Rising to the occasion

Some good can and often does emerge from the crucible of confrontation. It remains to be seen whether President Kumaratunga’s offer, if that’s what it was, of a "grand alliance" to form a government of national reconciliation and reconstruction, can be fashioned to Sri Lanka’s advantage at this decisive moment of history. When she spoke to the nation on Friday night, late as usual – the address was first scheduled for noon, then rescheduled for 8.30 p.m. and was finally telecast after 9.30 – she did not adopt a belligerent manner or demeanour. While her opponents can and will take issue with some of what she said, Chandrika bashing at this point of time will hardly be productive in the national interest.

The big question now is whether our political leaders can rise to the occasion. We have long urged that there must be bipartisan consensus in the south on any arrangements that will be made with the LTTE that has just unveiled an impossible set of demands as its proposals for an interim self governing authority (ISGA) for the northeast. A TamilNet report last week of a speech made by Karuna, the LTTE’s leader in the east, provides some useful pointers about Tiger thinking. He has candidly, if not brazenly, admitted that the proposals go beyond the federal model to which the LTTE paid lip service during an earlier stage of negotiations. "We had to do this," he has said, "because the Tamil people’s problems cannot be solved within the parameters of the 1978 constitution."

What is significant is that Karuna is presenting to the world the LTTE line that "Sri Lankan politicians are tussling for personal gain, exhibiting their sheer greed for power." That point of view can very well gain credence in the councils of the world if the confrontational strategy the president chose last week is a continuing factor in national politics. More so if the government plays tit for tat. She’s now given an opening for a dialogue and it remains to be seen whether the UNF is willing to work on the possibilities. There will be those in the UNP who will say that 95 percent of Chandrika’s speech on Friday night was attack, although in dulcet tones, and that the sliver of conciliation at the end of the speech was also loaded with the references to "national and patriotic forces" intended for those with whom she had been making common cause to topple the incumbents.

The UNP certainly would be on a high given the tumultuous welcome the prime minister had on his return from Washington and the way the stock exchange toasted his arrival. If Rupavahini was in their hands rather than CBK’s, the impact surely would have been magnified several fold. The president knows all this very well and will not lightly let go of the state-owned television stations and Lake House now that she has them in her hands. So also the defence establishment, although as commander-in-chief and dispenser of extensions beyond retirement age to favoured service chiefs, she had a hold in that area even without the defence ministry. The UNP, while justifiably preening itself of the show it was able to muster at short notice, must not forget that Colombo and the coastal areas leading up to Katunayake is green turf where their party is strong. But Friday’s success is not a harbinger of 1977 and a five sixths majority, those in the UNP who are thinking of new elections should remember.

Kumaratunga too was on a high earlier last week on Tuesday and Wednesday when she was calling the shots, sacking ministers, making appointments and suspending parliament. But in that state she committed a not infrequent faux pas by declaring a State of Emergency under the Public Security Act when there was no emergency whatever in the country. Although she’s now trying to wriggle out of that, claiming that no State of Emergency was ever declared, the fact that she sent the proclamation to the Government Printer is pretty well established. She later changed her mind and ordered that it be not published. So to that extent there was no emergency in law – assuming of course that she swallows her previous argument over the Development Lottery that the signing of the papers, gazetted or not, is all that’s needed. But the use of the word "emergency" in the international media emptied a great big can of worms hurting the tourist industry that is now reviving This is the price the country must pay when its leaders capriciously use laws on the statute for their political purposes.

The way the stock market crashed, losing 20 percent of its market capitalization when the president played her hand is a signal of what capricious politics can do to the economy. Its spectacular single day revival on Friday was a vote of confidence in the prime minister by the investor class. Given that the president and the premier are on the same wave length on the need for peace and private sector-led economic revival, there is space for the common cause vitally necessary to hold the LTTE within bounds of reason. Kumaratunga has pledged that the ceasefire will be respected and that she’s commited to continuing negotiations with the LTTE. While the LTTE and its fellow-travellers may prefer the PM and the UNP to handle the peace process with the president taking a back seat, the national interest dictates otherwise. It has to be a joint exercise and both leaders must make the necessary compromises to make that possible.

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