Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Power Struggle and Extremism amidst Transition Problems

by V Gunaratnam, October 12, 2005

It was as if a tropical storm had swept through Colombo, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that President Kumaratunga has to clear out of the presidential mansion, with bag and baggage, by the end of the year.  The political scene has been left in a shambles, with its principal players twisting, turning, and scrambling to shore up their support, and cranking up their propaganda machinery for the presidential election.

Kumaratunga and Rajapakse

Kumaratunga was the first to be hit, becoming an expendable commodity, after being reduced to a lame-duck president, signalling a power shift away from her.  She was left in no doubt about where she stood when other events unfolded in quick succession.

The Bandaranaike dynasty came crashing down like the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, when the SLFP named Mahinda Rajapakse as their next presidential candidate, casting aside Kumaratunga's brother, Anura Bandaranike.  Anura, in any case, is regarded as nothing more than a worthless hulk, an absolute disaster as a polls prospect.  It was, however, a bitter pill for Kumaratunga to swallow, after all that the Bandaranaikes have done for the SLFP.

For Rajapakse, who has suddenly sprung up like a jack-in-the-box to take over the party machinery to contest the election, it was an opportunity of a lifetime.  Realizing it was a numbers game in which he stood little chance of winning without JVP support, he paid a high price to get their backing by publicly subscribing to their radical policies.  He did the same with the JHU, by agreeing to their racially-motivated demands.

The agreements with the JVP and the JHU were a complete U-turn by Rajapakse, turning his back on everything he had accepted and approved as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka!  It meant the scuttling of the peace talks, the rejection of the federal concept of power-sharing, and, a retreat into the darkness represented by the unitary state, as far as the Tamils are concerned.


At the other extreme, the UNP’s Ranil Wicremesinghe is not saying much about their strategy except that the UNP is sticking with the peace process they initiated in 2002, for fear of alienating the Sinhala vote.  But extending an invitation to Kumaratunga for the SLFP and the UNP to form ‘a government of national consensus,’ was a deft political tactic to exploit the developing rift between Kumaratunga and Rajapakse.

Wickremesinghe lacks the charisma of Kumaratunga, or the common touch of Rajapakse, but he makes up for these by being a leader of integrity and consistency on peace and economic matters, with strong ties to the international community.  He is cobbling together his own coalition, and it looks promising.  But the way he let things slip out of his control as prime minister is still a troubling thought for many.  Surprisingly, however, he is getting some help from an unexpected quarter to boost his chances: Kumaratunga.

In New York, for a UN General Assembly gathering of heads of state, Kumaratunga reiterated that she favoured a federal solution as the way out of the conflict with the Tamils.  This was also a way of castigating Rajapakse for moving away from the SLFP’s position on the peace process, words that seemed to echo the position taken by the UNP.

But Kumaratunga is also her own master, and a consummate political animal, who is still capable of springing a late surprise to influence the outcome of the presidential election.  If that happens and the UNP were to win the election, she could emerge as a powerful power-broker, and perhaps help to create a grand coalition, a benign force for good in Sri Lanka politics.  But that must remain as just a dream for now.  In the meantime Kumaratunga is keeping her options open by playing hot and cold with Rajapakse.

The election and the Tamils

If Rajapakse wins, the JVP would very likely become the puppet master.  They have Rajapakse in their hold.  Joining them has left him with little maneuvering room, and that is going to make things very difficult for him.  The knottiest problem is the peace process.  Where Kumaratunga has failed, it is foolish to think Rajapakse could do anything more to bring the JVP around to agree to peace negotiations and federalism, to both of which they are totally opposed.  Even if Rajapakse does not win, his radical coalition will be a drag on any party that takes power.

The other big question is, how is Rajapakse going to cope with the JVP’s thoroughly discredited old Soviet-style voodoo economic theories to run the country?  Sri Lanka could then kiss goodbye to international assistance and investment and, and with over a quarter of the population in poverty and growing, God only knows how he is going to climb the mountain he has created for himself and solve the nation's problems.

The UNP, on the other hand, represents a ray of hope for the Tamils, because of the mere fact that they are promising to continue with the ceasefire and the peace talks.  But they will be hampered by parliament, because no single party has been able to form a government on its own since the 1978 constitution introduced proportional representation.  The usual small and weak coalitions have proved unstable and very troublesome to manage in the past.  For the Tamils this would likely mean a stalemate, and a protracted period of uncertainty.

What it amounts to is that constitutional changes to accommodate the Tamils would be impossible if the UNP win the election.  The presidency also will be powerless to bring about such changes, as Kumaratunga’s time in office demonstrated.  Only a grand coalition of the UNP and the SLFP would be able to work this magic.  But, in the wake of the power struggle created by Kumaratunga’s pending exit, things look very bleak indeed.

Not ready for a ceasefire

Sometimes we are tempted to think that the Sinhalese were not ready for the ceasefire when it arrived.  The way things are going now it appears they have forgotten the tranquility of peace, and all the good things it brought them.  Everything about the peace process has got lost in Sinhala politics of racial intolerance and extremism.  The Sri Lanka government’s approach has been to procrastinate endlessly, citing extraneous causes, when the real roots of the problem lie buried within their own system, their constitution.

Consider the recent European Union (EU) travel suspension on the LTTE.  It is not going to solve Sri Lanka’s problems at home.  In fact, the suspension is a two-edged sword, and cuts both ways.  While the LTTE will lose the privilege of traveling to EU countries for some time, they did get their story out to the world for two decades, without taking a step out of the country.  But the point is, the EU is also telling the government: We have done this for you, now get on with the peace process in earnest.  The EU’s action, however, was out of character and a retrograde step that needs to be set right.

Take another example, Sri Lanka’s stand on human rights issues.  They cry about child soldiers being recruited by the LTTE, but they do nothing about the thousands of Tamil tsunami victims starving and even dying, because some piece of paper called the P-TOMS is in conflict with another piece of paper called their constitution.  Worse still, what have they done about the tens of thousands of displaced Tamils, driven out of their homes who are barely able to survive in places unfit for human habitation?  With such a record on human rights against its own citizens, nothing more needs to be said about Sri Lanka’s hollow human rights pleas.

After the tsunami disaster forced open a window on Sri Lanka, and the LTTE began telling the real story about the plight of the Tamils, the international community has a better appreciation of what is happening within the country.  The thick wall of illusion has been pierced.  But we must understand that, while the Sinhalese leaders have been tilting at windmills and living the good life, the country has been going to the dogs, driven to the depths by a nation forever in conflict with the Tamils, unable to find a way to live and let live.

Hostility and chaos

The Palestinians and Israelis have taken a big step forward, Northern Ireland is seeing good days, Liberia’s presidential election promises to return the country to peace after fourteen years, and Aceh rebels have signed a peace deal with Indonesia.  These once intractable problems are gradually yielding to reason, understanding and resolution.  But that is not what is happening in the country once known as the paradise island.

Sri Lanka is fast losing all sense of direction, sanity and edging towards war again.  The very division of the country the Sinhalese fear is what is going to be forced on them by their unwillingness to resolve the problem with the Tamils, and hostilities break out again, driving the Tamils to the brink...

Which way the country goes is up to its citizens to decide when they vote in the upcoming presidential election.  They have a chance to choose between good sense and a return to hostilities and chaos.


Posted October 19, 2005