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TNA’s withdrawal from talks and the emerging political paralysis

Kalana Senaratne
The recently concluded Local Government (LG) elections provided evidence, if evidence was needed, of a divided polity. Amidst accusations of violence, intimidation, and killings, the Tamil people voted, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) emerged triumphant, resilient, re-asserting its dominance in the North.
The UPFA-led Government swept away the rest of the polls, as expected. Expected: lacks excitement, unexciting, stale news; given the absence of any serious opposition, given the resources at its command, given the power it wields.

For those genuinely committed to democracy, the TNA’s victory is one which is most welcome, deserves celebration. For the Government, the outcome provides a wonderful argument: ‘there is multi-party democracy in post-war Sri Lanka.’

In a post-LTTE era, the electoral verdict in favour of the TNA especially in the North – once a proxy of the separatist-LTTE but one which has in recent times articulated the need for a political solution within a united Sri Lanka – is a verdict which should awaken one to the seriousness of the issues ranging from resettlement, rehabilitation to accountability and most importantly, devolution. This is where the above argument of the Government is put to test: ‘yes, there is democracy, but what do you do with it?’

The result then has obvious implications on the debate and discourse surrounding the nature of the political solution expected to transform ‘post-war Sri Lanka’ into ‘post-conflict Sri Lanka’; an issue which is of immediate concern, given the TNA’s withdrawal from talks. In doing so, the TNA has made its stance clear. It asked the government ‘to meaningfully define and state the Government’s response to three issues’ within two weeks ‘to carry forward any future dialogue’: 1) the structure of governance; 2) the division of subjects and functions between the centre and the devolved units, and; 3) fiscal and financial powers. TNA; buoyed by its victory, confident. A Government; irked, fuming.

A number of factors need to be borne in mind.

The immense popularity of the Government should not be underestimated. It has achieved massive electoral victories, largely as a consequence of giving the necessary political leadership to defeat the LTTE, a menace that brought unimaginable suffering to the people. Any sustainable political solution cannot be introduced within a matter of weeks, or months, through discussions with a single political party (Sustainable: how sustainable are political solutions, how sustainable should they be?). There ought to be a wider political dialogue, a broader public discussion, about the most suitable, most feasible, form of political solution that is acceptable to all peoples within the State, if the real desire is for a sustainable political solution.

Also, what should not be forgotten is how the TNA is perceived by a majority of the people: as a party that stands for separation, or one that stands for something less, something less than separation, but with an eye towards separation, the avowed goal of the LTTE whose interests the TNA represented in Parliament before the end of the armed conflict; as a party which is solely concerned with issues affecting the Tamil people, especially in the North and East, and one which does not care about what happens elsewhere in the country. All this creates doubt in the minds of the majority, and in a context whereby pressure is being exerted by political and other elements in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, the pull-out by the TNA is viewed as one which has ‘underlying designs’, or is a ‘trap’, or an act with a clearly ‘projected endgame’. As Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka has forcefully argued:

“The projected endgame is clear. As the manhandling of Sri Lankan pilgrims in Tamil Nadu reveals, the design is to provoke ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, in the form of something which can be magnified as another July ‘83 or an impending July ‘83. In a variant or accompaniment of this tactic, the TNA’s ultimatum may be followed within months by a civil disobedience movement, which hopes to trigger a violent crackdown, which can then be magnified by the Western media. The global opinion having been created (Channel 4 etc) and the diplomatic trap having already been laid, any such episode will cause a global tsunami against Sri Lanka, resulting in the reversal of our historic military victory and the creation under external auspices and as an external protectorate” (in ‘The TNA’s Brinkmanship & the Trap for Sri Lanka’, The Sunday Island, 6 August, 2011).

But isn’t there an alternative perspective too? Isn’t this sense of fear, this doom and gloom, partly self-made? Wasn’t what the TNA did by pulling out from talks acceptable or understandable? It is certainly understandable, inevitable. Why so?

It is necessary to understand that the demands made by the TNA do not amount to a demand for a final, concrete political solution (if they do, then the TNA should be naïve). It is a demand made from the Government to state its (the Government’s) position on certain fundamental issues relating to what the Government has, for quite some time, been pointing out: the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (as Prof.

Sumanasiri Liyanage very correctly points out in ‘Whither Government-TNA talks?’, The Island, 9 August 2011). Not only the TNA, but even the people have a right to know the clear stand of the Government on the three issues listed by the TNA in its statement. The unwillingness and/or inability of the Government to spell out its position shows, unfortunately, that it has no firm or clear policy about a political solution. The absence of a clear policy makes any process of dialogue and discussion farcical.

