Has the Sri Lankan President Become a Prisoner in Politics of Her Own Making?

by Dr. Victor Rajakulendran, Sydney, Australia

When the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumarathunga (CBK), was elected to the supreme position of the country in 1994, people, especially Tamils, voted overwhelmingly for her because she campaigned promising to end the Tamil separatist conflict through peaceful means.  Without wasting time she negotiated a ceasefire as soon as she assumed office with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been in an armed conflict with the Sri Lankan armed forces to establish a separate state for the Tamil speaking people in their homeland the North-East province. 

However, during her 11 years of reign not only has the war escalated to catastrophic proportions, but also the peace she promised still remains elusive.  Who is to be blamed for this situation?  This is the question diplomats in Colombo, the international community (IC), UN agencies working with war victims, journalists trying to analyse the situation and peace activists are striving to find an answer for so that they could help to achieve this elusive peace in Sri Lanka.

President’s initial blunders

When President CBK was elected to her office, she was a novice to politics and her advisers were also alien to the country’s complex ethnic crisis.  As a result the negotiations were not handled in a professional manner.  For example, none of the government negotiators were even at cabinet level.  As a result the government negotiators were unable to make decisions at the negotiating table.  There were no mediators involved in these negotiations and hence the mistrust between the two sides that had built up over the years could not be narrowed down.  Therefore, the truce did not last long and fighting between the LTTE and the SL security forces (SLSF) resumed in 1995.

If President CBK was keen on peace at that time she would have tried her best through intermediaries to establish a truce again and tried to restart the negotiations.  Instead, she used her executive powers to declare a state of emergency throughout the country and ordered a full-scale war against the LTTE.  From 1995 to 2001, in the name of war people in the North-East of Sri Lanka were subjected to various forms of "State Terrorism." 

President CBK imposed a total ban on medicine, fuel and many other essential items necessary for everyday life to be taken into the North-East region.  President CBK sanctioned aerial bombing by her air force and naval bombardments from the sea of civilian areas including hospitals, schools and places of worship.  The whole population of the Jaffna peninsula had to flee to the northern mainland overnight when the SLSF wrested control of the city from the LTTE.  Half a million people became internally displaced people (IDPs) overnight and many thousands of these still remain IDPs.  Many of these IDPs, when they wanted to return to the SLSF-controlled areas, were denied access to their residences as these residences have come under the so called "High Security Zones" (HSZ) around the SLFS’s camps and still remain so. 

During this period, President CBK gave a free hand for the security forces to carry out extra-judicial killings of innocent Tamil civilians.  Innocent people, mostly students and youths, started to disappear suddenly, alleged to have been arrested by the SLSF, killed and their bodies disposed of illegally.  Amnesty international has confirmed that at least 600 of these disappearances happened at the hands of the SLSF.  The specially trained Presidential Security Division (PSD) of the SLSF was allowed by the President to terrorise those who openly criticised the President’s actions.  In some cases the PSD has assassinated the President’s critiques.  The Tamil veteran politician and human rights lawyer Kumar Ponnambalam is alleged to have been gunned down in daylight in his car in a Colombo street by members of the PSD for writing open letters to the President CBK and publishing in Colombo's English dailies.

President CBK operated on the basis of annihilating the LTTE by military means and then imposing a settlement to the ethnic conflict in her own terms.  To motivate the SLSF towards achieving her goal, she let the SLSF officers go around the world shopping for arms and ammunitions.  These officers soon learnt to earn fortunes in the form of commissions and kickbacks.  The lure of profit made these officers give President CBK false promises and hope that they would finish off the LTTE sooner than later.  President CBK was deceived by her own Generals.  The LTTE carried out retaliatory bombings even in Colombo and the Budhist city of Kandy.  The major offensive through the Vanni jungles by the SLSF which took several months to achieve was reversed in few days and the SLSF was pushed back by the LTTE to its original position. 

