Burying the Peace Process along with Federalism

By Col R Hariharan (Retd.)

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa after discussing its devolution proposals at the party executive meeting on May 14, 2007 has clarified that it would propose a unitary state in its submission to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) on devolution. On May 1, 2007, the SLFP had circulated its proposal for public scrutiny and discussion. The SLFP proposal is claimed to emanate from the President’s platform of “an undivided country, national consensus and an honourable peace,” though in its present form it makes a mockery of all these three considerations.

The SLFP proposal includes three aspects of devolution at different levels: abolition of executive presidency, abolition of provinces and creation of district as the basic unit of devolution, and the creation pradeshiya and grama sabhas at the municipal and village level. As the SLFP led coalition has a majority in the parliament, the final form of devolution proposal accepted by the parliament is likely to conform more to the SLFP scheme of things regardless of APRC recommendations.

The SLFP proposal bypasses three key basic engines of ethnic conflict: autonomy for Tamil majority areas, northeast merger, and parity of status for Tamil language with Sinhala. Unless these three issues are addressed no lasting solution can be arrived at, regardless the semantic nuances of the proposal. The SLFP proposal unfortunately appears to have failed to understand this home truth. The SLFP proposal circulated earlier had drawn flak from all quarters the main opposition United National Party (UNP), anti LTTE Tamil parties and other coalition supporters, particularly on the issue of abandoning a federal concept as the basis for working out a solution. The members of the Tokyo Donors Conference (the EU, Japan, Norway, UK, and USA) and India have also expressed their concern either publicly or privately at the SLFP’s proposal as it cuts at the very roots of the present peace process in which both sides had agreed to find a solution within a federal format.

More importantly the SLFP proposal puts the clock back on the substantial progress made among the Sinhala polity and people in understanding the sources of Tamil ethnic conflict. This could impact future negotiating process also because the proposal also fails to evoke a sense security and trust among the Tamil population. These have been echoed by Sinhala intellectuals and politicians who find a greater future in prosecuting peace rather than war. .

On other hand, the hardliners had considered the original SLFP proposal a little soft and wanted a clear emphasis on a ‘unitary state.’ The party executive has apparently deferred to this lobby and clarified its stand for a unified state. This indicates the strong control the President exercises on the party apparatus, because earlier President Chandrika Kumaratunga who led the SLFP was clearly in favour of a federal solution.

Richard Boucher, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, who visited Sri Lanka last week made an explicit reference on the need for the devolution proposal finding favour with the Tamil community. He said: “I spent a lot of time during my visit talking about the devolution discussion: the prospects of having a set of proposals from this side of the island that can give a perspective to the Tamil community to show them that they have a place of respect, that they have a place on the island, that they have a role in society where they can control much of their own affairs only when we have that consensus can we have a basis for peace talks.” The SLFP’s clarification timed so soon after his statement should send clear signals to the international players (as Boucher would prefer to call the Donors) of things to come on all fronts in Sri Lanka – war, peace and politics at home and abroad- in the coming months.

Three strategic elements appear to be guiding the government’s actions at present. These are military objectives driving political decisions, impact of military successes of 2006, and total focus on the President’s agenda.

The focus on President’s agenda is understandable because that was the basis on which people voted him to power. But it has downgraded the importance of international opinion in decision making, marginalized Norway’s mediatory role and sidelined the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. In simple terms, this means the end of the peace process, though for cosmetic reasons the government will continue to talk about peace. The disregard for international opinion has in a way encouraged human rights violations to proliferate, child recruitment to continue, and blunted the rule of law so that dissenters can be muzzled and the media intimidated with impunity. The results of this attitude came out loud and clear when the international community did not respond strongly to the recent attacks by LTTE air arm. There had been a progressive hardening in the attitude of international players towards Sri Lanka despite their acceptance of the need to control LTTE violence and safeguard national security.

Germany and UK have frozen part of the aid to Sri Lanka. Recently the British Parliament discussed the Sri Lanka (internal) situation for four hours and the Minister for Middle East Dr Kim Howells indicated that he might consider lifting the ban on LTTE, if necessary! There is a move afoot to invite the LTTE spokesman SP Tamilchelvan to address the British parliament members. The influential US watchdog body Freedom House’s caution to Sri Lanka sounded more ominous: “Freedom House is deeply troubled by the actions of the government which has imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, harassed non governmental organisations (NGOs) that question government policy, and committed serious ongoing human rights abuses. The serious human rights abuses and excessive restrictions on freedom of speech and association by the government of Sri Lanka merit the country’s removal from a list of eligible recipients for Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) assistance.” Boucher during his visit had revealed that the USA had decided to postpone MCA projects in Sri Lanka “in view of the unfavorable security situation.” All this is happening despite actions taken by international players to curb LTTE’s extortion rackets and prevent its efforts to procure arms and weaponry. It is clear that the international players, while respecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to take appropriate action to safeguard its security, expect the country to show more positive action to put the peace process back on the rails.

