Sri Lanka: A Case Of Lost Opportunities

Updated: Nov 9 2003, 05:30am hrs
If we have a troubled neighbour on the Northern border, our neighbour on the Southern border has plunged itself into a major constitutional crisis.

Sri Lanka could be another Maldives in fact, even better. It has nearly 100 per cent literacy, good infrastructure, great sun and sand, a vibrant class of professionals (teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants), two great religions that preach pacifism, a swashbuckling cricket team and a lot of goodwill. Once upon a time it was also a model of democracy. What it did not and does not have is a spirit of brotherhood between the two major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

The long train of injuries heaped on the Tamil-speaking population is an undeniable fact of history. The Tamils had enjoyed a pre-eminence in many walks of life, especially the civil services. The resentment among the Sinhala-speaking population was exploited by the political leaders and the Buddhist clergy. The result: Sri Lanka is in a perpetual state of strife since 1983.

It is not necessary to recall the tortuous course of the LTTE-led struggle during the last 20 years. At one point of time 1986 to be precise India almost succeeded in brokering a settlement between the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and other Tamil parties. Two people wrecked a possible settlement. One was President Jayawardene. If there was a wily political fox, it was Jayawardene. He earned the trust of Rajiv Gandhi and persuaded the latter to sign an Accord with Sri Lanka and send Indian troops to enforce that Accord. History will judge the wisdom of that decision. The other key player was Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader. He felt betrayed by the Accord; he was also supremely confident that he could win the armed struggle against the Sri Lankan government.

Both Jayawardene and Prabhakaran were wrong. Jayawardene exploited Rajiv Gandhis essential goodness and friendship, Prabhakaran gravely misread Rajiv Gandhis intentions and actions. The ambitions of Jayawardene and Prabhakaran were irreconcilable. A historic opportunity was lost.

After many years, and after many lives were lost, matters appeared to improve in Sri Lanka. Jayawardene was gone. Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of the Bandaranaikes, was returned to power. And then Ranil Wickramasinghes UNP won a parliamentary majority and he became Prime Minister. Norway seized the opportunity, and has so far played a stellar role as mediator. When the LTTE announced that it was willing to give up its demand for a separate Eelam, it appeared to signal a new dawn.

It is a quirk of fate that Kumaratunga and Wickramasinghe are cast in roles that are antagonistic to each other. When her party (the SLFP) was in the opposition for many years, Kumaratunga and her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike were opposed to the hardline of President Jayawardene (and his UNP) and pleaded for a reconciliation with the Tamils. When Wickramasinghe became leader of the UNP and leader of the opposition, he re-wrote his partys plank and advocated a settlement with the LTTE. Kumaratunga and Wickramasinghe should have been allies in the search for a peaceful settlement. Politics, unfortunately, has driven them apart. Nevertheless, Norway continued with its efforts. The government placed its proposals on the table and invited the LTTE to place its counter proposals. Another moment in history, like 1986, seemed to present itself. On November 1, 2003, the LTTE unveiled its proposals and, like in 1986, the historic opportunity was lost.

Has the LTTE really given up its demand for a separate Eelam I doubt it. In its proposals, the LTTE has described the area of its influence as the NorthEast without a hyphen which would comprise eight districts of Sri Lanka.

The LTTE is right in demanding an interim government until a final negotiated settlement is reached and implemented. The LTTE is also right in demanding a majority for itself in the interim government. But the LTTE has gone much beyond the requirements of an interim government, and has made proposals which cast a grave shadow over its real intentions: For example, the LTTE demands:

An independent Election Commission, appointed by the interim government, to conduct free and fair elections in the NorthEast at the end of five years
Separate institutions for the administration of justice in the NorthEast
The power to borrow internally and externally and the power to receive aid directly and to conduct external trade
A separate Auditor General
Control over the seas and power to regulate access thereto
An international tribunal to settle disputes between the government of Sri Lanka and the interim government for the NorthEast

The proposals appear to be silent (or vague) on the police power of the interim government. Clause 9, however, spells out the jurisdiction of the interim government and seeks plenary powers for the governance of the NorthEast including powers in relation to law and order and over land.

The implication of these proposals is clear. The NorthEast, at least during the interim period of five years, will be a separate State with the LTTE enjoying supreme power over the executive and the judiciary (there will be no legislature) and other organs of the State like the Election Commission and the Auditor General. If it also acquires plenary police powers and power to control access to the seas (and the LTTE maintains its Army and the Sea Tigers) the NorthEast would, for all practical purposes, be the Eelam of Prabhakarans dreams.

The proposals assert the right to self-determination of peoples, they express a desire to bring lasting peace to the island of Sri Lanka, but there is no mention of a united and sovereign State of Sri Lanka. It is natural that many people in Sri Lanka see the proposals as a reassertion of the demand for Eelam.

The LTTE proposals are a blow to the peace making efforts of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose political fortunes appear to be on the decline, struck swiftly. She made a clumsy attempt to seize control, but within days the rash steps that she took are unraveling. As the world watches these two players resolve a constitutional crisis, we must pause to reflect on the plight of the hapless Tamils. Fifteen years later, Prabhakaran is not greyer or wiser. So, India has another troubled neighbour, the possibility of another civil war across the sea-border and the near-certainty of its consequences spilling over into India.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)