In war and in between wars, Sri Lanka’s political actors have constantly debated what was popularly called the political package; a political scheme to settle the ethnic conflict. That was because a political package was conceived as indispensable for resolving the ethnic conflict peacefully. Many political packages have been presented, discussed and discarded.
When the war ended in May 2009, recognizing that what was terminated was only the war and not the conflict, many in Sri Lanka and outside argued that it was the best opportunity to resolve the conflict. The need for a political package was linked to ethnic reconciliation and stable peace. With the end of the war, one of the major impediments to peaceful resolution of the conflict, the LTTE, was removed. Traditionally, the South resisted devolution of powers to the periphery, especially the North on the premise that the devolved powers will be utilized to promote separatism. The LTTE with its military capacity will use devolved power as a launching pad to setup the separate state for the Tamils, the Tamil Eelam, was the contention.
One can argue that the Tamils will not be able to abuse the devolved powers with the decimation of the LTTE as a military force. The government can always intervene forcefully if the present Tamil leadership begins to take advantage of the devolved powers to promote separatism. The government has the will, legal structure and the military capacity to do so. Hence, in theory the Southern resistance to devolution of power and a political package should have faded with the LTTE. This was one reason why some commentators argued that the end of the war was the ripe moment to resolve the conflict politically.
However, it was the politically naïve which believed that the present government will speed up the peace talks with the TNA leaders, the new political representatives of the Tamil people, who were elected in 2010. Realist thinkers expected no immediate progress in this front, because it was the military stalemate or military balance that formed the basis of the Sri Lankan government’s peace talks, in the recent past, with the LTTE. The military balance however, disappeared when the LTTE was crushed. Hence the government had no compelling reason to resume peace talks, which will eventually force it to concede something to the TNA. From the point of view of the government this was completely unwarranted. Nationalist political groups in the South would have resisted peace parleys on the premise that the government didn’t need to grant politically something that was won militarily. The same reason is currently used against holding provincial council election in the North. Sacrifices made in the battlefield currently serve as a deterrent to any possible devolution of powers and it will continue to serve this purpose for some time to come.
The government however, could not simply reject the idea of peace talks for political correctness and also due to international pressure. The international community was pressurizing the government to address Tamil grievances politically and come up with a political package. The two resolutions endorsed in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 13 and the constant Western demand for international investigation into the alleged human rights violation committed during the last phase of the war were partly aimed at forcing the Sri Lankan government to address the ethnic issue politically. Action on this front would have indeed diluted international criticism against the Sri Lankan government.
Unable to ignore the issue completely the government proposed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and invited the TNA to participate in the PSC process. By proposing the PSC the government successfully achieved two objectives: (1) it effectively transferred the responsibility of finding a political package to parliament, and (2) placed the ball in TNA’s court. Politically, it was a shrewd idea, because a parliamentary select committee is a multilateral process; not bilateral. Since it involves most political parties in parliament it will take time to reach agreements providing the government much needed space for political maneuvering. There are also enough parties who could spoil the PSC process. The government probably realized that the proposed PSC will not materialize because the TNA wanted a bilateral process.
For the Tamils, the PSC proposal evoked memories of the All Party Conference (APC) convened by President J. R. Jayewardene. Following the 1983 ethnic riots New Delhi decided to intervene directly in the Sri Lankan conflict and sent veteran diplomat G. Parthasarathy as Special Envoy of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Parthasarathy came up with a proposal, the Annexure C and wanted, or forced the parties to discuss the proposal. Obviously, Jayewardene was not keen and on the premise that he needed to carry public opinion with him in order to implement any agreement reached with the Tamils, convened the APC. He not only invited all political parties but also accommodated religious organizations as well, knowing very well that some of these parties had the potential to slow down and in fact scuttle the process, if necessary. With the demise of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the APC was dissolved inconclusively. The late Sivasithambaram of the TULF, who participated in the APC process, in a public meeting claimed that President Jayewardene one day informed that the APC was dissolved without a reason after about one year of its sittings. In relation to the APC, the delaying tactic worked.
Therefore, the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee was seen by the TNA as a delaying tactic of the Rajapaksa government. The Tamils, not without reason, also believed that there will be enough political parties in the PSC, which could scuttle the process. Obviously, they did not want to be trapped in a process that absolutely had no promise. The TNA refused to join. Other main parties in parliament, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the United National Party, also declared their hesitation to enter into the process without the participation of one of the main protagonists, the TNA. Therefore, the proposed PSC remains unconstituted. Now there is no political package either.
The government obviously likes it because the status quo favors it. It does not have to do anything but remind periodically the TNA that there is an invitation. The government could also argue that the conflict resolution process had been stalled because of the refusal of the TNA to participate in the process.
Internationally, this argument was convincing. Recently, during a discussion on Sri Lanka in the Lok Sbha of Indian Parliament, a Congress Member of Parliament pointed out that President Rajapaksa is helpless in terms of finding a political solution because the TNA has refused to join the PSC.
The problem with TNA’s approach is that it has no alternative to the proposed PSC. It insists on bilateral negotiations without being able to exert pressure on the government. The government however is not going to concede to direct talks with the TNA in the absence of adequate pressure. The TNA has no strategy to get out of the quagmire. It operates within the agenda set by the government. Unless and until the TNA finds a way to create politically necessary conditions, Sri Lanka’s peace talk and political package will remain elusive.
(The author is Chair of Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected])