S Sathananthan[1]



The most recent twist in the meandering, much-flogged conflict resolution process is the entry of the Government of Norway as a facilitator, to initiate talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Governments of some countries in the west, including Norway, are said to have maintained contact with the two protagonists over the past few years and, on several occasions, offered their good offices to help resolve the armed conflict between the GSL and the LTTE. But the former steadfastly rejected the offers on grounds that the conflict is an internal affair whilst keeping a door ajar for an external third party to facilitate the commencement of negotiations; the latter insisted a non-Sri Lankan agency must mediate future negotiations. The effectiveness of Norway’s intervention would, therefore, crucially depend on its ability to straddle the status divide between facilitator and mediator.

If the role of the Government of India between 1983 and 1990 qualifies as the first foreign involvement in the armed conflict, the Norwegian initiative, evidently endorsed by many Governments in Western Europe and North America, is the first international intervention. Its relevance is heightened by the apparent prospect for forging a bipartisan consensus between the two main Sinhalese political parties in Colombo, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is Deputy Leader of the SLFP, met Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe, Leader of the UNP, on the 9th of March. The event is significant because both the SLFP, the dominant member in the current Peoples Alliance (PA) Coalition Government, and the Opposition UNP had avoided any bilateral contact to formulate a common approach in Colombo to the armed conflict during the past two-and-half decades.[2]  

Predictably, the unprecedented meeting between the two arch political rivals is being hailed as a historic breakthrough. Viewed in conjunction with Norway’s involvement at the “request” of GSL and “wish” of LTTE, hopes are high the two parties would reach a Sinhalese consensus on a conflict resolution proposal (CRP), popularly referred to as the “peace package”. These developments together with the anticipated subsequent negotiations between the Sinhalese-controlled GSL and the LTTE, the cutting edge of the Ceylon Tamil[3] national movement in the Tamil-majority North-East Province (NEP),[4] on the basis of that CRP are seen in Colombo as constitutive of the most favourable window thus far to peace.

But journalistic euphoria, however understandable, is no substitute for rigorous analysis. This essay will seek to dig deeper. It will reflect on the historical background provided by the previous instance when talks were held between President Kumaratunga’s delegation[5] and ranking members of the LTTE’s political wing[6] between October 1994 and March 1995.[7] It will thereafter examine the significant provisions of the CRP and assess the alleged convergence of interest between the SLFP and the UNP with the primary intention of exploring the logic and trajectory of the underlying political dynamic. In conclusion, the essay will evaluate the scope for hammering out a political solution between the PA Government and the LTTE-led Tamil national movement.

The conceptual underpinning

The GSL’s approach – which encapsulates Sinhalese perceptions – was enunciated in May 1994 by Mrs Kumaratunga, ethnically Sinhalese and the then Prime Ministerial candidate. In an interview published in a Tamil daily newspaper,[8] she had elaborated the policy of her future SLFP-led PA Government on conflict resolution thus:

1. “A political solution to the Tamil problem could be achieved based on a form of decentralisation of authority which includes an institutional mechanism for centre-region interaction.” She excluded devolution of power and instead intended at best to lubricate decentralisation through an unspecified centre-region institutional interface.

2. “Such a political solution must apply equally to all parts of the country.” In other words, she ignored the central issue, namely, the Tamil national movement, which is specific to the NEP.

3. “The intransigence of the LTTE is the only obstacle to a negotiated peace.” The implication here was that her future Government would keep open the military option to deal with the LTTE-led Tamil national movement.

Nevertheless, Mrs Kumaratunga campaigned on the optimistic platform of “peace at any cost” that was sensitive to the widespread desire for an end to the armed conflict among the majority of Sinhalese and Tamil voters. The PA won the parliamentary elections in August 1994 and she took over as Prime Minister.

The LTTE reciprocated her stated commitment to peace. Its Leader, Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran, wrote to her in early September inviting her to commence negotiations.[9] About two weeks later the organisation’s political advisor, Mr Anton Balasingam, announced that the LTTE is willing to drop the demand for an independent State of Tamil Eelam; that it is “prepared to accept a ‘substantial [devolution] package’ as an alternative” to the demand. Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte signalled Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Kumaratunga’s willingness to dialogue and the first meeting for talks was held on 13 October 1994 in Jaffna.

The day after Prime Minister Kumaratunga was sworn in as President on 12 November, Mr Prabhakaran offered a one-week Cessation of Hostilities (COH).[10] President Kumaratunga responded by inviting the LTTE to communicate the offer of COH officially to the Government and by offering a two-week extension of that COH.[11] It is unclear whether the LTTE acceded to the President’s request; nevertheless the violence abated. At the end of November, the Mr Prabhakaran announced that the LTTE is ready to consider “regional self rule”.[12]

Almost simultaneously in November, a one-page anonymous note titled Framework for constitutional restructuring to end the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was circulated in Colombo. It contained the following broad suggestions for conflict resolution:

“1. Assure the unity of Sri Lanka through the powers of the Executive Presidency.

 2. Under the President there shall be two Councils, one for safeguarding the Constitution and other for minority interests.

 3. There shall be two Parliaments, one for Singhala Ratta and one for Tamileelam, each with a Prime Minister and a Cabinet assuring the rights of self determination of the two principal nationalities of Sri Lanka, namely Tamils and Singhalese who are distinguished by a history of self government.

