harmful" to democracy.

On the economic front, the JVP wants an economic policy that will strengthen and promote the national economy with equilibrium. Economic "nerve centres" such as ports, banks, oil and electricity "shall not be privatised" and any action taken so far in these areas would have to be abolished, the party said. JVP leader Somawanse Amarasinghe described his party's support to Rajapakse as "the politically correct decision" and as one taken "to defeat the secret agenda of the separatists".

THE JHU's demands are no different. On September 13, Rajapakse and the JHU leadership exchanged a 12-point pact at the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy, considered the most sacred Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka. Under the agreement, which sources close to the Prime Minister said was signed a week earlier, the unitary character of the state would be protected in any settlement to the separatist crisis.

The agreement says that "historical and traditional boundaries of ethnic groups should not be considered" while introducing new social, economic and political policies and that "self-determination should not be given to any group of people in Sri Lanka". It wants a review of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, leaving no "room for terrorist activities". Any negotiation with the LTTE, it says, should be with a "proper policy and time frame" which provides for preserving the "territorial integrity" of the country, "disarming the LTTE and bringing them to the political mainstream".

The agreement also wants "any flaw" in the P-TOMS to be addressed "as per the existing laws". It calls for a review of the electoral system for a "stable government" with "proper representation of the people" and an amendment of the Constitution to make the President "responsible to Parliament".

The JHU made its electoral debut in 2004 and won nine seats in Parliament riding a wave of Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism. A notable omission in the agreement is any reference to the contentious anti-conversion Bill, which is being pushed by the JHU. The Bill, currently in Parliament, seeks to ban "unethical conversions".

THE Opposition United National Party (UNP), which held six rounds of talks with the LTTE in 2002-03, described the agreements reached by Rajapakse with the JVP and the JHU as those that would "lead to the erosion of the middle ground and alienate the moderate voter". The UNP's spokesperson, G.L. Peiris, told a press conference on September 15 that the party's candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was for the "division of authority, without division of territory". The agreements reached by the Prime Minister, he said, contained "perilous ideas which do not augur well" for Sri Lanka.

Rajapakse's moves are to be viewed against the backdrop of the electoral process and previous voting patterns. For a presidential candidate, the whole of Sri Lanka is a single constituency from which he has to win more than 50 per cent of the votes polled. Two broad issues come into play in the election: the overall ethnic mix of the population (Sinhalese 76.59 per cent, Sri Lankan Tamils 10.96, Muslims 9.18, Tamils of Indian origin 1.16) and the nearly equal share of votes commanded by the two main parties.

Against this backdrop, it is a commonly accepted axiom that the support of the minorities is essential for a presidential candidate to win. This is a reason for the belief that a presidential aspirant could not hold a majoritarian view-point.

That this need not necessarily be the case became clear in the 1999 re-election of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In contrast to her 1994 victory, which was based on an overwhelming 62.28 per cent of the votes across the island, in 1999, she managed to retain the presidency by securing 51.12 per cent of the popular vote and, unlike in 1994, fared badly in the Tamil-majority electoral districts. In the Tamil-majority Batticaloa electoral district, for instance, she polled a mere 34.66 per cent, compared with 87.3 per cent in 1994. Her 1999 victory, hence, was despite the minority Sri Lankan Tamil vote going against her.

The 1999 outcome has one important bearing on the forthcoming poll - that a presidential victor need not necessarily have the complete backing of the Sri Lankan Tamil vote - and this appears to have largely guided Rajapakse's approach to alliance formation.

For instance, in the 2004 snap parliamentary poll, the United People's Freedom Alliance - in which the SLFP and the JVP were the main allies - won 45.60 per cent of the vote. The JHU won 6.84 per cent largely on an emotional wave of Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism. For Rajapakse's campaign managers, this arithmetic is comforting as he would cross the 50 per cent mark.

However, there could be two issues to contend with. At the electoral level, the first is the possibility of a repeat performance of 2004 by these political parties, particularly the SLFP and the JVP, which are weighed down by the incumbency factor. The second, and a largely untested factor, is the effect that the inclusion of the JHU - a Buddhist nationalist party - would have on the Sinhalese but non-Buddhist voters.

The larger implication for Sri Lanka's polity would be that a victory for this line-up runs the risk of being interpreted as a victory for a majoritarian unitary state, thereby excluding its minorities. As public impressions are an important facet of politics, the extent to which the Rajapakse camp effectively balances its alliances with continuity from the past would be an important dynamic that determines the outcome of not just the coming presidential poll but the larger unresolved question of accommodating the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities within a united Sri Lanka.

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