Politics and peace process

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

After some effort at persuading the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to begin negotiations, the Sri Lankan government now appears to have decided that marginalising the separatists would be a better option.

IN any situation of conflict, it is reasonable to assume that the best way out would be for the warring sides to sit together and thrash out issues of mutual concern. But Sri Lanka seems to be caught in a different sort of bind, in which there is no meet ing ground even for dialogue.

It was no surprise that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) ideologue, Anton Balasingham, in an interview in London to the United Kingdom-based journal Tamil Guardian, rejected the proposed devolution package as falling far short of the aspirations of the Tamil people, which are enshrined in the Thimphu declaration of 1986. That declaration includes the recognition of the Tamil's right to self-determination and the existence of a Tamil nation.

For its part, the Sri Lankan government under President Chandrika Kumaratunga holds the view that any basis for negotiation has to be the devolution package now being discussed by the ruling coalition, the Opposition and the Tamil parties.

Under these circumstances, what can a government, which is fighting to stave off separatist forces and preserve the territorial integrity of the country, do? Should it wait endlessly in the hope that the separatists will change their mind one day, agains t the background of a steadily worsening military and political situation for itself? Or should it attempt to marginalise the separatists?

After some effort at persuading the LTTE to begin negotiations, the government decided that the second option may be the better one. President Kumaratunga said that the LTTE was welcome to participate in the devolution exercise if it gave up its "murdero us" and "terrorist" ways, but Balasingham's statements make it clear that the invitation will not be taken up.

So, where does all this leave the Norwegian initiative to arrange a dialogue between the government and the LTTE? With the imminent dissolution of Parliament and a round of general elections ahead, Kumaratunga is a woman in a tearing hurry, unlike the No rwegians who said that no time could be fixed for results from their peace intitiative. In the 1994 general elections she promised her voters a solution, and that is what she is racing to put on the table before her government faces the electorate again.

Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim made another visit to Sri Lanka at the end of June, but all he could say to the Sri Lankan leaders and officials that he met was that the LTTE would not negotiate until the fate of Jaffna was decided. With the governm ent acting on a definite time-table, the Norwegian peace initiative seems to have become irrelevant, at least for the time being.

Parliament is due to be dissolved on August 24. It is expected that by the end of July the government will table in Parliament a set of constitutional reforms, of which devolution of powers to the minorities forms the crucial chapters. The document is ex pected to be based on consensus between all political parties, especially between the two main Sinhala-dominated groupings, the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.), and the Opposition United National Party (UNP). Consultations between the P.A. and the UNP on the package were due to end on June 30, after which the document was to be presented to the Tamil political parties, but the two parties decided to hold one more meeting, on July 7.

The two sides have reached consensus on the three most contentious issues in the package. The first was over the unit of devolution. In essence, the agreement to establish an interim council to rule the north-east for a specified period, and to hold a re ferendum thereafter on the question of merger, is an agreement to postpone the decision to separate the two provinces.

That is because it is unlikely that conditions to hold a free and fair referendum in north-eastern Sri Lanka will obtain in the foreseeable future. According to the agreement, in the event that a referendum cannot be held at the end of the specified peri od, the north-east will automatically become two provinces. Evidently this is a safeguard for the two minority communities in the Tamil-dominated region: Muslims and the Sinhalese. With almost the entire population of these two communities concentrated i n the east, from their point of view a separate eastern province is more advantageous than one merged with the north.

On the second contentious issue of the nature of the state, the two sides have agreed on a compromise formulation that seeks to preserve Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and yet set forth the idea of federalism. The new formulation runs thus: "Sri Lanka is a free, sovereign and independent republic which shall be known as the Republic of Sri Lanka and in which the sovereign, legislative, executive and judicial powers of the people shall be exercised by the Central Government and the Regions as hereinaf ter provided in the Constitution."

The third contentious issue was that of land, and though this has not been finalised in its entirety, it has been agreed that instead of using the word "vested" to denote control, a less ownership-oriented approach may be used. One formulation that is be ing considered is that "the Centre and Regions will succeed to land in the name of the Republic".

The document taking shape now is different from the 1997 package. All the Tamil parties represented in Parliament are unhappy at what has been described as a "watering down" of the original proposals. But while the more pragmatic Eelam People's Democrati c Party (EPDP) and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamils (PLOT) may eventually go along with it, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) will certainly not. There is a question mark over the st and of the Ceylon Workers' Congress, which is undergoing massive internal upheavals after the death last year of its founding father, S. Thondaman.

Both the TULF and the TELO insist that without the LTTE there can be no solution. The changes in the new document will provide the TULF, which has five seats in Parliament, an excuse to oppose the package. This means that even if the UNP supports the pac kage in Parliament, the government will still be five votes short and will have to scrabble around for the mandatory support of two-thirds of the parliamentarians.

But, according to analysts, the question that should be considered by the TULF and the TELO, more so by the former, is not what the LTTE wants, but what each of them wants. Does it want a solution to its aspirations within a united Sri Lanka? Or does it stand for an independent Eelam because that is what the LTTE wants? The document that is being prepared now may not be the best solution; it may even fall far short of every Tamil aspiration. Given the ground situation, which favours the LTTE, it may eve n be unimplementable in the near future. But what it can do is create space for Sri Lanka's minorities. That is more than what any previous government has tried to do.

No one believes, perhaps not even Kumaratunga, that this is the final solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic problem or that it will bring back peace. But it is definitely a starting point.

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