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By Jayadeva Uyangoda
SRI LANKA's new negotiation process, launched only weeks ago, appears to run the risk of being undermined by an uncooperative parliamentary Opposition coalition of the People's Alliance and the radically nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The PA-JVP leaders wasted no time in denouncing the agreement between the United National Front Government and the LTTE, within a few hours of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, signing it in Vavuniya. Ironically, the opposition to the peace initiative is led by the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who for many years worked towards a negotiated settlement of the same ethnic question. Personal and party rivalries appear to be at the heart of Ms. Kumaratunga's move.Many people may view it as hastily conceived, unfortunate and even simply opportunistic.
Ms. Kumaratunga's opposition to the truce agreement was initially couched in procedural terms. Her point is that although she is the head of the state, head of the Cabinet and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, she has not been adequately consulted or briefed about the agreement or the timetable of its signing. Her point, if true, is a serious one. In Sri Lanka's Constitution, the Prime Minister is subservient to the President. The Prime Minister's powers and authority are not constitutionally defined. Under the present arrangement of a PA President and a UNF Government, the President's powers have not yet been explicitly delegated to the Prime Minister. Ms. Kumaratunga implies that Mr. Wickremesinghe has violated the Constitution by signing the ceasefire agreement with foreign mediation. In a bid to reassert her presidential authority, Ms. Kumaratunga told a local-government election rally that in one letter to the Army Commander she could nullify the UNF-LTTE truce. Although she is unlikely to take such a step that might plunge the country into chaos and instability, Ms. Kumaratunga's adversarial behaviour towards the peace initiative demonstrates the degree to which the Sinhalese ruling class is divided on narrow, partisan grounds.
In Sri Lanka's ethnic question, a sorry history appears to repeat itself whenever attempts at resolution are made. The main protagonists of this tragic drama have been men and women from two political families who ruled, and continue to rule, post-colonial Sri Lanka the Senanayake-Jayewardene clan and the Bandaranaike family. They have for nearly 50 years managed, quite successfully, to obstruct all attempts to resolve the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic question through all stages of its evolution.
But, Ms. Kumaratunga may not want to be the spoiler this time. The most charitable explanation of her denunciation of the truce agreement is that since the local government elections are round the corner, she is trying to define the PA's campaign platform in Sri Lanka's tradition of narrow oppositionist politics. Another explanation is that the President has not been adequately consulted by the UNP on the agreement. This is probably true. Although Mr. Wickremesinghe may have briefed the President about the agreement, it appears he has not taken her into full confidence. It is also possible that the draft was not discussed extensively by the Cabinet. The UNP's style of managing controversial policy issues appears to be one of limited consultation and signing an agreement before resistance is crystallised. This is obviously different from the PA's style of extensive consultation that, though inadvertently, left no space for consensus.
Meanwhile, it needs to be said that the PA leadership does not seem to have quite understood the dynamics of the present stage of Government-LTTE negotiations. Ms. Kumaratunga and her advisers should realise that there are many paths of negotiation with the LTTE. The UNP's strategy of avoiding contentious, constitutional issues at the beginning and prioritising ceasefire is not necessarily a bad strategy, although the PA may have opted for a different course of action. The UNP also appears to think that locking the LTTE in a process of de-escalation would enable both the Government and the LTTE to find common ground. This time, the common ground seems to be economic development, not constitutional reform. A careful reading of the LTTE's behaviour during the past one year may demonstrate that there is now a discernible shift in its strategy moving away from politically costly military campaign to an economic developmentalist path.
Indeed, the Opposition parties appear to fear a scenario of the state moving from high-intensity war to de-escalation and negotiation. This has made them incapable of recognising the likely shift of the conflict conflict transformation in case of a ceasefire, however imperfect the terms of the truce may appear. It is hardly possible for any Government to workout the perfect terms of a truce under perfect procedural rules. What should matter now is a meaningful political engagement between the state and the rebels, though the outcome is not yet clear. In any peace process in protracted conflicts, the path of negotiation and peace tends to be unclear and the outcome uncertain. The existence of broad political support for the process as well as the outcome can hopefully sustain efforts towards peace.
Can Sri Lanka once again afford to lose a chance for conflict transformation through ceasefire and political engagement? Obviously `no'. Opportunities for peace initiatives don't come by every day, or even every year. The last occasion was in 1994. This is why civil society and the Left forces will have to forge a programme of intervention to rescue the peace process and insulate it from a possible UNP-PA power struggle. Meanwhile, the alliance with the JVP made last year has pushed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), main partner in the PA, back to its nationalist ideology and strategies of the 1980s. There is no alternative leadership within the SLFP that can turn it back into its 1994-1995 platform. Meanwhile, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the PA's Left partner, has urged Ms. Kumaratunga not to sabotage the UNF-LTTE negotiation process. Civil society groups active on the peace front are making preparations for public mobilisation for peace. A sustained civil society initiative for peace and democracy, coupled with an extended ceasefire as well as negotiations between the Government and the LTTE with tangible results, would be able to take the sting away from a possible Sinhala nationalist resistance. At the same time, the international community should prevail on both the UNP and the PA to work in cooperation.
Perhaps, it is still not too late for Mr. Wickremesinghe to create a mechanism for working together with the PA leadership on the peace and negotiation front. A Government-Opposition Consultative Committee that should include among others the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament and the Leader of the Opposition would be an option worth trying out. There is hardly any reason why Mr. Wickremesinghe should go through the same painful learning process that Ms. Kumaratunga experienced a few years ago. The lesson both leaders should never forget is: with a non-cooperative parliamentary Opposition, no ruling party can handle the ethnic conflict.
(The writer is Head, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo.)
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