 4. The Sri Lankan armed forces shall consist of three independent structures, namely the armed forces of Singhala Ratta, Tamileelam and a national coordinating army.

 5. After constitutional restructuring, peoples’ wish to resettle in a place of their choice shall be supported by the State.

 6. The North and East shall be permanently merged. If necessary the areas of Padaviya (Padavil Kulam), Thambankadavai East (Mannampity) and Wilpattu be exchanged for the District of Amparai.

 7. Abolish Provincial Councils.”

The contents of the note were believed by some to reflect the almost confederal parameters of a devolution proposal that may be acceptable to the LTTE and which President Kumaratunga therefore could advantageously incorporate in her CRP.

The second meeting for talks was held in Jaffna on 3 January 1995 and optimism was heightened when the President formally declared a temporary COH with the LTTE on 8 January. The LTTE Leader welcomed the President’s action and reciprocated by proposing that the COH be made permanent. The President disagreed. Nevertheless the third meeting for talks took place on 14 January.

In early March the LTTE reiterated its readiness to abandon the demand for a separate State and outlined the contours of a viable CRP by enumerating Four Principles that should be incorporated in such proposal. They are:

“The problem of the Tamils should be accepted as a national issue.”

“The Tamil people must be accepted as a national entity.”

“The traditional homeland of the Tamils should be accepted.”

“The rights and sovereignty of the Tamils should be accepted.”[13]

Sifting through the semantic jugglery, it is possible to discern two issues central to the Tamil national movement and on which the two protagonists held diametrically opposite views. The GSL defined the Tamil people as a minority whilst envisaging a “decentralisation” of authority equally to all provinces on a territorial basis. The Sinhalese position therefore was that the conflict should be resolved within the framework of the existing unitary State. In contrast, the LTTE conceived the Tamils as a nation whose political aspirations could be realised only under a “devolution” of power[14] unique to Tamils on a linguistic basis in the NEP. The structural requirement for conflict resolution, short of complete independence, from the standpoint of the LTTE is a change to a confederal system of government.

The fourth meeting for talks was held on 10 April. By then, however, the exchanges between the protagonists had turned increasingly acrimonious. The LTTE requested, and the President agreed, that the GSL’s economic embargo on the NEP should be lifted and normal living conditions are restored for Tamil civilians. The LTTE specified two additional conditions, which concerned military aspects, including the removal of the army camp strategically located south of Jaffna in Pooneryn. The GSL did not lift the economic embargo; nor did it concede the other two conditions.

The President claimed she could not unveil her CRP, if any did exist, allegedly because the LTTE opposed its publication. But the LTTE countered that it refused to discuss a proposal until the President met the conditions it had specified.

In the midst of this political tug-of-war, the President announced the intention to unilaterally formulate plans for the reconstruction of the Jaffna Peninsula. In the absence of a CRP, LTTE interpreted the proposed Rs 39 billion programme (approximately US$ 1 billion at that time) as economic carrots dangled before the war-ravaged Tamil community as a part of the strategy to drive a wedge between the Tamil people and the LTTE.

Not surprisingly, by this time mutual suspicion became intense. On 27 March the President, speaking in New Delhi, offered to lift the fuel embargo on the NEP. The LTTE Leader in turn delivered a 3-week notice of the termination of COH on 19 April, if the President’s offer was not implemented; implementation failed and the LTTE ended the COH on that day.

The contentious matters that bedevilled the talks, however, could not detract from the fundamental political chasm between the Sinhalese-controlled GSL’s insistence on classifying Tamils as a minority and the LTTE-led Tamil national movement’s stance that Tamils constitute a nation. This is not merely a semantic dispute. The point at issue is whether or not the Tamil people possess the right to national self-determination. The Government’s assertion was that Tamils, as members of a minority group, are entitled to individual rights guaranteed to all citizens; the movement’s position was that Tamils, as a nation, enjoyed the collective right of national self-determination.

The CRP currently under consideration ought to be assessed against the above historical backdrop.

The proposal for constitutional reform

The Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Constitutional Reform,[15] tabled in Parliament in October 1997, excluded Article 2 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, which states: “The Republic of Sri Lanka is a Unitary State.” For the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) report – which is the current CRP – instead proposed to describe the country as a “Union of Regions” (Article (1(1)). The use of the word “Union”[16] evoked potentials of the Indian constitutional model. Moreover the absence of Article 2 held out the possibility of the CRP moving beyond the confines of the unitary State set up, and devolve power to, federalist institutions to satisfy to a large extent the political aspirations of Tamils.

But Article 92(1) of the PSC Report stated: “Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power, and shall not set up any authority with legislative power”, a verbatim re-statement of the controversial Article 76[17] of the Constitution that forbade devolution of power. Thus, Article 1(1) merely conjured up the illusion of federalism and the CRP too in fact permitted only political decentralisation.

Secondly, the PSC Report re-named the province as a Region, envisaged the establishment of a Regional Council (RC) in each and decentralisation of authority uniformly to all (Articles 127 to 139).[18] This apparently egalitarian approach denied acknowledgement of the unique political context thrown up by the Tamil national movement in the NEP; therefore it rejected the need for qualitatively different powers and higher level of autonomy for that province. Consequently neither the institutional framework of the proposed RC nor its anticipated legislative and executive powers have any relevance to the national aspirations of Tamils.

