Monday, September 05, 2011

Sri Lanka: Rajapakse brinkmanship

Himal South Asian

The last few years in Sri Lanka have been marked by numerous elections at various levels – presidential, parliamentary, provincial council and local government. The Mahinda Rajapakse regime won all these elections with landslide victories, and now controls all eight provincial councils, barring the Northern Provincial Council for which elections are yet to be held. Indeed, the regime seemed to have mastered the art of electoral politics, ensuring its legitimacy and overwhelming power at a time when the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition, is in shambles.

It was against this backdrop that the second round of local government elections for 65 seats took place in late July, following on local government elections for 234 local authorities in March. The July elections included 20 positions in the war-affected north. What were essentially elections of no particular consequence on a national scale were turned into a major contest by the Rajapakse government, pitting a vision of economic development versus a political solution including accountability for war-time abuses. Confident of their ability to railroad any election, numerous ministers, President Rajapakse and his close relatives in government all campaigned hard in the north. They liberally distributed hand-outs ranging from sewing machines to water pumps and bicycles to the public, as well as many promises of development projects. The intention was clearly to deflect mounting international pressure by showing that the Tamil community in the north stood with the government.

Having raised the stakes in these local elections, however, President Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)-led coalition suffered a major defeat in the north, winning only three councils in Jaffna. Twenty councils, consisting of the rest of the local authorities in the north and a few more in the east, were won by the Tamil National Alliance, including two by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). On the other hand, the UPFA swept the polls throughout the rest of the country, in fact winning every single local authority. Still, in the final analysis, the elections in the north clearly signalled that the Colombo regime has little support among the war-affected Tamil community.

On the heels of these results, the TNA, which has been engaged in negotiations with the government on a constitutional political solution, demanded that the government clarify its stance on certain aspects of this proposed solution. These negotiations, initiated in January and encouraged by New Delhi, have not made much progress, mainly due to the lack of seriousness on the part of the Colombo. The TNA’s new demands – that the government clarify its position on the future structure of governance, the separation of powers between the Centre and devolved units, and the financial powers important for devolution – have now earned it the ire of the three Rajapakse brothers – besides the president, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and Minister for Economic Development Basil Rajapakse – who control much of the government. The main thrust of their attack has been that the TNA has been acting like its former master, the LTTE. While there is undeniably a need for sections of the TNA to rethink their politics, the irony is that a number of former LTTE leaders and cadres are now closely collaborating with the Colombo government in their bid to strong-arm the Tamil community. Former LTTE Commander Karuna is a minister, and former LTTE arms-procurement chief K Pathmanathan is now collaborating with Colombo on rehabilitation in the north.

‘We have done enough’

As Himal goes to press, President Rajapakse is initiating a Parliamentary Select Committee to look into the constitutional settlement. However, this is seen by many as an exercise merely to buy time and ward off mounting international pressure. Indeed, from 2006 to 2009, the president had initiated an All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to look into a constitutional political settlement, but there has been no concrete result from the consensus reached in the APRC and its report. In fact, the report submitted to the president in 2010 was never made public, with the president having now effectively buried it. This casts doubt on the rationale behind the initiation of yet another political process towards a constitutional settlement.

The government’s real position appears to have been expressed recently by Defence Secretary Rajapakse. ‘The existing constitution is more than enough for us to live together,’ he claimed in a 5 August interview. ‘Devolution-wise I think we have done enough, I don’t think there is a necessity to go beyond that.’ He went further, to attack politicians in Tamil Nadu including Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, claiming that their statements about the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka were intended merely to ‘gain political advantage’.

In the face of mounting pressure from India for a political settlement, and vocal ultimatums from the US and UK in recent months around the issue of war-time accountability, President Rajapakse has gone on yet another visit to Beijing to mobilise international support. While recent concerns from India about the situation in Sri Lanka have led to the government considering ending the state of emergency, the major point of contention remains a constitutional political solution. Here, given the regime’s commitment to the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist agenda, it remains unwilling to address the political grievances and aspirations of the minorities, particularly in relation the important issue of devolution of power.

President Rajapakse’s continuing dithering on post-war political reconciliation, the international concern about the country’s war-time abuses (as again raised by a recent UN Panel Report and an expose on Channel Four television), and the increasing mobilisation of a variety of political actors in India – all of these have put Sri Lanka on a confrontational path with its northern neighbour. For the first time in recent history, Sri Lanka is fast becoming a national issue in India, and not just one restricted to Tamil Nadu or one that is determined by the bureaucracy in the Indian Foreign Service.

The Rajapakses, having won the war two years ago and dominated electoral politics since then, could have neutralised international pressure if they were willing to make certain compromises. However, the regime is continuing with the same aggressive tactics with powerful international actors that it uses on the domestic front. Such brinkmanship comes with risks not only for the government but for Lanka as a whole, as it could lead to polarisation and political damage, bypassing the post-war opportunity for reconciliation.

© Himal

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