By this time the IC, a part of which was lead to believe that the SLSF could annihilate the LTTE militarily and hence lent support to President CBK’s military approach, realised the futility of this war.  Therefore, under pressure from the IC, President CBK agreed in principle to the demand by the LTTE for third party-facilitated negotiations.  The IC suggested Norway as the facilitator in 2000, and both sides accepted Norway to be the facilitator.  However, President CBK insisted on fighting while talking.  But the LTTE insisted on a cease-fire before starting to talk.   Both sides continued to engage in bitter battles. In April 2000, by capturing the strategic Elephant Pass garrison, the LTTE proved to the IC that they are equal in strength to the SLSF. 

The realization of a balance of forces brought more pressure from the IC on President CBK to negotiate.  However, President CBK was keen on making the IC declare the LTTE a "Terrorist" organisation.  With the help of Foreign Minister Kathirgamar, by year 2001 she managed to convince the US to list the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organisation, the UK to label LTTE as "terrorists" under its new anti-terrorism law designed to halt funding and support for UK-based militant groups and Australia to list LTTE for the purpose of freezing its assets in Australia.

The main reason for President CBK’s reluctance for a cease-fire and negotiations at that time was political.  Facing a Presidential election in December 1999 and a general election in October 2000, knowing very well that the Tamils would not support her this time because of how they were treated by her during her first term, she wanted to woo the Singhalese chauvinistic voters.  She thought the only way to do is to portray herself as the protector of the Singhalese nation by taking a hardline approach against the LTTE at the battlefront.  She succeeded and won both the elections.  Thus the political gamble worked for her, though at the expense of peace.  However, her minority government collapsed in one year, elections were held again in December 2001 and her opponent Ranil Wickremasinghe’s (RW) government came into power.

The President’s other blunders

In July 2001 the LTTE had successfully carried out a daring attack on the military airbase adjacent to the Colombo International Airport.  Many air force bombers were destroyed and the state airline, Air Lanka, also lost several aircraft in the ensuing gun battle.  There was no damage to the passenger terminal and no passengers were harmed.  This attack further crippled the war-battered economy and RW had to take over the administration as Prime Minister under these circumstances.

From the time the LTTE captured the Elephant Pass garrison in April 2000, the LTTE had declared several cease-fires unilaterally, and called on President CBK to start negotiations using the Norwegians as facilitators.  In anticipation of the general election in 2001, even after major military debacles, President CBK wanted to play the same ethnic gamble again and failed to grab the olive branch waved at her.  She paid the price this time as most of the people were tired of the war.

RW, realising the futility of the President’s "War for peace" approach, as soon as he took over the government in February 2002, signed a permanent ceasefire agreement with the LTTE with the help of the Norwegians, paving the way for talks to end the long-running conflict.  RW’s government lifted the entire ban on essential items entering the NorthEast imposed by President CBK’s government and ended the legal ban on the LTTE.  The LTTE participated in 6 rounds of negotiations in foreign capitols, as an equal partner with the government of Sri Lanka, under the Norwegians’ facilitation.  In April 2003, the LTTE suspended their participation in peace talks, saying they are being marginalised after the LTTE was not included in one of the consultations on the peace process held in Washington DC.

President CBK tried to put stumbling blocks in the way of RW’s peace efforts from the beginning, but because the US, EU and Japan were all behind the peace initiative, she waited for the opportune moment to break RW’s administration.

Although RW cannot be considered as more reasonable than CBK in dealing with the ethnic crisis, because of economic compulsions and pressure from the IC, he decided to take the peace process forward.  When RW was confronted by the LTTE with the demand for establishing an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in the North-East region of Sri Lanka while negotiating for a final settlement, he worked out an International Safety Net to handle the LTTE if it resorted back to armed resistance.  In this process, RW was even received at the White House by President Bush and an assurance of support was offered.  Such attention sent shock waves through CBK’s nerves and she decided to act.  Fearing that her political future would be in jeopardy if RW were allowed to go ahead with his plan, before RW returned from Washington, President CBK dismissed 3 of his ministers including the defence minister, which is important for maintaining the cease-fire, and brought all the three ministries under her direct control.  Later she went on to sack RW’s government, justifying this action by saying that his government was a threat to national security because of its willingness to grant an ISGA for the North-East region.

