President & Premier Play a Traditional Sinhala Game

 by Tamil Guardian editorial

As Norwegian facilitators flew into Colombo this week in yet another effort to kickstart their stalled peace initiative, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was already throwing in the towel as far as his government's participation in the process was concerned. Having had the crucial defence ministry, as well as the interior and media portfolios, stripped from its cabinet, the United National Front (UNF) government has also lost its ability to negotiate meaningfully with the Liberation Tigers. As Mr. Wickremesinghe this week told his arch rival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, he cannot enter into agreements which he cannot subsequently implement in practice. The peace process is already stalled over the military's refusal to abide by the ceasefire agreement the UNF and the LTTE signed in February 2002. But with President Kumaratunga now firmly in control of the defence ministry, there now isn't even the possibility of the normalcy aspects of that agreement being implemented.

To begin with, however, the characterization of the present power struggle within the Sinhala leadership as primarily that of a liberal, propeace Parliamentary government opposing a hardline militarist Presidency is incorrect. Mr. Wickremesinghe is no less determined to thwart Tamil aspirations for self rule than Mrs. Kumaratunga. It should not be forgotten, for example, how vociferously his United National Party (UNP) denounced the weak devolution proposals that Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance (PA) were attempting to pass through Parliament in 2000. Or the laughable proposals the UNP itself put forward before that. Indeed, the present crisis in Colombo has nothing to do with the peace process per se, no matter how passionately Mr. Wickremesinghe's corner might insist it does. In fact, Oslo's initiative is only the present football in the long running, 'traditional' rivalry between Sinhala government and Sinhala opposition. As seasoned observers of Sri Lankan politics are well aware, since independence, any attempt by a ruling party to genuinely or duplicitously offer powersharing, no matter how weak, to the Tamils, has spurred its rivals into making resistance to the move central to their political campaigns. Efficacy in opposing Tamil political aspirations has thus become the yardstick by which Sinhala politicians are measured by and promote themselves. The UNF itself has done nothing to change this culture and has often exploited it, admittedly more subtly than the PA.

It should not be forgotten, meanwhile, that it was Kumaratunga's legacy of economic ruin and military failure that propelled Mr. Wickremesinghe to power in December 2001 and his pursuit of the peace process since. Or that it is the LTTE's latent military potency that has prevented a slide back into armed conflict at a time of Kumaratunga's choosing. But it should also not be forgotten that the UNF has been no less adept at preparing for war than the PA, rearming, recruiting and building military alliances apace. But, unlike Mrs. Kumaratunga, whose preference for a military solution to the Tamil question is well known, Mr. Wickremesinghe is prepared to explore the negotiated process albeit within the limits that Sinhala nationalism permits within the southern electorate.

The Liberation Tigers have, unsurprisingly, maintained a studied silence ever since the latest crisis broke early last week. But as they have pointed out earlier, for negotiations to be successful, there must be a united Sinhala leadership in Colombo. Furthermore, whilst this is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient: that leadership must also be prepared to negotiate in good faith with the LTTE. Mrs. Kumaratunga's views on the Norwegian peace process are well known. Yet, despite the frequent pleas of those advocating a negotiated solution, Mr. Wickremesinghe has always sought to balance the obvious political benefits of impeaching his archrival with those of coopting her fanatical prowar stance into his negotiation strategy with the LTTE. His repeated efforts at cohabitation with a committed opponent of the peace process have been perplexing but not if the utility of her presence in dealing with the LTTE is taken into account. But now the UNF has been hoisted on its own petard. Kumaratunga has moved decisively in pursuit of her personal ambitions and Mr. Wickremesinghe is unable to resist. It remains to be seen how the constitutional tussle will play itself out, even though the UNF has made much of the popular mandate it received from the electorate. But if Mr. Wickremesinghe is serious about a negotiated solution to the island's protracted ethnic conflict, he needs to ensure a stable, propeace leadership emerges in Colombo.

November 12, 2003


Posted November 13, 2003