A Time For Courage

The Sunday Leader editorial, May 25,2003:

But for the loss of Gamini Atukorale, the sense of expectancy of great things on January 1, 2002 was unalloyed. Sri Lanka had emerged from seven years of the most corrupt administration in its history. The war that had claimed over 60,000 lives, including those of much of the UNF's leadership, had been quelled by a ceasefire. Even as citizens watched, the roadblocks and barricades around Colombo were taken down. Freedom was in the air, and the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire, reciprocated by the government, portended nothing but hope that a lasting solution would soon emerge.

Turning the paranoia and suspicion of two decades of war on its head could not have been easy. It took courage, and it was Ranil Wickremesinghe's carefully planned master stroke. We applauded him then, and echoed the nation's hope that it was but the first of many brave moves that would set Sri Lanka on a course to peace.

In politics, real courage is rare: daring master-strokes are more in the realm of fantasy than reality. As a class, politicians tend to be pussy-footers. The kind of courage it took Nelson Mandela to put his decades of imprisonment aside and seek to lead South Africans both black and white as equals, is almost without precedent in our time. The courage it took Mikhail Gorbachev to stand aside and allow the Soviet Union to be dismantled must surely be a close runner up. Big men doing big things; the kind of things for which Time magazine pulls out epithets like 'historic,' not normally part of its vocabulary.

Having started off lickety-split at the beginning of 2002 then, it was clear by year end that the peace process had started going nowhere. Since subscribing to the MoU, they had been relatively well behaved. While there were no great breaches of the ceasefire however, the LTTE managed to stoke the fires in the south with its own suite of provocations, by levying taxes, abducting citizens, operating hit squads and even courts of law. Worst of all, it got itself caught smuggling arms, raising fears that it was arming for a final military putsch for Eelam.

Trouble is, the Sinhala nation had yet to come to terms with the fact that as far as the Tigers were concerned, they had an operational state, albeit without the trappings of sovereignty. For more than a decade, the LTTE had been arming, training, doling out justice and levying taxes. Now all this was out in the open, with the media being given free access to report it. And for the first time the south became aware that what they were dealing with was not a band of brigands hiding out in the jungles of the Wanni, but a full-fledged statelet.

The southern perception of peace, however, was that the Tigers, just as they were compelled to do (and without notable success) in 1987, would lay down their weapons, subject themselves to the parliament of Colombo and stand for election to a new provincial council, and take office alongside their Sinhala and Muslim brethren singing namo namo matha as the lion flag waved above them. No one told them the time for this fantasy was past.

While the Tigers did not turn overnight into saints, they did make the one statement that gave cause for hope: they renounced their demand for a sovereign state and agreed to work within a federal framework. Sadly, the UNF government's notoriously inept media machine failed to grasp the significance of that offer and explain its implications to the nation.

Be that as it may, a year and a half on from those days of hope and glory in December 2001, it is clear that the peace process has run out of steam. Wickremesinghe's approach of hastening slowly has led to the LTTE losing patience, and rightly, too. As we have repeatedly pointed out, the UNF government is among the most inefficient this country has seen.

The Prime Minister has surrounded himself with committees: steering committees, review committees, advisory committees, sub-committees and all manner of mechanisms to slow things down. Headed either by himself or his coterie of trusted public servants, Bradman Weerakoon, Charitha Ratwatte and R. Paskaralingam, these committees have brought national administration to a virtual standstill. Ministry secretaries refer to these committees as black holes, where everything goes in and nothing comes out. Even aid donors have been grumbling that the finance sub committee, that vets tender awards, takes as long as three months to vet a cabinet paper.

While the prime ministerial committees have killed initiative in the public sector, Wickremesinghe himself has done little to paint a brighter picture at least for our far-flung cousins in the north. They are victims to even more committees, and have run out of patience with the self-serving vagaries of Jayalath Jayawardena, Wickremesinghe's bringer of good gifts to the north. If that is the best the UNF has to offer, it simply is not good enough. Under pressure to act, the Prime Minister appointed yet another committee: in effect, another dead end.

The Tigers are not alone in having run out of patience with the bureaucracy with which the Prime Minister has surrounded himself: the public service and the country have, too. The difference is that the public service doesn't really care: it can afford to sit back and be indifferent; it still gets paid. The Tigers don't, and their rank and file are fast losing patience with their leadership. Unless change can be seen on the ground, and unless the rehabilitation machinery gets moving, the north can have no confidence in subjecting itself to the writ of the south. That is the point Wickremesinghe needs to understand, and understand well: that it is against the very inefficiency he is inflicting on them through his endless committees and through Jayalath Jayawardena that the Tigers have been rebelling all along. That is in large measure why they want self-determination: because the Sinhala government in the south is making such a bad job of it.

Now the LTTE has reminded Wickremesinghe of his manifesto pledge to establish an interim administration for the north and east. About time, too. This was something that should have been done immediately in the aftermath of the MoU. After all, the Prime Minister sought a mandate from the people to do just that and a mandate he got. There was no caveat to Wickremesinghe's pledge such as it being subject to the UNF getting a two third majority. The people spoke on December 5, 2001 and the Prime Minister has a moral duty to implement his pledge. It is imperative that the people of the north and east be given some measure of administering themselves; they may make a bad job of it, but that is their prerogative.

Already the war drums have begun to beat in the south, against the LTTE's request. Fears are expressed that they will siphon aid money to re-arm; that this is a step towards Eelam; that the boundaries of the territory to be administered are not fairly demarcated; that Sinhalese and Muslims will be under-represented; and on and on. The great champions of Sinhala rights such as the Sihala Urumaya who reduced their cause to a mockery by splitting the party over a parliamentary seat no doubt will be crying wolf. The reasons for inaction are legion: what is needed is that one bold step, the step that makes leaders.

In 1998, Chandrika Kumaratunga offered the north to the LTTE on a platter, to administer on their own for 10 years. She has admitted as much. She did not, as revealed in Time magazine, subject the offer to a surrender of weapons but simply a call to stop fighting. In other words, a ceasefire, which in fact we have today. Well, had they accepted her offer (which they did not for lack of trust), they would still have five years left, of their 10 year term. The UNF has a mandate to make peace, and we have known all along that there can be no peace without autonomy. An interim administration will not threaten sovereignty, and it is, after all, interim, in that it leads to another step, that step being a full fledged federal system within a united Sri Lanka as already acknowledged by the LTTE. Wickremesinghe must then speed up his pace, and ensure that step is not long in coming. Indeed, this is a moment for courage; and as good a time as any to start hastening less slowly. What is!
 called for then is not the Prime Minister's policy of "warm hearts and cool heads" but as one minister told the Norwegians in the presence of the Prime Minister, "hearts of gold and balls of steel." We'll soon see who's got 'em.