An uncertain future

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST

Lasting peace in Sri Lanka depends on two factors: a consensus between the two major parties and a realisation by the LTTE of the futility of pursuing the goal of Eelam and the need for negotiated peace.


AN uncertain political future awaits Sri Lanka as the island-nation enters the 21st century. The years of political violence that the country experienced, particularly in the last quarter of the 20th century, have created an overwhelming desire for peace among its long-suffering people. But unless there is a constructive transformation of attitude and approach between the major protagonists of this seemingly unending tragic drama, durable peace will remain elusive.

Recent developments have demonstrated that the parties who can play a crucial role in resolving the national question are the People's Alliance (P.A.) government, the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and the powerful Tamil force, the Liberation Tig ers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Of course, other elements also are embroiled in the crisis; there are the Tamil and Muslim parties on one end of the spectrum and the hardline Sinhala lobby, including sections of the Buddhist clergy, on the other. As far as re alpolitik is concerned, they are still of less importance, except when the major players exaggerate their importance or utilise them as manipulative instruments.

There is also the country's military. In the absence of any tangible interest in politics shown by the top brass, the possibility of active military intervention seems remote at least for now. As such, a brief examination of the strategic options availab le to this "trinity", within the context of the recently concluded election, assumes importance.

The implications of the ethnic factor were evident from the outcome of the election. Although several issues were debated in the run-up to the election, the one that undoubtedly dominated the campaign of the two front-runners, Chandrika Kumaratunga and R anil Wickremasinghe, was the resolution of the ethnic crisis. It could be well stated that the election itself was in fact fought on a single issue. It is against this backdrop that the result and the possible options based on the verdict have to be asse ssed.

Kumaratunga obtained 4,312,157, or 51.12 per cent, of the votes cast in defeating Wickremasinghe, whose tally was 3,602,748 votes or 42.7 per cent of the vote share. In 1994 she won 62.8 per cent of the votes. On the other hand, the UNP, which got 35.4 p er cent in 1994, has improved its tally.

Ironically, the clincher in Kumaratunga's favour seems to have been the sympathy wave generated by the LTTE's botched attempt on her life. Earlier, certain acts of commission and omission by the Tigers pointed to an LTTE-engineered victory, albeit with a slim margin, for Wickremasinghe. The assassination attempt may have caused a perceptible shift in the voting pattern. Although Kumaratunga's courage is laudable and her victory commendable, there are valid apprehensions about the specific objective, the qualitative nature and the quantitative credibility of the mandate.

As for its quantitative credibility, the question that arises is whether the victory achieved is a legitimate one. Were the votes procured through free and fair means or were they garnered through electoral fraud and malpractice? Lord Meghnath Desai and former Indian Election Commissioner, G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, have given a clean chit, saying that the election was by and large fair. They participated in the exercise as observers. It is implicit that although the electoral process may have been found wan ting by the more exacting Western standards, it was quite credible in the South Asian context, where a little bit of "fraudulence" is inevitable.

The Colombo-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), however, stated that the election was "marred by serious violations, systematic impersonation, ballot-stuffing, violence against and intimidation o f voters, officials and monitors alike, and abuse of state machinery and resources in a significant number of polling centres throughout the country." It is of the view that "the result has been irredeemably compromised in 59 of the country's 160 elector al divisions. Of these, 35 were in the seven Sinhala-dominated provinces in the South. The other 24 were in the Tamil-majority Northeastern Province, where the CMEV had recommended that "the entire election be nullified". It alleges that "the minimum gro und conditions to ensure a free and fair vote were unavailable" and that "a fresh occasion be provided to the people in these areas to exercise their sovereign right to vote." According to the CMEV, the election was a less-than-satisfactory democratic ex ercise for over a third of the country, which rendered the final outcome unacceptable.

At a press conference after the election, Wickremasinghe agreed to the view that the reason for his defeat was poll violations. He downplayed the sympathy factor in favour of Kumaratunga. However, while there is no denying the fact that there were "infri ngements of the franchise", the UNP would be deluding itself if is ascribes its defeat to that factor alone. It would be erring if it thinks that the sympathy vote was its nemesis. It seems the ground reality was that Kumaratunga would have edged out Wic kremasinghe in the seven southern provinces with or without the alleged electoral malpractices or the sympathy wave, which may have helped enhance her majority. Likewise, the tense situation that prevailed after the assassination attempt may have restrai ned Tamil voters from going to the polls. In the final analysis, these factors contributed to her margin of victory but did not cause her victory.

