It must be lonely there, at the top. As
she approached the end of her term, Chandrika Kumaratunga
would greatly have preferred to have sought a means of
continuing in power by amending the constitution. The tsunami
has put an end to that: she stands no chance now of securing a
two-thirds majority to enact a constitutional amendment that
will allow her to do so. With the JVP's desertion the
President may be down, but she is certainly not out. She has
made no mention of stepping down, failed to clarify whether in
her opinion her term ends this year or next (given her second,
secret swearing-in), or done anything to identify a successor.
The games go on.
Clearly, the President seems determined
to engage with the LTTE in the distribution of tsunami relief,
even at the expense of her coalition. Despite the olive
branches being hinted at on both sides, the rhetoric has been
so damning on both sides that brushing it under the carpet
will in the near term be difficult. But being savvy in
statecraft, Kumaratunga must have an end game in mind. Does
she want to proceed with tsunami relief merely because she
wishes to build her legacy and simply do the right thing? Or
is she hoping to build confidence with the LTTE so as to win
their support for her to continue as head of government?
Whatever the President's motives, her
immediate next steps are far from clear. She obviously prefers
to establish the joint mechanism through a parliamentary
regulation than by executive decree. That way, not only will
her party be forced to commit to it, but so will the UNP.
Smelling a rat, the UNP has cleverly demurred, offering to
support the President's executive action instead.
Indeed, that Ranil Wickremesinghe
should come to her aid at all is something novel in Sri Lankan
politics. The Opposition Leader's gesture, given the shabby
treatment he received from Kumaratunga, is not just patriotic,
it is magnanimous. It must also send a clear message to the
JVP and JHU that there is a difference between
representational democracy and mob rule.
When in 2003 Kumaratunga wrested key
ministries from Wickremesinghe while the latter was overseas,
there was public outrage. Wickremesinghe's motorcade took some
six hours to make the 40-minute drive from the airport to
Temple Trees, with more than a million people thronging the
streets to show their solidarity with him. Such was the public
mood that the Prime Minister could easily have taken the mob
with him to President's House and threatened Kumaratunga into
having his way. Instead, he spoke of democratic and legal
process, and conceded the ministries.
The JVP and JHU have clearly not taken
a leaf from Wickremesinghe's book. Always able to mobilise a
few tens of thousands of its red capped storm troopers, the
JVP seems to think mob power can run the country. Lord Buddha
would have wept if he witnessed the hysterical and disgraceful
conduct of many of the JHU's clerical followers, many of them
sporting well groomed hair.
Coming two years after the government-LTTE
ceasefire, the timing of the tsunami was indeed fortuitous. It
has served to show the deep political and ethnic divisions
that exist in our society, and served also to highlight the
challenges that need to be addressed by both sides. We often
talk of the "peace process," although there is and
has not for the past two years been any such process. At the
time Wickremesinghe was undermined in 2003, he was
contemplating signing up to an interim administration that
would allow the LTTE to help coordinate the reconstruction
process. That was meant to be a first step, a show of trust,
that would help bring the Tigers into the mainstream.
Kumaratunga's joint mechanism falls
well short of giving the Tigers legal administrative power,
though it is a good thing to remind ourselves that the LTTE
has for decades been operating a de facto administration in
the north and much of the east. An issue that needs to be
addressed in resolving the conflict is how a separate
administration could be legalised in Tiger controlled areas,
and that is where a federal structure comes in.
When the principle of federalism was
first acknowledged in the 2002 Oslo communique, it was
received with remarkable equanimity by the Sri Lankan public.
There were no street protests, no mobs. How then, does the
joint mechanism go beyond federalism? Presumably in that it
singles out the Tigers as being the political entity that
represents the Tamils. But that, sadly, is the ground reality,
as little as we may like it. After a quarter century of war,
prosecuted in equal parts by the UNP and SLFP, it has become
clear that no military solution to the conflict exists. Just
as we did for all that time make war with the LTTE, we have no
choice now but to make peace with the LTTE.
The alternative, of course, is a return
to war, which seems to be the route that the JVP and JHU
prefer, for different reasons. For their part, the JVP has
always been better at slaughtering unarmed civilians than
donning uniforms and shooting off to the battlefront. And for
theirs, the JHU, yellow robes and all, have preferred to play
the role of Ayatollahs, sending other mothers' sons off to
war, while they sit back and enjoy the dhan‚.
Now, as she has suddenly found that her
engines have failed in mid-flight, Kumaratunga has decided to
use the state media to embark on a public awareness campaign.
Well, she certainly left it a bit late, given that for the
past 14 months, all the state media have done is blow
Kumaratunga's and the JVP's trumpets, taking time off to
berate the UNP. Ironically, in her hour of need, and in the
nation's hour of peril, it is that very UNP that has stepped
into the breach.
For their part, the JVP might be out,
but they are not down. They still have ITN through which to
spread their propaganda of hate. For all their patriotic talk,
Kumaratunga needs to have the resolve to use all legal
measures at her disposal to ensure that they do not embark on
a campaign of sabotage. It needs to be remembered that after
14 months in office, the JVP has significantly expanded its
network into the government, and a campaign of strikes and
other disruptions could result in chaos. They desperately need
to show that the government cannot go on without them, and get
Kumaratunga into a position where she has no choice but to
invite them back. At the same time they are unlikely to
precipitate a general election, given that their parliamentary
ranks will be halved.
Kumaratunga has also suffered a severe
erosion of confidence from her party stalwarts, many of whom
have distanced themselves from her. The SLFP today is deeply
insecure, with many rankers taking the view that it is alright
for Kumaratunga to go out on a limb - after all, she is at the
tail end of her innings - but what about the rest of them? Why
should their futures be jeopardised because of her?
Finally and most importantly, one hopes
that Wickremesinghe this time around will keep the Indians
clearly out of his decision making process. It is the Indian
High Commission that wined, dined and financed the JVP into
becoming what it is because, for all the rhetoric to the
contrary, the mission's mission has always been to destabilise
Sri Lanka. It was they who consistently urged Wickremesinghe,
as premier, not to act politically against Kumaratunga and
they who, when Wickremesinghe was evicted from office, were
the first to turn up on the Presidential doormat to offer
their congratulations. India's role in our affairs should be
restricted to tourism and trade, thank you very much.
As for Kumaratunga, she must feel a
sense of bereavement, going it alone, but this is the time
that will test her mettle. At last she has before her an
opportunity to show the world that she has it within her to
offer an olive branch to her would-be assassins, the LTTE. One
can but hope that she will not falter now, but seek to cap her
legacy with a single far-sighted act that could forever change
the way in which Sri Lanka heads into the future. And if her
guests have left the table, too bad: she must dine alone.