S Sathananthan


The time has come to abandon wishful thinking. Most Tamils wanted to, and some actually did, believe that President Chandrika Kumaratunga (ethnically Sinhalese) was “well meaning”, possessed “good intentions”, but was “a prisoner of Sinhalese chauvinists” within her own party and government, and so on. During the first year of the Peoples Alliance (PA) coalition government, these illusions appeared plausible for one understandable reason. President Kumaratunga lacked a political track record prior to 1994. Therefore, her claims to sincerity, to have risen above Sinhalese chauvinism and her self-proclaimed commitment to peace could neither be critically assessed nor disputed effectively.

We, the Tamils, have been decimated under her iron-heeled rule for about six years. It is time to stand back and take a cold, hard look at the political reality confronting the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga continued the military onslaught, which the then United National Party (UNP) Government had begun in 1979, against the Tamil National Liberation Movement. In July 1995, she unleashed Operation Leap Forward in the northern Jaffna peninsula to “capture” the city of Jaffna, the cultural heartland of Ceylon Tamils, and intensified military repression of the Tamil people under the guise of “combating terrorism”. On the political front, she whipped up unprecedented Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism through the Sudu Nelum (White Lotus) campaign inaugurated in August, aimed ostensibly to usher in “peace”. The White Lotus is a potent symbol of Buddhist worship, for the flower is by tradition offered during prayer. President Kumaratunga anointed the military solution with the White Lotus campaign and transmuted State terrorism into a Buddhist Dharma Yuddhaya (Holy War) or “War for Peace”. After the Sinhalese army invaded Jaffna in December, her Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte (ethnically Sinhalese) arrogantly raised the Sinhalese Lion Flag over the city on the 5th; and on the following day President Kumaratunga resurrected Sinhalese feudal military tradition in Colombo to celebrate the “conquest” of “Yapa Pattu”.

President Kumaratunga’s gross manipulation of extreme Sinhalese chauvinism is unparalleled in post-independence history; and she reaped handsome dividends. She was re-elected at the 1999 presidential election on the strength of votes cast by Sinhalese and despite Tamils voting massively against her. Indeed her election victory was in large measure due to crude Tamil-baiting: she accused the UNP presidential candidate, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe, of colluding with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to defeat her, to divide the country and, by implication, to destroy the Sinhalese-Buddhist nation.

Consequently, the sanguine belief that Tamils control the balance of voting power in a presidential election is no longer valid. Victory at future presidential elections will hinge on how well a Sinhalese party and its candidate could exploit Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism and sell themselves as protectors of the Sinhalese race against Tamils.

Having prosecuted the war for Sinhalese supremacy for more than five years, President Kumaratunga stands exposed as a hard-line Sinhalese politician steeped in Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism. It follows that she is implacably opposed to recognising the rights of Tamils. And, in fairness to her, she had explicitly stated this position during her Address to the Nation after she was sworn in as President almost six years ago, on 12 November 1994. Reading from the text of her speech, she described her new government’s policy towards the armed conflict between the Sinhalese State and the LTTE-led Tamil National Liberation Movement thus: “we will ensure that our approach to peace will fully address the necessity to safeguard and strengthen the rights of the Sinhala people, while recognising dignity, self-respect and equality of treatment of all communities. This will form the essential basis of a negotiated solution to the ethnic problem.” President Kumaratunga recognised “rights” of the Sinhalese. In her and PA government’s Sinhalese-Buddhist world view, Tamils have no rights in Sri Lanka; they have to be content with, and grateful for, “dignity, self-respect and equality of treatment” handed down by the Sinhalese government. Clearly this denies justice to the Tamil people.

Why, then, the hoopla over a so-called “peace package”?

The President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the dominant force within the PA coalition, had languished in the Opposition for about 17 years. When it returned to power in August 1994 the levers of State power – especially the higher ranks in the bureaucracy, police and armed forces – were firmly controlled by UNP loyalists. The party needed time to purge them and appoint SLFP loyalists to sensitive positions who could be trusted to execute the military solution effectively.

President Kumaratunga saw in the LTTE’s invitation to “talks” and calls for a Cessation of Hostilities (COH) in September a convenient breathing space to carry out the purge and prepare for war. By February 1995 her intention became obvious, thanks in part to the flatfooted moves of her “delegation” dragging out desultory “talks” to buy time. Her strategy was not lost on the LTTE and the organisation’s Leader, Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran, swiftly cut short the COH on 19 April 1995. That the government hoped for more time to prepare for war was underscored by its inability to engage the LTTE militarily until Operation Leap Forward was unleashed in July.