Realising very well that her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) cannot win an election on its own merit, she made her biggest blunder ever, and decided to fight the election by forming a common front with the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).  The JVP had been a terrorist organisation and had carried out 2 separate armed rebellions against the Sri Lankan government in the past, killing thousands of innocent Singhalese civilians.  The JVP is alleged to have killed President CBK’s politician husband, too.  The JVP never surrendered any weapons before entering the democratic process and no one even insisted on such disarmament.  The JVP was able to increase its strength in parliament from 19 to 39 by this political marriage of convenience and have now become the third largest parliamentary party.  CBK managed to form a minority government with the help of the JVP and a few other disgruntled Muslim parliamentarians who defected from their party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

President CBK can not play her earlier "War for peace" strategy any more.  The opinion of the IC has changed now and the economic status of the country would not let her do this either.  Therefore she was compelled to continue the peace process from where RW left off.

President reaping what she sowed in

During the 2004 elections, as usual to win the Tamil votes, President CBK promised to continue the peace process initiated by RW, and she boasted that she would carry this out in a structured manner.  When she took over the government from RW in April 2004 negotiations on the ISGA were to begin.  But, until December 2004 she did not take any initiative towards negotiations other than forming a new Government Peace Secretariat with new personnel of her choice.  The main reason for this lack of initiative is the continuous threat from the JVP not to negotiate with the LTTE.

The JVP depends on the anti-Tamil, anti-LTTE positions it takes for its vote bank.  While RW’s administration was forging ahead with the peace process, the JVP held several demonstrations in Colombo and even burnt the Norwegian flag in front of the Norwegian embassy, demanding the Norwegians quit their facilitator role.  The JVP is totally against sharing power with Tamils and opposes changing the unitary set up to a federal set up.  Having failed twice to capture power by military means, the JVP’s main motive is to capture power in Sri Lanka one day by other means.  The JVP knows it can achieve this only at the expense of the SLFP.  Therefore, although it is a partner with the SLFP in the present government, it has to show to the Singhalese masses that only the JVP is looking after the interest of the Singhalese.  They consider taking an anti-peace, anti-LTTE stand will help them achieve electoral advantage.  Therefore, whenever President CBK is compelled to take the peace process forward, the JVP threatens the President CBK that they will withdraw their support to her government. 

The President needs the JVP’s support not only to keep her own government in power, but also to change the constitution to stay as the executive president after her second term ends in 2006.  According to the constitution, a person cannot contest more than twice for the Presidency.  For President CBK to stay in the pinnacle of power, the executive presidency has to be abolished and the executive power has to be vested in the Prime Minister.  Then, President CBK could become the next Prime Minister with executive power.  Using this dependency of the President CBK, the JVP has been blackmailing her on peace process issues from the time she formed the government with them.

The December 26, 2004 Tsunami came as a blessing-in-disguise for the JVP-blackmailed President CBK.  She did not have to talk about the peace process for a while.  Now 5 months have lapsed since the Tsunami struck, and the same JVP has come back to haunt President CBK on the Tsunami issues, too.

A few days after the Tsunami disaster, considering the fact that 70% of the damage and destruction has been in the North-East of the country, the LTTE proposed the idea of formulating a Joint Mechanism (JM) between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to carry out the reconstruction work using the donations coming from the IC.  This idea was welcomed by most of the NGOs on the ground, as well as the diplomatic community in Colombo and, on principle, even by the Sri Lankan government at that time. 

Now the time has come for the Sri Lankan government to put its words to deed.  Although President CBK seems to be willing to try a JM that has been worked out by Norway and accepted by LTTE under compulsion from the IC, the JVP is again blackmailing President CBK as if this is the final settlement to the ethnic conflict.  They protest that creating a JM will pave the way for the LTTE to establish a separate state.

