SLFP devolution, testing waters or dipping south?

From Horagolla to Hambantota:
SLFP devolution, testing waters or dipping south?

By Rajan Philips

It has been a busy week, politically speaking. The freakish rain in Barbados and Adam Gilchrist’s born again (with squash-ball grip) performance torpedoed whatever political mileage that the government was planning to take out of the World Cup. But our cricketers did themselves and the country proud. After Mahela Jayawardena’s pristine century and his team’s composed victory against the Kiwis in Jamaica, Sangakara and Jayasuriya gave the mighty Aussies bloody jitters for 15 overs at the Kensington Oval, where an excited Michael Holding (former West Indies fast bowling great) serenaded from the commentary box: “Kensington is rocking; it’s rocking for Sri Lanka!”

Over at Katunayake, the LTTE returned for its nocturnal aerial sorties causing international airlines to cancel flights and forcing the Sri Lankan Government to shut down the airport during the night. While keeping mum about the LTTE’s aerial exhibitions, much to the chagrin of the government, the international community has been turning the screws on LTTE operations in the Tamil Diaspora. Australia joined the club of LTTE arresters, while the Mother of Parliaments in England took time to ambidextrously wrap the knuckles of both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. Along with the familiar warnings to the LTTE, the British Government has taken an unprecedented step against its Sri Lankan counterpart – stopping the debt relief payments from London until Colombo reduced its defence spending and improved its human rights record.

The Supreme Court got in the news too, ruling against Chandrika Kumaratunga’s shamelessly self-serving retirement package, and adding insult to the earlier injury of terminating her presidency which ultimately led to the shift of the SLFP’s power centre from Horagolla to Hambantota. The latest manifestation of that shift came on May Day – in the announcement of the SLFP’s proposals to the All Party Representatives Committee on constitutional reforms.

“On an inauspicious day in July, at the Horagolla Walauwa, for a pair of peras and a cup of tea, Vedhakaran Chelvanayakam has sold out the Tamils.” That was G.G. Ponnambalam in full demagogic flight and railing in folksy Tamil against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, fifty years ago. The term ‘Vedhakaran’ was a derogatory reference to S.J.V. Chelvanayakam being a Christian and allegedly being insensitive to the Hindus’ preference for auspicious times for important undertakings. Ponnambalam spared nothing when on the attack, calling Chelvanyakam Vedhakaran, even though Ponnambalam, a Hindu, would, at other times, call himself “a complete Catholic product”; and his younger brother, the late Rev. G.M. Balasundaram, was a prominent Catholic Priest in Jaffna and who for many years served as the Parish Priest of Mannar and Madhu. Ponnambalam’s attack against the B-C Pact was synchronized with J.R. Jayewardene’s attacks in the South and between them and a host of unpretending chauvinists and bigots they succeeded in forcing Bandaranaike to declare that “the Pact stands abrogated.”

Although abrogated, the B-C Pact has become one of the more celebrated political documents in 20th century Sri Lanka. The greater tragedy than the abrogation of the Pact was the cavalier abandonment of its purpose and principles by Mr. Bandaranaike’s widow-successor and his Party, the SLFP. For over three decades after the abrogation of the B-C Pact, the SLFP under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s leadership opposed every attempt to resurrect the purpose of the B-C Pact and reach a new settlement on the Tamil question – from the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965 to the Thirteenth Amendment twenty three years later. The SLFP’s opposition may have been poetic political justice to the UNP and J.R. Jayewardene for opposing the B-C Pact, but it left the country burning through the years.

From resurrection to recession

The resurrection finally came in 1994, fittingly, if not feudally, under Chandrika Kumaratunga who brought the SLFP not only back to where her father had left it on the Tamil question thirty five years earlier, but also back to power after seventeen years of UNP rule. To her credit, she took the Party and the country further than where they have ever been in accepting the need to restructure the Sri Lankan State on the basis of devolved power sharing. More determined, perhaps, than her father, but manifestly less disciplined, Mrs. Kumaratunga could not deliver on her promise about which she was undoubtedly sincere. But there was a sense that the country, especially the Sinhalese community, had moved forward in accepting radical devolution and it was only a question – by no means a piece of cake – of reining in the LTTE, with the help of the international community, to accept a reasonable settlement.

So we thought, but what many of us did not account for was the possibility of a political recession in the South and a tragic repetition of old history, almost every comic step of it. Behind what was commonly seen as a personality clash or fight for leadership between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapakse were other forces who had quietly lined themselves to reverse the progress in the political attitudes among the Sinhalese towards other communities and power sharing that had been achieved under Chandrika Kumaratunga. I have earlier called these forces ‘war professionals’ as opposed to the ‘peace professionals’; the latter emerged under Chandrika Kumaratunga and flourished after the Ceasefire Agreement that Ranil Wickremasinghe negotiated with the LTTE, while the former came out of the woodwork from the start of the Rajapakse presidency, rather from the moment he signed his Faustian pre-election MOU with the JVP.

So far, many people have been willing to give Mahinda Rajapakse the benefit of the doubt – that he was trying to placate to the extremists to maintain his vote base in the South, and that he wanted to militarily weaken, even defeat, the LTTE to make a radical devolution package more acceptable to his constituency. But the devolution package that was unveiled at the SLFP May Day rally leaves no doubt as to where he stands on the question of devolution.

Last week, I reproduced Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s timeless warning that the main road block to a political solution is the failure of the government to make up its own mind. Unfortunately, the SLFP, the major component of the present government, seems to have finally made up its mind only by closing it at the ‘district level’ as the unit of devolution. Talking of minds, the SLFP Central Committee reportedly has only three members with minds of their own, who opposed the leader’s proposals for devolution; all the others are like trained seals, rising in support of the leader as the whip is cracked.

The soothing words in hindsight that the May Day proposals are only a basis for further discussion are an insult to anyone’s intelligence. They are also an insult to the true legacy of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. I say true legacy because any objective assessment of his politics in totality will confirm that he genuinely believed in a structure of power sharing among the different communities. Bandaranaike was also unique among Sinhalese leaders who achieved political power (that automatically screens out the Left leaders) in that he understood that the political relations between communities could only be addressed through structural changes at the state level and not by being nice to Tamil and Muslim friends or by co-opting them through cabinet positions. Something other, intellectually challenged, Sinhalese leaders have been unable to understand or appreciate.

The SLFP proposals fall short of even what was provided in the Minority Report of the Experts Panel. In commentators’ parlance, these proposals are heading south, that is going down rather than moving up (as in a Map where north is ‘up’, and south is ‘down’). Going south, in this instance, also captures the shift of the SLFP power centre from Horagolla to Hambantota.

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