Presidential Fury or Purposive Co-Habitation?

by Rajan Philips

The ceasefire agreement, if it lasts, will protect the country’s holy shrines, the Central Bank, the Trade Centre and the National Airport more than they were ever protected by the island’s legal sovereignty. Ordinary Sri Lankans can, once again, get on with their lives without the fear of being raped in the north or suicide-bombed in the south

After nineteen years of beggarly fighting, a permanent ceasefire agreement smells as good as permanent peace. It smells good for almost every section of Sri Lankan society, except for the predators who have political and material interests, or just plain psychopathic compulsions, in carrying on the beggarly fight.

The ceasefire smells bravely on the embattled Sinhalese soldiers most of whom, like soldiers everywhere, are pushed into the army by the poverty of their parents, while the real predators in Colombo will never send their children to defend the ‘line of control’. It is sweet smell for a whole generation of Tamil boys and girls for whom war has become the way of life.

Well-deserved respite

They will celebrate this peace and there is no better way to end their voluntary enrolment and involuntary conscription than to keep it (the peace) rolling. The ceasefire also offers a well-deserved respite to the millions (one would think) of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who have been displaced, dispossessed and even disabled by nearly two decades of fighting.

Would it be too much for all these sections of Sri Lankans to ask President Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, LTTE Leader Prabakaran, the JVP Politburo, the Muslim and Indian Tamil political leaders to desist from doing anything to undermine the current ceasefire agreement.

The last few years have seen concerted attempts in different parts of the world to get out of prolonged conflict situations. In Northern Ireland, the emphasis has been on interim arrangements; in the Middle East, the Oslo Accord envisaged multiple stages with deadlines for each stage, while the Clinton and the recent Saudi proposals have focused on the final status.

Politically, Sri Lanka is not ready for identifying a staged path, an interim arrangement, a final status proposition, or a constitutional solution. Sri Lankans deserve a commitment from their politicians of consequence to remain committed to tackling the long list of unresolved matters incrementally, one by one, and as ‘work-in-progress’, while avoiding the compulsive but fruitless constitutional gyrations of the past.

The controversy over how President Kumaratunga was consulted in the preparation of the ceasefire agreement and her public criticism of the terms of the agreement show how fragile the situation is. The fact that she was not properly briefed is an error in protocol, but she need not have gone public with her criticisms of the agreement, thereby giving the excuse to the ever-present hotheads to rush to Court for a ruling on the constitutionality of the agreement.

The president’s criticisms of the ceasefire agreement amount to legal pettifogging unworthy of the agreement’s political import, and her assertion that the country’s sovereignty has been compromised is no more than mendicant triumphalism. The reference to Kashmir is plain mischief.

The ceasefire agreement, if it lasts, will protect the country’s holy shrines, the Central Bank, the Trade Centre and the National Airport more than they were ever protected by the island’s legal sovereignty. Ordinary Sri Lankans can, once again, get on with their lives without the fear of being raped in the north or suicide-bombed in the south.

The President’s comments are also unworthy of the memory of many Sri Lankans, including the late Vijaya Kumaratunga, who even laid down their lives in supporting the earlier Indo-Sri Lanka agreement that too was criticised for its alleged infringement of the island’s sovereignty.

The role of the Norwegian Head of the Monitoring Mission is limited to the interpretation of the ceasefire agreement and nothing more. This is not unusual in conflict resolutions. The omission of a deadline for beginning direct talks is not a bad thing, given experiences in other situations where the fixation with deadlines has led to half-baked solutions and precipitous failures. Let us not forget that the agreement can be amended by mutual consent and can be ended unilaterally with a two weeks notice.

Interim administration

When Ranil Wickremesinghe first mooted the idea of ‘interim administration for the northeast provinces’ in November 1999, a perceptive Sri Lankan saw a great deal more between the lines in Wickremesinghe’s proposition than some of his sluggish friends including this writer.

After the ceasefire agreement, our friend reminded us of his private prophesy and the old wisdom that a one-eyed rascal is king in the land of the blind! It is a moot point whether the connection between the 1999 kite-flying and the 2002 agreement is a simple straight line or involved a more tortuous path of uncertain outcomes.

What is clear, however, is that from 1999, if not earlier, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga have faced the same opportunities and choices, but Kumaratunga ‘dropped the ball’ while her nemesis has held on to it for dear life. Their separate political paths and contrasting political styles offer some clues about the possibility of their political cohabitation.

Political career

Wickremesinghe began his political career as a timid young man, walking between his parents for his first swearing in as a junior minister in 1977. His political strength is his long apprenticeship during which he mastered the ropes and learnt the art of surviving by working with others.

Having been an insider in the UNP’s war administration against the JVP and the LTTE, and having seen the war devour everyone around him without any compensating benefit, Mr. Wickremesinghe appears to have become a genuine war-phobe without ever being idealistic about peace.

Equally, he has shown no enthusiasm for the constitutional approach, perhaps tired of all the years of constitutionalism under J. R. Jayewardene. In contrast, Mrs. Kumaratunga who is occasionally charismatic, selectively charming, frequently combative, chronically unpunctual and never lacking in hubris, took the shortest road to absolute power in Sri Lankan politics.

She rode the wave of an idealistic yearning for peace, but eventually led herself to be advised by her cousin-Colonel that she could do better than the UNP - defeat the LTTE militarily and bring in a constitution. She put all her political eggs in the Constitutional basket and dropped the container in the end, while her military efforts went one from setback to another including allegations of corruption by many of her officials.

