As the clock ticks to next week’s peace talks in Geneva, the government and the LTTE have taken seriously to reading each other’s body language. For their part, the LTTE has remained stoic, allowing on to the agenda only issues relating to the better implementation of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) signed
four years ago, almost to the day. From the government, however, mixed signals have been coming in galore: it remains to be seen whether these are cunningly designed to serve as a smoke screen to confuse the Tigers, or whether the government itself is in total confusion.
For its part, the JVP have insisted on the stand taken in Mahinda Chinthana, that the CFA is deeply and fatally flawed, and needs to be rewritten from scratch. After all, President Rajapakse himself repeatedly stated in the course of his campaign that no agreement could claim to be valid if it did not allow the president to travel anywhere in Sri Lanka accompanied by his armed bodyguards. That, no doubt, will be at
the top of Health Minister Nimal Siripala Silva’s shopping list for Geneva, and it remains to be seen whether Rajapakse will get what he wants.
It is abundantly clear, however, that the JVP is going to get short shrift from the Geneva talks. Siripala Silva is clearly under orders to leave the Mahinda Chinthana at home before enplaning for Switzerland. Revision of the CFA is not on the cards; neither are the conditions of the Oslo and Tokyo declarations up for negotiation. However, a new draft will be taken to Geneva in an attempt to appease the JVP.
Rajapakse, however, has clearly decided that whatever else he may concede, one thing is not negotiable: a unitary state. Having rejected federalism in the course of his campaign and reasserted in his parliamentary throne speech that any solution must be within a unitary framework (a statement he underlined in an interview with Reuters only last week), the President has clearly latched on to one issue on which he plans on
being intransigent. Should he give in on that now, he must expect an avalanche of discontent from the chauvinist-Buddhist majority, spearheaded by the JVP and JHU.
But Rajapakse’s reneging on federalism comes as a slap in the face to the Co-Chairs, who wrested this concession from the Tigers only with the utmost difficulty. As the LTTE has been quick to point out, Rajapakse is badly behind the times: federalism has been consistently demanded by the Tamil minority (not just the Tigers, but from the time of Chelvanayagam), for the past half-century.
With the prospect of a federal state looking less likely, the Tigers have prosecuted a war for outright secession for the past three decades. They are not about to turn the clock back, and it is most unlikely that the world community will stand by our volte face. Should we insist on tearing up Oslo and Tokyo, as Rajapakse is doing (possibly without realising the consequences), we shall be on our own. And that is
precisely how Velupillai Pirapaharan wants us.
Craftily manipulating sections of the private media as deftly as he does the state media, the President has in recent weeks begun looking to the unitary model of the United Kingdom, citing in particular the devolution allowed Scotland, with a separate parliament and all. Rajapakse has also gone the extra mile by saying that in his model, the LTTE (not the province) can even have its own police force. What bells that will
ring with the JHU remains to be seen.
In touting the UK as a model, Rajapakse could not have made a worse choice. Britain remains one of the few countries in the world that continues to be governed by tradition and precedent: it does not so much as have a written constitution. The British administrative machinery is a product of a long and complex history. It is a nation that has been crafted by evolution rather than design. The United Kingdom that Rajapakse
advocates dates back to 1801, when legislation passed at Westminster absorbed Ireland as part of Britain. The united structure of Britain persisted only until 1937, when the Republic of Eire seceded from Britain, which clung on only to Northern Ireland because of its predominantly protestant population. And we all know what a bloody civil war that led to.
The next step in British devolution came in 1999, when the Scottish parliament was formed. Accordingly, the Scots gained control over subjects such as agriculture, education, environment, health, the judicial system, police, sports and the arts. Westminster, however, retained outright control over broadcasting, the civil service, electricity, energy, defence, foreign policy, social security and monetary stability and
taxation to a limit of 3% of that administered by London. In other words, devolution in the UK system offers examples in two extremes: first, outright secession (as in Ireland in 1937) and second, the Scottish parliament of 1999. As the above details show, however, the Scottish system parallels closely the provincial councils system we introduced in 1987, which two decades of history show, have been an abysmal failure not just in the north and
east, but everywhere else in the country.
And it is a mistake to believe that the Scottish parliament has put paid to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the Scottish Nationalist Party has steadily increased its showings at elections since 1999, and the SNP now forms the official opposition in the Scottish parliament. Rajapakse would therefore do well to do some bedtime reading on British history before touting the British model as a panacea for Sri Lanka. He would also
do well to remember that the union of Scotland and England was purely the result of the House of Stuart (headed by Charles I) replacing the House of Tudor on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. It was not as if the people of Scotland decided that they would, after all, like to join hands with the English.
While packing his bags to head off to Geneva, Nimal Siripala Silva must wonder which of the President’s mixed messages he should take with him. Is it for a revision of the CFA? Is it for a unitary British-style state (ignoring the Irish secession for the nonce)? And he must wonder why it was that the ace he was to carry, indeed, the only ace in his pack — the disbanding of the Karuna faction — was publicly conceded by
Rajapakse a whole week before the talks even began. It seems that the wrong people were getting those tutorials in negotiating skills: Rajapakse should have been the prime pupil.
So, even before the Geneva talks begin, we know precisely what each side will concede. The Tigers will concede nothing, and we will concede the disbanding of Karuna. That however, will send a message of the utmost discouragement to any other LTTE factions that wish to oppose Pirapaharan and side with the government, as Karuna did. Rajapakse, it seems, has decided to offer on the altar of sacrifice the only credible opponent
there has ever been to Velupillai Pirapaharan — Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna.
And so it seems Sri Lanka will continue to muddle on, as rudderless and clueless as ever, a case of the blind leading the blind. The young men will die in battle, and the ever more rapidly breeding populace will not see the promised land in this lifetime. Rajapakse, it seems, is set to shift from the well-worn Namo Namo Matha to Land Of Hope And Glory, A. C. Benson’s stirring unofficial national hymn for the
United Kingdom, splendidly set to music by Edward Elgar. Hope, Mr. President, we have had for a long time; in the wake of Geneva, pray present us with a spot of glory. Heaven knows we could use it.