The Sri Lankan Scene: The Bazaar Drama Goes On

by T. Sabaratnam; originally published December 1, 2003

Weekly Review

The Sri Lankan Scene

The Bazaar Drama Goes On

Past Episodes

I think I am the only person alive who has watched from the front seat almost the entirety of the bazaar drama Sinhalese leaders have enacted since 1956. I missed the first scene of this tragic-comedy, tragedy for the Tamils and comedy for the Sinhalese.

The opening scene that I missed was set on the Galle Face Green, where organized Sinhala thugs beat up the Federal party satyagrahis, and in the old parliament, where Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike greeted Amirthalingam who entered the chamber with his head bandaged shouting “Honourable wounds of war.” Parliament sat that entire June 5 night to pass the Sinhala Only Law.

I was privileged to watch from Act 1 scene 2, where SLFP leader Prime Minister Bandaranaike and Federal Party leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam came down the stairs of the cabinet office beaming to inform the journalists gathered there about the signing of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. The third scene was the Kandy March UNP deputy leader J. R. Jayewardene organized and the fourth and final scene of Act 1 was the satiyagraha of Buddhist monks and the tearing up of the pact document by Bandaranaike.

Act 2 was set in 1960. Scene 1: Bandaranaike’s nephew, Felix R. Dias, enters Chelvanayakam’s chamber in March and extracts a promise from him to support the SLFP to form the government and gives a solemn undertaking to implement the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact. When the attempt to form the government failed, they made use of the Federal Party support to defeat the UNP government headed by Dudley Senanayake. Scene 2. The UNP accused, in its July election campaign, the SLFP of trying to sell the country to the Tamils. Scene 3. Sirimavo, who became the prime minister following the SLFP victory at the polls, meets a Federal Party delegation headed by Chelvanayakam. Felix tells Chelvanayakam that the government is not in a position to honour its promise because of UNP’s opposition.

Act 3. Scene 1. Dudley Senanayake signs an agreement with Chelvanayakam and promises to implement a Regional Council Scheme and the Federal Party joins the National Government. Scene 2. SLFP and its Marxist allies shout in their May Day procession that Dudley’s stomach is full of the Tamil delicacy, Vadai. Scene 3. In 1968, Dudley tells Chelvanayakam that he is not in a position to honour his agreement because of SLFP opposition.

Act 4. Scene 1. In 1977, Jayewardene meets Amirthalingam at Thondaman’s house and promises to take steps to solve the Tamil problem. Scene 2. Scenes of 1977, 1981 and 1983 riots – all engineered by Jayewardene government to punish the Tamils for asking for a federal solution to their problem. Scene 3. The SLFP opposes District Development Councils, a rudimentary arrangement to decentralize the administration, calling it a sell out to the Tamils and the foundation for a separate state. Scene 4. Jaffna DDC chairman Nadarajah resigns, accusing Jayewardene of not devolving the agreed subjects and funds for the DDCs. Scene 5. Jayewardene tells Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi his inability to grant the rights of the Tamils because of SLFP opposition.

Act 5. Scene 1. In 1997 and 2001, President Chandrika Kumaratunga presents to parliament two bills that embody her solution to the Tamil problem. The UNP opposes them, singing the same chorus of sell-out, and defeats her. Scene 2. The current scene. Chandrika is blocking the UNP’s effort to negotiate a settlement with the LTTE and is using the JVP to do her dirty work.

I have watched this street drama for the last 46 years from a close range. I joined Lake House as a reporter in January 1957 and reported all these events, first for the Tamil daily Thinaharan and then for the Daily News. I also had the opportunity to move closely with the main actors in this never-ending drama. I found, during my association with them, that they were more serious about making use of the Tamil problem to climb to power than working out a reasonable solution to it.

This aspect of the Tamil problem has not been highlighted sufficiently. That is the main reason why the international community is under the mistaken belief that the Sinhala leadership is willing to work out a settlement, but Tamils, the LTTE in particular, are firm in their demand for a separate state, which the LTTE is trying to wrest by force.

LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan, in his Maveerar Day speech on November 27, made a special effort to correct the misconception of the international community. He said:

“As a tragic drama without ending, the Tamil ethnic conflict continues forever. Whenever the party in power attempts to resolve the Tamil issue, the party in opposition opposes it and derails the effort. This mode of conflict continues even when the opposition becomes the ruling party and attempts reconciliation. This Sinhala political drama with its typical historical pattern has been staged regularly for the last fifty years. The directors of this bazaar drama are the two major Sinhala political parties. Though the main actors have been changing over time, the theme of the story is the same. The current political crisis in Colombo is an open enactment of this absurd drama.

“As a negative consequence of this chess game, in which the Tamils are used as pawns, several peace efforts have failed; several peace negotiations collapsed, several peace agreements torn apart and several peace pacts became defunct. As such, the Tamil conflict continues without resolution. The tragic life of our people continues.”

The current scene

The current political crisis that followed the take-over of the ministries of defence, interior and media by President Chandrika Kumaratunga is an open enactment of the continuing bazaar drama. Chandrika fretted and fumed since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, calling it illegal, and charged the LTTE with preparing for war while talking peace and the government with giving into the LTTE’s demands. Pirapaharan answered these two charges in his speech. He emphatically denied the charge of preparing for war. He said: “I wish to deny categorically that there is any truth in these allegations. These false allegations are levelled against us to tarnish the credibility of our liberation organisation and to disrupt the peace process… Our organisation, as well as our people do not want war. We want peace and we want to resolve our problems through peaceful means. We are deeply committed to the peace process.”

He also denied Chandrika’s second charge that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration was granting too many concessions to the LTTE. He said the benefits of peace which are flowing to the people of the south are yet to flow to the war-affected people of the northeast.

Pirapaharan knows that through these charges Chandrika has prepared the ground for the November 3 take-over of the three vital ministries from Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is also aware that she has been preparing the climate to return to war. She has been telling repeatedly to foreign dignitaries visiting Colombo that the LTTE was smuggling weapons and recruiting children as part of its preparation for war. She repeated the same charges to European Union External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten. She told him that the LTTE cannot be trusted and it was preparing for war. Patten, who met Pirapaharan on his 50th birthday on Wednesday, specifically asked him whether he was preparing to return to war. He reported to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on his return from Vanni that Pirapaharan had told him six times during the two-hour meeting that he would not return to war. Patten told that to the media also.

Patten said: “Pirapaharan pledged six times that Tigers would not resort again to war.”

Pirapaharan made it very clear to Patten and later to the international community through the Maveerar Day speech that the LTTE is ready for talks. Earlier he made that clear to the Norwegian Foreign Minister Vidar Helgessen, who met him to clarify the LTTE’s position about the peace negotiation, that they were ready to commence talks “even tomorrow.” Helgessen announced this to the media at Kilinochchi before boarding his helicopter to Colombo.

Pirapaharan had correctly pointed out to Helgessen and Patten that the political crisis in the south is the real impediment to peace talks. With the take-over of the three vital ministries directly linked with the implementation of peace talks, Chandrika has rendered Ranil Wickremesinghe weak and ineffective. Even when those portfolios were in his hands Ranil Wickremesinghe was unable to implement his undertakings given during the six rounds of peace talks, particularly matters connected with defence. The army and the navy, headed by men loyal to Chandrika, has blocked the resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced persons by refusing to vacate the civilian houses and by sternly declining to release vast areas of land under its control. Now, with Chandrika at the helm, the armed forces are going to be especially stubborn.

Pirapaharan knows too well Chandrika’s strategies and deceptions. She deceived the entire world for seven long years with her slogan ‘war for peace.’ She prepared the ground for war while she accused the LTTE of preparing for war. She is trying to repeat the same thing. Now she has only changed the tune. She says her commitment for peace is real, while Pirapaharan’s is deceptive. She is trying to project to the world the image that she is the angel of peace and is ready to honour the ceasefire, but the LTTE is trying to thrust war on her by its constant ceasefire violations.

