Political antidote to dangerous build up of
frustration

By Jehan Perera

The situation in the country today has deteriorated to an extent that
every day between one to fifteen members of the security forces are
being killed by the LTTE. In Batticaloa a grenade has been flung into
the compound of the international ceasefire monitors and destroyed
an SLMM vehicle. Whoever was behind this attack may be wishing to
limit the capabilities of the international monitors to make their
presence felt on the ground. The absence of international monitors
on the ground would seriously weaken whatever remains of the
Ceasefire Agreement in limiting the violence on the ground.

There is a dangerous build up of frustration in society that follows the
escalation of violence by the LTTE after the Presidential election of
November 17. So far the methods being used by the government and
the international community have not proved successful to stop the
violence. Neither the assurances by President Mahinda Rajapakse
that he is prepared to offer maximum devolution as the solution to the
ethnic conflict nor his practice of restraint in the face of the LTTE
provocations have reduced the level of violence.

With the latest landmining of a navy bus, the death toll of service
personnel has exceeded the one hundred mark. Nor has the threat
of possible international sanctions against the LTTE put a stop or
even been a restraining influence on the LTTE's campaign of
violence. As a result there is rising apprehension amongst members
of the Tamil community that there could be an explosion of mass
violence being provoked that is similar to that of July 1983. The
pattern of LTTE attacks has a resemblance to the events that
provided the backdrop to the anti Tamil riots of 1983. But a similar
catastrophe is unlikely to recur. The lessons of Black July are deeply
impressed upon the collective psyche including that of government
leaders.

However, the possibility exists of the violence escalating until the
tipping point is reached when social equilibrium suddenly breaks
down.

Already there are incipient signs of a breakdown despite the
repeated pledges of President Mahinda Rajapakse that his
government is following a policy of restraint with regard to the LTTE
provocations. The denial of permission by the government to the
security forces to take offensive action against the LTTE would
undoubtedly be frustrating to them. The most obvious example of
defiance of the President's pledge are the instances of retaliation
taking place at the community level, such as the execution-style
killing of five students in Trincomalee. While there is no official curfew
the level of insecurity and intimidation is so great in the towns in the
north east that by early evening the roads are empty.

Political problem

The political problem that President Rajapakse faces in addressing
the challenge posed to him by the LTTE is to take a coherent
decision that meets with the challenge of the present situation. The
President won the Presidential election supported by an alliance of
27 groups, some of which are extremely nationalistic and reject
peace overtures to the LTTE. Unfortunately for the peace process,
the government that the President heads is dependent on the
Parliamentary support of these nationalist parties. Before the
Presidential election, Mr. Rajapakse assured peace groups that met
him that he would break out of the limitation of his political alliances
once he was endowed with presidential powers. But now it appears
that he has become a captive of the very forces he empowered at
election time.

The political frustration that is being felt by the President is becoming
evident in the nationalist section of the media. Even a section of the
government-controlled media has been carrying a series of unfair
attacks on peace organisations and individuals, thus giving those
attacks the legitimacy of government-sanctioned opinion. The
inability of the pens of the nationalist media to stop the LTTE in its
track may have caused the more frustrated of them to take on soft
targets. But such attacks, especially in the government-controlled
media, which includes adverse comment on the Norwegian facilitators
and their motives, serves to further undermine President Rajapakse's
image as a national leader who is serious and competent to take the
peace process forward.

In this context it is not surprising that there are internal and external
political challenges growing that could challenge President
Rajapakse's authority. It has been reported that former President
Chandrika Kumaratunga, who continues to retain her leadership over
the ruling party of which the President is a member, is reasserting
herself within the ruling party. Ms Kumaratunga's come back is
unexpectedly speedy, as she had just completed her second and
final term as President, and it might have been expected that she
would have permitted her successor some time to stabilise himself in
power. However, the difficulty that the President has been having in
governance may be impelling the former President to seek an
internal power sharing arrangement with him.

Just prior to her departure from the presidential office, Ms
Kumaratunga took courageous decisions to revive the peace
process, including signing the P-TOMS agreement that would have
made the government and LTTE partners in tsunami reconstruction
in the north east. Ms Kumaratunga also publicly affirmed her
commitment to a federal solution which is widely accepted by
supporters of the peace process as a just solution to Tamil
aspirations, but which President Rajapakse has rejected under
pressure from his nationalist allies along with his rejection of the
P-TOMS agreement.

External challenge

The external political challenge to President Rajapakse will
necessarily come from the main opposition party now that it appears
to have resolved its leadership struggle. The retention of Ranil
Wickremesinghe as both UNP and opposition leader is a vindication
of the position that an alternative vision is the most important political
need at this time. It would not have been difficult for the UNP to find
an equal to President Rajapakse in populism. But what the country
needs today in terms of governance is not populism or a
people-friendly approach, but a problem solving leadership. The UNP
has therefore continued to place its faith in the leader who with vision
and courage signed the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002 and
brought the 20-year war to a close.

President Rajapakse has the choice of either adopting a
confrontational course of action with his rivals or in accommodating
them. At this critical juncture the President needs to decide who will
partner him in addressing the great challenges that face the country
and his new office. Perhaps it behooves President Rajapakse to look
at the example of South Africa and its internationally acclaimed
leader Nelson Mandela. Like President Rajapakse, Mr. Mandela
sought consensus and accommodation with all. But he also correctly
identified the most important parties with which he had to reach
consensus. He reached a consensus with the parties that really
mattered to bring peace to South Africa.

President Rajapakse has been pinning his faith on an all-party
consensus to evolve so that he can take the peace process forward.
But his wish is unlikely to materialise, with the nationalist parties
blocking his path. In South Africa, there was no consensus reached
with every party. What was impossible in South Africa is likely to be
just impossible to reach in Sri Lanka. Instead there was a "sufficient
consensus" that was reached in South Africa with the main parties
that could bring peace.

During the Presidential election, President Rajapakse pledged to
preserve the distinct identity of his party, the SLFP.

During the long years that the SLFP was in the opposition he
protected the identity of the party. It is ironic that when he is
President, that the SLFP's party line as it evolved over the past
decade should be subservient to that of the nationalist parties.

The SLFP and the UNP with their liberal policies and mass base are
the two most important parties whose support is required to deal with
the LTTE in a revived peace process. Together with President
Rajapakse, these two parties could provide the basis of a South
African-style "sufficient consensus" to rescue the country from the
frustration of an undeclared war and take the peace process forward.
[Courtesy: DailyMirror]