Political solution or political illusion?

By Pradeep Peiris & Anupama Ranawana

The much awaited political proposal of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in now out. Even before the ink has dried it has attracted fierce criticism from every corner including the party’s past and present allies. Interestingly, and quite strategically, the government has attempted to present the proposal as something formulated only by the party – thereby distancing the administration from any kind of responsibility and/or blame. However, the JVP’s firebrand, Wimal Weerawansa has pointed out the pertinent fact that it is not only the SLFP’s proposal but also of that of the government as Rajapakse is the leader of both the party and the government. Some political analysts say that it reminds them of the LTTE’s ISGA proposal. In 2003, having walked out of direct negotiations with the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE put forward their ISGA proposal as a basis for future talks. This exemplified the LTTE’s totalitarian political mind set and their desire for a kind of autonomy that does not exist in any power sharing arrangement in the world. Viewed within the same context, the SLFP proposal also shows up as being rather ultra Sinhala nationalist when it comes to sharing power. Needless to say, it is quite unfortunate, and rather unexpected, that a party like SLFP – a party with a five decade history of openly advocating a federal constitutional arrangement to solve the country’s ethnic conflict – producing a proposal which shows such insensitivity to the country’s ethnic issue.

However, in writing this we do not intend to add any further analysis the much analysed – rather criticised- SLFP proposal. In stead we would like argue it is not worth expecting a political solution from the Rajapakse regime. Irrespective of their competence in formulating and advocating a meaningful political solution we do not believe that the current political context Rajapakse has created in the country will lead to any kind of peaceful resolution.

Let us consider the circumstances in which this regime now stands. The president, Mahinda Rajapakse, came into office largely on the shoulders of the vote of the Sinhala community. His popularity among the masses is, at present, on a steady rise. Interestingly, it is Rajapakse’s strong advocacy against the United National Party (UNP) peace processes and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) that was the most effective message of his presidential campaign. The consensus from the general public seemed to be that a non-military approach to ethnic peace was weak and feeble. From the media to the public markets the opinion was voiced that perhaps “too much” was being given to the LTTE. Rajapakse took this core idea and slathered his campaign with anti-CFA slogan and sayings. He also made an alliance with the JVP and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, parties that hold strong nationalist principles. Needless to say, Rajapakse won.

There is a growing amount of support, even among people who used to advocates for negotiated settlement, that it is time to defeat the LTTE militarily. As Social Indicator’s PCI survey of November 2006 unmistakably pointed out; among the majority of the Sinhala community there is strong backing for a more violent solution that roundtable peace talks and political consensus. The recent military victories have done nothing but increase the general public’s confidence in and strengthen support for war as the ultimate and only solution. The universal consensus also stretches to the opinion that the end of the conflict will also provide an end to the country’s mass of economic and social problems. In a sense, so long as this issue is in residence; the government is free to feel unconcerned about solving the nation’s real issues.. However, nothing has boosted his popularity as much as the presence of the war against the LTTE has. In the wake of recent victories in the Eastern battle field, a majority of the Sinhalese placed their confidence in Mahinda’s ability to wage a successful war against the LTTE. As long as he can ensure that there are no serious military debacles, Mahinda’s safer policy may just be to engage the LTTE in a military campaign.

Even today, after sixty years of independence there are no clear-cut guidelines for an honourable and acceptable political solution to the ethnic conflict. What we do have, though, are some basic ideas. Amongst them are; a meaningful devolution of power for the minority communities and a negotiation based settlement. Also required is a compromise from the Sinhala community; they need to forgo certain privileges they have enjoyed in the past and invest in a more equal sharing of power with minority communities. Therefore, any attempt at a lasting political solution brings with it the risk of isolating this large Sinhala populace.

Indeed, there seems to be little that would encourage Rajapakse toward a non-violent solution. Politically, his position is solid compared to his political opponents. Not only does he have high popularity rankings, but he also is part of the Rajapakse brother triumvirate that has settled itself firmly and comfortably into power. The crossover of eighteen UNP MPs on January 28th added enormously to the strength of the President and his government by securing for him a long-elusive parliamentary majority. Even with sundry rumblings from within his party, and the alienation of his previous political ally, the JVP- the consolidation of the Rajapakse administration looks set to be complete.