Moreover, after tabling the PSC report in Parliament, Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic and National Integration Prof GL Peiris explicitly stated that the CRP would not be communicated to the LTTE until there is a “substantial laying down of arms” by that organisation. In other words, the GSL reserved the military option to deal with the LTTE-led Tamil national movement.

The CRP, therefore, embodied the three main perceptions of the Sinhalese people enunciated by President Kumaratunga in May 1994. It was concerned only with political decentralisation; it ignored the historical specificity of the Tamil national movement and reiterated the GSL’s preference for a military solution to the armed conflict.

Indeed the CRP announced in Colombo and the military campaign in the NEP are inter-related aspects of a unified politico-military approach to the Tamil national movement. Minister Peiris had candidly explained the strategy in August 1995 after the first of four CRPs[19] was released to the public:

“some want to know the necessity for a political solution when a war is raging. True, what we need to win the war is armaments not a political solution. But we have been able to procure military hardware because we have presented a political solution. The President’s leadership has gained international acceptance today. Therefore, we experience no difficulty to get our arms requirements.. The President and the Government have succeeded in convincing the world community that restoration of peace is possible through the political package. We cannot expect the co-operation of the international community [to execute the military campaign] without seeking a political solution.”[20]

The main objectives of formulating the CRP were revealed when the Minister outlined the tortuous stages through which it would be put through. He qualified the August 1995 proposals as the President’s own views or “basic ideas…almost in the form of a Green Paper. The next stage is for the draft chapter of the new constitution on devolution to be presented to the PSC on Constitutional Reform. Within about two to three weeks we will try to finalise that document and that will be placed before the PSC…we will have full discussion to reach consensus within that forum. Thereafter it could be presented in Parliament where we would need a 2/3 majority.”[21]

If timing is everything in politics, even a cursory knowledge of the ground situation in Sri Lanka would show that the long drawn out four-stage approach was essentially a two-pronged ploy to buy time for the victorious completion of military operations as well as to hasten that victory by politically isolating the LTTE. In this regard, the Minister explained the utility of the proposals thus: “we do expect that the military effort will have the effect of diminishing the strength of the LTTE. But the political proposal will also have a role in that regard because they will go a long way towards convincing the Tamil people that the Government should be supported and that will alienate the Tamil people from the LTTE. So there is a connection between the two things.”[22]

The August proposals were followed by Operation Riviresa in September. The January 1996 document was released 48 hours before Operation Rivikirena was launched in the east of the NEP on 18 January; and the March 1977 proposals were released while feverish preparations were going on for Operation Jayasikurui, launched in May.

Moreover, as the Government had entered the second half of its six-year term of office, attention began shifting towards the next parliamentary and presidential elections due in or before the year 2000. To win the elections, it was necessary to formulate the political response in such a manner so as to re-build the “peace platform” crafted by the SLFP, that had ensured the PA’s victory at the 1994 elections. There were in addition strong rumours of an early presidential election – possibly in late 1998 – to reap the electoral advantage of military successes on the battlefield. So the PSC report also served as the first political salvo in the imminent election campaign.

Driven primarily by the need to build a competing “peace image” in preparation for the forthcoming elections, the leadership of the UNP released its Observations on the PSC Report. The first instalment of the document was made public on 1 February 1998;[23] the second instalment was released on 8 March 1997.[24]

The Observations (second instalment) did not pledge to repeal Articles 2 and 76 of the Constitution. Rather they underlined the need to maintain the Unitary State by emphasising “the indivisibility and unity of Sri Lanka as a nation” (para 1.1) and envisaging the “devolution of power within the framework of an indivisible Sri Lanka” (para 2.1). On the face of it, these provisions indicate the UNP’s resolve to retain Article 2. In the Sri Lankan political context, these phrases are also the traditional code words to whip up chauvinist Sinhalese support by accusing the other side (the PA in this instance) of scheming to “divide the country” and “surrender” a part of it (the NEP) to the “enemy” (Tamils). Similarly the discussion on the elimination of the Concurrent List of subjects, to avoid conflicts between the Centre and the Provincial Councils (PCs) (paras 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5), given the retention of Article 76, amounted to little more that political rhetoric. At the same time, the terms of discourse are the traditional mode of placating the Tamil and Muslim politicians by offering PCs a modicum of authority and some political space to manoeuvre.

Although the PSC report implicitly rejected power-sharing at the Centre,[25] the Observations (first instalment) envisaged “the sharing of power amongst all communities at the Centre”; and they proposed “a Second Chamber where the minorities would be adequately represented”, “adequate representation of minorities in the Cabinet of Ministers” and “a President and two Vice-Presidents to represent the three major communities [Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims]” (para 7). Despite the apparent preference for “sharing of power”, the UNP in fact shifted attention to the sharing of representation. It did not provide for the power sharing: for instance, no provision was made for a double majority system.[26] The rhetoric of “representation of minorities” disguised the fact that the Sinhalese would continue to constitute the overwhelming majority in both houses of Parliament. Moreover, by ensuring that majoritarian domination remained virtually unaffected, the UNP avoided alienating the Sinhalese electorate. On the other hand, the party held out posts of Vice Presidents and Cabinet Minister(s) as political carrots to induce the Tamil and Muslim politicians to back the UNP at election time.