Also, the demands are being made from a Government of a country, which ought to have formed its opinion about the questions raised at least two years after the war. History shows that numerous Reports have been compiled, Parliamentary Select Committees (PSCs) appointed, All-Party Representative Committees convened, having spent so much time, energy and resources. Many responsible members of the Government have been involved in the above process. Cannot a Government, with so much experience behind it, still form a firm opinion on the matters listed by the TNA? If the Government is in search of reports as a basis for discussions, it only needs to take into account the impressive work done in the form of the Committee A and B Reports of the APRC (the famous ‘Majority’ and ‘Minority’ Reports). All this, in turn, makes the establishment of a new PSC a disingenuous exercise, unless the Government is capable of setting out its position clearly.

Furthermore, what one forgets is the broader political context in which the TNA-withdrawal takes place. What is this context?

It is one wherein people witnessed the hasty introduction of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution; an act which threatened any hope that there can be a serious or meaningful solution based on notions of equality of citizenship, independent institutions, the effective protection of human rights and the rule of law. It is also a context wherein one sees an alarming and disturbing trend: a Government acting only when it is confronted with some political or diplomatic pressure, acting when coerced.

It is a context in which one notices the rush to change the demography of the Northern parts of the country (about which Tamil politicians have raised very serious concerns); where the Government has shown that it would even go to the extent of changing the names of villages, for instance; and whereby accusations are leveled of plans made by the Government not to resettle the displaced of Puthumathalan, Mullivaikal West etc. in their original villages (TNA-statement of 4 August 2011).

Equally seriously, it is a context which needs to take into account the dangerous suggestions made in the print media, replicating the levels of intolerance that have surfaced in society after witnessing the electoral victories of the TNA. One suggestion goes as follows: there is a ‘virus’, there are those who are brainwashed by theories of traditional homelands; such people exist within Sri Lanka; one could only get rid of that ‘virus’ by debarring those who hold such views from ‘employment and activities’ and by removing all publications advocating such views (Susantha Goonetilleka in ‘Local Government Elections: Lessons Learnt’, Daily Mirror, 2 August, 2011).

In other words, one cannot entertain any theory that challenges the majoritarian theory. Being brainwashed is good only if such brainwashing is convenient to the ideology of the majority. If not, there is no place for you, no employment, no books to read, no activities to engage in.

While there is undoubtedly the need to be seriously mindful of the violent articulation of separatism, it is hoped that the Government does not take the above kind of suggestions seriously. Not only is the implementation of such suggestions impractical, they are extremely dangerous. A society in which the people subscribe to a sole, single historical narrative can only be sought to be created by the barbaric policy of ethnic cleansing, and thereby creating a mono-ethnic State. What ethnic cleansing amounts to in law, its repercussions, its consequences – these are matters about which responsible members of society, academics and politicians should know better.

Finally, this overarching context within which the TNA pulls out from talks needs to take into account the following argument raised by responsible members of the Government; that the mandate the Government, or the President, has received is one against devolution (see interview with Minister Basil Rajapaksa, ‘President has a bigger mandate against devolution’, Daily Mirror, 28 July 2011). If then, questions need to be raised about the very rationale of carrying out talks with the TNA, for the very process amounts to an act of deception.

This is why one cannot unfortunately accept the following kind of argument raised, for example, by Ambassador Jayatilleka:

“There is no need for deadlock over the answers to the questions submitted by the TNA because those questions should be regarded as having already been answered. Those answers are in the Sri Lankan Constitution. A realist, neorealist or ‘constructivist-realist’ takes hold that the war, the outcome and the dimensions and limits of that outcome dictate neither upward nor downward revision of the Constitution but its full implementation, which was impossible because of the existence of the LTTE” (in ‘Breaking the Deadlock, Avoiding a Breakdown’, Daily Mirror, 9 August, 2011).

Firstly, if the questions have been answered and if the answers are in the Constitution, then surely, the Government is not aware of that: since the response of the Government to the TNA’s demands contradicts the position articulated by Ambassador Jayatilleka.

Secondly, it is precisely because the Government’s answer is not in the Constitution that it is asking for time. In that sense, the Government is sadly not one which is either ‘realist’, ‘neorealist’ or ‘constructive-realist’ by any means, for it has in no way shown any sign that there is going to be full implementation of the Constitution (i.e. full implementation of the 13th Amendment; unless ‘full’, today, is considered to mean ‘minus land/police powers’). Yes, the full implementation of the 13th Amendment was ‘impossible because of the existence of the LTTE’, but full implementation has in any case not taken place even after May 2009. This is a well known fact, and Ambassador Jayatilleka would know this very well, for it was he who had to pay the dear price for advocating the full implementation of the 13th Amendment soon after the conclusion of the war.

In short: there is no serious reason to hold discussions concerning devolution if the Government believes that its mandate is one against devolution.

For the process of discussion to be meaningful, the Government needs to set out its clear stance. If not, it needs to point out that it needs some time (a specific time-period) to give a firm response to the questions raised by the TNA. Therefore, the decision taken by the TNA doesn’t cause great alarm. It was to be expected, and given the broader political context, it helps unravel the real intentions of the Government too. The ‘reversal of our historic military victory’ is one which needs to be avoided. But it is submitted that the plea should be directed, first and foremost, not at anyone else, but at the Government.


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