In fairness to Chandrika Kumaratunga, her dealings with the LTTE were circumscribed by the chameleon politics of non-LTTE Tamil groups and busybodies, who abandoned the UNP for the winning PA in 1994, created the appearance of Tamil support for the PA government, and undermined effective contacts between the LTTE and the PA government. Kumaratunga totally misread the seasonal disenchantment of the Tamils with the LTTE as a sign of their solid support for her government.

She also failed to discern a similar ambivalence on the part of foreign governments and international agencies, who clearly loathe the LTTE for its terrorism but acknowledge it as the principal Tamil representative of consequence.

Ranil Wickremesinghe read the international signals well, more so because international opinion is all that matters to his main constituency, the Sri Lankan business class. But, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s strength can quickly become his Achilles Heel, as it became evident during his first statement in Parliament on the peace process, when he referred to ‘international opinion’ more than a dozen times.

The PA critics caught his slip but could not make a storm out of it. It is not the slip in Parliament that should concern Wickremesinghe and his advisers, but his well-known inability to mediate between the business class and international opinion, on the one hand, and the rural Sinhalese on the other.

Neither can Chandrika Kumaratunga, who faces the opposite dilemma: she can easily connect with the rural Sinhalese but has no credibility with the business class, large sections of the Sinhalese middle class and the minorities. If the two can mediate each other, then, together, they can mediate between Sri Lanka’s different social, ethnic, political and economic categories.


Curious as it may seem, the Presidential and Prime-Ministerial roles are more conducive to mutual mediation than it would have been possible in the old Parliamentary system which, given Sri Lanka’s combative political culture, counterposed the Prime Minister and his opposition counterpart, the Leader of the Opposition, as irreconcilable adversaries.

In the traditional parliamentary system, the Leader of the Opposition is only a shadow Prime Minister, or PM in waiting, and has no functional role in governance. In Sri Lanka’s present system, with the President and Prime Minister belonging to opposing parties, the two are forced to work together to keep the wheels of government turning.

The alternative is to countermand each other, bring the government to a grinding halt, and draw the people on to the streets, a scenario that will not be congenial to either of them or to anybody else.

As well, if one of them is seen to be intransigent and uncooperative, he or she will lose all credibility with the outside world and, worse, will have to face the wrath of a long annoyed public. Regardless of what the Jayewardene Constitution says or does not say, the two have no alternative but to cohabit.

Given their relative circumstances, the onus would appear to be on Mr. Wickremesinghe to bend over backwards and keep the President in the decision making loop, particularly on matters relating to the peace process.

Since the President seems understandably reluctant to attend every Cabinet meeting and suffer her quondam followers who walked out on her, the Prime Minister may have to initiate as a practice, if not a convention for Presidents and Prime Ministers belonging to different Political Parties, regular pre or post-cabinet meetings with the President.

Informal council

He could also institute, by mutual agreement, an informal council of advisors to offer advise and the benefit of ‘sober second thought’ to the President and the Prime Minister.

In the absence of such a council, we have the anomaly of the President relying on the advice of Lakshman Kadirgamar, an Opposition Member of Parliament, to criticise the work of ‘her’ cabinet. The President is free to obtain informal advice from anyone, but without a formal arrangement for consultation between the President and the Prime Minister, the two will never stop working at cross-purposes.

More important, the Prime Minister should rein in his attack dogs and scandalmongers who are straining at the leash to impeach the President.

The idle paranoia that the President will dissolve Parliament at the end of one year after the elections, and throw the UNP out of power, will become a self-fulfilling prophesy if the President is isolated and threatened with impeachment.

Hardly any commentator has noted the fact that the constitutional provision against dissolution within the first year after an election originated in the 1972 Constitution, where it was solely intended to avoid the 1960 experience when Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the then Governor General, capriciously inflicted on the country a second election in July 1960 after the UNP government elected in March had been defeated in Parliament on its first Throne Speech.

The criticism against Sir Oliver was that he should have invited the SLFP-led Opposition to form an alternative government without favouring the defeated Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, by acceding his request to dissolve Parliament.

The restrictive provision in the present constitution served its purpose by preventing President Kumaratunga from dissolving Parliament when her government lost its majority in Parliament, in 2001, within one year of its election. However, she contravened the spirit of the provision when she prorogued Parliament without giving the main opposition Party, the UNP, an opportunity to form an alternative government.

Current situation

In the current situation, it would be a perverse abuse of Presidential powers to dismiss the UNF government while it has a majority in Parliament and force an election before the end of its full elected term in six years. Conversely, it would be a travesty to move to impeach the President without letting her complete her term. In fact, both the President and the Prime Minister should be allowed to complete their elected terms.

The argument that the President should be impeached in order to protect the peace process is a ludicrous argument. The circus of impeachment will be a costly distraction to the peace process; it will provide a rallying point for all those who want the process to fail and potentially alienate nearly a half of the Sinhalese population.

In or out of office, she will be seen as the victim of impeachment and will emerge politically stronger than what she is now. On the other hand, if Kumaratunga stays in office and creates roadblocks to the peace process, she will be exposed for what she is and will be finished politically.

Chandrika Kumaratunga is still capable of discharging her enormous responsibility to redefine the Presidency in the changing political circumstances and play a pivotal role in facilitating the participation of her SLFP constituency and the JVP in the peace process, she can either succumb to her smaller instincts and spoil the show, or summon even flashes of her husband’s courage in more difficult days and draw inspiration from her father’s idealism - that was posthumously frustrated by her mother, to act responsibly and leave behind a positive political legacy.

But she also needs all the help she can have from her Prime Minister.

Courtesy: Ceylon Daily News [12 March 2002]