The next major issue that dogged conflict resolution is the extent of the territorial unit of decentralisation with respect to Ceylon Tamils, Muslims and Up-Country Tamils. The PSC report renamed the PCs as RCs but failed to clearly demarcate the boundaries of the proposed North-East RC for Ceylon Tamils and South-East RC for Muslims[27] (Art 127(3)). The Observations remained silent on a territorial unit for Muslims while reiterating the relevance of PCs (para 2).

Neither the PSC Report nor the Observations accommodated the demand for an autonomous region for Up-Country Tamils.[28]

There are several other issues in dispute which are not adequately addressed by either the PSC report or the Observations. The national flag contains the Lion Flag of the Sinhalese, with the addition of two stripes, Saffron and Green, to signify respectively the Ceylon Tamils and Muslims. The stripes are placed outside the Lion Flag proper and at the less important pole-end of the flag.[29]  Most Tamil politicians have demanded a change in the flag design and it has been a bone of contention for more than four decades. But the PSC report effectively rejected any change in the national flag: it categorically stated that ‘the National Flag of the Republic shall be the Lion Flag’ (Art 4). The Observations made no reference to the national flag and, therefore, envisaged no change.

Secularism is another issue in dispute. Article 9 of the Constitution specified as follows: “The Republic shall give to Buddhism the foremost place”.. The provision privileged the Buddhists (who are Sinhalese) to the detriment of Hindus and Muslims (who are Tamils) and Christians (who are found among Sinhalese and Tamils). Tamils criticised the provision as a departure from the secular tradition; and they underlined the return to a secular political framework[30] as an essential basis for ensuring the national rights of Tamils.

However, the Observations (second instalment) confirmed that Article 9 of the Constitution would be retained (para 1.2). The PSC report reiterated that Buddhism shall enjoy “the foremost place” and further entrenched the trend away from secularism: it provided for the constitution of a “Supreme Council” of Buddhist Clergy (Art 7).

The Language Question arose when Sinhala was legislated as the sole official language of the country by the SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) coalition government in 1956; and Article 18 of the Constitution as formulated in 1978 had provided: “The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.” Since 1956, Tamils have demanded that Tamil must be made an official language at par with Sinhala, to protect the linguistic rights of Tamils.

The then UNP Government appeared to accommodate the Tamil demand when it amended Article 18, through the 1987 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to read as follows:

“(1) The official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.

Tamil shall also be an official language.

English shall be a link language.”

On closer reading, however, it was evident that Tamil is not at par with Sinhala as an official language of Sri Lanka for the provision is worded in such a manner as to retain the primacy of the Sinhala language. Sinhala is ‘The’ official language of ‘Sri Lanka’. In contrast, the Tamil language is accorded the subordinate position by the use of the word ‘also’ and by not stating whether it is the official language of the whole country, province or district. In short, Sinhala remains the sole official language of the whole country.

The discrimination against Tamils inherent in Article 18 is demonstrated by the alternative provision in the PSC report that proposed bilingualism; it read: “The official languages of the Republic shall be Sinhala and Tamil” (Art 32). However, it is not buttressed by the substantive provisions, which in fact retained the primacy of Sinhala language. They provided that “Sinhala shall be the language used for the maintenance of public records by the national and regional public institutions and local authorities in the Capital Territory [Municipalities of Colombo and Sri Jayawardenapura] and all the Regions other than the [Ceylon Tamil and Muslim majority] Regions” (Art 35(2)) in the north and east of the country. Sinhala language domination was reinforced by the provision that “a Regional Administration of local authority which maintains its public records in Sinhala shall be entitled to receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with any official, in his or her official capacity, in Sinhala, and a Regional Administration of local authority which maintains its public records in Tamil shall be entitled to receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with any official, in his or her official capacity, in Tamil” (Art 37(2)). The apparent reciprocity offered to the Ceylon Tamils and Muslims masks the fact the Central Government is controlled by Sinhalese and that the Ceylon Tamil and Muslim-majority regions would, in practice, be compelled to communicate in Sinhala with the Centre and Sinhalese-majority provinces. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the formulation of the articles was guided partly by electoral considerations: Article 32 was crafted to satisfy the Tamil electorate while the other provisions in effect maintained the status quo to assure the Sinhalese voters.

The Observations (both instalments) are silent on the subject of official language, indicating that the UNP intends to keep Article 18.

While the SLFP and UNP prevaricated over the issue of Tamil rights, the conflict between the Sinhalese-controlled Government and the LTTE-led Tamil national movement metamorphosed into a full blown armed conflict, which inexorably drew other communities into its vortex. By the mid-1990s, the Government was embroiled in the struggle for territory with two other national movements. So far the contests between the Government and the Muslims, led by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), as well as that between the Government and the radicalised Up-Country Tamils, represented by the Up-Country People’s Front (UPF), remain largely political. However, unconfirmed but reliable reports indicate armed factions are emerging within the latter two national movements: a shadowy Al Jihad in the eastern region and an underground Up-Country People’s Liberation Front (UPLF). The complexity of the multiple national movements is underlined by the interplay between the cross cutting linguistic (Sinhala-Tamil) division and religious identities (Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim). The success of a CRP now depends on how the SLFP and UNP would respond to the demands of the Ceylon Tamil, Muslim and Up-Country Tamil national movements.

