TamilWeek, Dec 4 - 10, 2005
Promise that Ranil must keep

By Jehan Perera

President Mahinda Rajapakse’s policy statement to Parliament emphasized his
commitment to the pursuit of peace and the rejection of war as the means to
resolve the ethnic conflict.

Both in opposition and in government the President did not stand amongst the
hawks who urged war as the solution to the ethnic conflict. But after his electoral
alliances with hardline Sinhalese parties, the newly elected President has felt
himself obliged to repeatedly say that he will not lead the country to war but to
peace.

This is both due to election-time propaganda by his political opponents as well as
descriptions of him as a hardliner by the international media. His election-time
alliances were tactical ones to win the presidency.

So far President Rajapakse has not come up with major surprises in his public
statements. He has been consistent in keeping within the framework of the
manifesto he put out during the election campaign. Accordingly, he has stated that
the political solution to the ethnic conflict should be within the unitary system, but
with maximum devolution. He has also repeated his pledge to formulate an
alternative to the P-TOMS tsunami agreement that the government had signed
with the LTTE, but which the Supreme Court has blocked.

He has also repeated his intention to amend the Ceasefire Agreement to prevent
killings and other human rights abuses that have eroded public confidence, and to
set up a new monitoring mechanism.

There has, however, also been a hopeful feature in President Rajapakse’s public
pronouncements in the aftermath of his election victory. He has been inviting all
political parties, including the main opposition party led by his opponent Ranil
Wickremesinghe to join with him in formulating answers to the country’s problems.

The President’s apparent willingness to abide by the consensus of views may
provide him with a way to get the peace process back on track.

It was, after all, electoral compulsions that caused him to sign agreements that
went against the policies of the SLFP to which he belongs and took him on a
collision course with his party leader, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

It is important to note that obtaining a consensus does not necessarily mean
moving towards the extremist views of the President’s Sinhalese nationalist allies.
If those parties were to contest elections on their own they are likely to end up with
less than 10 percent of the popular vote.

While they have a very loud voice, and fiercely canvass their views, they do not
have the backing of the larger majority. Therefore consensus can also mean a
movement back to the middle, to power sharing and federalism, as articulated
both by the President’s party, the SLFP headed by Ms Kumaratunga and by the
UNP headed by Mr Wickremesinghe.

Unilateral revisions

With the significant exception of his reversion to the unitary form of government,
much of what President Rajapakse has been saying is non controversial. There is
a need for tsunami relief to be distributed amongst the affected people and until
such time as the Supreme Court works out the legal tangle, there is a need for an
alternative mechanism.

There is a need to improve the functioning of the ceasefire, which has got
discredited due to the increase in the number of human rights abuses, and to
improve its monitoring mechanism on the lines widely discussed in civil society as
well as by the international community.

The question, however, is whether the changes necessary to improve the peace
process are to be achieved unilaterally by the President or through negotiations
with the LTTE. If the amendments to the Ceasefire Agreement and the setting up
of an alternative tsunami relief mechanism are designed jointly with the LTTE, this
will be conducive to getting the peace process moving forward.

On the other hand, if the President proposes to make these changes unilaterally
utilizing the great powers of his office there will be a problem. Both the P-TOMS
and Ceasefire Agreement are examples of joint initiatives that one party cannot
unilaterally amend without undermining the process that brought them about.

In his Heroe’s Day speech LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan struck a note of
moderation when he said that the LTTE had decided to give the new President
some time to decide on his course of action, and that their appeal was for a
reasonable political framework that would satisfy the political aspirations of the
Tamil people soon.

The wording of this section of Mr Pirapaharan’s speech is oriented towards conflict
resolution as it implicitly recognizes the need for a compromise solution that is
mindful of the concerns of others, which is the essence of being reasonable.

However, the LTTE leader also said that President Rajapakse’s policy statement
failed to grasp the basic concepts underlying the ethnic conflict. He pointed out to
the demise of the tsunami joint mechanism as being solely due to Sinhala
Buddhist chauvinism. But this humanitarian mechanism was dealt a virtual death
blow with the LTTE’s bad faith shown by the assassination of Foreign Minister
Lakshman Kadirgamar shortly after the government signed the agreement with it.

It is a basic concept of conflict resolution that one side does not assassinate the
top leadership of the other side and expect to work together in trust.

The LTTE leadership needs to also take responsibility for its own contribution to
the possible breakdown of the peace process. In the weakest part of his speech
Mr Pirapaharan sought to justify the non-participation of Tamil voters in the north
east as deriving from their desire for self determination.

The LTTE’s action to prevent nearly a million Tamil voters from voting at the
Presidential elections paved the way for the victory of President Rajapakse whom
they now describe as being a hardline Sinhala President elected by the Sinhala
Buddhist people. The pattern of Tamil voting in the north east, showed that when
Tamil people could vote they voted overwhelmingly for Opposition leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe who had successfully projected himself as the peace candidate
of a multi ethnic polity.

Ranil’s role

The LTTE leader also repeated the oft-made claim of the LTTE that the Sinhalese
and Tamil people constitute separate nations whose polities are also separate.
But the fact is that substantial numbers of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims voted for
Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential election.

In his election campaign Mr Wickremesinghe showed he had a clear vision of how
he would take the peace process forward by building on the foundations laid by
the two past governments. If the LTTE had not sabotaged the election in the north
east, Mr Wickremesinghe could very well have been President of Sri Lanka, voted
into office by a predominantly Sinhalese, but multi ethnic constituency.

Despite his defeat at the Presidential election primarily on account of the LTTE,
Mr Wickremesinghe would still retain much of the confidence of those who voted
for him.

He would also be having with him his plan for peace and prosperity. One of the
important features of this plan was to achieve a bipartisan government-opposition
approach to taking forward the peace process. At election meetings and in
interviews Mr Wickremesinghe pledged that if he won the elections he would get
opposition members to join him in the government.

However, following his defeat at the Presidential elections, there is some
uncertainty about Mr Wickremesinghe’s political future. There are demands being
made by sections within his party, and by his detractors outside, that he should
resign as party leader and as the Leader of the Opposition.

It is undoubtedly a gracious practice of defeated leaders to relinquish their posts,
but this is only when they have been defeated by fair means, not by unfair means.
In the present instance, Mr Wickremesinghe was not defeated by fair means but
by foul means.

A section of the people, whose confidence he had won by his past deeds and his
proposed plans, were denied the most important political right of voting in a
democracy at gun point. Local and international monitors have provided ample
evidence of various acts of intimidation and violence. These acts, in the context of
the brutal history of the ethnic conflict, created a general environment in which the
vast majority of Tamil people in the north east feared for their lives if they defied
the boycott call.

In the Colombo city area and its suburbs, as well as elsewhere, it is now becoming
apparent that several thousands of people who were potential UNP voters have
had their names struck off the electoral registers. This is why it can be said that Mr
Wickremesinghe did not lose the Presidential election but was cheated of victory.

In his Heroe’s Day speech, Mr. Pirapaharan who has appeared to be adamant and
intransigent in the past has appeared more moderate and understanding. Now he
has asked for a reasonable political framework to the ethnic conflict without delay.

It is in the interests of a united Sri Lanka, that Ranil Wickremesinghe
demonstrates resilience of character and leads the opposition into bipartisan
cooperation on the ethnic conflict with the government of President Rajapakse. If
this happens, there is still hope that President Rajapakse can take on the LTTE
leader’s challenge, and the peace process can be put back on track with the
correct approach.

[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]
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