Political power over ethnic identity

Print edition : June 22, 2002

Successive Sri Lankan governments have sought to address the ethnic conflict through the provision of regional autonomy and the armed conflict through ceasefires or military confrontation. They have, however, paid little attention to addressing the political power conflict among the main parties.

THE civil war in Sri Lanka consists of three distinct conflicts. Most observers focus on the ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese, or the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the rebel Tamil Tigers. But they pay scant attention to the political power conflict among the three main forces that currently have a stake in political rule in Sri Lanka - the Tamil Tigers, the United National Party (UNP) and the People's Alliance (P.A.). While the Tiger desire for absolute power in the Tamil areas has kept the war going, the competition for political power between the P.A. and the UNP has prevented the war from ending.

Conflict over power among political parties is a vital element of democracy in any country. It prevents the state from becoming an oligarchy or, worse, a tyranny. While the power conflict between the UNP and the P.A. is good for democracy, it is bad for resolving the ethnic conflict. Ending political competition between the two major political parties is not required for them to work together to resolve the civil war. The political competition for power between the two political parties should be channelled so it does not undermine efforts to end the war. By voting for Chandrika Kumaratunga as President and Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister, the Sri Lankan people have called on the two leaders of the main political parties to do precisely this.

The ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese is commonly considered the hardest to resolve. Most descriptions of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict (or for that matter any ethnic conflict) are variations of the hate-and-greed explanation. These descriptions depict Tamils and Sinhalese as either hating each other, because of conflicting nationalisms, or competing with each other for resources because of greed. Where the nationalism comes from - ancient history, myth, or recent acts of violence - is less relevant than that it exists and manifests itself in mutual hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese. Similarly, where greed comes from - individual interests, group solidarity or nationalist passion - is less important than that it ultimately leads ethnic groups to get into conflict.

While this explanation - that Tamils and Sinhalese are enmeshed in a conflict over ethnic identity and material resources - may have had some relevance in the past, it is becoming less and less plausible today. Most Tamils and Sinhalese desire an end to the war. They have come to realise - whether enthusiastically or reluctantly - that a solution to the conflict will require the Central government dominated by the Sinhalese to share political power with other ethnic groups, particularly the Tamils. Whatever the various solutions proffered, they invariably converge on some form of federalism. Except for some Sinhalese and some Tamils, the majority of the people in Sri Lanka are beginning to accept such a solution. Even those who are critical of federalism are less concerned that it will give more rights to Tamils than they deserve, than that it will enable the Tigers to consolidate their power and establish a separate Tamil authoritarian state.

The proposals presented by President Kumaratunga in July 1995 form an important basis for pursuing a political solution. The proposals, presented after the Tigers violated the ceasefire, go beyond a unitary state. They acknowledge the discrimination that the Tamil people faced at the hands of the Sri Lankan state since Independence and seek to redress it through regional autonomy. The point is that there is no mystery about what the outlines of a political solution to the ethnic conflict will look like. While most academic and journalistic observers continue to focus primarily on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, this is probably the least challenging obstacle to peace today.

Addressing the ethnic conflict is complicated by the armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state. Although the armed conflict is generally viewed as stemming from the ethnic conflict, it is also distinct in character. States claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given territory. So any state will repress those who seek to oppose it by force. It matters little to the state that those who oppose it do so on the basis of democracy, ethnicity or regionalism. And when it comes to suppressing an armed rebellion, it matters little whether the state is capitalist or socialist, authoritarian or democratic. All states have acted with varying degrees of violence and repression in stemming armed rebellions. So also have rebel groups opposing states. There are two ways armed conflicts between states and a rebel group can end - when one side defeats another or when both sides concede that they cannot defeat each other. It is not clear if this has happened in Sri Lanka.

The current ceasefire agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tigers is an attempt to resolve the armed conflict. Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and the Tiger leader signed it. The previous P.A.-led government was involved in drawing up key elements of it, such as the list of items to be lifted from the embargo. The Sri Lankan state has conceded that the cost of defeating the Tigers is one that it does not wish to bear. The Tigers have yet to do so. They are either bluffing, that is, they have admitted it among them but do not wish to do so to others. Or they are simply buying time. Whatever the drawbacks to the ceasefire agreement (and there are many), it is still an attempt at resolving the armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state, without granting either side a decisive military victory.

Addressing the armed conflict is complicated by the political power conflict among the main contenders for political power in Sri Lanka - the ruling UNP led by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, the Opposition P.A. led by President Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers led by their leader V. Prabakaran. There is a distinct power conflict among these three contenders that is derived from competition over the business of rule. The UNP and the P.A. compete over who gets to rule the Sri Lankan state, while the Tigers seek to rule a separate Tamil one.