A straw in the wind is the outcome of postal voting. Postal voting was done by people who were unable to vote in their own constituencies, and they cast their votes long before the so-called sympathy wave came and in conditions that were not conducive to vote-tampering. The overall trend shown by the postal vote was that Kumaratunga had an edge over Wickremasinghe. Also, it would be incorrect to assume that the entire majority gained by her was owing to fraud. Even if the theory of acquisition of votes through fraud is accepted, the number of votes thus acquired would not have been enough to reverse the verdict in favour of the UNP, although the margin of Kumaratunga's victory would have been reduced. Thus, the legitimacy and credibility of Kumaratunga 's mandate in quantitative terms may be somewhat eroded but not negated.

Then comes the qualitative nature of the mandate. There is clearly an urban-rural dichotomy. The UNP seems to have done well in urban areas while the P.A. has fared well in rural areas. More important, there is also a visible majority-minority divide in terms of ethnicity. While both parties have drawn votes from all sections, the UNP appears to have gained more from the minorities, particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils.

THE UNP won more votes in the Tamil-majority districts of Vanni, Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the Northeast. In Jaffna, where allegations of rigging were abundant, it was beaten narrowly. The UNP also came first in the upcountry districts of Badulla and Nuwara Eliya, where Tamils of recent Indian origin are concentrated. It fared creditably also in Kandy, Matale and Ratnapura districts. The UNP swept all the electoral divisions in its citadel, Colombo, where a substantial number of Tamils and Muslims l ive. In Amparai district, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress helped tilt to some extent the Muslim vote in favour of the P.A. Although there is a visible ethnic cleavage in the voting pattern, it would not be correct to perceive an extreme polarisation in te rms of ethnicity. With minority parties such as the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Muslim Congress supporting Kumaratunga, a reasonably large number of minority votes were harvested by her.

According to a preliminary estimate, the UNP secured a greater part of votes of Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of recent Indian origin, and Muslims, with the proportion in each segment decreasing in the same order. In a sense, the decline in Kumaratunga's vot e share, compared to that in 1994 can be attributed to the drop in minority votes for her, while the improved performance of the UNP is because of the accretion of minority votes to that party. The salient feature of the election is the that Kumaratunga has become alienated from a majority of minority voters. Her mandate this time is more from "Sinhala" voters while Wickremasinghe's standing with the minorities, notably the Tamils, has increased enormously.

THE voting pattern raises vital concerns about the real or perceived objectives of the mandate. There is some ambiguity here. The primary platform of both candidates was the resolution of the ethnic crisis. The difference was how they proposed to achieve it.

Wickremasinghe argued for a resumption of talks with the LTTE through the good offices of a third-party mediator. He also suggested a de-escalation of the war and the setting up of an interim administration for the Northeast. Wickremasinghe promised the restoration of food and medical supplies to Tamil areas, the removal of restrictions on fishing, agriculture and transport, and the ending of the harassment of Tamil civilians by way of searches, arrests and detentions. While he had no specific blueprint for the extension of devolution, he was willing to concede that the highlight of his appeal to the Tamils was his promise to alleviate the problems faced by the people and to hold talks with the Tigers. This, in contrast to the "pie in the sky" promise of Kumaratunga's devolution package, projected a "here and now" approach. Besides, Wickremasinghe also catered to the general Tamil perception that durable peace would be possible only through the cooperation or co-option of the LTTE.

Kumaratunga was not as consistent as Wickremasinghe mainly because events overtook her. Her avowed rationale for advancing the date of the presidential election was that she wanted a strong mandate to push through her proposals, which she projected as th e only solid basis for a political settlement. Her campaign relied greatly on her ability to convince the Sinhala voter that her "war for peace" was succeeding against the LTTE. The carrot for the Tamils was the devolution package. She also paid lip-serv ice to the idea of talking to the Tigers. Kumaratunga hoped that all credit accruing to her regime from perceived victory over the Tigers on the battlefront could be translated into votes. Unfortunately for her, the success of the LTTE's military operati on, Ceaseless Waves III, changed the situation and nullified that line of campaign.

