Sri Lanka Update

From DJ Mitchell

The One-Party Solution

It’s been quiet in Sri Lanka for the past few days.  Some people fear it’s been too quiet.  Nevertheless, things are happening.

First, the President empanelled the inaptly named All Parties Representative Committee (APRC).  This is ostensibly a committee representing all the parties of Sri Lanka, which will seek “a Sri Lankan political solution… to the ethnic problem” (See – “Priority for home grown solution”).  While a nice idea, the Committee is somewhat handicapped.  First, it included only political parties, so the LTTE was left out.  Second, I’ve been informed that the UNP—the major opposition party—boycotted the Committee.  So the Committee has the support of only one of the three major players.  That’s not very representative.

If history is any indication, it is likely that the Committee will produce a proposed solution which the UNP will abrogate and the LTTE will reject sight-unseen.  The government will declare the LTTE intransigent, and will thus create a mandate for military action.  It may also declare the UNP intransigent and use this as an excuse to consolidate power.  These are events that have happened before, and they are not unexpected in the current state of affairs.

First, the reaction of the LTTE: The issue at the root of the conflict is that under the unitary form of government, the Sinhalese majority makes all political decisions.  The minority communities have no participation in governance.  The Tamil people as a whole, and the LTTE in particular, have sought among other things to participate in creating the solution that will address their grievances.  Thus it is predictable that any proposed solution presented as fait accompli will be rejected by the LTTE, not because of what it contains or does not contain but because once again the LTTE was shut out of the process.  Certainly the LTTE has not been an easy negotiating partner.  Neither side has.  But the fact remains that the only hope for a negotiated solution is a participatory process.

The government resists such a participatory process because allowing it would be to relinquish power and lose face.  In fact, I believe that saving face is so much a part of the current situation that it may well be driving the Sinhalese people back to war.  (The LTTE has its own motivations).  The reason the UNP has never agreed to an SLFP proposal, and probably never will, is (at least in large part) because, as an opposition party, it cannot be seen to bend to the will of the ruling party.

The irony here is that all parties are closer to a common position today than they have ever been.  That position is a meaningful devolution of power within a united Sri Lanka.

It is bad enough that the word “federalism” is anathema in the South, and the word “unitary” cannot be accepted in the North, which means that useful descriptions of the various forms of government cannot be used in the current discussion.  But because of the danger of loss of face, as well as other political considerations, even on this common position, none of the parties can afford to agree with the others.

I have long maintained that the political leaders of Sri Lanka cannot bring peace, because doing so means giving up their own power.  This no politician (in any country) will do, unless forced to by his (or her) constituency.  It is only when the Sri Lankan people’s overwhelming desire for peace has been given public voice that the political leaders have allowed progress toward a peaceful solution.

A Shot Across the Bow

Coincidentally (or not), there are reports that the Government has instituted a Parliamentary Select Committee, headed by JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath, to investigate peace NGOs in Sri Lanka.

The JVP was in the past responsible for two failed uprisings in the South, one of which lasted over two years (1987-1989), crippled the country, and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.  Described as a “Buddhist-Marxist” party, the JVP has nothing to do with Marxism and little to do with the teachings of the Buddha.  Rather, it represents an extreme Sinhala point of view.  Though the JVP claims to have given up violence, its members were at the forefront of the January hartal in Trincomalee, beating anyone who opposed them.  This is not a party known for its support for peace—but now it is a member of the ruling coalition.

The Parliamentary Select Committee has begun by focusing on finances relating to tsunami work, focusing on 30 NGOs that received large amounts of foreign donations after the tsunami

This is certainly a worthwhile inquiry, as rumors persist of millions of dollars unspent and warehouses full of unused supplies, especially in the East.  This is partly due to the shortages of manpower and materials that resulted from the sudden demand following the tsunami.  There were no materials to buy and, with even the refugees hired as laborers, a shortage of manpower with which to build.  But with literally hundreds of NGOs working independently in the field without any central coordinator or oversight, there may also be instances of malfeasance.

In addition to the tsunami finance question, it is reported that the mandate of the Committee is to determine whether the peace NGOs pose a threat to Sri Lankan national security.  This brings back memories of the 1991-1993 witch hunts under President Premadasa that attempted to shut down the Sarvodaya Movement.  (Sarvodaya was eventually cleared and its relationship with the government was “rehabilitated” under President Wijetunga in 1994.)

Those in Sri Lanka who work for peace are understandably nervous.  Yet the committee to date has not put its energy into shutting down the peace movement.  So far its mandate appears to be more of a warning, a shot across the bow.

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