|Current approach to federal solution
Dr. S. Narapalasingam
Those who oppose federalism have not indicated an alternative solution to the ethnic problem, except eliminating the LTTE leadership, which is a mere wish than a practical solution. The disastrous experience the country had with the unitary structure over the past half a century with national unity destroyed, democracy undermined and the territorial integrity being threatened should dissuade the mature political parties from retaining this lopsided disruptive structure.
Federalism is considered by many academics and liberal politicians as essential for uniting the divided nation, strengthening democracy and securing political stability and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. This is also the view of the international community. The substantial foreign aid needed for the development of the entire country depends on reaching a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict based on federalism. The earlier fear that federalism will lead to separation has receded. Following the devolution proposals of the previous PA government, it is now understood by many to be a form of government in which power is distributed between a central authority and the constituent territorial units as agreed by all the concerned parties.
Why the pessimism?
The pessimists consider LTTEs willingness to explore a political solution based on the federal concept at the present time as a ploy intended to achieve certain other aims, while advancing subtly towards the Eelam goal. The need to present an accordant image to the international community is considered as one important aim. They have cited LTTEs assertive actions and moves, not least the statements of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and its theoretician and chief negotiator Anton Balasingham made last November in their Heroes Day addresses as contrary to the Oslo understanding. So far the LTTE leader in Wanni has not made any comments on the ongoing peace talks, while the Prime Minister has made several encouraging statements pointing to the progress made so far. The firing has ceased and international support for the ongoing peace process as well as substantial financial assistance expected from the donor community for rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction of the war-battered country are cited as significant achievements.
Both sides are keen on maintaining the cease-fire than seeking a final political solution within a reasonable time. In fact no time frame has been set to achieve this objective. The internal and external pressures that compel both sides to sustain the cease-fire are well known. The state of non-war that prevails now and which no doubt has ended bloodshed and given some immediate relief to the suffering people has been aptly described as negative peace. It is foolhardy to assume that this will over time transform into permanent peace without a political settlement acceptable to all the communities.
Dr. Oswald B. Firth OMI, Director, Centre for Society and Religion and editor of the magazine Social Justice in his article titled A federal constitution for Sri Lanka: A farce, fraud or fact? (Daily Mirror of 22 January 2003) has questioned the attainability of the federal goal, particularly when both the government and the LTTE consider themselves as the sole agents of conflict resolution. Questioning the different motives of both sides, he has asked, Are we being taken for another ride to an unknown destination?
Others too have written in both local and foreign English journals about the apparent contradictions seen in the announcements made by the LTTE leaders at different times. Recent happenings in the north and east have somewhat disturbed the congenial climate that existed during previous sessions of the peace talks. The fifth session in Berlin curtailed to two days only is expected to focus mainly on human rights and humanitarian issues, including resettlement of internally displaced persons and child recruitment by the LTTE. According to one school of thought, LTTEs strategy this time is to tell the world it is not the Tamils but the Sinhalese who are against a federal solution. It hinges on the assumption that a southern consensus on a full-fledged federal solution will not materialise.
LTTEs chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham after the fourth session of the Peace Talks in Thailand said, the prospect of reaching a negotiated political settlement was doubtful because of the presence of two separate inharmonious authorities in Colombo. The government and the LTTE continue to build up their military strength through fresh recruitment (this has become difficult now) and acquisition of more weapons from abroad. Karuna, LTTEs leader of the military wing in the East is reported to have appealed for funds from the Tamil expatriate community at a meeting in Switzerland to maintain the Tigers military strength. Anton Balasingham also appealed earlier for funds at a (Heroes day) meeting in London last November for the same purpose.
The Tamil Tigers want to negotiate from a position of strength. But this strategy, if maintained for a very long time, could also become a hindrance to both the confidence building and the negotiation processes. Contentious issues like dismantling the High Security Zones (HSZs), disbanding the Black Tigers, child recruitment and violation of the MOU overlooked or played down so far may over time tend to overshadow the political issues. A protest campaign demanding that the displaced persons should be settled in the HSZs has already been launched in Jaffna. Demonstrations against the visits of ministers to Jaffna until this issue is settled have also been announced.