Sinhalese bi-partisanship and the national movements

The current phase of the conflict resolution exercise, which began with the re-election of President Kumaratunga in December 1999, is based on the assumption that crass opportunism of the two Sinhalese parties is the primary obstacle to hammering out a political solution to the armed conflict. For electoral contest between the SLFP and UNP to garner Sinhalese votes invariably degenerated into competitive chauvinism as opportunistic politicians whipped up Sinhalese narrow nationalism.[31] A recent instance is the conflicting assertions made about the PSC report during the 1999 presidential election campaign. While President Kumaratunga painted a rosy future for Tamils within a “Union of Regions”, which was alleged to be “federalism in everything but name”, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe condemned it as an insidious plot to “divide the country”. The President responded by repeating the claim that, because the UNP withheld its support in Parliament, the PA is unable to legislate the constitutional reforms proposed in the CRP with the mandatory two-thirds majority.[32] However, Mr Wickremasinghe asserted the need first to negotiate with the LTTE Leader Mr Prabhakaran to secure his agreement to the CRP; and announced that if elected President, he would commence a “dialogue” with him. President Kumaratunga in turn accused Mr Wickremasinghe of colluding with the LTTE to overthrow her Government.

Indeed the international community too came to regard an SLFP-UNP consensus as an indispensable precondition for formulating a credible CRP. For the then British Under Secretary, Mr Liam Fox, engineered an agreement between President Kumaratunga and Mr Wickremasinghe in 1998 as the first step. However both leaders signed the Liam Fox Agreement separately in their respective offices rather than together in one room, which indicated there is a long way to go before consensus could, if at all, be reached.

Two events drastically altered the ground situation. In the first week of November 1999, Operation Oyatha Alaigal 3 of the LTTE clawed back most of the territory the army captured since January 1996. This signalled the failure of the President’s “war for peace” strategy and underlined the virtual impossibility of imposing a military solution upon the Tamil national movement. In the following month, the President was re-elected with a reduced, slender majority, pointing to a probable defeat for her PA in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in August 2000. These changes in the military and political conditions, combined with intense pressure from the international community channelled through the Norwegian Government, induced the SLFP and UNP to commence a dialogue in early 2000.

Mr Wickremasinghe made the first substantive move. He wrote to President Kumaratunga in early February offering conditional support for the 1997 PSC report in Parliament.[33] President Kumaratunga replied on 18 February to invite Mr Wickremasinghe for discussions on the 22nd. “I wish to emphasise”, she added, “that what we expect to discuss is none other than the Draft that was prepared by the Government in August 1995”; and that “the Draft has now been finalised incorporating the views of the Peoples Alliance and the Tamil parties.”[34] Mr Wickremasinghe adroitly side-stepped the trap, of discussing the defunct 1995 proposals; he pleaded insufficient notice, reiterated his willingness to discuss the current CRP[35] but raised objection to the transitional provisions introduced to permit President Kumaratunga to hold the posts of President and Prime Minister “for a few years”.[36]

Meanwhile, Minister Peiris had once again outlined a four-staged process leading up to constitutional reform. President Kumaratunga would first consult constituent parties of the PA, then discuss the CRP with Tamil parties represented in Parliament[37] and thereafter seek the concurrence of the UNP in order to present the Tigers with a consensus of all the other parties including the Tamil parties “so that the prospects of implementation are significantly enhanced”.. In the final stage, the PA would hold talks with the LTTE.[38] The aim, he said, is “to place before the LTTE proposals which are implementable.”[39]

Before the first meeting took place between President Kumaratunga and Mr Wickremasinghe, the CRP ran into rough weather. Two constituent parties of the PA, the Communist Party (CP) and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), contradicted the President’s claim that the PSC report is endorsed by all parties in the PA; and they demanded the immediate abolition of the Executive Presidency. Indeed, even within the President’s own party, SLFP, there arose irreconcilable differences. Sinhalese hard-liners demanded the de-merger of the NEP. Muslim members opposed the provision for a South East Provincial Council, which had been included to placate the SLMC.[40] The Tamil parties denied approving either the CRP or the modifications unilaterally introduced by the President. The PSC report had provided that the President shall appoint the Governor of a Region “on the advice of the Chief Minister of the Region” (Art 129(2)); and that each RC could raise foreign funds (Art 210(1)). But the amendments required the President merely to give “due consideration” to the Chief Minister’s advice, and removed the power of international borrowing. Tamil parties rejected them.[41]

If President Kumaratunga’s cavalier shifting of the goal posts cast serious doubt on her intention to construct a bi-partisan consensus between the SLFP an UNP, her professed eagerness to negotiate with the LTTE appeared disingenuous as she continued to publicly lash out at that organisation.[42] The LTTE for its part pursued its military advance in the NEP and began laying siege to the army garrison at Elephant Pass, south of the Jaffna peninsula.[43]

By the time the third meeting between President Kumaratunga and Mr Wickremasinghe took place on 21 March,[44] the prospects for a bi-partisan approach dimmed considerably. For the President repeated the allegation that the UNP and the LTTE are colluding against her: “it now appears, for the last one-and-half years, the UNP and LTTE have been working together. And the UNP was counting very much on the LTTE assassinating me. There is no doubt about that.”[45]