The only thorn in Rajapakse’s side is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Once his political ally, the JVP is now probably the only voice that forcefully agitates against the government, the brouhaha regarding the North/East de-merger, and their subsequent victory regarding the court case on October 16th, being the most notable of these protests. That small success aside, this voice; that was once very effective during the Wickremasinghe era; seems to have lost all its bang and zip. In fact, the JVP’s most effective place now is in its campaign against the peace effort- a venture that has received support from the National Patriot Front as well. Even the country’s Buddhist clergy can be seen on the streets advocating the military campaign. While one fails which of the Buddha’s tenets espoused warfare, it is undeniable that these monks are among the strongest critics of any kind of peaceful solution. Buddhism and the Buddha Sasana being heavily protected and acclaimed under the nation’s constitution- Rajapakse cannot and will not attempt to disrupt this section of society- a fact that is vindicated by the recent SLFP proposal.

His convenient economy

At his last budget speech, Mahinda urged the public to be patient about the high cost of living (COL) for the sake of a better future. Under his regime, the cost of living has increased to an unbearable level for a majority of Sri Lankans. During the last few months the Central Bank of Sri Lanka report shows that the COL index has steadily increased, despite reductions and fluctuations in world oil prices over the past few months. According to the opposition and the Government’s main election ally, the JVP, heavy government expenditure and overwhelming corruption have contributed to raising a COL that was already badly affected by a gargantuan military budget. Recent poll (PCI February 2007) results show that over 95% of the Sinhala community agree that the cost of living is higher when compared to a year ago. Economically, the country’s citizens are deprived of many benefits that they should enjoy at this point in the country’s history. Shouldn’t this cause mass unrest and a movement against the state and its inefficient administration? Not so, according to the PCI’s February 2007 results.

A breakdown of the facts shows us that a large section of the Sinhala population believe that this increasing cost of living is due to the escalation of violence between the Government and the LTTE. Meanwhile, very few of this group think it due to bad economic management or governmental inefficiency. An overwhelming majority of Sinhalese are willing to bear the rising cost of living due to the fact that the Government is engaged in a war with the LTTE. Our eventual conclusion then is that there seems to be a collective consensus that the end of the conflict will automatically provide an end to the country’s mass of socio-economic problems. In short, so long as the ethnic problem remains unresolved, the government is free to feel unconcerned about solving the nation’s pressing economic and fiscal issues.

An impotent APRC

One’s thoughts then take that natural course towards the following question: What about the ‘ongoing peace process’ that this government has offered up to the public and the international community- the most noteworthy part of which is the All Party Representative Committee (APRC)? Is there not an appearance of non-violent resolution? Yes, the APRC report has come forward with a number of feasible suggestions- most notably the proposal for a federal system of governance. There is no question about the sincerity of some of the individuals of APRC regarding their commitment to a fair political solution. But can the APRC really deliver? The Rajapakse administration shows little investment in the APRC proposals and has cleverly restricted the committee’s discourse to political elites and foreign diplomats- a deliberate exclusion of the voice of the masses. According to recent poll results of the 31.8% of the populace that are aware of the APRC’s majority report, only 13.7% of the Sinhala community are even somewhat informed of its contents. Popular knowledge and understanding about the proposals the APRC have presented so far- majority and minority reports- is even worse. The APRC process feels like a long drawn out affair. Without proper governmental support, the largesse seems to view the report with slight suspicion and great indifference. We are left with the image of Tissa Vitharana, himself a member of the serving cabinet, standing alone and substantially unsupported, waving the Report like a feeble, frayed white flag against the hot-blooded, warring throng.

Under the incumbent government, the chances for a successful political solution to the ethnic conflict seem rather dim. It will be easy and much less complicated for the government to allow the situation to meet with a violent end. Politically and by popular vote, Mahinda has all the backing he needs to mount a hard-lined military offensive against the LTTE. However, with the LTTE playing its latest trump card – the LTTE Air Force- it is quite clear that the conflict cannot end in a year or two as the government and the so called ‘patriots’ claim it will. Rather, it will carry on until Mr. Pirabaharan and the Sinhala leadership finally realise that it is simply a futile bloody cycle that ruins both innocent lives and the future of the country.

Authors:

Pradeep Peiris and Anupama Ranawana are researchers at Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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