The LTTE banned Tamil school children from taking part in the Independence anniversary celebrations. At a recent meeting with the Defence Secretary and the head of the SLMM, Karuna is reported to have said, they were not willing to accept the government administrative and judicial systems immediately. Such protests and challenges will only intensify, if the present approach that evades earnest discussions on matters pertaining to power-sharing arrangements, the political structure of the state and the concerns of all communities continue. This will only help those who are against a political settlement that needs to be legalised through constitutional amendments.
Addressing the 23rd Annual Conference of the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union held last month, the Prime Minister said when we arrive at a political solution, it will be placed before the people for them to decide. The chances of obtaining their votes at a referendum are great, if the main opposition party also approves the solution agreed by the government and the LTTE. It is doubtful the controversial method used in 1982 by the then UNP leader the late J. R. Jayewardene to extend the life of the Parliament through a referendum can be used to introduce a federal constitution.
The LTTE leadership wants to establish normal conditions in the North-East to facilitate resettlement and the development of the region. The resettlement of IDPs and the return of normality are of utmost urgency for the people to lead normal lives. The sensible way to minimize the presence of the army in civilian areas is to expedite the negotiation process. Any other way of trying to restore normality, as a prior condition for final political settlement is counter productive to this very aim. Cautious optimism
The third group includes the leaders in the present UNF government as well as many moderate leaders in the opposition parties notably the LSSP and CP who hope the LTTE would eventually realise that separation by whatever means is not acceptable to India and other concerned countries. Many of them have invested heavily in the Sri Lankan peace process hoping that it will result in a negotiated political settlement. The phrase cautious optimism used by the Norwegian facilitators is appropriate to describe the views of those who think that the LTTE will settle for a federal solution in due course.
In so far as the UNF government is concerned, its present strategy is to keep the peace process alive against all odds. It is also keen to maintain the peace hope of the masses. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his address to the Nation on January 5 said that the process of negotiation was the only path to peace and that the government should keep its faith in the peace talks despite pitfalls and thorny issues. He also said: "Whatever situation may arise, we must not leave the negotiating table. However, this determination alone is not sufficient to remove the present uncertainty. The present approach to a political settlement has been hailed by some political analysts as pragmatic, but the question is whether the pragmatism is for sustaining the cease-fire or for focusing the discussions on a suitable federal system?
Aiming for peace or power?
The power struggle that ignored national interests in the past and which deprived the country peace and economic and social progress continues even now. This can be discerned from the current moves of some SLFP leaders to form an alliance with the JVP for toppling the government, while the people want the parties to put aside their personal aims and political differences and make a joint effort to secure real peace. The latest move contemplated by the President and some SLFP members is to dissolve Parliament and go for a snap election this year. The government has retorted by announcing that it is ready to face a poll any time! What the country needs now is not another general election but peace and considerable relief from the economic hardship they are enduring.
The Sinhala Only card played in the past by the parties for their political gains, has lost its value after the ethnic conflict led to a full-scale war. Now other strategies are being tried by some disgruntled politicians to capture power but these have so far not produced the same hysterical effect as the earlier Sinhala Only slogan. It is uncertain how long the people yearning for peace will continue to ignore these strategies, if the peace process drags on too long without the prospect of a final settlement.
Presidents stand on the current peace process, which she initiated with Norways assistance, has not always been consistent. Norway was invited by her to be the facilitator as this arrangement was also acceptable to the LTTE. Her criticism of the conduct of the facilitators and the monitoring mission appointed by Norway has not been taken seriously as this is also considered a facet of the power struggle. The federal concept is implicit in the 1997 and the modified 2000 devolution proposals. The draft constitution submitted to Parliament in 2001 by her PA government contained the latter but the UNP, the then main opposition party rejected it. The reason given recently for the rejection is that the draft was prepared without discussing with the LTTE. The structure of the state in the PA governments draft, described as indivisible union of regions is basically a federal model but not based fully on the Thimpu principles which the LTTE insists should underpin the agreed political arrangement.
Time and again, the President also makes agreeable statements in support of the ongoing peace process. For example,
her New Year message was very encouraging and gave hope that the government and the moderate parties in the opposition would co-operate in the efforts to reach a negotiated political settlement. The understanding between the President and the Prime minister reached on the eve of the fourth round of Peace Talks was also encouraging. This would have resulted in both having regular consultations on the peace efforts and the President making statements relating to the peace talks after the PM has briefed her on the latest developments. These encouraging signs turned out to be deceptive when the President aired the possibility of sacking the Prime Minister on a television programme on January 14, just two weeks after extending her co-operation.
