The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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For three months now, it was known that when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam come up with their proposals for a settlement, it would be the moment of truth for Sri Lanka. This is precisely what has happened.

The developments in Colombo clearly show that the Sinhala-dominated south is unable to meet the demands of the Tamil north and that there is a division within the Sinhala leadership in the south. While the developments in Sri Lanka have dismayed India, it would seem that New Delhi finds it difficult to choose between its two friends — the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe — who do not see eye to eye.

The proposals made by the Sri Lankan government to the LTTE on July 17, were grossly inadequate. Except a provisional administrative structure, the Tamils were not offered control over land, revenue, police or security. The LTTE proposals for the interim self-governing authority released on November 1 want all this and more.

Besides assuming the role of the sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the LTTE has proposed sweeping powers to raise land revenue, impose taxes, maintain law and order, control the alienation and use of land, set up its own judiciary and election commission. There are, however, several other disquieting proposals that have been put forward. In a controversial provision the LTTE wants the dispute settlement mechanism between Colombo and the ISGA to have an international element. It also suggests that the Tamils should control their external trade. And most importantly, it wants “control over the marine and offshore resources of the adjacent seas and the powers to regulate access thereto”. In short, the LTTE virtually wants to set up a separate state with its own navy to boot.

The crucial question, however, is whether the LTTE really wants to negotiate or merely wants its demands met. Nowhere does the LTTE suggest that its proposals are a negotiating posture or that it wants a settlement within the boundaries of the Sri Lankan state. The ISGA seems more likely as a halfway house to a separate Tamil eelam. Even Wickremesinghe’s government does not see them as a negotiating posture and has said that the LTTE proposals differ in “fundamental respects” from that of the government.

At one level, therefore, Kumaratunga cannot be faulted for acting to preserve the unity and integrity of the Sri Lankan state. She has acted within the framework of the constitution that gives her the power to appoint and remove ministers. She has, therefore, acted well within the law in taking over the portfolios of defence, home and information.

She, in fact, acted after arming herself with an opinion from the supreme court that she should not have alienated the presidential powers over defence in the first place. The immediate provocation for seeking constitutional opinion was the extension of services of some army officers by Tilak Marapana, the minister for railways and defence, without consulting the president who is the supreme commander of the armed forces.

Aware of the opinion of the supreme court, the United National Party of Wickremesinghe started collecting signatures for the impeachment of the chief justice as well as the president. But UNP activists were unable to get the requisite number of signatures for impeachment. This was the proximate reason for Kumaratunga to get upset and when the LTTE proposals came, she acted.

In her judgment, the Wickremesinghe government was conceding too much to the Tamil rebels. There is a large element of truth in this assessment — for example, after the cease-fire, it is the LTTE which came into government-controlled areas, the government did not go into those controlled by the LTTE; and the LTTE wants Colombo to dismantle the high security zones but does not even mention decommissioning of its weapons.

However, to argue that Kumaratunga wants to preserve the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka while Wickremesinghe does not, would be basing one’s argument on a false premise. Perhaps the prime minister knows that he cannot concede what the LTTE wants but at a time when the economy has begun to pick up, keeping the peace helps. Besides, if he has an eye on the presidential poll of 2005 then peace in the interregnum helps him politically.

Kumaratunga has already begun a dialogue with prime minister Wickremesinghe to defuse the crisis. Several things can happen in Sri Lanka, depending on the wisdom and sagacity of the two leaders. One scenario that could unfold is that Wickremesinghe agrees to nominate some other ministers for the home and information portfolio while letting the president keep the defence portfolio with her. The two leaders could also have a commonly agreed nominee to handle defence.

Another scenario could be the formation of a government of national reconciliation that then carries forward the peace process. Here too, there would have to be some understanding between the two sides about the paramount constitutional role of the president in matters of national sovereignty and the defence of the country.

If the two leaders refuse to compromise, then a more likely outcome would be fresh elections. It may well be that Wickremesinghe believes that his UNP would be better placed at the hustings than Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party in a possible electoral alliance with the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna. Although Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may think that the constituency for peace is very large as of now, but elections are often unpredictable events.

An election would not resolve anything. The run up to the elections, the charges and counter-charges about who is for and against the break-up of Sri Lanka and the ensuing sloganeering would create its own chauvinistic fervour. And were an SLFP-JVP combine to sweep the elections, the Sinhala heartland would become even more hardline about peace with the Tamils.

Meanwhile, New Delhi would have little option but to watch the developments in Colombo with a certain degree of helplessness and neutrality. The fact is that the LTTE remains a banned organization in India; it is accused of assassinating a former prime minister; and there are live demands for the extradition of Velupillai Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman. Yet India has welcomed the peace talks between Colombo and the LTTE and would like to see a resolution.

A government of national reconciliation and not an election would be the best outcome from India’s point of view. This is what India is suggesting to Colombo. Such a government can be encouraged by the international community to push for peace without compromising on the sovereignty issues — dealing with the external world and setting up a separate Tamil navy, and so on.

The key, of course, would be to see that the national government does not agree to any interim arrangement that does not dovetail into mutually acceptable final settlement. Unless the contours of the final settlement are known, there would be no point in agreeing to anything interim — for, if Colombo gives up on crucial issues in the interim, why would the LTTE want a final settlement' They would sit pretty with whatever they have got — a de facto Tamil state, if their proposals are anything to go by.

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