Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Peace and Economy: An Analysis of 'Chintana'

by S.Muttiah

Attention has been focussed on the policy document put out by President Mahinda Rajapakse of the United Front People’s Alliance during his election campaign.

The response from the main Tamil political party – the TNA – was cool towards the candidate during the election campaign because of the Tamils' bitter experiences with democracy and past political failures to realise their aspirations on behalf of the Tamil people in the northeast during the past 49 years. Their attitude reflects the sombre mood expressed by the LTTE, a party to the present Peace Process along with the Government, that no useful purpose would be served by associating with the election process, as it is mainly concerned with the welfare of the Sinhala people. Needless to mention this process,  particularly the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), has come increasingly under strain over the past 18 months or so. To compound an already difficult ethnic situation is the abject failure of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) to dispense even humanitarian foreign aid to Tamil victims of the December 26, 2004 tsunami to date.  

In the difficult and all together unpredictable world of politics in Sri Lanka it is still worth analysing and prognosticating what might be expected from the President based on what he said as a candidate. At first glance his promises ring hollow from what has been spouted by candidates in earlier elections. In essence, the document centres around two main themes – peace and the economy. Rajapakse mentions peace first as the prelude to solving the economic problems. Everybody will agree that both thrusts are vital and one cannot obviously be solved without the other. There was a time in the course of the 18 year old war from 1983 to 2001 to confine the problem of war (and peace) to the northeast areas alone, while the central strategy was to pursue economic development in the south. But this proved abortive when the horrible effects of war spilled over into the rest of the country. A turning point was reached, or apparently so, when the peace promised in 1994 under a new President subsequently turned out to be the worst period of warring from 1995 to 2001 under the infamous, strange as it sounds, ‘war for peace’ strategy! The realisation that everyone is the loser in war mercifully dawned on the parties to the conflict when the point of no win–no lose stalemate was reached towards the end of this period. The price paid by the Tamil people had been horrendously heavy, while that paid by the Sinhala people and the state also was very significant. To return to these conditions seems plainly unimaginable. It seems obvious enough that a simultaneous twin track progression towards  peace and economic development is a sine qua non to further all people’s welfare.. 

This would not be the first time that the ethnic question has surfaced above all else in election manifestos. The settlement of the national ethnic question had been promised ad nauseam several times before, but failed miserably in terms of achievement once the elections were over or a little after. The use of ethnicity as a winsome election ‘weapon’ has become an entrenched political phenomenon in the south. This time round, however, marks a radically different scenario with the emergence of the LTTE as a national player in terms of achievement of a durable peace. Rajapakse's electioneering document acknowledges this hard fact.

What is not clear, however, is why there is so much depth given to micro-details of the economy, rather than policy approaches in the document when these aspects would seem a legitimate part of duty of the government parliamentary party in power when presenting annual budgets rather than in a Presidential election. Unless both the President and the government party in power belong to the same political persuasion, such presentation could lead to possible conflict and a political logjam. In fact, this occurred in 2003 when President Kumaratunge dissolved parliament and sacked the UNP government over the details of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). It turned out that, in the end, not an iota of change was made to the CFA, except a change of government in parliament! In hindsight, a particularly costly exercise for democracy. Perhaps this may be the reason why Wickremasinghe has already indicated that he would dissolve parliament should he win the election and why there is heated debate at the present time about the presentation of the annual budget before the election by the Rajapakse government. Clearly, there is an underlying political and constitutional problem associated with the functional roles of an Executive President and of the government political party in power. Constitutions in the past have been tinkered from time to time to suit the fortunes and agendas of individual politicians and political parties in power.           

The Economy

The economy is an important electoral issue based on the high cost of living prevailing for some years now as a crucial factor weighing on the minds of voters and, hence, deserving of high priority. The crucial importance of the economy may have been reinforced by the very high level of the national debt (115%) in relation to GDP, mainly associated with the high cost of the war effort by various governments, which consumed in total over 18 billion dollars (in an annual 18 billion dollar economy each year or 5.5% of GDP) from 1983 up to 1998, according to known figures. With heavy dependence on imports much stands to be gained if only available scarce resources can be diverted from guns, bombs and bullets to rice and curry issues and essentials of everyday life of all citizens, if only the will to forge a durable peace dividend is  forthcoming at the highest level, something unachievable to date.    