About three weeks later, President Kumaratunga floated her “President Kumaratunga’s Devolution Proposals” on 3 August 1995. Two days later, her Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration Prof GL Peiris (ethnically Sinhalese) helpfully explained their strategy of divide and rule: “we do expect that the military effort will have the effect of diminishing the strength of the LTTE. But the political proposals will also have a role in that regard because they will go a long way towards convincing the Tamil people that the Government should be supported and that will alienate the Tamil people from the LTTE. So there is a connection between the two things”.

A week later Minister Peiris revealed another facet of the “connection”, or the usefulness of the Proposals to legitimise Sinhalese military aggression: “some want to know the necessity for a political solution when a war is raging. True, what we need to win the war is armaments not a political solution. But we have been able to procure military hardware because we have presented a political solution…The President’s leadership has gained international acceptance today. Therefore, we experience no difficulty to get our arms requirements…The President and the Government have succeeded in convincing the world community that restoration of peace is possible through the political package. We cannot expect the co-operation of the international community [to execute the military solution] without seeking a political solution”.

The primary strategic objective of releasing the 1995 Proposals is, therefore, to justify the military solution and to buy time to allow the State’s armed forces to defeat the LTTE-led Tamil National Liberation Movement. Its principal tactical objective is to drive a wedge between the LTTE and the Tamil people, by deceiving Tamils into believing that a political solution is on the anvil.

The Proposals had nothing to do with devolution of power and critical Tamil analysts expected the President and her government to procrastinate (to buy time) and ultimately avoid implementation (anticipating a military victory over the LTTE). This is precisely what transpired. Minister Peiris outlined a time-consuming and all but impossible procedure to adopt the Proposals into law. It was to be approved first by SLFP. Thereafter the member-parties of the PA were expected to endorse the Proposals. The third tortuous step was to shepherd the Proposals through the Parliamentary Selection Committee (PSC) on Constitutional Reform. In the very unlikely event that it survived the PSC, the Proposals were to be put to a vote in Parliament. If passed with the mandatory two-thirds majority, for which support of the UNP is indispensable, the PA Government would adopt it as the official proposal for devolution of power. Even a cursory knowledge of Sri Lankan politics would show that this outlandish scheme is a red herring.

Not surprisingly, from 1995 to 1999, neither President Kumaratunga nor her PA government pursued the four-staged process to finalise a scheme of devolution. Instead the President released three political diversions – three versions of the Proposals – all crafted to buy time, whilst the armed forces continued to advance in the Jaffna peninsula and later in the Vanni region (on the mainland south of the peninsula). But LTTE’s Operation Oyatha Alaigal III, from September 1999 to April 2000, rolled back most of the advances made by the army in the Vanni over the previous five years. The stunning success of the Operation shattered the Sinhalese-nationalist delusions of an outright military victory harboured by the President and her government.

The military debacles, however, are not the reason for the President’s uncharacteristic and obsessive urge to introduce the fifth version of the Proposals – the Constitutional Reform Bill – in Parliament on 3 August 2000, exactly five years after the 1995 Proposals. Nor was the President moved by the fact that the document embodies the consensus arrived at by the UNP and the SLFP through several meetings held during the first half of 2000.

The reason, rather, is quite mundane. Mrs Kumaratunga was elected President for the second term in 1999. Under the relevant provisions of the present Constitution, a person is entitled to hold the office of President for two terms only. At the end of the current second term, President Kumaratunga has no option but to relinquish political office. But if the Constitution could be changed to re-introduce a Westminster model, then she could return as Prime Minister at the next general election, which would be held on or before 2006.

President Kumaratunga explained that her autocratic ruse to railroad the Bill into law, allowing only two days of debate, was dictated by the lofty need to urgently devolve power and achieve peace. On the contrary, it has every thing to do with her unseemly move to stay in power come 2006. She sought by means fair or foul the two-thirds majority needed in Parliament to adopt the Bill and shift to a Westminster system. She tried, unsuccessfully, to bring to heel rebels within the SLFP with threats to investigate their alleged “LTTE links” and was dismayed to find that the financial and political inducements offered to potential defectors from the UNP were largely ineffective.

Predictably, the assorted political illiterates in Sri Lanka, namely, the peaceniks, Chandrika sycophants, and pathologically anti-LTTE forces – especially the Sinhalese among them – lauded the President for the “courageous” act of introducing the Bill in Parliament. The naïve, who flatter themselves as pragmatists, conceded the return of President Kumaratunga as Prime Minister under a Westminster system as a necessary trade off to enact a new constitution with provisions, although obviously dubious, on devolution of power. The supine “moderate” Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was acutely embarrassed by, and so balked initially from endorsing, the impotent provisions but later meekly fell in line claiming they are a useful starting point. All of them desperately manoeuvred to conjure up prospects for a political solution, to deceive Tamils, and thereby weaken the LTTE by isolating it from the Tamil people.

