Reports about the Government considering a parliamentary select committee to draft a Bill on a possible political solution cum power-devolution are wrought with possibilities. Thus far, Governments have been doing the drafting part in most cases, and Select Committees of Parliament examining the same for acceptability and viability. The full House, and at times in a subsequent case, courts would have had their say.
The reported plan, if true, is aimed at arriving at a national consensus to what essentially has always been described as ‘the national problem’. Given the two-thirds majority that the ruling SLFP-UPFA commands in Parliament, it could cut either way. On paper, it could bulldoze its way and get any legislation, including constitutional amendments passed without a whimper. It can, at the same time, let ‘democracy’ prevail, and let smaller parties and ginger groups within the combine to lead the House.
The Government would still have to carry the rest of the nation’s polity, particularly from within the majority Sinhala community with it, and has to be seen as doing so. At the same time, the Government cannot escape the responsibility for ensuring that an equitable package aimed at meeting the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority is not overlooked.
Perceptions flow from the basic premise that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, having won the war against the LTTE, is capable of delivering peace, the same way. The war, he won, on the terms of the Sri Lankan State. For lasting peace, he has to carry the nation’s diverse polity with him. He has to have the TNA’s acceptance and the Tamil Diaspora’s attestation before hand, if any such proposal has to succeed.
Clearly, there is trust-deficit on this count. The world believes, and the Tamil community and polity do so even more that President Rajapaksa has been dodging and delaying. If President Rajapaksa cannot offer power-devolution and peace-package to the Tamil community now, no one in his place can do so for decades more.
That is also true of the Tamil political leadership, particularly of the TNA. If the present-day Tamil leadership cannot convince the community – and the Diaspora to a lesser extent – about the desirability of accepting an incremental, at times asymmetrical political settlement that would fall short of the pre-war expectations and goals, none in its place can do so. The Government should then be aware of the avoidable possibilities, on which theories can be postulated and episodes posited, through Sri Lanka’s future.Both sides suffer from a substantial element of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Even those sections of the Tamil community that felt relieved that the armed forces had obtained freedom for 300,000 brethren held hostage by the LTTE have since been charging the Government with ‘war crimes’ and manslaughter. The Diaspora was as much dumb-founded by the numbers as it was vociferous about future charges of ‘war crimes’.
Independent of leaders and the Government of the day the Sri Lankan State seems to be uncomfortable with the TNA, seen by some as fellow-travellers of the LTTE at its peak. Sections of the Sinhala polity, both from without and within the Government see their honest appraisal of the post-war situation as a calculated tactic to purchase time, for future generations to revive the forgotten goal of a separate nation. It is in this background that the Government and the TNA commenced official negotiations on power-devolution in the first half of January this year. Six months down the line, we are already talking about a parliamentary select committee having to draft devolution proposals. Ironically, there is no clarity if the Government and the TNA have agreed on the basics, and if the drafting stage had at all been reached.
The TNA at least is on record that the Government was stalling, through and through. There have been continuing and conflicting signals from the Government on core power-devolution issues such as Police and Land powers for Provincial Council(s). There is also no clarity if changes, where proposed and accepted, would be holistic in nature and cover the whole nation, or will be incremental in context and asymmetrical in character. There are other elements in the existing Constitution, where implementation of power-devolution has been tardy or overlooked, through decades of negotiations of differing kinds. There is lso confusion about the ‘Concurrent List’, where it is unclear if the current stalemate owes to the constitutional position or implementation.
Occasionally over the past weeks, the ruling SLFP and the main Opposition UNP have been trading complaints against each other that the other side had not said enough on devolution for them to act upon. The right-leaning JHU partner in the Government has firm views on the subject, and also about the TNA. The JHU’s urban middle class constituency has been pro-active in recent months.
The unquantifiable alien is the Left yet Sinhala-nationalist JVP. It has fewer parliamentary seats than in the past to dictate the course of select committee proceedings but has displayed enough lung-power across the country over the past months on other issues targeting the Government. Its history of initiating and instigating two insurgencies in living memory is not a comforting thought for whoever rules from Colombo. Yet, the JVP, since the conclusion of the ethnic war, has also been displaying a visible sympathy to the larger ‘Tamil cause’. How, it would translate into action and pro-active political decisions, if at all, are unclear.
On the side of the Tamil-speaking people, the SLMC, which through the post-war period had been hinting at internal arrangements with the TNA, now wants the invisible third seat that it had demanded earlier under the Oslo process. The party is also critical of the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution on war crimes and sanctions, proving to be more Sri Lankan than thought to be. It would have been untenable otherwise as the SLMC is very much a part of the Government, which is at the receiving end.
Less said about the respective differences within the Sri Lankan Tamil and Upcountry Tamil communities the better. The TNA, which was expected to take the initiative in evolving a consensus from within the Sri Lankan Tamil polity and the larger Tamil-speaking community, has been found wanting. Their internal divisions also keep showing up occasionally.
The responsibility of getting out of the maze is thus expanded to cover a larger arena with more stakeholders than confining it to the Government and the TNA or the spectrum of Tamil parties. The initial responsibility of convincing each other and convincing the rest is thus cast now not only on the Government but also the TNA – and neither can continue to play the blame game eternally, and expect their situation to impqove.