She then changed tactics and began to accuse Wickremasinghe of selling out the country to the LTTE. She interpreted Wickremasinghe's proposal for talks and promise of an interim administration as an appeasement of the Tigers. The implicit undercurrents o f her campaign became an emphasis on continuing the war as opposed to Wickremasinghe's war. This made her staunch ally, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), adopt a neutral position.

The Sinhala hawks, however, recognised the turn of Kumaratunga's campaign and began extending her support. Some of the leaders in the UNP who took hardline pro-Sinhala positions crossed over to her side. Such elements from other groups too started climbi ng on to her bandwagon. Although Kumaratunga herself never abandoned her progressive stance, the fact that she accommodated these Sinhala hardliners in her camp affected her credibility as a genuinely non-racist Sinhala leader.

As a result, it remains unclear as to what the primary objective of her mandate is. The Sinhala hardliners claim credit for her victory and are urging her to prosecute the war without resorting to negotiations. The experience of surviving an assassinatio n attempt at the hands of the LTTE is seen as a further reason for her to adopt a hard line. On the other hand, moderate and saner counsel within the P.A. and minority opinion urge a softer approach.

Kumaratunga herself has been adding to the confusion by sending mixed signals through her public pronouncements, which are both contradictory and ambiguous. It will be, however, her future deeds rather than her current words that will indicate what she c onsiders the objective of her mandate to be. Even that prospect is not a very definite indicator given the past experience where the sweeping mandate for peace in 1994 ultimately led to the most savage phase of the war.

UNDER these circumstances, the big question is what Kumaratunga proposes to do regarding the resolution of the ethnic crisis. But more important is the state of her health. The courageous woman that she is, Kumaratunga returned to the country on December 30 from London and resumed work. By her own admission to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), she seems to have lost vision in her right eye. There is also the nagging question about the extent to which sight in her other eye is impaired. What wo rries the nation is whether this daughter of destiny will be able to discharge her duties efficiently and effectively in the days to come.

If one assumes that Kumaratunga will be able to function without much difficulty, it would be pertinent to assess the available options. This would, in essence, mean how she proposes to deal with the UNP and the LTTE, and what she proposes to do about th e parliamentary elections. In her acceptance speech during the swearing-in ceremony, she invited Wickremasinghe to cooperate with the government in resolving the problem. In her interview to the BBC, Kumaratunga said that she was prepared to talk to LTTE leader V. Prabakaran. Both these statements are illustrative of her statesmanship. However, concrete action on the ground is necessary to pursue these goals. Certain vital decisions have to be taken.

First and foremost is to decide the future of her devolution package. Is she prepared to go through with her original intentions? Or will she abandon or dilute them further to satisfy Sinhala hardliners? If she wants to go ahead with them, she has four o ptions. One is to call early parliamentary elections and seek a mandate to convert the new Parliament into a Constitutent Assembly. This will enable her to get the new draft Constitution passed with a simple majority if winning a two-thirds majority is n ot possible. Even then, a nationwide referendum will be necessary to ratify it.

The second option is to hold a non-binding, consultative referendum on the Constitution. If she wins a convincing vote, then that verdict could be used to put moral pressure on the Opposition parties, chiefly the UNP, to endorse it in Parliament. And the n she could hold the binding referendum. The third would be to encourage further defections from the UNP, gain a two-thirds majority in Parliament and pass the Constitution. Again this would entail a referendum. A fourth option is to present the proposal s in Parliament, dissolve the House immediately, and go in for elections with the proposals as the manifesto.

The problem in all these is the necessity to face a referendum and the changed nature of Kumaratunga's support base. Unlike in 1994, when she had a 63 per cent mandate which cut across racial and religious lines, her current mandate is obtained by and la rge from Sinhala electorate consisting of hardline elements, who are at worst opposed to devolution and at best lukewarm about it. As such, the possibility of winning in a nationwide referendum, even if the parliamentary hurdle is cleared, is remote. Als o, the result shows that the UNP is not a spent force; confronting it head on is a recipe for disaster. There is also the LTTE. The Tigers are suspicious of the devolution scheme and will do everything possible to scuttle the referendum. Therefore, the d anger of massive violence resulting in communal strife is real. Incidentally, the fact that Tamils voted in large numbers for the UNP denotes that the devolution package does not get priority in their scheme of things.