Indeed the credibility of an SLFP-UNP consensus around the PSC report declined drastically. Commenting on the sought after consensus, political advisor to the LTTE Mr Anton Balasingam emphasised that “what is crucial to the Tamils is not the achievement of a broader consensus in the south, but whether such a consensus will bring a radical framework that would satisfy the national aspirations of the Tamils as articulated in the Thimpu Principles.”[46] Not only had the CRP ignored the 1985 Thimpu Principles (see below), no attempt was made to include provisions that would recognise, let alone satisfy, the national aspirations espoused by the UPF. Despite the modified version being rejected by “moderate” Tamil politicians, the President further diluted it by replacing the phrase “Union of Regions” with the words “comprising of provinces”[47] to satisfy Sinhalese hard-liners within the PA as well as Mr Wickremasinghe. The latter reiterated his insistence on retaining the unitary State and offer of the sop of two Vice Presidencies for Tamil and Muslim politicians. The latter brusquely dismissed the diluted CRP as well as the proposed Vice Presidencies.[48]

In fact the LTTE has for long insisted that a viable CRP must be based on the 1985 Thimpu Principles, put forward by representatives of the TULF and the LTTE and four other Tamil militant organisations.[49] They are as follows:

“(1) Recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality;

  (2) Recognition of an identified Tamil homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity;

  (3) Based on the above, recognition of the inalienable right of self-determination of the Tamil nation;

  (4) Recognition of the right to full citizenship and other fundamental rights of all Tamils, who look upon the Island as their country.”[50]

The 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement partially conceded the second principle by constituting the temporary NEP and identifying it as “areas of historical habitation” of Tamils (Clause 1.4). However, the PSC report did not confirm this provision; on the contrary, it sought to divide the NEP into two or three Regions.[51] Neither did it address the first and third principles nor remedied the legislative shortcomings relating to the fourth.[52] The more “radical” LTTE is likely to contemptuously disregard the grossly mutilated CRP, which even in its original formulation fell far short of basic demands of the Tamil national movement.

Sinhalese polity and the CRP

Vocal support for the CRP emanates from small, multi-ethnic groups of “peace activists”.. They are organised within principally the National Peace Council (NPC), Movement for Inter-racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR). They sought to mobilise a broader, popular base cutting across ethnic boundaries through protest actions, public meetings and regular publications; but have met with little success Among the Sinhalese political parties, the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) has the unique distinction of explicitly endorsing the right of self determination of Tamils;[53] though, Tamils have yet to be convinced sufficiently to reciprocate by way of electoral backing.

However these minuscule pockets of support are eclipsed by the opposition from two critical centres of power: the Buddhist clergy and the army. The Heads of all four Chapters of the Buddhist Sangha defined the challenge posed by the LTTE-led Tamil national movement as “Tamil racist terrorism” and exhorted President Kumaratunga “to stop talks with the LTTE through a foreign facilitator and take all steps to crush terrorism.”[54] Sections within the Buddhist clergy have for more than four decades opposed all attempts to reach a political solution.[55] They grew larger and more powerful over time and today encompass the vast majority of clergy. Most “peace activists” draw comfort from the perceived lack of political support for the clergy among the Sinhalese population. However, the Buddhist monks exercise enormous negative street power sufficient to bring any Government to its knees. Successive Governments have been mindful of this fact and took great care to placate them; and the PA is no exception.[56]

The army was largely a ceremonial institution, about 12,000 strong, in the early 1970s. By the late 1990s, it matured into a professional force of about 120,000 regulars. Moreover, to militarily overcome the Tamil national movement, it was rapidly expanded, equipped with state of the art weaponry and armed with sweeping repressive powers under Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The army convincingly demonstrated awesome destructive power when it employed the scorched-earth strategy between September 1988 and January 1990 to decimate the Sinhalese militant group, the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The unprecedented scale of extra-judicial killings and the impunity with which they were executed underlined the virtual immunity from prosecution enjoyed by the armed forces. Today the NEP is under direct military rule while civilian life in most other regions is regulated by the army in the guise of ensuring “national security”. The Defence Ministry decides on such diverse matters as the height of buildings to be constructed in “sensitive” areas to traffic flows.[57]

While President Kumaratunga is engaged in firming up the CRP and working with the Norwegian Government to open “talks” with the LTTE, the army commander, Maj Gen Sri Lal Weerasuriya publicly declared that “there would not be peace without crushing the LTTE’s military power”; and unidentified “senior officers” were openly critical of the negative impact the conflict resolution activities have on “everything we are trying to achieve”.[58] These are breathtaking act of insubordination, of challenging the actions of the supreme civilian authority and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, President Kumaratunga. In a democracy, such officers would at the very least be removed from their posts. But no disciplinary action was taken, which confirmed once again that the “national security” syndrome has legitimised the virtual subordination of civilian authority to the army, resulting in a shift in the balance of power in favour of the army; a perception expressed in the widely-held opinion that a “creeping coup” is well underway.

The rebellious Buddhist clergy and mutinous army expose the lacunae most damaging to the credibility of President Kumaratunga’s stated commitment to a negotiated settlement with the LTTE for she has comprehensively failed to contain the opposition. Perhaps, it is not wrong to say that matters are well beyond her control now. Her blow-hot-blow-cold approach to the Tamil national movement has served to strengthen both the Buddhist clergy and the army: two major obstacles to the peaceful resolution of the conflicts around the multiple national movements in Sri Lanka.

