President Rajapakse’s visit to India reveals reality

By Jehan Perera

One of the more important features of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s
recent visit to India was that it revealed the parameters within which India
is prepared to help Sri Lanka resolve its ethnic conflict. India urged the
President to work out a political solution that was acceptable to all
communities. This means that the solution should not be one that only
resonates with one or two communities, while leaving out another. India
also specified that the political solution should be within an undivided Sri
Lanka. It is significant that the joint statement issued at the end of the
President’s visit by both the Indian and Sri Lankan sides did not call for a
political solution within a unitary state, although this is what President
Rajapakse has been advocating constantly.

The problem with the unitary state, which India is alive to, is that it has lost
its ability to convince the Tamil people that they will be able to enjoy the
right of self government in the north east within its essentially centralizing
framework. After his election, President Rajapakse has been repeatedly
affirming that he is for maximum devolution, but within the unitary state. In
other countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, South Africa and
Indonesia, the unitary state has been stretched by liberal-minded
politicians and judges to be the practical equivalent of federalism.
However, any student of Sri Lanka’s post independence history would
know that the unitary state in Sri Lanka provides little scope for maximum
devolution.

Unfortunately, therefore, these international examples are not relevant to
Sri Lanka. The unitary state in Sri Lanka, as it has been interpreted by its
politicians and judges, has been incapable of flexibility. India experienced
this difficulty in Sri Lanka, when it attempted to make the Indo Lanka
Peace Accord of 1987 the solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. But the
devolved powers that were intended for the north east and other
provinces were never devolved in the manner that was anticipated. The
politicians and the judiciary were able to ensure that only a watered down
system of power sharing was made available to the provinces. Police
powers, for instance, were never devolved, and educational powers were
taken back by devices such as the national schools.

The inability of the unitary state in Sri Lanka to devolve powers was once
again brought to the fore on the issue of the P-TOMS joint mechanism for
tsunami recovery last year. Even this humanitarian measure, which was
limited to two kilometers from the sea coast, and with only administrative
powers, was deemed to possibly violate the constitution of the unitary
state. Resettlement and rehabilitation of tsunami-affected people ought to
be a most urgent need. But the unitary state system has delayed taking a
final decision on the matter relegating it to a limbo that persists a year
after the tsunami. Worse still, the President himself pledged to abolish the
joint mechanism, with its limited power sharing, and come up with another
that was in conformity with the unitary state. It is no surprise therefore that
the unitary state has no credibility with either India or the Tamil people.

False reliance
Apart from implying that the solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict
should be on a federal basis, India also made another strong point that
was reflected in the statements made by its leaders. It stated that the
political solution should be arrived at through negotiations with the LTTE,
and that these negotiations should commence soon.

But India neither offered to mediate or facilitate in the peace process or to
host the peace talks as a possible Asian venue, so strongly desired for by
the President. India thereby sent a clear message to Sri Lankans who
seek their assistance that they have been hoping for something that is not
realistic. By making known their decision not to be directly involved in Sri
Lanka’s peace process, India has liberated President Rajapakse and his
allies from a false reliance on India’s strength.

During the Presidential election campaign, and following the victory of
President Rajapakse, there was intense anticipation of a strong Indian
role in the Sri Lankan peace process that would put the LTTE on the
defensive. This led to reliance on an unrealistic strategy. In the
anticipation of an important Indian role in the peace process there was
considerable public criticism of the Norwegian facilitation by members of
the alliance supporting the candidature of President Rajapakse. They
made no secret of their desire to find an alternative facilitator, with India
heading the list of desired facilitators. It was hoped that such an Indian
role would serve as a formidable check on the LTTE’s military capabilities
and its use of them to undermine the ceasefire. However, the absence in
the joint statement at the conclusion of President Rajapakse’s visit to India
of even a mention of the Indo Lanka Defence Agreement that was once
mooted, shows how far reality is from desire.

It is evident that by its relentless acts of setting off landmines, and hit and
run attacks, the LTTE is seeking to demoralise and provoke the Sri
Lankan security forces.

These LTTE attacks need to be condemned, as indeed they have been
by a wide spectrum of local and international actors, as they are being
done in a time of ceasefire and utilising the advantages of the Ceasefire
Agreement. Army commander Sarath Fonseka has rightly said that in
these circumstances no purpose will be served by having local level
discussions between the army and LTTE. Only negotiations at the highest
level can lead to a change of heart in the decision makers who can
reverse the rising toll on the peace process and innocent lives.

Mediator
After a break of nearly three years, resuming government-LTTE peace
talks will not be an easy matter. One reason why India would not be able
to take on the role of mediator or facilitator is that such a third party has
to be acceptable to both sides, and not just be acceptable to one side.
But India has banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, and has the
LTTE’s top leadership listed as proclaimed offenders in the Rajiv Gandhi
assassination case. India has also got the bad experience of its previous
efforts to mediate in Sri Lanka, which saw it get embroiled in an unpopular
war in the very country it had come to assist to make peace. Due to their
ignorance of the basics of mediation, and of India’s true position, those
who supported President Rajapakse in his election campaign have wished
India to replace Norway as the facilitator.

In particular, the JVP and JHU appear to have no confidence in the
Norwegian facilitators, and particularly Norway’s International
Development Minister, Erik Solheim who has been the special envoy, and
have tried to keep them out of the peace process. This is a problem that
needs to be addressed. Minister Solheim and the government need to
discuss the prevailing mistrust that exists, including the weak role of the
Norwegian headed international monitors, and find a way to remedy them.

It makes no sense for the government or its allies to treat the facilitator as
the enemy if it wants the peace process to be successful. There are
occasions when personal relationships can make a decisive difference,
and if Minister Solheim’s credibility with the LTTE leadership can get them
to listen to him, this can be a boon to the peace process.

The past three years have seen a precipitous decline in the relationship
between the government and LTTE. Not even Opposition leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe who, as Prime Minister signed the Ceasefire Agreement
with the LTTE and took the peace process to its most successful heights,
was spared the break in these relationships. This was seen at the
Presidential election when the LTTE ensured Mr. Wickremesinghe’s
defeat by enforcing a boycott on the Tamil voters of the north east who
would have voted for him by a large majority. In the present situation,
when there is virtually no relationship between the government and LTTE,
the only possible relationship builder is the present facilitator, which has
the full backing of the Western countries and Japan.

The worst possible scenario for Sri Lanka is one in which the LTTE stays
away from peace talks and keeps on mounting military operations. The
government should bear in mind that each day that it delays reviving the
peace process more innocent lives will be lost and the gap between the
ethnic communities will grow. The main stories and visual images on New
Year’s day in the Tamil media were accounts of the New Year’s eve round
up of Tamils living in Colombo.

This round up resulted in a thousand people being detained for much of
the day. In the Sinhala media, on the other hand, there were many stories
and visual images about the funerals of the soldiers killed by the LTTE.
Indeed, this was a tragic testament to the deterioration in the country and
the bleak New Year that faces us all unless peace talks and reconciliation
take place without delay.
[Courtesy: DailyMirror]