No negotiations possible without southern consensus on federalism

By Kusal Perera

Inconclusive conclusion of discussions in Geneva this time is a clear indication that the government has not given up its war plan and there is absolutely no space given for the LTTE to compromise this side of their ultimate slogan, a “Separate Thamil Eelam”. This is an opportunity the LTTE guessed quite accurately they would have, when they opted for Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, instead of Ranil Wickremesinghe. And this situation would not change that easily now, despite Wickremesinghe’s MoU with the SLFP, that says it would assist the government in its negotiated peace initiative. It never says concretely, what form and ingredients that peace initiative would have to have, for the UNP to assist.

The government delegation therefore was free to talk war as they did the first time. Yet they may have known the Jaffna humanitarian issue would be quite a sensitive one to handle and opening the A – 9 Road at Muhamalai would be very contentious-. Presidential advisors who only wanted to see war might have advised the delegation to propose uninterrupted supplies to Jaffna through sea, as an alternative. They probably thought they could sell the offer to the world as a very human one. The government delegation therefore kept on stressing that the LTTE resorted to extortions at the Muhamalai exit point from supplies to Jaffna making it one of their major income sources, and that it smuggles arms and artillery to Jaffna to destabilise the peninsula posing a security risk.

The government they said, cannot compromise on national security and therefore would feed Jaffna through the sea route, for which the LTTE should guarantee safe passage. The hierarchy in Colombo knew quite well, opening the A – 9 Road would not help their military strategy. The CFA very clearly says, under section 2.10 “The parties shall open the Kandy-Jaffna Road (A9) to non-military traffic of goods and passengers. Specific modalities shall be worked out by the parties with the assistance of the Royal Norwegian Government by D-day + 30 at the latest.” Thus, even if the A – 9 Road is opened, the military will have no advantage.

This makes Trincomalee extremely vital for government security forces, for there begins the only possible life line to the government’s major security base in Palali, Jaffna. But Trincomalee alone is not enough for that life line to exist and to be safe. It can be safe, only if the LTTE allows passage through sea, to KKS. If the A – 9 was opened as requested by the LTTE, then the government loses all reason to bargain for safe passage through sea. It is for this reason the government keeps the A – 9 closed. And it is for this reason the government demands a guarantee of safe passage for sea supplies. It is being turned into a military strategy tied to humanitarian aid by the government.

It could also have other politico-military reasons. Once the A – 9 is opened for “non-military traffic of goods and passengers” as in the first years after the signing of the CFA, there would develop an independent trade between the Jaffna peninsula and the rest of the country, that in turn would make adequate supplies of goods and other necessities available in Jaffna. Such trade makes life independent of the security forces. To have a hold on goods supplied to Jaffna provides the security forces with an advantage in controlling the day to day life of those people. Giving the security forces such advantage makes the government feel it could dictate terms, both in war and at negotiations. That therefore is another aspect in keeping the A -9 closed, while there are other unseen and never talked of benefits to those within closest reach to power. Regular food and essential goods supplies through sea, would necessarily require long term charter of vessels, to ply from Colombo, Galle and Trincomalee to KKS. Shipping through risky waters would never be cheap. Commissions in between would definitely make it a very expensive but a worthy effort to those who decide. And then consigning of goods for such special reasons is not without money. It is therefore not too bad for those interested in keeping the war going and for the politicos to ride a wave of Sinhala sentiments in the South and call it patriotism. Unfortunately for this country, patriotism in such garb(age) does not pave a way for a stable and an united society to move towards any development, that we’ve been lacking for over 50 years since independence.

With independence, this country was burdened with the challenge of nurturing a plural society that would accept a Nation State that guarantees every segment of the population the right to participate in decision making- one that guarantees a rightful share in development. It was this right the Tamil politics negotiated from the very beginning, even after they were marginalised from the state, making Sinhala Language the only official language. While Suntheralingam resigned his parliamentary seat from Vavuniya to re-contest on a Federal platform in protest over the Sinhala Language Bill of 1956, the Federal Party of which he was a pioneering figure, defeated him at the re-elections to negotiate with Prime Minister Bandaranaike, the architect of ‘Sinhala Only’ politics.

