Angst of an island

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

In this year of elections, Sri Lanka can ill-afford a continuance of the stalemate on the political and conflict-resolution fronts that marked the year 2003.

in Colombo

SRI LANKA today is an island-nation that is adrift. Having made a tricky transition from war to peace in the year 2003, it now finds itself delicately poised on the political front. With no signs of an early resolution of the impasse between its two important leaders, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the more tangible moves towards consolidating the gains of the island's longest spell of non-fighting in recent times, which would have paved the way for positive peace, are yet to come. For its part, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has dug itself further into a seemingly silent mode, but without bidding goodbye to arms or to its separatist goals.

The year 2003 saw the culmination of one phase of the uncertainties that prevail on the two important and inter-related issues in Sri Lanka's traumatic post-Independence history - the ethnic conflict and the bitter power struggle between the two main political parties. The early signs that the peace process was wavering emerged during the talks in Thailand in January 2003; the announcement of the actual stalling of talks came on April 21, with the LTTE unilaterally pulling out of the negotiations. Optimism about the revival of talks was rekindled when the LTTE submitted, on October 31, its first blueprint for a solution to the separatist conflict - its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the North-East - to the Government of Sri Lanka.

A few days later came the island's biggest political development of the year. On November 4, President Kumaratunga constitutionally took over three Ministries - Defence, Interior and Mass Communication - triggering a chain reaction that laid bare the political inadequacies of the Sri Lankan state. It also formally put the peace process on hold, with the Norwegian facilitators of the peace process saying that they would not be able to carry on with their role unless there was "political clarity" in Sri Lanka.

As Sri Lanka enters the year 2004, mutual distrust and a marked reluctance to move away from entrenched positions remain the major undercurrents of its politics. With the political calendar for the year already dotted with elections to the Provincial Councils, there is not much hope that there will be a clear move away from the past. On the contrary, going by early indications, a hardening of postures is in the offing.

The distrust between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE continues to manifest itself in several forms, the most evident being the categorical assertion by the Tigers that they would not lay down arms or give up the separatist goal, even while expressing a willingness to negotiate a solution within "a united Sri Lanka".

The internationalisation of the conflict resolution process by the Wickremesinghe administration has, nonetheless, had a significant impact on the latest peace process. Seeing in it an opportunity to gain international legitimacy and perhaps to take the situation back to the early 1980s when the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups struck a sympathetic chord outside the island, the ever-belligerent Tigers held themselves back on several occasions. Tactical in everything that it does, the LTTE restrained itself from pulling the trigger with the sole motive of winning international legitimacy and support. During a particular phase when the peace process went through an ominous patch, the LTTE's frontline leadership breathed fire and made strong pronouncements from public platforms that the organisation was ready to meet any aggressor and that the Sri Lankan state, particularly its armed forces, was provoking it. The situation on the seas turned volatile when the Sri Lanka Navy sunk an LTTE vessel in the island's eastern waters, and another, carrying an anti-aircraft gun, in the island's northern territorial waters. The rebels' sea wing has been itching to retaliate, but the internationalisation of the conflict is perhaps the only factor that holds it back.

The mutual distrust between the ruling United National Front (UNF) and the Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) manifested itself in several forms last year. The threat of the President, who is also the leader of the SLFP, dissolving Parliament hung over the UNF, which commands a majority in the House. The November 4 action of the President made it evident that Wickremesinghe's continuation of the peace process would require the consent of the President. It also made it clear that when it came to decision-making, it was Kumaratunga, the Executive President, who had the final say.

The President's move was criticised by the UNF as power-grabbing. This resulted in a crisis, with a fresh round of sharp political exchanges. Wickremesinghe took the position that he would not go ahead with the peace process without "effective control" over it, while the President maintained that she was within her constitutional rights to take over the three Ministries. As of now, there seems to be no end to the standoff.

FIVE years ago, when the island's Provinces went to the polls, a fierce battle was raging between the LTTE and the government forces. The election campaign then centred on a political settlement to the ethnic crisis. In the impending round of Provincial Council elections, various themes are set to dominate the political agenda - the handling of the peace process, cost of living, employment and, above all, the promises offered to solve the separatist conflict. The two main political parties will concentrate on how they propose to handle the situation, if elected to power. Three topics are likely to engage keen public attention - the political fallout of the President's November 4 move; the Prime Minister's handling of the peace process; and the overall record of the UNF administration. There is a possibility that the President will call for general elections, particularly if the Provincial Council elections produce results in the SLFP's favour.

With the political discourse likely to get more shrill in the coming days, there is the worry that it may lead to the re-emergence of hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide. The line-up for the Provincial Council elections, the churning within the island's Tamil politics, and the positions taken by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the hardline Sinhalese Buddhists as 2003 came to a close, do not bode well for the nation's politics. The talk of a coming together of the SLFP and the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the backing given by the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to the UNF administration, the unresolved angst of the SLMC in being denied the status of a separate delegation at the peace talks, and the strident calls from sections within the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that the LTTE must be accepted as the sole representatives of the Tamil people provide the political backdrop for the elections.

Beyond politics, a crucial factor would be the state of the economy, particularly the cost of living and the employment level. One section of the SLFP, led by Mahinda Rajapakse, the Leader of the Opposition, is criticising the UNF's handling of the economy while maintaining a studied silence on the Prime Minister's handling of the peace process. This line of criticism is more likely to strike a chord with the voters. The main point in favour of the UNF is the long spell of ceasefire.

The choices before the electorate are limited. The re-emergence of hardliners and the continued impasse on the peace process constitute a none-too-comfortable situation. With the Tigers not choosing the federalist option while furthering their instruments of state power in rebel-held northern Sri Lanka, the island can ill-afford a prolonged stalemate on the political and conflict-resolution fronts.

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