Image courtesy ITV
The ubiquity of the Tiger flags was the most dramatic aspect of the demonstrations in London during the President’s visit for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Diaspora Tigers were not a result of a vacuum in Sri Lanka’s post-war policies. Several times the recent number demonstrated in 2009, blocking access to the Mother of Parliaments in the last weeks of the war. A slightly stylised version of the Tiger flag, hardly distinguishable from the original and replete with Tiger, bayonets and 32 bullets, is now waved — and waved away– as ‘the Tamil national flag’. If a soi-disant ‘nation’ chooses the ‘brand’ of a terrorist- secessionist movement for its flag and generates no criticism within the communitarian political spectrum, that surely tells us a great deal about the collective consciousness of that ‘nation’. Why isn’t there a ‘Not in Our Name’ petition doing the rounds in the Tamil community?
Back home, there is a deadlock but it can be overcome. The TNA refuses to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee unless there is progress in its dialogue with the government. The main opposition party the UNP echoes the TNA and says that it does not intend to participate in the PSC unless there is progress towards an understanding between the TNA and the Government. Why the ‘alternative government’ would make its participation in the PSC through which it could arrive at a consensus with the incumbent administration on the parameters of a solution to the ethnic question, contingent upon the position of the TNA, is a bit of a mystery. One might have thought that the UNP would be pleased to play a bridging role rather than that of a fellow traveller, but that does not seem to be the case at the moment.
In the meanwhile, while well-intentioned and influential foreign friends urge the early holding of an election to the Northern Provincial Council, some strident local voices call for the repeal of the legislation which makes for that devolved body. More prudent centrists, such as this writer, caution that it is as dangerous to dissolve the Council as it is to devolve power in a strategically sensitive border zone to a party which has yet to criticise the Tigers for its terrorism, and whose acceptance of the existing Constitutional provision for devolution (the 13th amendment) as the framework of negotiations, respect of the unitary character of the Constitution and the state and rejection of secessionism, are to say the least, questionable.
A further complicating factor in the current situation is the absence of an unofficial honest broker. A backstage role of this nature was being played but has since been forfeited by a negative vote cast at the UNHRC in Geneva this March, when a pragmatic abstention would have done the trick of sending a signal. Post-March 2012, in the collective psyche of the majority of Sri Lankans, the profile of a neighbouring honest broker has been replaced by memories of a patron and partisan of one side of the ethnic equation, heavily influenced by sub-regional ethnic lobbies and electoral compulsions as in the ‘MGR’ years.
In this context, the cordial and positive dialogue between the President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka and His Holiness Pope Benedict holds out some promise, given that the Church is the only institution on the island that has a constituency which cuts across the ethno-regional fault lines. A cautionary note: Sri Lankan conservative opinion must not react negatively to the use of the term ‘global’ in the communiqué, because in the French language and European discourse, ‘global’ does not mean worldwide or international, but simply ‘total’ and ‘comprehensive’ ( the term for global as in worldwide or international is ‘mondial’).
There is a conspicuous irony in the stances that the TNA and UNP have taken, and their accusation that it is the government that is solely responsible for the delay in a negotiated settlement. When there was a clear chance of reconfiguring the Sri Lankan state in a more liberal direction and resolving the ethno-national question, during the presentation by President Kumaratunga of a draft Constitution in August 2000, Mr Sampanthan reneged on a promise he had made to Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar and refused to support the legislation while Mr Wickremesinghe and his UNP burnt copies of the draft in the precincts of the House itself.
At least one of Mr Sampanthan’s militant Tamil critics is still more responsible for derailing a possible solution. When in the early 1990s, President Premadasa presided over the all-parties conference (APC), he strove to overcome the deadlock on the merger by urging the EPRLF’s Suresh Premachandran and the SLMC’s MHM Ashraff to agree upon a mechanism that could resolve the dispute between the Tamils and Muslims over the Eastern Province. He reiterated this to them both, while seated together at the ceremonial opening of the parliamentary sessions. “Leave the Sinhalese to me, I can and will convince them” said Premadasa. Premachandran and Ashraff finally agreed upon a formula, but (as I witnessed with dismay) literally minutes before it was to be announced at the All Parties Conference, Premachandran pulled out of the deal. That was two decades ago, and whatever their transgressions, Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the JVP, JHU, Wimal Weerawansa and Gunadasa Amarasekara had nothing to do with it.
It is that which caused the APC to fail, and be re-routed by President Premadasa into the Parliamentary Select Committee headed by Mangala Moonesinghe, who miraculously pulled off an agreement for devolution/autonomy to which Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Mr Dinesh Gunawardene affixed their signatures. In constant touch with Mr Moonesinghe, I had been tasked by the President with backstage negotiations, some of which took place at the ICES. The Mangala Moonesinghe formula was rejected (with a solitary exception) by the Tamil leaders who are grouped today in the TNA and complain that Mahinda Rajapaksa is wholly and solely responsible for the stagnation in the search for a negotiated settlement of the ethnic question.
Suresh Premachandran was being true to form. When Ministers P Chidambaram and Natwar Singh came up with the December 19th proposals in 1986, it was not the Sri Lankan government that shot them down. It was the Tamil parties based in India which spurned the proposals when presented by Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. Two years later, in late 1988, the EPRLF declared that the powers devolved were inadequate, even before it had assumed office in the North East Provincial Council and tested out that proposition. After- and despite- a decade of comradeship and shared risk-taking, Premachandran had denounced me with no little menace as a ‘Sinhala chauvinist’ simply because I had called for either a referendum on the merger or a re-demarcation of the merged North-east province, in a full-page interview given to Kendall Hopman of the Sunday Times in November 1988 and followed it up at a press conference at the GCSU.
In 1990 that Council which had been set-up under the 13th amendment, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, with tens of thousands of foreign troops on the soil of the area. Who is to say that a future Council which is similarly committed to going beyond the 13th amendment will not do likewise, only this time with foreign troops being invited in by the rebellious Council? Why would any responsible state take that risk?
How then to resolve this complex conundrum? Fortunately there exists a legal and constitutional pathway: that of an interim administration. An interim administration comprising of all parliamentary parties currently representing the relevant (Northern) area, appointed in proportion to their parliamentary strengths relevant to that area, may be a provisional solution; a stop-gap measure. Any secessionist temptation would be blunted by the presence of the constituent members of more mainstream national blocs/coalitions. The entire arrangement would be reminiscent of the executive Committee system under the Donoughmore Constitution, which made for cross-ethnic consensus and constructive politics.
What is the alternative? There is of course the option of permanent polemics and accusations, a cycle of demands and rejections. Each side may think that time is on its side and that the risk of delay is affordable but they may both be wrong. A downslide to a dead-end would be distressing but it could get worse, fast.