Political chaos in Sri Lanka

by V Gunaratnam

There are new imperatives driving Sri Lankan politics at this time, as it struggles to move the peace process forward and around the corner. But it is difficult to make out anything, because the political scene is like a huge iceberg: only the tip is visible but there is a lot going on below the surface. Letís take a look and try to get some idea about the chaos going on below anyway.

Kumaratunga caught in economic downdraught

The Sri Lankan economic crisis has finally caught up with Kumaratungaís political problems, putting her leadership and government in imminent danger of being reduced to a farcical political force, unless she buckles up and gets back on track with the peace process.

The economy hangs over her like a metaphorical anvil, threatening to come crashing down on her at any moment. Skyrocketing prices and widespread drought are playing havoc with peopleís lives, but the government has virtually nothing to offer the farmers and homemakers reeling under the impact.

Suddenly the screws are tightening even more on the government with Ďbigí election promises to keep. The cash-strapped UPFA is hard pressed to do anything about the 70% salary increase promised to civil servants, and the pledge to train nearly 60,000 university graduates and school leavers, for jobs that donít really exist.

Without question, the government is desperate for funds, but the $4.5 billion promised as foreign aid is not going to be unlocked by donors until Kumaratungaís government commits to restarting the stalled peace talks, and puts out a sound economic plan that somehow escapes being mangled by the JVP.

Kumaratungaís recent eureka-like cry that she "see the light at the end of the tunnel" was nothing more than a mirage of shiny American dollars. But itís very unlikely she would be seeing the real thing until she starts dealing with the peace process in earnest.

As is typical of her, Kumaratunge no doubt has many other irons in the fire. There is too much more at stake for her to lose than the presidency when her term ends in 2005. She can no longer claim immunity from prosecution in the courts once she is out of the presidency. Knowing her penchant for doing unpredictable things, even playing with fire, anything could happen before she vacates office.

If Kumaratunga is to redeem her presidency, even at this late stage she should get the peace jigsaw puzzle falling into place to get much needed aid flowing again. However, as time runs out on her, she seems more bent on extending her hold on power by whatever means necessary than taking care of the plight of her people.

But the writing is on the wall. Restart the peace process, get the vital aid to arrest the haemorrhaging economy, or risk plunging the country into political and economic chaos, civil strife, and even war.

CWC in another balancing act

The CWC in government is not uncharacteristic of the party, because they have always straddled the political divide very astutely out of sheer necessity, being a small fish in a big pond.

CWC leader, Thondaman, has a rich legacy of political wisdom to fall back on, the art of performing the balancing act in politics. The CWC has played a significant stabilizing role in Sri Lankan politics for decades. But this time round they might also be required to play another role, as an agent of change.

Kumaratunga wants the CWC to butt heads with the JVP, and stand up to them, because the CWC is not tied down like a coalition partner. No sooner they were in cabinet, they fired off their first salvo at the JVP. But Kumaratunga also sees them as a very useful political lifeline to Ranil, should the JVPís tantrums start rocking the boat. This way she keeps all her options open.

Ranil sees the CWC as their Trojan horse within the UPFA, to pave the way for a possible return to power at some opportune time. While Kumaratunga knows this risk, she has no choice but to use the CWC to get a majority government and do her Ďdeedsí in parliament before being thrown out of power or the presidency.

Perhaps India also has a hand in this. By gently persuading Thondaman to shore up Kumaratungaís shaky minority government, they might be trying to get the peace talks going again without actually playing their own hand until some strategic later time.

The Indians could also be fishing in troubled waters to get a stranglehold on the Sri Lanka economy. And that fear has already been raised publicly in Colombo. The Sri Lanka government should not be mistaken about what the driving force is behind Indiaís policies towards it.

Whatever got the CWC into government, it gives them the chance to promote their own political and economic interests, and at the same time help the peace process along by shrewdly exploiting their unique relationship with Kumaratunga and Ranil.

Watch out for more developments!

JVPís malignancy grows

The JVP has been driving Kumaratunga bonkers ever since the UPFA government was formed. At one point Kumaratunga must have muttered "Ömy god, are these fellows on our side or what?".

The JVP for its part has been digging its own grave, acting like a bull in a china shop, trying to wreck everything from the peace talks to IMF loans. They are so consumed by their self-importance and power that they have lost control, pushing too hard to get their way, and taking swipes at Kumaratunga in public.