The FP negotiated for Tamil language use in the North – East and powers to oversee development in their areas in subjects like land, education and health. While Bandaranaike gave into Sinhala pressure in abrogating the B-C Pact, the Federal Party moved further up, demanding more powers over lost years. With Dudley – Chelvanayakam pact also going through the same fate, the 1972 Republican Constitution removing the fundamental safety the minority people had from the Soulburry Constitution of 1948, standardisation on university entrance in 1974, were all issues that distanced the Tamil people from being equal partners in development.

The Tamils in fact lived through involuntary economic abstinence when the Colombo government was only concentrating in state “development” projects in the South. Since independence, while the economy was being heavily statified, all state projects focused on the South, with only four menial corporations going North. While North of Trincomalee was left out of the Mahaweli programme, a distant Southern part, Uda Walawe was annexed with all benefits from Mahaweli handouts. And every such issue convinced them to demand more and better access to state power at the centre for decision making. Decentralised power first and then devolution was negotiated as a means through which state power at the centre could be accessed from the periphery. All attempts at negotiating for their right to participate in such state power thwarted and dishonoured by the Sinhala regimes, the Tamil leadership finally decided in 1974, to have a separate state for their own development, their right for self determination.

This distancing of Tamil politics on the issue of political power was easily turned into an election slogan to capitalise on Sinhala votes. Both the UNP and the SLFP indulged in cultivating a Sinhala platform for power politics in the South. And it was easy too, to work in the absence of any real development programmes. The South did not realise that it lacked in development within this warped, centralised state, run by politicians who have by now grown beyond control and with no vision for the future. Every year, around 400,000 pupils sit the G.C.E O/L exam from the “South”, from those districts outside the North – East. About 150,000 from those pupils qualify to continue education and sit the A/L exam annually. No development plan has provisions to cater for the other 250,000 pupils who were left by the wayside. And then from those who sit the A/L, only about 70,000 qualify for university entrance and about 16,000 admitted.

No government had ever programmed to accommodate the total number in gainful education. All through 58 years since independence, this country has only reduced tertiary education to universities, which are wholly outdated. There is hardly anything called tertiary education for youth who complete secondary education to fashion their future. They simply have to fend for themselves in a poor and deprived society.

Then again, the rural economy, which is basically the functional economy outside the Western Province, cannot absorb these youth every year. There is no growth for such viable absorption of new labour annually, even after 30 years of “Integrated Rural Development Programmes” (IRDP) in 16 districts outside the North – East. Millions of dollars pumped from foreign donor agencies have simply disappeared with no trace of development. It is no better with each MP pouring in Rs.05 million every year from the Decentralised Budget for district development. Add to this the monies that flow into districts through different ministries of the central government and again from the PC’s.

This is the issue the Tamil people wanted a solution for, ever since independence was granted to Ceylon. It is for this development, rather to bring about development in their areas, that they kept on asking for their share in state power at the centre. It is because this right to share power at the centre was never negotiated honourably, that the Tamil leadership finally decided to establish a separate state of their own.

Unfortunately the South never realised they too need such devolved power to develop their own ground. They did not realize that they need a constitutional right at peripheral level to ask the politician, where all this money goes and for what to questionthe right of the MP in disbursing money when development is a devolved process in the districts. The South too needs a right to power sharing, without which it has been simply led through poverty over 58 years and is still being led without any future prospects. The Tamil people realised this need first and was saner than the South, for which they should not be despised or opposed. At least the Tamil people have opened up the issue of devolution, for the South to acquire that power.

But, the Tamil polity now, could only be asked to compromise for a devolved system that would not be less than a federal system. And it goes well with the South too, as the political system now holds no credibility in a unitary state.

Such Southern consensus is beyond the capacity of funded organisations praying for peace and marching against war. It demands a new political will and a clear political commitment to salvage this fast decaying situation. Until then, all what this country could hope for is peace, but live with a war. The A – 9 would remain an issue in shifting power balances, while the UN or the ICRC would fly their flags in our seas, shipping food and goods to the Jaffna people. The South would nevertheless feel happy lapping up Sinhala patriotism in growing poverty, while watching the dislocated North being fed through foreign assistance. Not knowing that to allow such flags in our sea is acceptance of a territory that would earn its right to be outside our own administration, officially.

That leaves this country with very little choice. It is federalism or a separate state in the North through war and growing poverty for the South. What ever the choice, the choosers and the victims would be the Southern polity. []

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