War has broken out in Sri Lanka. No, not in the north and east, but, the south and west of the Island centred on Colombo. A low intensity conflict had begun weeks before parliamentary elections in end 2001. It is now an open war. There will be advance and withdrawal, thrust and parry and sudden surprise attacks. But make no mistakes, no quarter will be asked and none given, for it is a battle to the finish even if the end may not be near. The contenders are the President and the Prime Minister and by extension their political parties.
To understand the current situation one has to look back a few years. The Liberation Terrorists destroyed two divisions of the Sri Lankan Army at the Elephant Pass in April 2000. This finally ended the chimera of a military victory for the south. In a bold move, the President called in the Norwegians for facilitation though in fact it turned out to be mediation. When negotiations were getting to address core issues, her indisputably indomitable courage failed her and the process stalled. Then came the Kattunayake airport attack in July 2001. Fourteen suicide terrorists destroyed half the aircraft of the national carrier and with it the economy of the Island nation. In a classic case of coercion western powers perhaps joined the war briefly. At their behest, possibly with some tacit encouragement, international insurance companies hiked rates for use of the sea and airports so prohibitively as to make commerce hugely unprofitable. Poverty and unemployment soared, threatening the precarious balance in the Island and ushering in the possibility of internal violence in the south.
Remarkably at this stage a new coalition emerged, consisting of civil society organisations and the business community. Both cooperated to build a mass movement for an end to the war. By the time parliamentary elections were held in December 2001there was a noticeable ground swell for peace. Chandrika appeared cornered and seemed to have run out of ideas. Her best ministers deserted her. Ranil rode the crest of that wave. After a decisive victory in the complex representative electoral system of the country, he pushed hard for a settlement with the Liberation Terrorists.
A cease-fire came about within months from 3 February 2002 and the country was again one. After 19 years people could move from one end of the Island to the other, particularly to the north and east.
Make no mistake under the present Constitution the executive President has much greater powers than the Prime Minister, including dissolving Parliament after a year. Most expected that she would certainly do that when the time came. Ranil’s party and supporters toyed with the idea of impeaching the President, though they soon realised they had neither the mandate nor the two-thirds majority. After dissolution of Parliament elections would have to follow. The reality is that the President had lost popular support and she knew it. She was left with no good options to prolong her rule, unlike what Ranil’s predecessor had done two decades ago. In free elections her party might indeed suffer grievously. She had to yield political space and Ranil grabbed it. Also realising that he had the people’s mandate and international support, Ranil pushed ahead for peace sidelining the President, merely informing her of the progress.
Achievements of the government in the last two years have been remarkable. Economy grew rapidly; currency that depreciated by 15 percent a year, appreciated against the dollar, inflation has remained low. Stock market boomed and investment, from India as well, looked promising. Most important peace has prevailed for over a year and a half. Any person who has lived in the beautiful Island will know what it means to the common man and his daily life.
This apparently was not conducive to peace at home and the President decided to bide her time. The opportunity finally was provided to her by the Liberation Terrorists. On 31 October they presented their proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority for the north and east of the country. There is no doubt that the proposals go well beyond what the Sri Lankan government had offered or will be able to concede. Its implementation will indeed sow the seeds of a separate state. The proposals are more for a confederation than a federation. Yet, there are also two positive aspects that characterise them. This is the first time after Thimphu in 1985 that the Terrorists have offered a proposal, rather than shoot down one presented by someone else. Second, the proposals are open to negotiation and they seem ready to enter into one, again a rare position for them. Besides, what is different in the Island today is that there is a peace constituency which can challenge the entrenched position of the hardliners.
The President did not hesitate to seize this opportunity. She assessed that the Terrorists extreme demands provided her the popular plank which would now carry Sinhala opinion with her, by alleging that the Prime Minister had sold-out national interests. In her isolation and cloistered as she is with close advisers out of touch with reality, she judged wrong and she quickly realised it. With remarkable alacrity she announced and then withdrew the state of emergency. Her subsequent offer to form a government of national reconciliation is hogwash and nobody takes that seriously. Few good politicians would like to serve under her in the present circumstances. In the face of domestic and external opposition to her moves, her attempts for now have failed and she seems to have lost this round, though surprises may still be in store.
Ranil has held his flock together so far and not without reason. Popular sentiment strongly favours him and move towards a just peace and this is likely to hold for some time. Meanwhile the economy has been inflicted a severe blow, undermining the many good developments in recent years. What next?
There are many uncertainties and not many good prospects. Often in such situations, it is the people who hold the cards and how they express their support and for whom, will hold the key. Some arrangements will have to be found for saving Presidential face and work out a satisfactory arrangement. While eminently desirable, history of Sri Lankan politics does not encourage optimism. The President has another two years of a final term and there are glorious uncertainties. What must be ruled out is the resumption of civil war. Even there one can but only pray for sensibility.
What about the peace process? It has been inflicted a severe blow. There was much to be considered and bargained for after the Terrorists proposals. Now they have seen once again the split in the south and may be more inclined to adopt a harder line. Today indeed they hold more cards than earlier and may be tempted to press their case strongly. Any case the south has to get its house in order before addressing their proposals seriously.
What policy for India? There is absolutely no need to do anything substantial. Indian policy on Sri Lanka has been consistent and successful in recent years. Even though after the Elephant pass debacle, Indian offer of naval support seemed a plan for evacuation, rather than a repeat of 1987, which Colombo had hoped. Indian policy today consists of three planks. No interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. A commitment to democracy and pluralism in the country within a unitary state with adequate safeguards and opportunities for all. Finally, to engage with it as a good neighbour in economic cooperation. These must continue irrespective of who is in power in Colombo.
Looking from afar, we can only wish the tear shaped island and God’s own country, a peaceful and happy future.