Tiger Letter Nails Slippery UNF

By: J. S. Tissainayagam

The letter sent by LTTE’s chief negotiator Dr. Anton Balasingham to Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen seeking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s response on an interim administration has helped to diffuse speculation on why the LTTE has suspended “for the time being” negotiations with government, including attending talks in Tokyo scheduled for June this year.

The detailed correspondence is a public acknowledgement that the government was taking the LTTE and the Tamils for a ride, a fact that many Tamils knew privately, based on the premise that southern governments are intrinsically perfidious and should be handled with utmost care. The international community’s involvement through multilateral financial agencies, foreign governments and human rights experts only serve to multiply the hypocrisy.

The letter basically requests a response to “an interim administrative structure with greater participation of the LTTE in both decision making and delivery of the tasks of rebuilding the war damaged economy and restoring normalcy in the Tamil speaking homeland…”

What is interesting is that eight months after the UNF leadership at Sattahip rejected the proposals for an interim administration when “Professor Pieris explained the legal and constitutional constraints involved in the formation of such an administrative body outside the parameters of the Sri Lanka constitution,” the LTTE has gone back to the same structure.

This is perhaps because a Joint Task Force was proposed following rejection of the interim administration. The government disagreed with this too stating its inability to implement the proposal due to constitutional snags. The government wanted the body to come under the purview of the prime minister’s office, which would not have given the LTTE equal access to funds, a matter that went against the Tigers’ status as an equal partner with the government in the negotiating process.

Finally, the two sides settled for the Sub-committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Reconstruction Needs (SIHRN). But from the letter sent by Balasingham to Helgesen, (and as we all know) SIHRN has been shown up as grossly inadequate in delivering the goods.

Balasingham’s missive to Helgesen is not only a polite rap on the knuckles that the Sri Lanka government has not played ball, but a veritable history of the negotiating process in a nutshell. It brings up points of interest that calls to question various aspects of this process.

First, resurrecting the interim administration means the LTTE has realised there is no use trying to persuade the government to accommodate its demands within constitutionally permissible models (the rigidly unitary state) because it does not seem to be working. Readers will remember that soon after the UNF assumed power in December 2002, and the idea of the interim administration was still unsullied by party politics, it was debated that the body could be set up either under the 13 Amendment (as it was to be in 1988, but aborted), or as an entirely new body, which would be extra-constitutional. Though extra-constitutional, it was seen at that time as important in paving the way to setting up a semi-autonomous entity in the northeast in the event the government and LTTE agreed upon asymmetrical devolution.

The problem however is that in practice the consent of parliament needs to be obtained to set up an interim administration because the present unitary structure of Sri Lanka’s constitution does not permit such a body. And the two-thirds majority needed would be impossible to obtain today given the divergence in political interests between the UNF and PA-JVP.

The uncompromising adherence to the unitary state by the south was best seen in 1987 where the UNP government of the time had a two-thirds majority in parliament without the opposition. But the thirteenth amendment to the constitution to make operational the Indo-Lanka Accord only permits devolution within a unitary state. And why? Because India, at that time the most prominent representative of the ‘international community’ was willing to have it so and underwrite it through the Accord.

It will be interesting to also note the various scholarly articles by internationally known academics appearing these days in the local English press that quietly push “access to political power within a unitary constitution” as an ideal model where Sinhala fears of Tamils demanding a separate state could be compromised with Tamil demands for self-determination. These are also inspired by the same worldview as the politicians who remain uncompromising on the unitary state.

Second, the UNF has shown itself to be no better than its predecessors as far as the ‘grand tradition’ of Sri Lankan governments goes. Despite concession after concession made by the LTTE, the disingenuousness of the UNF is there for all to see. Why was UNF that demanded the watering down of the LTTE’s demands refuse to deliver even on a functioning SIHRN? Not because it is afraid of the opposition, surely? The government handled with commendable adroitness very sensitive matters ranging from the opposition’s berating criticism of the LTTE’s navy, to its import of radio equipment. So getting SIHRN to function could not be due to fear of the parties opposing the government.

Third, what was the LTTE doing for one year and three months after the Ceasefire Agreement was signed before taking action? From the three documents critiqued by Balasingham in his letter: the Draft Agreement between the government and LTTE, an informal paper on ‘Elements of a Strengthened and Expanded Mechanism for Reconstruction and Development of the North and East’, and a letter suggesting the use of locally elected bodies as a basis for development activities, it is patently obvious there was absolutely no progress made on forming a body that could effectively address the problems of sharing power even at this elementary level.

Under these circumstances why did the LTTE not press the government to honour its commitments earlier? There are hundreds of thousands of refugees awaiting repatriation, and as many IDPs awaiting return, the entire rehabilitation and developmental programme in the northeast awaiting takeoff, all which had to be postponed due to the LTTE’s soft approach towards the government. What is worse, it is also obvious that soft approaches backfire because the LTTE is now reduced to giving ultimatums!

Four, the fond hope of certain opinion-makers (some who are, not surprisingly, in the media) that the LTTE’s willingness to come to the negotiating table indicated Tamil rebellion had been de-fanged. It is this mindset that believes the present round of negotiations should be an exercise in forcing the Tamils to submit to southern hegemony.

Balasingham’s letter for Wickremesinghe’s responses only confirms a position put forward by the Northeastern Herald editorially. In all negotiations between the representatives of the Tamils from 1957 with parties forming the government – MEP, UNP or PA – there has been one constant. The party that is in government and involved in the negotiating process postures as the moderate party, while painting the opposition and the lobby groups supporting the opposition – especially sections of the Sangha and extremist Sinhala parties – as being rabidly intransigent.

The process of negotiation is thus more a south-south affair, at the end of which the so-called ‘moderates’ throw up their hands and cry in despair to the Tamil representatives, “Sorry we cannot concede anything substantial, because southern political opposition does not allow it.” This time there could be a slight variation of this theme because it might not only be the local political opposition, but the international community too. We are playing the same old record after 20 years of war and 64,000 deaths.