Rajapakse’s ‘Chintana’  foresees the creation of more jobs in the public sector while the role of the private sector is likely to be limited. With some 110,000 additional jobs promised by 2007 it is not known how or where these vacancies will be created. Massive recruitment to the military is a distinct possibility, but could be a self-defeating exercise when 80,000 have been acknowledged officially to have deserted its ranks over the past few years! Among the other benefits promised are salary increases (70%) yet outstanding to public officials, duty free cars to certain categories of people and public officials, pension benefits, housing benefits to the military and so on. Without mention of how the promised expenditures will be met, the possibility of considerably enhanced borrowings remains a distinct possibility.   

Vis-à-vis The Peace Process

President Rajapakse’s ‘Chintana’ has emphasised rather blandly that he will achieve peace without going to war. But how he will achieve this enviable goal is not spelt out except for mention of finding a consensus within parliament and a Head to Head Meeting with the Leader of the LTTE. Based on this premise, he  postulates his aim is to preserve “unity, sovereignty, security and civil rights of all ‘groups’ (as distinct from citizens).” His strategy poses the following irreconcilable difficulties in terms of what has progressed already under the Peace Process:

  • His criticism and promised marginalisation, if not exclusion, of Norway as the international ‘Facilitator,’
  • His rejection of concepts held dear to the LTTE and the political Tamil National Alliance such as traditional homelands and the right to self-determination,
  • His strong commitment to review the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on an assumption of  leaving of no room for ‘terrorist acts,’
  • His intention to let the central government take over the duties of distributing aid to Tsunami victims in place of the decentralised arrangements foreseen under the signed P-TOMS Agreement, thereby implying its abrogation, despite having personally introduced it in parliament,
  • His strong commitment to stick to the unitary constitution   

By posturing his intention to start from scratch, one is led to the serious question whether his intention of achieving peace may not prove to be altogether a mirage. It needs no second guessing that the exclusion of Norway, the Chief Architect of the CFA, endorsed by the two parties to the conflict, is bound to lead to the breakdown of the tenuous ceasefire on the ground. Even with the presence of several Scandinavian Monitors throughout the northeast, the CFA has been difficult to uphold, with reports of violations by both sides. Surely, with the potential absence of the intermediary for future communication between the two parties, again no second guessing is needed as to future outcomes.

Rajapakse's insistence in sticking to the present unitary constitution, which was anyway based on a unilateral imposition in 1972 by the Sinhala political parties, an arrangement which has proved unworkable over the years, along with the sum total of all negative ethnic and religious experiences, is unlikely to find the assumed consensus in parliament. Far from unity, what is readily discernible is obvious disunity along ethnic and religious divides. Neither does the constitution respect the universal principle that sovereignty lies with the citizens (as 'enshrined' in the Sri Lanka constitution as well) and not with individuals or parties. Nor has it paved the way for security or good governance for all citizens. Worst affected have been the civil rights of minorities and the human rights of all people.

Rajapakse’s assertion of finding a consensus in parliament is all too reminiscent of the zero outcome of the All Party Conference, which took place a few years ago, on the ethnic issue. If no lessons have been learnt from the past it seems quite unlikely there can be any progress in the future on this score.

There is as yet an unexplored option proposed by Rajapakse, namely: the envisioned Head to Head Talks with the Leader of the LTTE. After all, nobody expected the collapse of the Cold War, which had raged for decades after WWII until the Reagan-Gorbachev Talks, considered implacable foes until that time. IF a Rajapakse-Prabhakaran meeting eventuates, can they pull off a similar stunning surprise?

Should none of these options work, the worst possible scenario could be a return to hostilities, with no remedies in sight but with terrible consequences all round. Could this perhaps be the reason why Rajapakse mentions his intention to forge some kind of a Regional Safety Net, comprising India, Pakistan and China, on top of the extant International Safety Net? It would, therefore, appear that he seems prepared to go to any extent and cost, if only to thwart the aspirations of the Tamil people in terms of denying them security, sovereignty, democracy, their just rights and livelihoods by continuing the same policies practised from 1948, more particularly from 1956 to 2005! The willingness of these countries to enter into such a military network or otherwise to solve what is purely an internal ethno-religious and governance conflict is, however, not known. This fact previously dawned on the members of the International Community in Washington when they emphasised the prima facie need for direct talks between the two parties with whatever support is needed from the facilitator, Norway.        

Unfortunately, the absence of an overarching longer term vision statement in the document, as could be hoped for in a Presidential election, has been a felt need.

An earlier version of this article was written for the Tamil Writers' Guild.