Originally Published 2004-04-09 05:46:08 Published on Apr 09, 2004
By declaring that India should be actively involved in the Sri Lankan peace process, Mahinda Rajapakse, the newly sworn-in Prime Minister of the island-nation has put both the peace process and India back at the centre-stage back again. Lakshman Kadirgamar, the ruling dispensation¿s foreign policy czar, has said as much. In her maiden national telecast after the parliamentary polls
Fast-tracking Sri Lanka peace talks
By declaring that India should be actively involved in the Sri Lankan peace process, Mahinda Rajapakse, the newly sworn-in Prime Minister of the island-nation has put both the peace process and India back at the centre-stage back again. Lakshman Kadirgamar, the ruling dispensation's foreign policy czar, has said as much. In her maiden national telecast after the parliamentary polls, President Chandrika Kumaratunga too has talked about early revival of the peace process, but has carefully left out any reference to India.

While the peace process was never really far away from the centre-stage in Sri Lanka, even the call for Indian involvement is only a re-assertion of the bi-partisan Sinhala position of Chandrika's SLFP and outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP-UNF. Starting with Ranil's India visit within days after becoming Prime Minister, both sides have kept India well inside the loop, may be more than what New Delhi desires publicly. Even LTTE supremo Prabhakaran said as much in his maiden Press conference in 13 years, and sought to feel the pulse by seeking medical facilities for Anton Balasingham soon thereafter.

If the Indian reluctance was understandable, the LTTE's reported side-lining of Balasingham has underlined it as much. Yet, it may be significant that the Indian Government has sent a petition for reviewing the ban on the LTTE to the POTA Review Committee. With most, if not all sections of Indian political opinion having linked up with 'pan-Tamil' parties at varying times in recent past, it could mean something in the Indian review of the LTTE's status within the country - which at present is a physical and psychological hurdle in direct Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process. For now, Kadirgamar has spoken in terms of low-profile, economic involvement by India in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka - or, what could be termed confidence-building measures, or people-to-people contact, or whatever.

As new Prime Minister, Rajapakse has given himself four months for effecting wholesale amendments to the nation's Constitution. Whether the peace process and the abolition of executive Presidency would form part of the same package is anybody's guess. It goes without saying that the ruling dispensation would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which can come only from the UNP-UNF rival, or the pro-LTTE Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA). A common package could address the demands and requirements of various, if not all sections of the nation's polity, but it is a moot question if the four-month deadline Rajapakse has given himself would suffice. Yet, given the past experience of both the Chandrika and Ranil leaderships at peace-brokering, intentions alone would not suffice. Laxity could change the public mood and perception, as the troubled nation moves away from the election-mode.

Back in the driving-seat of the Government's peace efforts, the ruling SLFP-UPFA combine may be tempted to revive the imaginative-yet-failed 'Chandrika package', which was also the first real Sri Lankan effort at peace-making with the LTTE. By issuing annual mandates for extending the 'temporary unification' of the Tamil-majority North and the East as President, Chandrika may have taken back the 'two-province theory' mooted by the Package, earlier. This may be where she could start with, on her camp's assertions for an 'interim arrangement' with the LTTE should lead to a 'final accord'.

If anything, Rajapakse's four-month deadline implies that the Sri Lankan Government may be ready to plunge directly into the final round. In more recent times, the Chandrika camp has said that the ceasefire had not proceeded beyond that, and hinted at the need for addressing substantive issues. Such a course could pressure the LTTE, which seems to be keener now on an 'Interim Self-Governing Authority' (ISGA) than a final peace accord. The post-poll reactions of and for the LTTE, including the statement of the TNA parliamentary group, while calling upon the Colombo Government to revive the peace talks, have stressed on 'negotiations' over the ISGA Proposals of the organisation.

The repeated LTTE stress on 'negotiations over the ISGA' should allay at least part of the apprehensions over the organisation's intentions, flowing particularly from the indirect demand for legitimising the 'Sea Tigers' naval wing. Such apprehensions over demand for power over provincial judiciary, land revenue and a host of other administrative mechanisms should not be a great bother, as such powers are enjoyed by any constitutionally-mandated province or state in every democratic or not-so-democratic nation. The LTTE's demand for powers for the ISGA to trade directly with foreign governments and institutions too should not be seen exclusively in the Indian context, as there are other nations that have conferred similar powers on their provinces. If anything, there is now talk of States in India seeking near-similar powers.

What should be of concern is not the administrative component, but the political component of the ISGA proposals. Given the LTTE's unabashed ambitions and accompanying military might, the reservations should relate to its demand for an 'interim set-up' in the first place, reserving for itself exclusive powers for nominating sub-regional administrators, and for extending the term of the ISGA beyond an initial five-year period. Given again the LTTE's past, the organisation could use the political system this time round, to stifle any hope of reviving the democratic process, and public accountability of the ruling class during the time , creating a 'constitutionally-mandated' (?) 'unitary State' within a 'unified Sri Lanka'.

The LTTE should be encouraged to return to the negotiations-table, this time round with the promise of an early and effective final agreement on the peace process. It cannot run away from the democratic process, which could imply a new scenario in the East, where the 'Karuna faction' and the 'Muslim factor', could be at work, jointly or severally, providing the kind of checks-and-balances missing in the Tamil polity for now.

Yet, a new 'Chandrika Package', if it were to be dubbed thus, should similarly address the developmental problems of the Sinhala South, where her JVP ally is bound to get restless as the population, if regional disparities continued to be festered and piecemeal solutions needed revisiting every now and again. The JVP's demand for 'decentralisation' in the place of 'devolution' as sought by the LTTE should thus be the answer to the nation's economic and developmental ills, given also the demands of the kind emanating from the 'Tamil East' - and not just its Muslim component.

(With inputs from Dr Kalpana Chittaranjan and Joseph Pradeep Raj)

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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