N. Sathiyamoorthy, from Daily Mirror, Colombo, Tuesday, 28 September 2010
If there is one thing that marks the success of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York for the UN General Assembly session this year, it was not his address, which was as bland as it was uninspiring. Not that it could have been anything better. In a way, his New York visit and his UN address were a message, considering that he had stayed away last year, only months after the decisive war-victory against the LTTE.
Instead, it was his meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenburg on the sidelines, and the announcement that former peace-facilitator and Minister Eric Solheim would be visiting Sri Lanka soon to discuss development and investment. Considering the mistrust of the past years between the two, and the consequent hate-campaign of sorts that had been set off against Norway among the Sinhala community and polity in Sri Lanka, it is a good beginning that needs to be followed up. Other nations can take a leaf out of it, as well.
As against Norway, between them, the UN and the US are seen as playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ with Sri Lanka, particularly since the end-game of the war. Even as President Rajapaksa and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seemed to have sorted out their differences over ‘accountability’ and ‘advisory panel’ at least for now, US President Barack Obama had this to say of the Sri Lankan situation, without naming the nation, in his UN address: “We see leaders abolishing term-limits. We see crack down on civil society…. America will always extend our engagement with citizens (civil society organisations) outside the halls of government.”
However, President Obama did not offer any solution to the more specific declaration of President Rajapaksa that “international humanitarian law should reflect the reality of non-State actors.” It is also a situation that the US was faced with after 9/11, and also handled more directly and less decisively in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as it had done in the case of lesser adversaries of the ‘Cold War’, in Vietnam and elsewhere.
It needs reiteration that the international community is dealing with the ‘other’ Sri Lanka as against what they had known since Independence. For reasons of chronology, demography and universal adult franchise, those days will not return. The international community has to learn to live and work with the leaders that the people of elect than otherwise. Norway seems to have acknowledged the fact, having possibly understood the dynamics and chemistry involved, through the years of peace-facilitation.
Issues are HR violations those pertaining to 18-A, for instance, make a basket case. To begin with, the two of them could not be put in a basket together, and conclusions drawn, as President Obama may have done. If there is an issue with 18-A and the ethnic issue, it would be over all Police powers being conferred on the Executive President, and not devolved on the Provincial Councils, as outlined in 13-A. There is also the issue of the abolition of Provincial Public Service Commission.
These are to be negotiated among the stake-holders in Sri Lanka. The international community can outline possibilities and options from their own experiences, during difficult stages in the negotiations, as and when commenced. It is here the Sri Lankan Government too needs to appreciate some of the delineation drawn by the international community in matters of war and peace, responsibility and accountability.
The international community (read: West) sees its support for the Sri Lankan State’s war-effort against terrorism, and that for human rights and civil society organisations as a two-track affair, at best two sides of the same coin in times of war Hence also President Obama underlining the American support for civil society organisations, elsewhere.
Colombo seems to have wished that the support of the West for the war and on the HR front flowed from each other – with the end justifying the means, and not the other way round. Either as part of this mindset or independent of the same, the Sri Lankan Government also seems to be looking at such civil society organisations, both local and international NGOs, as the ‘silent soldier’ of the West on its territory, winning their wars for the sponsors without the latter having to fire a shot in the air.
It is here, President Obama’s reference to ‘unlimited term’ for the Executive President assumes significance. If nothing else, at least a majority of the ‘majority Sinhala’ community seemed to have seen such issues in similar contexts in the past. Not only did this lent popular strength to the purported perceptions of the Sri Lankan Government and the Rajapaksa leadership. It may have also forced the hands of them both not to yield ground – as much to the international community otherwise, as to the minority Tamil community, nearer home.
It is here that a full understanding and fuller appreciation of domestic politics becomes necessary for the international community to choose its priorities and its methodology. The fact that President Rajapaksa won his first outing in Elections-2005 despite his party, and the fact that he has since absorbed the ‘Sinhala-nationalist’ vote-bank of one-time JVP ally in Elections-2010 would show what now constitutes his core constituency – and his consequent compulsions.
It is here that President Rajapaksa’s call for development makes more relevance for the Sinhala areas in the country, even over those for the Tamil areas that are worse off on that score, owing to the war. As coincidence would have it, the one-time JVP constituency, and also all those non-committed voters, including those who might have crossed over from traditional ‘UNP families’ can do with the benefits of ‘peace dividend’ as the Norwegian-facilitated cease-fire agreement (CFA) promised for the minorities at the time. If war-victory provided the peg for them to consider the alternative, President Rajapaksa has to find ways to retain them, as much as the ‘JVP constituency’.
If nothing else, the latter’s demands are distributed equitably between ‘Sinhala nationalism’ and the individual’s economic concerns. In contrast, ex-UNP families that voted the Rajapaksa leadership twice in 2010 have greater economic concerns, and do not wear ‘nationalism’ on the sleeve. In his second term, he needs to strike a balance, which often would choose itself. Post-war, the hard path alone would sustain.
Better or worse still, with permanent peace returning to the island-nation, the Government may not have any more excuse to blame failures on this score on the LTTE. In turn, this could create the right climate and mood for the Government to address the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community, through negotiations.
As President Rajapaksa told the UN General Assembly, “Economic development and political reconciliation must go hand in hand.” The President also promised that “constitutional changes which appropriately reflect aspirations of our people will be evolved with the full participation of the stakeholders.”
The emerging situation is potent with possibilities for President Rajapaksa and future party leadership even more as he has cleared the deck for his contesting a third term even before the second term has commenced. It’s a tight-rope walk that President Rajapaksa will have to do, with the future generation(s) in mind.
A balance is tricky to achieve but President Rajapaksa needs to execute it, nonetheless – and in the ways he has outlined. He having mentioned ‘stakeholders’, the Government should appreciate their contentions and compulsions, as well – just as it may want them, as also the international community to appreciate its own.. Included in the list is the Tamil Diaspora, whose financial clout, the wretched community believes is all there only to bring back prosperity to their areas and cheer back to their lives.
It is in this context, reports about the TNA wanting to open overseas branches, after getting itself registered as a political party nearer home, assumes relevance to the lives of ordinary Tamil people in the country. Rather than taking divisive and disjoined positions, the Diaspora should encourage the TNA and the rest of the Tamil polity to speak for them, with the full understanding that none from among from them speaks the language of the politician – and none among them may be capable of doing it for years to come.