[1] Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is Chairperson, Mandru (Institute for Alternative Development and Regional Cooperation), Colombo and Founder-Secretary of The Action Group Of Tamils (TAGOT) in Sri Lanka. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the School of International Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1999/2000.

[2] The armed conflict began in July 1979 when the Sri Lankan army, first deployed in the northern Jaffna peninsula in 1961, commenced systematic operations against the LTTE, formed in 1974, on orders from the then President JR Jayawardene to “eradicate terrorism in all its forms”.

[3] Ceylon Tamils comprise about 12 per cent of the population, of about 18 million, and live predominantly in the northern and eastern regions. They are ethnically different from the Up-Country Tamils, most of whom were brought to the island by the British colonial administration during the second half of the 19th century.

[4] The Northern and Eastern Provinces were temporarily merged in the NEP under The Indo-Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, July 1987. It constituted the NEP as “one administrative unit, having one elected Provincial Council” (Clause 2.2); and qualified that “on or before 31 December 1988, there shall be a referendum to decide whether the union between the two Provinces is to be continued or whether the Eastern Province should constitute a separate Province” (Clause 2.3). The Agreement is generally known as the Indo-Lanka Accord.

[5] The delegation consisted of Mr KP Balapatabendi, Private Secretary to the President, Mr Lionel Fernando, Former Government Agent, Jaffna, and Mr Rajan Asirwatham and Mr Navin Gunaratne from the private sector. Mr Asirwatham was the sole Tamil member.

[6] They were Messers Karikalan, Ilamparithi, Ravi and Dominic.

[7] For a historical overview of conflict resolution exercises in the post-Independence era, see Sathananthan, S and M Rajasingam, The Elusive Dove: An Assessment of Conflict Resolution Initiatives in Sri Lanka, 1957 to 1996. Colombo: Mandru. 1996.

[8] Virakesari, 1/May/94. Translated by this author.

[9] The Island, 8/Sep/94.

[10] Daily News, 15/Nov/94.

[11] Virakesari, 22/Nov/94.

[12] Virakesari, 29/Nov/94.

[13] The Island, 6/Mar/95.

[14] Political devolution involves fundamentally the parcellisation of institutional expression of sovereignty. It is effected by creating internal units of government which express sovereign legislative power in respect of subjects allocated exclusively to them. Legislation properly enacted by them in respect of such subjects cannot be superseded by the legislation of Central Government in the event of a conflict of laws. Moreover, the unitary State is as a consequence transformed into a federal one. Political decentralisation is affected through a delegation of legislative power to existing or new units of local government. They, therefore, are empowered to enact subordinate legislation, which will be superseded by the legislation of the Centre if a conflict should arise between the two; and the unitary State remains unchanged. Notwithstanding the gradations of devolution or decentralisation arrangements that may exist in practice between the two extremes, the criterion of whether or not sovereignty is expressed is a crucial distinction: devolved units express sovereignty; decentralised units do not.

[15] The Report was published as The Government’s Proposals for Constitutional Reform by the Ministry of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration, Colombo, October 1997.

[16] The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had described Sri Lanka as a “Union of States” in its TULF Proposals Presented to Mr Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India. Mimeo. 1985.

[17] Article 76 provided as follows:

`76(1) Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power and shall not set up any authority with legislative power.

      (2) It shall not be a contravention of the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article for Parliament to make, in any law relating to public security, provision empowering the President to make emergency regulations in accordance with such law.

      (3) It shall not be a contravention of the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article for Parliament to make any law containing any provision empowering any person or body to make subordinate legislation for prescribed purposes, including the power –

(a)    to appoint a date on which any law or any part thereof shall come into effect or cease to have effect; 

(b)    to make by order any law or any part thereof applicable to any locality or to any class of persons; and 

(c)    to create a legal person, by an order or an act.

             In sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) of this paragraph, “law” includes existing law.

       (4) Any existing law containing any such provision as aforesaid shall be valid and operative.’

[18] An identical situation prevails in respect of the Provincial Councils set up by the UNP Government (1977-1988) under the 1987 13th Amendment to the Constitution (Art 154A(2)).

[19] The previous three CRPs were the President Kumaratunga’s Devolution Proposals (August 1995), Draft Provisions of the Constitution Containing the Proposals of the Government of Sri Lanka Relating to the Devolution of Power (January 1996) and the Draft Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka (March 1997). The October 1997 PSC Report is the fourth CRP.

[20] Daily News, 15/Aug/95. Emphasis added.

[21] The Island, 6/Aug/95.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, 1 February 1998.

[24] Ibid, 8 March 1998.

[25] The TULF, in its 1985 TULF Proposals Presented to Mr Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, proposed power-sharing in the Centre by providing for a double majority system: the “membership in Parliament shall reflect the ethnic proportion of the Union” and “no Bill or Resolution or part thereof affecting any nationality shall be passed, unless a majority of Members of Parliament of that nationality agree to such a Bill or Resolution or part thereof” (Part I, para 4, 5).

[26] The Up-Country People’s Front (UPF) emphasised the need to introduce “the ‘double majority’ system which was proposed in Canada or the ‘floating vote system’” in which “legislation affecting the up-country Tamils can be enacted by parliament only if the majority of up-country Tamil representatives [are] in favour of it” - Proposals submitted by the Up-Country Peoples’ Front to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform. Mimeo. 1994: para 2.