This competition cannot simply be reduced to varying ideologies of nationalism or competing policies over how to resolve the ethnic conflict or, for that matter, different socio-economic policies. Political parties are built around the express intent of securing political power. They may have different ideological leanings or social bases and therefore wish to carry out different programmes. Still, one of their central goals is to rule, simpliciter, not only ruling in order to do something else. Clearly, all three parties - the UNP, the P.A. and the Tigers - do not contend for power the same way. The P.A. and the UNP do so through more or less democratic means. The Tigers do so through more or less violently anti-democratic means. Yet, an important part of what they all contend for is power.

The position taken by these parties in elections over the past two years helps illustrate the distinction between policy on the ethnic conflict and political alliances to secure power. During the last two parliamentary elections and the most recent presidential elections, the UNP opposed the P.A. government's political proposals for resolving the conflict - saying that it had granted too much autonomy to the Tamils. At the same time, the UNP supported talking to the Tamil Tigers, who were asking for a separate state.

This seemingly contradictory position - opposing Tamil autonomy, but supporting a dialogue with the Tamil extremist Tigers - can be reconciled. The UNP as a political party seeking to run the state was seeking Tiger support to obtain Tamil votes in areas under Tiger domination, while keeping its Sinhala base satisfied. Similarly, the Tigers seeking a separate state were implicitly supporting a political party that sought to dilute measures granting autonomy to Tamil areas. The Tigers expected the UNP to be more conciliatory towards them than the P.A. would be.

The point here is not that the UNP (or Tigers) is opportunistic and the P.A. is not. Nor is it the point that there are no differences of opinion among members of the UNP and the P.A. as a whole about the ethnic conflict. In fact, historically, the P.A. has tended to be more Sinhala nationalist than the UNP. Rather it is that apart from all the claims and counter-claims about the conflict based on ethnicity, there is a competition between the political parties over who gets to rule Sri Lanka that is quite distinct from the ethnic conflict. And this competition adds to the complexity of resolving the civil war. All Sri Lankan governments have sought to, for better or for worse, address the ethnic conflict through regional autonomy and the armed conflict through ceasefires and/or military confrontation. Other than sporadic efforts, they have all paid little if any explicit attention to addressing the political power conflict among the main parties.

THE proposal to set up an interim administration under Tiger control in the Northeast of Sri Lanka is an attempt to address the desire for political power of the Tigers. The UNP-led government hopes to entice the Tigers by granting them de facto rule over the Northeast. Human rights groups are concerned that the Tigers will use the interim administration to violate the rights of people living in the Northeast, engage in ethnic cleansing, and prepare for war. Others argue that an overall political settlement needs to be worked out prior to setting up an interim administration. The interim administration will then become a means to a clear political goal, rather than a halfway house that both parties haggle over until conflict breaks out. Whatever the validity of such criticisms (and they are all valid), the UNP-led government's proposal to set up an interim administration constitutes a pragmatic recognition that the political power conflict with the Tigers is distinct from the ethnic conflict with the Tamils.

Even as it is addressing the political power conflict with the Tigers, the UNP-led government, however, is failing to address the conflict over political power with the P.A. The political power conflict between the P.A. and the UNP is harder to resolve (though not bloodier) than that between the either one of them and the Tigers. This is because, even in the worst case where the Tigers control the Northeast or even establish a separate state, the P.A. or the UNP can still rule from Colombo. However, if either the P.A. or the UNP controls all political power in Colombo, the other party is automatically excluded. Thus the P.A. and the UNP are more reluctant to share power with each other than with the Tigers, although they are both ideologically closer to each other than each is to the Tigers.

Recent efforts by the UNP to weaken the constitutional authority of President Kumaratunga are an example of this unwillingness to share power at the Centre. The UNP is rushing through amendments to the Constitution that will prevent the President from dissolving Parliament. The President of Sri Lanka wields the power to dissolve Parliament a year after it is elected under the present semi-presidential system. When the President and the Prime Minister are from the same party, this power does not differ significantly from that of the latter under the parliamentary system. However, when they are from different parties, these powers provide a critical source of authority for a President without a parliamentary majority. With the threat of dissolution hanging over the government, a President can cajole the ruling party to act in ways that take the interests of the Opposition into consideration.

The political rationale presented by the UNP for amending the Constitution to limit the President's powers is to prevent her from jeopardising the peace process by dissolving Parliament. But as Sri Lankan political columnist Tissaranee Gunesekere has astutely observed, this amendment is either unnecessary or counterproductive. It is unnecessary if the peace process is working, that is, there is no resumption of war and the negotiations are proceeding steadily. In such circumstances, even if President Kumaratunga were to dissolve Parliament, the UNP is likely to come back to power with a greater majority, not a lesser one. On the other hand, if the peace process collapses, this amendment is not going to protect the UNP from a serious political setback that may even cost them their majority in Parliament.