During the recently concluded "Sri Lanka Development Forum" in Kandy, President CBK vowed to go ahead with the JM, even though there is a threat to her life from even within the government (referring to the JVP).  This shows the intensity of pressure put on her by the IC to establish a JM.  President CBK, knowing very well that the JVP cannot gain anything by leaving the government, chose the path of convincing all the other partners in the coalition to support a JM and has succeeded also in this effort. 

Former US president Bill Clinton, at the end of his recent visit to Sri Lanka, came out very strongly in support of the JM.  This coming Thursday, after postponing twice, President CBK is going to be in New Delhi to discuss the JM with the Indian Prime Minister and others. 

Reports from Colombo also hint about the President’s plan to hold a national referendum on the JM issue to convince the JVP.  President CBK may want to test the waters this way before she decides to hold fresh elections to free herself from the clutches of the JVP.  It looks like she hopes to compel the JVP also to reluctantly agree to a JM after convincing everyone else to support it.  Japan seems to be doing some side-dressing of the JVP by taking the JVP politburo to Tokyo to educate them on the benefit of devolution, etc.  Going by what these JVP heavy-weights have said while in Japan, they seem to have softened their opposition to the peace process and the JM.  However, the JVP has a habit of saying one thing while abroad and then say completely the opposite when they address their voters.  Therefore, President CBK is yet to hear from the JVP about their stand onthe  JM in particular and the peace process in general.

Although the details of the JM draft proposal which are supposed to have been agreed upon by both sides have not been made public, Dr. Jayantha Danapala, the Secretary General of the Government Peace secretariat, assured the participants at the Kandy "Sri Lanka Development Forum" meeting that the JM is independent of the peace process and is a unique humanitarian mechanism.  He has also assured that, at the Regional level where the 10 member panel is weighted more towards the LTTE (5 LTTE, 3 Muslim and 2 Government), the principle of decision-making is by consensus and there are 2 provisions for protecting minority (Muslim and Government) interests:

1. If any 2 members oppose a proposal then seven have to vote for it to go through; otherwise it is rejected.

2. If the Regional tier rejects a District Committee proposal, then 7 members must uphold the rejection. [For those who are not familiar with the proposal: the JM will have 3-tier structure: District, Regional and National.  At the District level, existing District level committees of the Government Agent will function with the additional inclusion of LTTE representatives.  At the Regional level for the North-East, a 10 member committee with 5 LTTE, 3 Muslim and 2 from government will function.  At the National level, a 3 member panel - one each from LTTE, Government and Muslim - will make decisions.]

If all this is true, President CBK has caught the JVP and SLMC with their pants down now.  Both the groups were kept in dark about the details of the JM and allowed to make noises against the JM for nothing.  What one could see clearly here is, while the JVP is trying to undermine the SLFP from within, the government on behalf of SLFP President CBK is also trying to undermine the credibility of the JVP in the eyes of the Singhalese voters.  While President CBK’s government is has to function under such a relationship the road to a final peaceful settlement of the ethnic crisis is going to be very rough for President CBK.  The JVP will keep on playing the same tactic at every juncture.

President CBK set the benchmark on how to use a war, even with the suffering of her citizens, to win votes by satisfying a section of the population.  The JVP and JHU are copying her same tactics to undermine her authority and capture power.  The only difference is President used the war, but the JVP and JHU are using the peace process.  Whether and when RW’s UNP will jump into the ring to join the JVP and JHU for the same purpose is yet to be seen.  Maybe their proposed 11 day long "Patha Yathra" (Long March) to Colombo may be their attempt to get involved. 

What President CBK unscrupulously used to keep her in power has come back to haunt her and now is threatening her political future itself.  If President CBK had avoided sacking RW’s government and instead helped him in the interest of the country to forge ahead with the peace process, could not she have avoided all the troubles she is going through now to establish this JM that everyone is supporting except the JVP and a faction of the JHU and SLMC?

Can President CBK put the country’s interest before her own, rise above all, even at this late stage, and take some bold decisions to break this vicious political cycle in Singhalese politics to prevent Sri Lanka from breaking up?

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Posted May 31, 2005