Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Power Devolution to Minorities in Lanka

by Namini Wijedasa, The Saudi Gazette, May 6, 2011

But now these discussions with the TNA have assumed a new significance; that of appeasing a predominantly Western international community which annoyingly will not stop harping on about things best left buried. Ever since the report of the UN advisory panel was released in April - with its accusation that most civilians who perished between January-May 2009 had died in government shelling - calls have grown for an external probe into the alleged war crimes.

What better gimmick than its talks with the TNA to convince detractors that the government was not blind to Tamil grievances, despite its reported disregard for Tamil lives in its haste to end the war?

The devolution of power to the minorities is not something Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has stressed himself over since defeating the Tamil Tigers in battle. With the rebels gone and the state firmly in control of all territory, the notion of sharing political authority has become, well, passé.

It could have been different. The elimination of the Tigers gave President Rajapaksa a fine opportunity to engage with those representatives of the Tamil community that favored a peaceful settlement to decades of ethnic friction.

Although the war was won by force, there was still stuff to talk about.

But any conversation on differences between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese would necessarily have had to include discussion on the sharing of power. Too many members of President Rajapaksa’s administration were allergic to that. Buoyed by an unprecedented triumph over terrorism, the majority of Sri Lankans were also not keen. More interested were they in reviewing the military hardware and strategy that had gone into taking down an organization previously thought to be invincible.

Then, the confetti settled. Although the government keeps its victory alive through periodic ceremonies, parades, exhibitions and other events - another of which is due on May 19, the second anniversary of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - the country largely returned to business. And Tamil interest groups that had been flung into disarray slowly gathered their wits about them... [some gratuitous demonization of the Tamil diaspora elided here -- Ed/]

What of the government? In the months that followed victory, it has spent time and energy on promoting its president, on winning elections and on consolidating power. It has invested resources on fending off calls for international investigations into alleged war crimes, on gaining a two-thirds majority in parliament and on changing the constitution so that President Rajapaksa could contest after two terms. It has dived into persecuting or neutralizing members of the opposition, into gagging journalists (the ones that didn’t gag themselves) and into dispelling ambitions anybody might still entertain of taking up where the Tigers left off. And it has sped ahead with development, particularly of infrastructure.

Indeed, the government did anything but examine long-standing Tamil grievances or explore the possibility that more power could be devolved to the primarily Tamil-populated North as well as the mostly Tamil and Muslim-populated East.
But suddenly, in January 2011, a discussion was summoned. A three-member committee appointed by President Rajapaksa comprising Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, a former prime minister, Irrigation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and External Affairs Minister G L Peiris met with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It was discovered that the government and TNA, once labelled “terrorist proxies”, had been holding preliminary talks since June 2010.

It was a welcome move but...why? And why now? Some analysts feel that nagging from neighboring India - the one country that, for its own reasons, has consistently pushed for a political settlement acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka - prompted the government to make a show of engaging with the TNA. To shut India up, if you like. It could also double up as a face-saving measure for New Delhi whenever Tamil Nadu applied pressure over “the fate of its Tamil brethren” in Sri Lanka.

But now these discussions with the TNA have assumed a new significance; that of appeasing a predominantly Western international community which annoyingly will not stop harping on about things best left buried. Ever since the report of the UN advisory panel was released in April - with its accusation that most civilians who perished between January-May 2009 had died in government shelling - calls have grown for an external probe into the alleged war crimes.

What better gimmick than its talks with the TNA to convince detractors that the government was not blind to Tamil grievances, despite its reported disregard for Tamil lives in its haste to end the war? Last week, the state-owned Sunday Observer newspaper tellingly chose as its lead story a report that talks between the government and TNA were “in progress”. It was an obvious editorial move.

The two groups, this story said, had met to find “a political solution to the grievances of the people in the North and the East” and had “discussed the basic principles of devolution of power”. Terminology once popularized by failed peace initiatives is in fashion again!

Cynicism aside, any attempt by the government to bring about ethnic reconciliation or to address long-standing issues of minorities is welcome. A sixth round of talks with the TNA is now scheduled for May 12. The TNA is said to be awaiting response to a set of power-sharing suggestions the party had made on the government’s request.

This process has not been without hitches. An irate Wickramanayake last week resigned from the committee, refusing to negotiate with the TNA after it welcomed the UN panel report which the government has unequivocally rejected. But the president appointed a new member and pledged to continue talks. It would be in the government’s interest, one way or the other, to take this endeavor forward.

The government evidently accepts this. Political sources revealed that during the initial rounds of talks, the mood had been rather flat with the government delegation “not engaging, perhaps due to an absence of a clear signal from the top”. “Their brief was to just keep talking,” said one source, on condition of anonymity.

Since the last meeting, however, the dynamics seem to have changed with “the official team showing a little more intent and urgency as well as willingness to engage”.

Ultimately, the TNA has nothing to lose in this equation. It is debatable whether the same could be said for the government. It knows that.

The writer is a senior journalist in Colombo.