ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19
Columns - Telescope  

Both turn the page to Sinhala Only

By J.S. Tissainayagam

A protest against the ceasefire agreement

The UNP's official statement (28 September) sets down party policy on a negotiated political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. However, after pointedly stating "we must oppose separatism, terrorism requires a military response" and the CFA "must be amended taking into account the present situation in the north-east and the experiences of the last few years," the statement shrouds in ambiguity, and sweeping generalisations the actual substance of the solution. It is to be "…based on a credible power sharing proposal acceptable to all communities."

At an important juncture in its progress, the UNP realises, to be equivocal is better than commiting itself to positions it cannot sidestep later. The party's stance is that the settlement should address "the grievances of Tamils, the fears of Muslims in the north east regarding ethnic cleansing, and concerns of some sections of the Sinhalese that devolution will lead to separatism."

On devolution and power sharing per se, the statement questions the efficacy of the provinces as an appropriate unit of devolution, and that effective power-sharing arrangements should involve the central government, the regions/provinces and local government authorities.

It appears that on what might be the eve of an election, the UNP is (a) eliminating what prevented it winning parliamentary elections (2004) and the presidential polls (2005), by stating categorically it opposes separatism and terrorism and the CFA in its present form, while (b), attempting to match the PA by stating the province as a unit of devolution is negotiable.

As far as devolution goes, it appears that the ambiguity is partly due to the short-term need of striking a common cause with the JVP and defeating the budget that will pave the way for a general election. Meanwhile, the PA, too, is using the same ruse to lure the JVP to its side and prevent the budget being defeated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has reportedly told Minister Tissa Vitharana that the APRC should not present its report on devolution till the budget is over.

But it is obvious that the UNP's present stance on a negotiated settlement goes well beyond allying with the JVP to overthrow the incumbent regime. The UNP appears to believe that only repositioning on the ethnic conflict would equip it to deal with the long-term political challenges.

As mentioned in this column last week, these political challenges will include having to deal with a JVP and SLFP that take a strong Sinhala nationalist line. Further, the National Congress has to attract SLFP dissidents who are not pro-federal. What it means is that the UNP knows the Sinhala voter is averse to fedralism but if the party is to take a shot at capturing power it has to be by pandering to the Sinhala voter while abandoning pro-federal Tamils, Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and other communities.

The contest between the PA and UNP at outbidding each other today is reminiscent of the events that brought about Sinhala Only in 1956. The SLFP's announcement of Sinhala as the sole official language led to the UNP, albeit reluctantly, adopting the same slogan for electoral purposes, only to see the SLFP going a step further by promising to implement Sinhala Only in 24 hours. To this writer, however, the potential dangers of the UNP agreeing to amend the CFA are in certain ways graver than the party's stand on devolution, despite the latter attracting greater public interest.

Wickremesinghe, in his interview to The Hindu referred only to the EU ban on the Tigers that resulted in the rebels not accepting SLMM monitors from EU countries, and the government's agreement with the LTTE in Geneva to only allow "legally constituted forces of Sri Lanka to operate in the East" as reasons for amending the CFA. What the well-seasoned politician did not mention was the most substantive change in the East -- the capture of almost all the territory that was in the control of the Tigers when the CFA was signed in 2002.

What is significant is that the UNP's statement on power sharing and amending the CFA did not evoke any international response either from the Co-Chairs or India. This is despite the LTTE repeatedly stating it had not withdrawn from the CFA and the Oslo communique being an agreement specifically on sharing power through federal structures to which the rebels had given their consent.
When the Oslo communique was initialled the Co-chairs and India hailed it as a milestone on the path to conflict resolution.

The fact that they are silent now could either be bacause they have received an assurence from Wickremesinghe, who is a darling of the international community, that the Oslo communique will not be tampered with in substance, or because the military balance has changed so drastically that the substance of the CFA needs to be altered. Either way, it spells disaster.

Still smeared by the mudslinging of its critics that the CFA was hatched with the LTTE in secret, the UNP is now a vociferous advocate of a negotiated solution "acceptable to all communities." That is fine in principle, but does anyone seriously believe a soulution even approximating what is envisaged in the Oslo communique, and is to be subject to two referenda, will be endorsed by people of the South? Majortarian politics will prevail.

If that is so, the Oslo communique is fated to go the way of the 1995 draft of the PA's constitutional proposals, which was acceptable as a base document to negotiate, but was progressively watered down as competition between the PA and UNP intensified.

On the other hand, if it is the drastic shift in the military balance that is keeping the international community quiet, it goes without saying the LTTE will try to regain parity or superiority in that balance so as to be on a better bargaining position if and when talks begin. That means continued war by the LTTE towards fulfilling its goals.

There is, however, an opportunity with the present stances of the UNP and the PA. Before every election in the past decade-and-half the Tamils have had a champion or godfather/mother - 1989 (Premadasa), 1994 (Kumaratunga) and 2001 and 2004 (Wickremesinghe). When talks began soon after elections (not in 2004) the LTTE had to play ball with whichever godparent, despite realising his or her double dealing and perfidy, till talks eventually petered out.

Assuming an election is around the corner, there is a difference this time. On this occasion, both the government and the opposition are on the same page on essential issues. This gives the representatives of the Tamils ample opportunity to deal with them politically.

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