This oscillation between the prospect of co-operation and subsequent show of antipathy has become a new feature of the political game. At the January 21 meeting, the Prime Minister is reported to have apprised the President on the progress of the peace process. In his statement to Parliament on January 31 at the end of the debate on the Oslo support conference, the Prime Minister sought the co-operation of the opposition to help the country achieve peace. He said the opposition would be included in the peace process by way of an on-going open dialogue to begin soon. Moreover, he said the PAs draft 2000 constitution would be used as a base in finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict. It remains to be seen whether the Premiers proposals will be accepted by the President as a compromise in the light of her earlier request to include her representative in the delegation for the Peace Talks.
The prevailing hostile political climate is used by the LTTE to justify its unyielding stand on some important issues such as disarmament and decommissioning of weapons. LTTEs scepticism about a southern consensus on a federal solution cannot be dismissed as baseless. In this situation, the support of the Tamil people for LTTEs stand on the basic issues that concern their safety and security will continue. And the LTTE is already using this situation for sustaining its claim to be the sole protector of the rights and security of the Tamils in the North-East region. Anton Balasinghams recent statement, if the PA returns to power with President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the helm, it will be back to war has more than one meaning. If the LTTE is serious about a federal solution, its leaders should not make it difficult for the two parties to co-operate in achieving this objective. Exerting excessive pressure on the government as seems to be the case now is also not helpful, if an amicable political settlement is the aim of the LTTE. The approach to federal solution has to consider not only the aspirations and security concerns of all communities but also the seekers must be seen to be fully committed to it.
The LTTE leadership has not been keen to permit a separate Muslim delegation with equal status to join the Peace Talks. An estimated 12,000 Muslims in the Eastern Province participated in a sit-in Hartal in Oluvil on January 29 demanding independent Muslim representation at the Peace Talks. In addition to the recognition of the rights of Muslims, similar to those placed by the Tamils at the Thimpu talks, the Muslim student community in the East has demanded that the self autonomy of Muslims should be ensured in the agreed federal system.
Mobilize mass support for federalism
The civil society too is not actively involved in the peace process and this too casts doubt about the efficacy of the present approach. If, federalism is accepted in principle by the government and the main opposition party, at least they should support a mass education campaign on the federal concept and its relevance to Sri Lanka at the present time. A twelve-member multi party parliamentary delegation visited Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy on a ten-day study tour to acquaint themselves with the federal systems obtaining in Europe. The study tours of parliamentarians have in the past changed little in their attitudes and approach to politics.
The campaign to enlighten the masses on the federal concept should extend far and wide reaching people at the grass roots level. Some peace-oriented NGOs based in Colombo and a few academics are involved in this effort but they seem to have faced difficulties because of the disagreement between the leaders of the main parties on the peace process. It has been reported there is a tendency to consider these educators as agents of the ruling party. The Prime Minister announced in Parliament on January 31, an island wide campaign would be launched to educate the public on the current peace effort. If this is organized solely by the government without the support of the main opposition party and moreover does not explain the basic political structure of the final settlement being envisaged, it will serve little purpose.
LTTE too if it is really committed to a federal solution, must use the various facilities including the newly acquired radio equipment operating now with extended range and time to educate the people on federalism. The Tamil people will accept a federal solution, if the political, economic and social reasons for preferring it under certain constitutional arrangements and safeguards are explained by the LTTE leaders. These pertain to their aspirations, rights and security. LTTEs present approach to negotiated political settlement, if based really on federalism must also be seen as unambiguous and sincere to win the support of the people in the entire country.
The sizeable votes the JVP received in the recent elections reflect the growing loss of confidence of the Sinhalese in the two main political parties. JVPs chauvinism and radicalism are well known. This was not the reason for its emergence as a third force in the south. Nevertheless, the JVP will gain politically, if the two main parties continue to clash over the peace process creating unsettled and uncertain conditions. The LTTE too will consolidate its control over the northern province and parts of the eastern province. It should not be difficult for any sensible person to imagine what the future holds for the country and the people, if the present approach to negotiated political settlement fails for whatever reason. Will the so-called safety net be helpful to prevent another disaster, if the failure is due to the absence of bipartisan approach? Regaining Sri Lanka will then be just another wishful thinking.
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