Pirapaharan had preempted her. Her calculation to dismiss Ranil and form her own government misfired. At last week’s SLFP Executive Committee meeting, she scorned her confidantes for their failure to provide her with the required number of members of parliament to form her government. And, she never expected so much pressure from the international community. To save her reputation she is forced to cover her face with peace mask.

To overcome local criticism and discontent she has proposed the formation of a national government. Through that she is trying to dilute the power of Ranil’s government. The UNP has rejected the suggestion and has proposed the achievement of national consensus on specific areas: peace negotiations, economic development, electoral system and good governance. Ranil has specifically stated that national consensus is the country’s immediate need and national government is a long term objective.

A committee of officials known as the Samarawickreme-Tittawela Committee was set up to work out a scheme for achieving national consensus. The members of the committee are UNP chairman Malik Samarawickreme, Prime Minister’s secretary Bradman Weerakoon, Presidential Advisor Mano Tittaweal and President’s secretary W. J. S. Karunaratne.

The committee met last Monday where Samarawickreme presented a compromise formula which provided for the president to hand back the ministries of Interior and Media back to the UNP and for her to retain the defence ministry. To enable Ranil to continue peace negotiations she should allocate the subjects in the defence ministry relating to peace negations to him. Tittawela agreed to refer the idea to Chandrika and report back to the committee on Thursday. He briefed the president on Wednesday, but she asked him to meet him on Thursday evening for a detailed discussion. Tittawela telephoned Samarawickreme and rescheduled their meeting for Friday.

Before the Friday meeting Chandrika released to the state media, which is now under her control, a set of new proposals which planned to set up a new institution, a Joint Peace Council (JPC), co-chaired by the president and the prime minister, with power to oversee and manage the overall peace process. It would be assisted by an Advisory Council of Peace (ACP) comprising representatives of all political parties, clergy, professional and other national groups who are interested in the furtherance of peace. It also brought under the JPC the right to select the members of the negotiating team and all other aspects of the peace process.

When the committee met on Friday Tittawela told Samarawickreme that the president had changed her mind and wanted him to submit her proposal for their consideration. Samarawickreme was furious. “If the president is going to change her mind now and then there is no purpose in continuing the negations. We will go to the people. Let them decide,” he said.

The UNP executive committee which met Friday night decided to reject the president’s proposals. Ranil quipped: She wants me to negotiate on her terms.

Ranil addressing a public meeting on Saturday said that he is now left with no powers to push forward the peace process and the possibility of a war is looming. He said: “If the power struggle drags on, the peace process will break down and the economy will collapse. If the LTTE goes to war saying there is no one to negotiate with, no one can stop it.”

But it is not the LTTE that is itching to restart the war. It is Chandrika, though she makes noises favourable to peace. The international community is now beginning to realize who the warmongers are. Tamils living worldwide have the responsibility to give the true picture to the governments and their decision makers of the countries they live. My series Pirapaharan may be of use.

Even on Thursday Chandrika tried to defeat Ranil’s government when the vote was taken on the second reading of the budget. She instructed the People’s Alliance MPs to vote against the budget. She also telephoned EPDP leader Douglas Devananda and asked him to vote against the budget. Douglas kept away from parliament at voting time.

Indications are that Chandrika may not succeed in her attempt to form her own government. The fact that Kadirgamar, who was tipped to head her government, is seeking the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth is a pointer. Ranil has lost hopes of working out a cohabitation arrangement with her. He is getting ready for an election.

There, too, there is a block. The power to dissolve parliament and call for an election is with Chandrika. She is not prepared. Surveys conducted by her group, the SLFP, indicate a massive UNP victory despite a possible electoral alliance between the SLFP and the JVP. To strike an alliance with the JVP she must listen to its conditions, which include conditional talks with the LTTE and refusal to “touch the LTTE’s proposals for an interim administration even with a barge pole”.

Sorting out these things is not that easy. So, the bazaar drama will go on.

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