Power Unchecked

Tamil Guardian editorial, London, November 19, 2003

Power Unchecked – Peace is jeopardised in the name of power

STATEMENT - Instagram disables Tamil Guardian’s page in act of online ...The constitutional deadlock in Sri Lanka continued this week as President Chandrika Kumaratunga, now comfortably entrenched in her usurped positions at the head of the ministries of defence, interior and media, stood firm against Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s toothless demand she relinquishes them. On Tuesday the two leaders met to resolve the deadlock, but nothing was achieved. The joint statement announcing the formation of a committee to study cohabitation was a pathetic attempt to obfuscate the now naked power struggle underway in Colombo. Despite the howls of protest from the United National Front (UNF) government, Kumaratunga’s position is, constitutionally at least, unassailable. Even key members of the international community, despite their barely suppressed irritation, have acknowledged as much.

As repeatedly predicted by many, including this newspaper, the Norwegian peace process has finally become a casualty in President Kumaratunga’s drive for political power. Norway’s diplomats and officials have been involved in peace efforts in Sri Lanka for over four long years. Their patience, it seemed, was inexhaustible, as they suffered the indignities of personal and racist attack – even by senior Sri Lankan politicians, saw their national flag burnt outside their embassy by Buddhist monks, their professional integrity questioned the office of the President itself. Yet last week Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen dropped a bombshell: his government could not, and now would not, continue its peace efforts as long as there was a “power vacuum” in Colombo. Despite the exasperated tone of Mr. Helgesen’s statement, Oslo’s decision is merely a pragmatic acknowledgement of the state of affairs in Colombo, rather than a policy shift as such. As Mr. Helgesen put it, it is simply not clear where the authority to make the critical decisions regarding the peace process now lies.

But from a Tamil perspective, however, matters are not so confused. President Kumaratunga is firmly in charge, her opposition to the peace process gradually becoming state policy. Furthermore, as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mr. Wickremesinghe is simply unable to roll back Mrs. Kumaratunga’s constitutional coup. Parliament is to open Wednesday. But this is because the President – who can’t be asked to attend – sees fit to let it, not because of any authority the Premier or his government have to ensure it. As the deadlock continues, the political horsetrading is already underway. The UNF is congratulating itself on Kumaratunga’s failure to trigger a wave of defections to her benches. It remains to be seen if this confidence in Mr. Wickremesinghe lasts, particularly as after months of prevaricating, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is reported to have finally thrown its lot in with the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana. If the pair seem capable of securing power, Mr. Wickremesinghe may find the usual suspects amongst his coalition allies deserting him.

The twin centres of constitutional authority in Sri Lanka – the executive Presidency and Parliament – might, if the distribution of power were more equal, have functioned as a checks-and-balances system ought to. But with so much power concentrated in the President’s office, the irrelevancy of Parliament has now been laid bare. Ironically, Kumaratunga’s actions this month have not only rationalised the LTTE’s insistence that the constitution must be scrapped and rewritten if ethnic harmony is to prevail, but also revealed how far from a liberal state Sri Lanka is. Premier Wickremesinghe’s reluctance to abolish the Presidency or to reduce its powers speaks volumes about his own ambitions.

In the meantime, of course, there is a more immediate problem. Mr. Helgesen’s concern for the ceasefire between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces is entirely justified. Never has the 21- month old truce been so vulnerable. This is not to say that either military is keen for renewed war. But without firm leadership committed to both the truce and a negotiated solution, minor incidents are likely to quickly escalate into wider conflict. In this context, it cannot be forgotten that elements of the Sri Lankan armed forces have sought repeatedly to provoke the Tigers into a clash. The LTTE last week reiterated its commitment to both the cease-fire and the peace process. Despite her assurances to the Norwegians this week, barely a month ago, Kumaratunga issued a direct order to her service chiefs to ignore the truce monitors’ rulings. It has not been rescinded. This truly is the agent provocateurs’ moment.

November 19, 2003


originally published November 20, 2003

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