Is there really a glimmer of hope for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka now than ever before as some of us think?

Another Presidential election marred by violence, rigging and failed assassination attempt is over and a physically crippled President, Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumarathunga, has managed to secure another and her last term in office as President of the country.  President reacted to the failed attempt on her life, first like an "injured lion" attempting to hide the lost pride, with her verbal attacks and warnings against her Thamil enemies, and in some cases to the extent that those warnings could be interpreted even as death threats.  Then she took an about turn when she was in England for medical treatment, under political persuasion and advice probably from foreign elements, and declared in public through the interview she gave to BBC, that she was willing to negotiate a political settlement with LTTE.  On her return from England, by her 3-hour marathon speech she made over the TV under the disguise of an interview, she made even some people to wonder whether she has lost her mind.  The main and the ugly outcome of all these rhetoric is the emergence of a " National Movement Against Tigers" (NMAT) and the great loss to mother Lanka in the form of Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam's untimely departure.

While the victors were busy consolidating their victory by attempting to silence the resenting independent media, threatening to penalise those who financially supported the main opposition candidate and even identifying people for NMAT to get into action, the losers were watching every move of the victors in order to initiate counter measures to enhance their chances of a victory in the widely anticipated parliamentary elections to be held very soon. 

The President, who was elected in 1994 to her first term as a deliverer of peace, succeeded in hoodwinking the international Community by proclaiming that she was conducting only a "war for peace".  She was ably aided and abetted by the late Dr. Neelan Thiruchchelvam and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in this process.  By carrying on with her "War for Peace" strategy, she permitted her armed forces to commit countless atrocities against the Thamil community.  The President, realising now that she can't continue the same trick during this new term, in the absence of Neelan and with the help of a Kadirgamar without his political Guru, have no choice other than, ostensibly or not, to attract the attention of the International Community by declaring her commitment for initiating a solution at a hurricane speed.  Country's economy was already in shambles before the presidential election and has been further affected by the decline in tourism from last December after many countries issued travel directives to their citizens about the possible dangers during and after elections. Therefore, President Chandrika needed badly the liberal financial support she received from the International Community during her last term, to kick start the country's economy in her new term if she has to spend the same as in the past or more for her war efforts.  This is the main reason why President Chandrika has suddenly stopped her usual rhetoric like crushing the back of the tigers, eradication of the tigers etc. after she regained her senses after that fateful night at Town Hall.  To succeed in this endeavour, she had to resurrect the stalled, old, already watered down "Devolution Proposal" (DP) and pretend to the world as she is going to install it with in a short period as opposed to what she did with it in her last term.  To change the constitution and install this DP she needs a two third majority to vote in the parliament for the change.  She thought she could beef up the UNP defection group by attracting more disgruntled UNP MPs to the already defected Sarath Amunugama group and hence get this two third majority.  She was ready to table the so called "Conscience Bill" in parliament to facilitate and legitimise this one way crossover in the same way JR did during his time.

All this rang the alarm bells in Mr. Wickramasingha's camp and he swung into action immediately.  The same Wickramasingha who refused to give the two third majority vote for the change during the whole last term, suddenly took an about turn and declared to give full support to the change in the constitution, quoting the defunct Lyam Fox agreement signed during President Chandrika's last term between her and the opposition leader.  He did this to achieve three things.  First, to put the UNP defectors in a quandary and to put a stop to further defections.  Second, to get rid of the executive presidency (change in the constitution includes this) so that the rigged election victory becomes insignificant.  Third, to prevent the anticipated extension of the life of the parliament by the president, if the two third majority was to be achieved through defections, and to delay the general elections (Wickramasingha is not ready for an election now) to the schedule time of late August or early September 2000.  Mr. Wickramasingha knows very well that when it comes to the stage when President Chandrika has to sit and talk to LTTE, the same people who got rid of Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam, identifying him as a traitor, will identify President Chandrika also as a traitor and he also remembers well what happened to President Chandrika's father Prime Minister Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake.  In effect, Mr. Wickramasingha hopes to reduce President Chandrika's second term from 6 years to a mere few months and to grab the Premiership after the general elections in August or early September.  For this reason and only for this reason, in Victor Ivan's words, Mr. Wickramasingha has bowled this googly and waiting to see how President Chandrika is going to play.  If President Chandrika plays Mr. Wickramasingha’s googly safely without getting out, then Mr. Wickramasingha has to try some other trick to de-stabilize President Chandrika’s position.  President seems to be taking a cautious approach in playing this googly.  Although the President is yet to respond to Mr. Wickramasingha’s offer, she has left the Sarath Amunugama group of UNP defectors in cold and seems to have given up the idea of tabling the proposed Conscience Bill that could facilitate the one way cross-overs.  President seems to be using to the maximum, the Norwegian’s effort (they are taking a keen interest on the ethnic problem to secure a place for their country in the UN Security Council) to broker a peace deal between the two warring sides, in creating an impression in the international community that she means business this time around.  President is left with two options to play this game. One is to change her strokes to play Mr. Wickramasingha’s googly, by making changes in the draft constitution to retain some form of Executive Presidency and give a hard time to Mr. Wickramasinha to continue to bowl googlies and create an impression to the observers that he is the stumbling block to find a solution.  Other option to the President is to play carelessly and get out quickly and let Mr. Wickramaingha handle the crisis.  What ever the choice she may prefer, it looks like both the leaders are still playing the same old cat and mouse game to hold on to power.

However, the recent news reports revealing the US agreement to sell a large consignment of military hardware to Sri Lanka after Britain banning the sale of military hardware to Sri Lanka and the new recruitment program SL armed forces are embarking on, make any observer to question the integrity of both the President and the opposition leader with regard to their desire in finding a genuine peaceful negotiated solution to the ethnic problem.  A desperate plea made by a senior minister few days ago to the foreign diplomats, asking them to inform their countries that the situation in Sri Lanka is safe for the tourist to visit and change their earlier directives gien to their countrymen advising them against visiting Sri Lanka, underlines the importance for the Sri Lankan government to create an impression among the international community that the country is on a peace footing.   As Nadesan Sathienthra wrote about 15 years back in the then “Tamil Times” in comparing the Kurds and the Tamils being used as pawns in the game between two parties, Tamils are not fools to be used like the Kurds were used by US and the then USSR.  I am confident that Nadesan’s statement will prevail at the end.

Dr. Victor Rajakulendran