The efforts to weaken the constitutional authority of the President are counterproductive in yet another way. They jeopardise rather than strengthen the peace process. By aggravating tensions between the P.A. and the UNP further, they reduce any incentive on the part of the P.A. led by the President to support the peace efforts of the Prime Minister. And if these tensions continue after the collapse of the peace process, they will weaken the Centre's capacity to defend itself from a Tiger onslaught.

There is a great deal of common ground in the approach of the two political parties to addressing the civil war. Both argue that a political solution to the ethnic conflict will require regional autonomy in predominantly Tamil areas. Both parties hope that negotiating with the Tigers through Norwegian facilitation might lead to a reduction in the armed conflict. Still, they emphasise slightly different approaches. The President has argued in favour of a political solution to the ethnic conflict throughout her career as a political activist and leader of the country. She presented the most extensive devolution package ever drafted by a Sri Lankan government. She has consistently acknowledged the grievances of the Tamil people and has sought to mobilise support for political devolution at a moment when it was hardest to do so - in the midst of war. The President, who called for "maximum devolution" to the Tamil people in her policy statement to Parliament at the beginning of the previous peace process, has gone much further than the Prime Minister who calls for "extensive devolution". The President has both the political courage and the charisma to provide leadership to the country in devising a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Through the ceasefire agreement the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he has the confidence to take a number of risky steps to reduce the armed conflict. While he may never have been associated with previous calls for a negotiated settlement, he has also never obstructed efforts to do so. When President Kumaratunga presented wide-ranging devolution proposals in July 1995, then Opposition leader Wickremasinghe criticised it in Parliament, but he did not oppose it outside. He made an important break with the Sri Lankan tradition of the Opposition always mobilising Sinhala nationalists against any political concessions made to the Tamils by the government. More recently, he supported President Kumaratunga when she initiated indirect talks with the Tiger through Norwegian facilitation. In the past few months he has worked hard to diffuse opposition to the peace process with the Tigers. The Prime Minister has shown that he has the skills and the patience to negotiate an end to the armed conflict with the Tigers.

THERE is a natural division of political labour between the two main political parties in Sri Lanka that can help the country wend its way towards peace. Sri Lankans can encourage the two parties to compete with each other for power by pursuing two parallel but complementary aspects of a peace process - addressing the armed conflict and the ethnic conflict - rather than obstructing each other's effort to do so. If the political moment is ripe and the proper political incentives are created, this collaboration can be institutionalised in a bipartisan negotiating council as peace negotiations proceed.

The negotiating council can be co-chaired by the President and the Prime Minister, who together can appoint its members. The negotiating council ought to have two subcommittees - one to deal with the armed conflict and the other with the ethnic conflict. The Prime Minister can chair the subcommittee that deals with the armed conflict, an area where he has already made some headway. The President can chair the subcommittee that deals with the ethnic conflict, an area where she has been more forthcoming. The role of this committee will be to advice and guide the negotiating team representing the Sri Lankan government. Ultimately, who has more influence in shaping the peace process will depend on the relative power of the two political parties among the people. While there is no assurance that the negotiating council will ensure that the two political parties cooperate with each other, it can provide an institutional framework that will enable the two major political parties to collaborate better in negotiating an end to the war.

Clearly none of this will guarantee that the peace process will succeed, particularly if the Tigers believe they have more to gain by going to war than working towards peace. Peace processes rarely succeed, even when both parties negotiate in good faith. When one party has consistently demonstrated nothing but bad faith, it is even less likely to do so. To counter the possibility of failure, the best that the President and the Prime Minister can do is make preparations for war together, just as they ought to make preparations for peace together.

If there is unity in peace, there is likely to be unity in war. However, disunity in peace, will invariably lead to disunity in war.

In the past few years, rhetoric aside, the P.A. and the UNP have come a remarkably long way towards a common position on resolving the two central conflicts that plague Sri Lanka - the ethnic conflict and the armed conflict. The people of Sri Lanka by voting for two political parties to rule them together have called on their leaders to set aside partisan differences that obstruct the peace process. Both parties must come to realise that an end to the civil war will ultimately benefit them both. Because whichever political party wins the competition to rule Sri Lanka, it will still have to deal with the ethnic conflict, on the one hand, and the armed rebellion of the Tigers, on the other.

Ram Manikkalingam is a Fellow of the Open Society Institute and an Assistant Director at the Rockefeller Foundation, based in New York. This article expresses his personal views and not those of either of the institutions.

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