Charting a course

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

The three-day meeting of the LTTE in Paris with legal experts from the Tamil diaspora to chalk out its response to the Sri Lankan government's offer of a Provisional Administrative Structure is seen as an indication that the Tigers are preparing for a long `constitutional' confrontation.

in Colombo

A YEAR ago, when the latest peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started, the chief negotiator of the rebels, Anton S. Balasingham, spelt out the main purpose of the talks: to gain recognition and legitimacy for the LTTE's existing `permanent administration'.

Twelve months later, after the negotiations had remained stalled for months, the LTTE took another step towards reaching that end when its leaders met in Paris between August 23 and 26 to prepare its "counter-proposals". Keeping the Sri Lankan government and the international community guessing, the Tigers consulted, behind closed doors, legal and constitutional experts from the Tamil diaspora on the contents of the rebel response to the government's July 17 offer of a Provisional Administrative Structure. A notable absentee at the meeting was Balasingham, but the purpose was, as outlined by the chief negotiator in Thailand last September, to press the case for constitutional recognition for its already existing trappings of state.

The LTTE did not disclose the details of the Paris meeting, but a statement issued after the three-day conclave described it as "positive and innovative".

According to indications available, the LTTE is to move towards a federative model, demand for the Northeastern Province its Tiger-insignia flag, and insist on retaining its existing de facto powers at the ground level in rebel-held regions of Sri Lanka's north and east. These include its `judiciary', `police', and `revenue' systems. The expectations are that the LTTE will come up with a maximalist position to counter the government's `minimalist' offer made in July.

The LTTE's counter-proposals are believed to be reflective of the decades-long positions taken by the Tigers. They are, according to informed sources, likely to be evolved from the Thimphu principles with, possibly, more legal substance added.

The LTTE would only say that it would be firm on the positions. If the organisation, which has for decades placed the onus of presenting a framework for a solution to the separatist crisis on successive national governments, does indeed present clear details of what it expects, that would be a change from the past.

"The LTTE will perhaps put forward its negotiation option - a maximalist framework for a political settlement. The government's Interim Administration proposals have been worked out within a minimalist framework, while the LTTE is likely to come up with a maximalist framework for political settlement," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, Professor of Political Science, University of Colombo.

The manner in which the LTTE has set about to prepare its counter-proposals - holding "internal legal consultations" in Paris, with another one scheduled in Ireland shortly - also reflects its renewed attempt to work on securing international recognition and legitimacy. For the rebel group, which is more likely to stick it out for decades rather than hasten into what it feels would be a compromising deal, the `Paris proposals' would be an addition to its terminology to which the `Thimphu principles' has gained a permanent slot. The move towards holding talks in European destinations, political observers feel, also reflects the LTTE's way of redefining the international community's involvement and keeping away from countries such as the United States and Japan.

The long continuity of the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist position, as outlined in the Vadukottai Resolution, is expected to be the core concept of the LTTE's latest positioning - Tamils as a separate nation. "The LTTE's proposals," Uyangoda feels, "have the potential to be quite far-reaching and radical in constitutional law. They would aim at reconstituting the Sri Lankan state and would amount to the Tamil nationalist perspectives on how to reconstitute the post-conflict state." Conceptually, they are likely to reflect the "two nations, one state" framework, with the LTTE retaining the option to secede as a "last resort" if a final solution is not reached. The broad contours of the proposals are also likely to be based on the concept of "a distinct community" with an "asymmetrical power-sharing" model - something which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself advocated a few years ago.

The larger challenges that are bound to arise from the LTTE's counter-proposals are on both emotional and practical fronts. In a nation that sees any move away from a unitary system as separation, the LTTE's positions are most likely to be met with anger. The Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), for instance, recently took out a 116-km-long march from Galle to Colombo, to make the point that "federalism is not the solution" to the island's political crisis.

On the practical front, a bitter political divide between the island's two main parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party (UNP) headed by Wickremesinghe adds to the sense of scepticism.

Amending the island's unitary Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament - a position that no single party can reach under the prevailing proportional representation system. This would have to be followed by approval in a referendum. The LTTE has demanded that a solution be given to it "outside the Constitution". According to informed sources, the Tigers are also building up a case for invoking the "doctrine of necessity", under which an existing Constitution can be changed.

Against this political backdrop, the LTTE's expected proposals "have the potential to open up an extremely interesting political debate in Sri Lanka on how to reorganise the constitutional foundations of the state", Uyangoda said.

THE LTTE's team, led by its political wing leader S.P. Tamilchelvan, which held the discussions in Paris, returned to Sri Lanka on September 4. After meeting the LTTE supremo, V. Prabakaran, the team is likely to go to Ireland to hold another round of "consultations", this time with foreign constitutional experts on the counter-proposals before sending them over to the government.

An important aspect of the Paris meeting was the emergence of Tamilchelvan as the leader of the team. For the first time in the decades of internationalisation of the conflict by the LTTE, Balasingham is not in the spotlight. The exact circumstances surrounding Balasingham's present low-key role is not yet clear. However, given the importance that the Tigers give to the international community, a return of the group's ideologue cannot be ruled out.

According to indications, with the LTTE digging itself in for a long and firm constitutional confrontation, it does not want to be seen as making any more compromises than those already made in Oslo last December, when it agreed to "explore federal models for a solution within a united Sri Lanka according to the principles of internal self-determination". After decades of conceptualisation, the LTTE, it appears, is now headed towards a phase where it could come up with a set of proposals.

Even as the Sri Lankan conflict resolution process changes track from the battlefield to the boardroom, with portents of a phase of political and constitutional manoeuvres, a final farewell to arms remains a distant prospect for the island-nation, which is currently going through its longest spell of non-fighting in two decades.

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