Finally, Kumaratunga had had enough of the stuff from her Marxist comrades, and decided to show them who was boss. She abruptly vacated her position as head of the coalition and made herself free to knock them about from the high perch of the presidency, and thatís working.

On the economic front, the JVP exposed its Marxist pedigree, and ignorance of international finance when they tried to lay down the law to lenders like the IMF, who were being badgered by Kumaratunga for loans. It was a most disturbing sign to the international crowd of what could happen to their hard currency loans if the JVPís voodoo economic theories were to hold sway within the UPFA government.

But the JVPís antics probably wonít shake Kumaratungaís resolve to do what she wants to do, by invoking the enormous powers of the presidency. In the end it is very likely the JVP would buckle under her pressure. But neither side would like to overplay its hand and precipitate a crisis, unless it becomes inevitable.

The JVPís position could, however, become untenable if the peace process gets underway. A lot would depend on Ranil. If he decides to play ball with Kumaratunga Ė a big Ďifí, the JVP could take to the streets in a battle to protect their own political future and credibility.

Ranilís waiting game

Ranil is well known for playing the waiting game in politics. Thatís what he did most of the time from 2001, when the UNF came into power, until Kumaratunga outmaneuvered and drove him out of power, while he waited and waited to strike at her. We know that he banked on being propelled to the presidency.

He probably reckoned that once he became president everything could be righted in the country. But he lost two straight times to Kumaratunga waiting for that to happen, and there is nothing to indicate he will be elected the next time, because his years of indecision and political miscalculations have completely changed the balance of power in Sri Lankan politics, to the detriment of both the major parties.

The opposition portrayed him as being soft on the LTTE and that worked very well for them at the last general election in 2004. The JVP more than doubled its strength in parliament; and the JHU captured a handful of seats, but enough to throw its weight about in parliament.

It signalled a paradigm shift in political power to the extremists, and thatís not a good thing for either Kumaratunga or Ranil. The extremists hold more than 20% of the seats, and threaten to be a disruptive force in parliament, but more troubling is the thought that their influence over the electorate could prove decisive in electing the next president.

If Ranil is to get anywhere, he has to stop dreaming about the presidency and start working to win it first, or better still, worm his way into power before that, by demonstrating political courage, and an urgency which had been lacking before.  To Ranil's credit, he has shown some consistency and integrity in his approach to the peace process, and with his partyís liberal economic policies, he represents a solid alternative to the UPFA.

For now the UNF in opposition is still a formidable force, and with some realignment of the parties, Ranil is well poised to grab back power should Kumaratunga ever slip up. But he has to constantly work to get there, without waiting for it to fall into his lap.

Gandhiís India

India is like a lumbering giant that moves ever so slowly to get things going. Up to now they have done sweet nothing to advance the peace process in Sri Lanka one bit, despite appeals from both sides.

They never relished their peacekeeping mission to Sri Lanka during 1987-1990 when their jawans did all the dirty work for Sri Lanka, before things went wrong, and they had to leave under a cloud of shame.

They came to intervene in Sri Lanka on humanitarian grounds, but when they went beyond their mandate and tried to subdue the Tigers, the mission failed. With that, India lost credibility and a golden opportunity to bring a swift end to the conflict, create a permanent peace, and get self-rule for the Tamils.

India has no history of having tried to impose their will on others with military force. They had bitter wars against China in 1962, Pakistan in 1965 and helped East Pakistan to become a free Bangladesh in 1971, but beyond that there are only the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and the confrontation with the Sikhs from 1973. There was a rationale for their actions in all these cases, which reasonable people understood well.

India does not have any good reason for going into Sri Lanka and helping to crush the Tamils. There are no real or justifiable political or historical reasons for that. Compared to their huge states, the Sri Lankan Tamils constitute only a tiny political entity, still struggling to win equality. There is no parallel, rationale, logic or threat, for India to be involved in Sri Lanka except to put their foot down and get the Sri Lankan government to do the right thing by the Tamils.

India can no longer stand by and allow Sri Lanka to kill its own citizens, Hindus with close religious, cultural and historic affinities to them. Itís about time they called Sri Lanka to account and brought 50 years of discrimination, death and destruction to an end. Lest Sri Lanka forget Indiaís heritage, let them be clear about one thing.

Gandhiís India will never stoop to help Sri Lanka subjugate the Tamils or deny them their legitimate rights!

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Posted September 30, 2004