[27] In the late 1980s, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) raised the demand for an autonomous Muslim territorial unit, which has its political core in the Muslim-majority areas of the south-eastern region of the NEP. The demand was confirmed when the SLMC adopted a resolution at its 1995 Annual Conference calling for the demarcation of the South-Eastern Province for Muslims.

[28] The UPF proposed the “setting up of a Regional Council for the up-country Tamils in order to translate into practice the ideas of power sharing” and that the RC be set up “along the Pondichery model where non-contiguous territorial units may come under one council” - Proposals submitted by the Up-Country Peoples’ Front to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform.. Mimeo. 1985: para 5.

[29] When the design of the flag was adopted by the then UNP Government in 1951, a progressive Sinhalese politician, Dr NM Perera, highlighted its derogative implications; he condemned the flag as a “fraud…perpetrated on the minorities. They [Sinhalese] are going to have the Lion Flag and these stripes are for the outcasts.” – Hansard, vol 9, col 1684.

[30] Five Tamil parties recommended that the country should be declared a “secular” Republic in the amendments they proposed to the second CRP released in January 1996.- Amendments Proposed by Five Tamil Parties, April 1996, Article 1. Mimeo. The parties are: Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS).

[31] Perhaps the first example of competitive chauvinism was the public protests organised by the UNP against the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, an agreement between the SLFP leader Mr SWRD Bandaranaike and the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) leader Mr SJV Chelvanayagam. The UNP alleged that it was a betrayal of the rights of Sinhalese; and the SLFP leader Mr SWRD Bandaranaike was compelled to abrogate the Pact. But when the ITAK sided with the UNP during the campaign for the March 1960 parliamentary elections, the SLFP politicians distributed copies of a doomsday map of the country among the Sinhalese. In it, the northern and eastern Tamil-majority areas were painted in aggressive red colour, which was depicted to ominously drip down over the Sinhalese-majority areas to drive home the alleged “threat from the north” posed by Tamils to the Sinhalese.

[32] The Island, 8/Nov/99.

[33] “It is our position that your course of action is not the solution. But since you do not have another solution we will not stand in the way…Therefore in order to ensure that it is successfully introduced we will extend to you our support in Parliament” for the PSC report “presented” in Parliament – The Island, 6/Feb/00.

[34] The Island, 20/Feb/00.

[35] The Island, 9/Mar/00.

[36] The Island, 19/Feb/00

[37] They are the TULF, EPDP, DPLF and TELO.

[38] The Island, 6/Feb/00.

[39] The Island, 24/Feb/00.

[40] Sunday Leader, 20/Feb/00.

[41] Sunday Leader, 27/Feb/00.

[42] At a press conference on 14 March, she condemned the LTTE as “the world’s most violent organisation” and declared: “I will never believe that Tigers are serious about peace.”- The Times of India, 15/Mar/00.

[43] TamilNet, 27/Mar/00.

[44] The previous two meetings were held on 9 and 16 March, 2000.

[45] “Interview: Chandrika Kumaratunga”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 16/Mar/00. Internet Edition.

[46] Sunday Leader, 2/Apr/00

[47] Sunday Leader, 26/Mar/00.

[48] Virakesari, 27/Mar/00.

[49] New Delhi convened in July 1985 the Thimpu Talks in Bhutan between the delegation of the Sri Lankan Government and the representatives of TULF, LTTE, TELO, Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS) and the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

[50] Statement, 13/July/85. Issued jointly by the TULF, LTTE, TELO, PLOTE, EROS, EPRLF. Mimeo.

[51] The PSC report proposed to hold referenda to create the North-Eastern, South Eastern and Amparai Regions – Art 127.

[52] The legislation discriminates between Up-Country Tamils, classified as persons of “recent Indian origin”, and Ceylon Tamils. Consequently, the UPF recommended that “there should be [a] single category of citizenship” so that “everyone of those who [are] born in Sri Lanka is entitled to citizenship” – Proposals Submitted by the Up-Country Peoples’ Front to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reforms. December 1994. Mimeo. page 5.

[53] Karunaratne, Vickramabahu, “Right of Self Determination of Ilankai Tamils”, International Conference on Tamil Nationhood and Search for Peace in Sri Lanka. Ottawa: Academic Society of Tamil Students (ACTS), University of Ottawa.

[54] As per letter sent to the President jointly by the Mahanayake Theras of the Asgiriya, Malwatte, Amarapura and Ramanna Chapters of the Maha Sangha.- Hindustan Times, 17/Mar/00.

[55] They played a decisive role in ensuring the abrogation of the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact.

[56] Minister Peiris personally called on the Mahanayake Theras of the more important Asgiriya and Malwatta Chapters to “reassure” them no action would be taken toward conflict resolution that does not meet with their approval. – “Government reassures Buddhist prelates”, Reuters, 19/Mar/00.

[57] In the most recent instance, the Defence Ministry ordered all commuter trains plying at night (from 8pm to 6am) on the south-western coastal line be suspended to restrict access to the city of Colombo and so minimise infiltration by the LTTE. – Yukthiya, 2/Apr/00. In what would otherwise be a hilarious incident, the Sinhalese parents of a child, who flew his kite close to the residence of the President, were arrested and interrogated by the Police, Army and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). The security officers brought down and examined the kite for concealed offensive capability, of which none naturally was found. – Ravaya, 26/Mar/00.

[58] The Island, 6/Feb/00.

8 August 2000