WHAT seems more possible and workable is for Kumaratunga to follow up her invitation to Wickremasinghe and cultivate him more seriously. Instead of trying to break up the UNP, it would be better for her to arrive at a bipartisan consensus on the ethnic i ssue. A framework for this is already available in the form of the agreement signed by Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe consequent to the initiative by former British Deputy Minister Liam Fox. It would be more realistic for Kumaratunga to approach the LTTE in association with the UNP and through the good offices of a third-party mediator as envisaged in the agreement. The draft Constitution package can be a basis for negotiations, instead of it being presented as a fait accompli to the LTTE.

But to rely on talks aimed at a lasting settlement as the only means to resolve the crisis would be a grave error as past experience has shown. With the wisdom of hindsight it can be said that Kumaratunga's biggest blunder was to hope for the passage of the devolution proposals while pursuing the war. This created an impression that the package was being projected to deceive world opinion while the military option was pursued relentlessly. More important, Kumaratunga failed to alleviate the sufferings o f the Tamil people as a result of the war. The basic problems of the Tamils were neglected; rehabilitation and development was going on at a snail's pace. Kumaratunga's one-point agenda of constitutional reform as a panacea for the ethnic crisis was unwo rkable and detrimental to her politically, as she discovered too late.

Therefore, past mistakes should not be repeated. Kumaratunga can and should seek ways and means of bettering the plight of the minorities in general and the Tamils in particular while trying to negotiate with the LTTE. In this regard, it would be imperat ive for her to revive the defunct Northeastern Provincial Council. As a first step, the interim administrative council for it can be appointed and development work initiated. In course of time, the concurrent list of functions could be discarded and devo lution enhanced as per the terms of the joint accord reached by the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) during the Select Committee sittings chaired by Mangala Moonesinghe, the Sri Lankan envoy to India.

Kumaratunga could also appropriate the proposals made by Wickremasinghe during the election campaign and take unilateral initiatives. She could re-establish her credentials among the aggrieved Tamils before asking them, as she is doing now, to rethink on their support to the LTTE and bring the Tigers to the negotiating table. It is quite obvious that the harsh and inhuman restrictions imposed on the Tamil people have in no way affected the LTTE. It has only served to increase the number of LTTE recruits . It would be better for Kumaratunga to remove some of the harsh measures and improve the living conditions of the Tamils. Tamil should be made an official language, in accordance with the Constitution. In order to contain a Sinhala extremist backlash, s he could co-opt Wickremasinghe in this course of action and present it as a joint effort.

AS for the UNP leadership, there is every chance that it would be amenable to the P.A's overtures, simply as a device to prevent defections. Collaborating with the government and arriving at a workable relationship with it would be preferable to a furthe r fragmentation of the party. The old guard in particular may opt to associate with the P.A. rather than languish in Opposition. A bipartisan consensus that may lead to a national government in the future could be worked out. If necessary, both the P.A. and the UNP could go to the people together and seek an extension of the term of Parliament through a referendum until the new Constitution is in place.

Even if the P.A. and the UNP forge a consensus and proceed sincerely towards ethnic rapprochement, there is the LTTE. The Tigers are sitting pretty right now. The overseas supporters of the LTTE are hallucinating that Tamil Eelam is just around the corne r. Although the military situation on the ground seems very much in favour of the LTTE, it would be myopic to assume that this military balance will continue for long.

Another point overlooked by LTTE supporters is the geopolitical implications. Even if the security forces are defeated, the emergence of a Tamil Eelam will not be encouraged by international forces or the powers that be. Again, on a hypothetical basis, i f these obstacles are overcome, the fledgling state will always be a garrison state fighting real and imaginary enemies.

If the LTTE hierarchy realises this and decides to make a break with that very real emotional attachment to Eelam, it would be most welcome from the beleaguered Tamil perspective. While the Tigers may have the strength and stamina to continue the struggl e, the ordinary people have reached breaking point. The displacement of Tamil people from the Northeast and their migration from Sri Lanka continue to diminish the Tamil presence in the island. Tamils have become refugees in their own nation. Their econo my, social fabric and culture are a shambles. The only way to arrest this deterioration is to seek a negotiated peace. If the LTTE genuinely opts for negotiations, there is every chance that a worthwhile agreement, short of separation, could evolve.

It remains to be seen whether the new millennium would usher in a change in the political mood where the P.A. and the UNP forge a consensus and enter into talks with the LTTE, who will also abandon, hopefully, the military option and the demand for seces sion and opt for a just and honourable negotiated peace. But "hope", however, "springs eternal".

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