The Sri Lanka government’s reaction to the friendly foreign governments’ comments had been paranoid, if not hostile. The basic problem in Sri Lanka is the change of priorities since 2006. During the first three years of peace process, political objectives were driving military decisions. However, now this process has been reversed with military objectives driving political decisions. This is evident from President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stand during his talks with Boucher as reported in the state media. The President had declared that “the ongoing war with Tiger guerrillas will continue until they are defeated. If they want the Security Forces to stop the war the LTTE should lay down arms and come for peace talks. Otherwise, the Government was willing to hold peace talks while fighting Tiger guerrilla terrorism.” This makes clear the peace process and the political issues connected with it have no place in the President’s scheme of things at present.

The military successes of 2006 appear to have made the state confident of pursuing a military agenda, abandoning the peace process. This belief got further reinforced after security forces wrested control of the east from the LTTE. As opinion polls indicate the military successes have also strengthened the lobbies supporting a military solution. This makes the military option as the more popular and therefore politically attractive course for the President to adopt. Another attraction is that each success at the war front depletes the mass support base of other political contenders potential and actual like the UNP and the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna.

Though the President spoke of a flexible approach on the proposals before the APRC to converge on a consensus, the President is likely to be firm on two issues:unitary format and district level devolution. This is evident from his statement that “the main significance of this whole exercise is that power should remain with the people in a systematic and proper process, that the people of the Grama Rajya hold power.” In other words, the devolution would be at the decentralized local level and not at the federal level.

As peace appears only in the distant horizon, it is not difficult to foresee the emerging military picture with the following elements on the canvass:

To compensate its weakened conventional war capability, LTTE is likely to step up its commando operations in Jaffna peninsula. Recovery of small number of weapons in numerous incidents indicates that such infiltrations are already underway. The focus now would be to carryout decentralized operations to keep the troops from dominating the areas around their defences and forward defended lines. Senior commanders are also likely to be targetted.
LTTE attacks in the north are more likely to be based on infiltration. Formation headquarters, and storage dumps containing self destructive materials are likely to be the favoured targets. LTTE is likely to continue to fiercely resist any security forces attempt to breach its forward line Omanthai-Madhu-Mannar. This is to safeguard LTTE’s sea lanes of supply along Mannar coast. Already in the first two weeks of May, over 7500 litres of diesel destined for LTTE has been seized. These were probably smuggled from Tamil Nadu coast despite tightening of coastal security measures in Tamil Nadu.

Colombo port and airport are likely to continue to figure in the priority list of targets for sneak air and commando raids in depth areas. Of course, VIPs of the government will also continue to remain in the high risk list.

In the east, Karuna despite his problems with Pillaiyan the pretender trying to steal the thunder, will become more powerful as he takes over the task of containing LTTE in Thoppigala and flexes his political and military muscles. This could cause further apprehension among the Muslims of the area. So we can expect a period of social instability in the east.
Given the military agenda now in operation, Sri Lanka -India relations are likely to come under more stressful times. However, security measures in Tamil Nadu to curb LTTE activity are likely to be further tightened rather than weakened regardless of stresses in India-Sri Lanka relations.

Tom Lantos, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs has articulated a sensible way of salvaging the situation. He said: “I urge all parties to stay true to the Ceasefire Agreement and come back to the negotiating table. A military solution will not end this circle of violence and further escalation will only worsen the already gross human rights abuses. I call upon the international community including Diaspora groups, to push all parties towards dialogue rather than destruction.” But given the present strategic setting, nobody appears to have time for such a nuanced approach. This is clear from the SLFP proposal which is essentially a political document to strengthen the hands of the party particularly in the south. It is likely to influence the final devolution proposal much more than any other deliberation. Thus its singular achievement will be to bury the peace process along with the concept of federalism that forms the backbone of the Oslo Accord.

So even if the devolution proposal is presented in the final form as per the President’s design, the island nation is likely to continue to struggle along with the ebb and flow of military conflict in the coming months, particularly after the monsoon. [saag.org]

(Col. R Hariharan, an intelligence specialist on South Asia, is a retired Military Intelligence officer. He served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)

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