But President Kumaratunga’s desperate gamble to perpetuate herself in power failed four days later when she was constrained to have the vote “postponed” indefinitely. To soften the blow, terminal sycophants invented a “transitional constitution”, which deception, they hoped in vain, would also “wean” Tamils away from the LTTE by keeping alive hopes for a political solution.

President Kumaratunga incorporated the semblance of devolution of power in the Bill primarily to hoodwink the Sinhalese electorate into believing that she continues to strive for a political solution and to bring the war to an end; secondarily, it was meant to entice support from those few gullible Ceylon Tamils. She proposed in the Bill to grant citizenship to the stateless among Up-Country Tamils in order to secure the votes of their Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). By tagging these “concessions” to constitutional reform towards a Westminster system, she calculated, cunningly, that the UNP would be compelled to vote for the Bill and entrench her in power. If, however, the party voted against the changeover to a Westminster system, she could condemn the UNP for undermining devolution and opposing citizenship rights for the Stateless and thereby discredit it at the parliamentary elections scheduled for 10 October 2000.

The UNP was thus confronted with a delicate task. It had to find a way to block the Bill and so torpedo President Kumaratunga’s machinations to engineer her return to power in 2006 without being castigated as the opponent of peace and incurring the wrath of the Sinhalese electorate. There is another important tactical reason for obstructing the Bill. If the present Constitution is retained, President Kumaratunga will go permanently out of politics at the end of her current term of office; and, consequently, her SLFP would suffer a major setback. This would leave the field wide open for the UNP, and virtually guarantee that its leader Mr Wickremasinghe is elected President in 2006.

Mr Wickremasinghe found the way. He and his party members skilfully spread the word that President Kumaratunga, blinded by greed to return to power under a Westminster system, is compromising the interests of Sinhalese in her short-sighted push to secure the support of “minority” (Tamil) parties. Mr Wickremasinghe then drew Buddhist monks into the fray. He declared that the UNP would back the Bill only if it was presented first to the Maha Sangha, the supreme Buddhist council, for its approval. In turn the Buddhist monks grasped the opportunity to extend and deepen their influence over politics and vociferously demanded to be consulted on constitutional reform.

President Kumaratunga knew that if counsel were sought, the Maha Sangha would insist on the exclusion of provisions relating to devolution and grant of citizenship. If she conceded that, which she must, that would compromise her proclaimed “peace” agenda; and the UNP as well as the Sinhalese Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) (National Liberation Movement) would tar her and her party as warmongers and irretrievably damage electoral prospects. Caught in the proverbial cleft stick, she wriggled her way to Kandy a few days before the Bill was to be introduced in Parliament to meet the Mahanayake Theros (Heads) of the three main Buddhist sects. In an unprecedented move, none of them granted her an audience. She obviously went to make a horse deal but returned empty handed. For good measure, the Mahanayake Theros wrote to all Sinhalese-Buddhist Members of Parliament (MP) warning them the provisions on devolution will divide the country and exhorting them to vote against the Bill. On 7 August, President Kumaratunga had the Bill withdrawn when it was obvious that it would be defeated if put to a vote.

If the UNP and Mr Wickremasinghe succeeded in thwarting for the moment President Kumaratunga’s lunge for power, they also established a crippling precedence. By calling upon the government to consult the Maha Sangha on constitutional reform, the UNP bestowed upon the Buddhist clergy a constitutional role hitherto non-existent and one that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. In effect, the UNP handed the Buddhist clergy veto power over future constitutional reform.

Indeed, the new Prime Minister Mr Ratnasiri Wickremanayake is a Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliner with close and strong links to the Maha Sangha. He underlined the clergy’s unique constitutional role. On 11 August, the day after he was appointed, he rushed to Kandy and consulted with the Mahanayake Theros. On the following day, at a press conference held immediately after concluding the consultation, Mr Wickremanayake reinforced the role of the clergy; he declared: “we will seek the views of the Mahanayakes on each and every paragraph, clause and line of the draft Constitution [Bill] so that they can correct us where we have gone wrong”; and added: “in future any solution to the existing crisis would only be forwarded [to Parliament] after reaching an agreement with the Maha Sangha.” Given the implacable opposition of the vast majority of clergy to devolution of power in any form whatsoever, even the illusion of a “peace process” cannot be sustained by any future government.

Irrespective of who wins the forthcoming parliamentary elections, President Kumaratunga’s obsession to shift to a Westminster system, to be able to return to power in 2006, will dominate politics. She is fighting for her (and her dynasty’s) political survival. She will stop at nothing. This is amply demonstrated by the grotesque violence, deceitfully blamed on LTTE’s “suicide bombers”, but spawned largely by government-backed death squads to gravely intimidate opposition politicians and subdue their supporters in the ongoing election campaign. It is likely that her SLFP (together with its allies) fails to secure a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament; or that she may be unable to introduce a Westminster system. If so, President Kumaratunga could be expected to fall back on the most powerful political institution in the country – the armed forces. A military coup by officers loyal to her and a military regime headed by the President cannot be ruled out. The intention would be to impose a new constitution while the country is strapped under military rule – a technique perfected by the Pakistani army, which of late has become the role model for the Sri Lankan army.

The UNP will redouble its efforts to retain the present Constitution and the Executive Presidential system and so look forward to bid fond farewell to Mrs Kumaratunga in (or before) 2006. It would no doubt enjoy the support of numerous enemies the President made during the past six years. Here the strength and role of those sections within the armed forces and the Buddhist clergy that favour the UNP will be crucial.

The terms of discourse would be crafted to mask the power struggle between the SLFP and UNP and are likely to remain deceptive. President Kumaratunga would continue to advocate constitutional reform for the alleged principal objectives of “devolution of power” and securing “peace”. Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe would qualify (and oppose) constitutional reform in order to “protect rights” of Sinhalese-Buddhists and “preserve unity” in the country.

Whichever scenario unfolds, there is one central factor that will determine future government policy on the armed conflict. An alliance between the army and the Buddhist clergy, not unlike that which exists in Thailand, has been forged and is gaining ground rapidly in Sri Lanka. It is this military-clerical establishment, which obstinately defends the unitary State that will decide the course of action to be taken by every future government against the Tamil National Liberation Movement. Needless to add, even illusions of prospects for devolution of power are no longer tenable.

The next government, whether formed by the UNP or the SLFP, will pursue exclusively the military solution. But the inability to defeat the LTTE in battle means that the military solution would now take an overtly genocidal form, including everything from induced famine to a scorched earth policy. The flattening of Chavakachcheri in September 2000 is but one pointer to this gruesome reality.

The LTTE-led Tamil National Liberation Movement will continue to resist genocide. On the other hand, what should be the role of Tamils living outside Sri Lanka?

The international community relevant to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka consists of the governments of India, of countries in Western and Northern Europe and in North America, and of Australia and New Zealand. They have been alarmed by the recent military successes of the LTTE. The first priority of these governments with respect to Sri Lanka is to ensure the defeat of the Tamil National Liberation Movement. To this end, they have so far condoned, and will continue to condone, the genocide of Tamils rather than support the independence of Tamil Eelam. For genocide comes easily to the international community, which has liquidated half million children in Iraq over the past eight years and is cheerfully continuing the slaughter in that country.

The international community is also actively seeking to weaken the Tamil National Liberation Movement. Declaring LTTE as a “terrorist organisation”, levelling allegations of “recruiting child soldiers”, and persecuting Tamil associations abroad as “front organisations” of the LTTE are some of the better-known tactics. Foreign “mediation” is another such tactic. It would arrest the Tamil National Liberation Struggle, emasculate the military capability of the LTTE by enforcing decommissioning of weapons and trap its leadership in the quagmire of interim/provincial administration. The tragic history of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the 1993 Oslo Accord to the present holds valuable lessons.

Emboldened by the stance of the international community, President Kumaratunga openly confirmed the intensification of genocide of Tamils. She announced on 6 October 2000 a “no holds barred” war against the LTTE. Mr Wickremasinghe had earlier proposed the formation of a Military Council. It may be comforting to some to believe that both politicians are engaging in mere rhetoric in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Given, however, the changed political landscape – the hegemony of the new military-clerical establishment – what all this reveals is the utter subservience to it of both President Kumaratunga and Mr Wickremasinghe. Neither is there any other politician on the horizon who could remotely challenge that establishment.

Therefore, there is no scope for a political solution in the foreseeable future. Rather, under the garb of fighting the LTTE, the State’s armed forces will escalate the slaughter of Tamil civilians over the next few years.

The task before the Tamils living abroad is enormous. They should strive in every possible way to provide relief for, and help rehabilitate, the Tamil people affected by war. At the same time, they must unflinchingly strengthen the military capability of the LTTE. Might must be on the side of Right. Nothing else matters.

7 October 2000

The author, Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan, read for the Ph D degree at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is Founder-Secretary of The Action Group of Tamils (TAGOT) in Sri Lanka.