By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Having been present a quarter century ago when President Jayewardene swore Varadarajaperumal in, it was only a passing sense of déjà vu to be invited to Temple Trees by the host of the historic event, for the swearing-in by President Rajapaksa of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Minister (and for the breakfast that followed). As DEW Gunasekara, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, Tissa Vitharana, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Douglas Devananda and I, veterans of the Long March for devolution, recalled at Temple Trees, when the first North East Provincial Council was sworn in – I was the only one present yesterday who had been there in 1988—it was in a very different context indeed, studded with weaponry, framed by two ongoing civil wars in North and South; punctuated by the violent deaths of those belonging to the Southern and Northern Lefts who were willing to transcend the ethnic divide and defend the principle of progressive structural reform of the state.
Yesterday’s atmosphere was different because it was peacetime and the sunshine was almost tranquil. It was peacetime because the war had been won by the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces, under the purposive leadership of the President who swore Justice Wigneswaran in.
At Temple Trees the TNA radiated a cheery confidence and resolve; a resolve to do its best to make devolution work, as well as to remain faithful to the mandate conferred by the Tamil people. For his part the President was most affable yet maintaining a balanced stance; cautious, though not to the point of wariness. The shared mood seemed to be one of a measure of openness and a cautious optimism.
It was clear that the Tamil democratic leadership is willing to live within the Sri Lankan state but not under it; with the Sinhala community but not under it. This is no small deal because many Tamils are unwilling to do either. The flip side is that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader who can preside over the process of transition to such a new deal without any backlash; the deal may not always be on the table for either side. Yesterday’s moment was fragile and the mood could prove ephemeral. We, the Sinhalese and Tamils must, as the Romans and Mao Ze Dong, said ‘seize the time!’ The sheer complexity is that this must be done while respecting the fragility of the process; the fragility of the new born.
It could not have been pure coincidence that the hawks on both sides—one set which insisted that the swearing in should be before the ex-military Governor, the other which opposed the swearing in before a wartime President—had been neutralised at least temporarily, with the visit of the Minister of External Affairs of the powerful neighbour. One trusts that the Sri Lankan counterpart Ministry has not overlooked the details of the texts issued after the recent meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the wording of which makes me wonder whether the old Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation has been replaced by a new, less formally ostentatious Indo-US equivalent, with enormous implications for those of us who have to live in its shade.
The TNA seemed suffused with the spirit of those who were on a journey and were both determined and optimistic. I guess that they will do their best to make devolution work but that would mean different things to different players. They may lack the patience and pragmatism to focus on making the Council a political success as the Sinn Fein has done with power-sharing arrangements within a unitary state —because there would be confusion as to what success means. Indeed there is confusion as to what ‘making the process work’ means. The immediate post-swearing–in reference in Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s statement, to ‘internal self determination’ is a case in point. If it is merely a declaration of principle it is acceptable just as a commitment to socialism or communism is in a democratic party. Is it meant in the sense that Mr Balasingham did, namely that if ‘internal’ self determination is not recognised and granted, then external self determination would unfold? How is ‘internal self determination to be achieved? How is it to be recognised by the Sinhalese and if not does it remain a cherished aspiration? Is the TNA’s objection to a unitary framework of any kind or is it only to the majoritarian framework of post ’56 and ’72?
In short, will the TNA’s politics be driven by ethnocentric ideological commitment or by commitment to reform based on reason, realism and democratic consensus?
What is the zone of agreement of the two sides? Are they willing to resume the dialogue abandoned in 2011? Will they realise that the full implementation of the 13th amendment within a reasonable time frame, with mutually agreed swaps with regard to the Concurrent list, is the only feasible option at this stage of historical-political development? Are they, or is anyone, thinking of confidence-building measures and a process of what I would call domestic diplomacy?
I left Temple Trees with no doubt that Justice Wigneswaran is the best Chief Minister the North could have elected and the South could have as interlocutor. I had no doubt that the Sri Lankan state must arrive at a settlement with the Tamils while Mr Sampanthan is alive to deliver one. Similarly I have no doubt that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the best bet for the Tamils as a leader who can carry the Sinhalese with him in the acceptance of reasonable political coexistence. Not all currents of the Tamil polity, which is increasingly extra-territorial, would wish for such an outcome. It is in the interests of the Sri Lankan state and indeed the Sinhalese community, to strengthen the position of the Wigneswaran-Sampanthan–Sumanthiran troika. Though ambiguous in their ideology, this trio is not ambivalent about their preference for coexistence with dignity within a united Sri Lanka (while they seem willing to move outside it if such a status is unachievable).
They are the best peace partners that the Sri Lankan state and the South can have, but do the State and the TNA regard each other as partners or partnership as a desirable objective, and if so what is each side willing to do, not do or give up, for the sake of such partnership? I had no doubt that this was Sri Lanka’s last best chance as a single country whose political borders run the extent of its natural ones.
The UNP’s New Council as human shield
So the UNP leader Mr Wickremesinghe has got his human shield, his hostages: Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa. As far as I can tell, never in the history of democratic politics has a leader who has been unsuccessful for almost two decades (next year would be the 20th) remained, still less been retained as the leader. Indeed it is possible that never in any field of competitive human endeavour has an unsuccessful—and an increasingly unsuccessful—head remained at the helm for so long.
Instead of replacing this leader, the UNP’s Working Committee, that curiously opaque and unelected body, has opted to constitute a Council as yet unnamed, to which Mr Wickremesinghe will devolve some of his powers as yet unspecified. The Council is variously termed Advisory and Supreme. In which it can be supreme and what it is supreme over is utterly unclear, because Mr Wickremesinghe remains as party leader.
This flimsy window dressing notwithstanding, it is more certain than ever that at the forthcoming round of provincial elections in the West, South and Uva, the UNP will go down to as big, if not bigger a defeat than it did at the last one– and will certainly not improve on its performance at the PC elections in these provinces the last time around. The reason is plain for anyone outside the echo chamber of the UNP Working Committee and parliamentary group. The voters will continue to reject the UNP as long as Ranil remains the leader.
What the new Council does is to ensnare the obvious alternatives, Karu and Sajith, in the responsibility for the inevitable defeats, thereby weakening their claims and entrenching Ranil as leader.
There is little doubt that if the party is to wake up from this deadly coma, it will have to undergo the shock therapy of yet another round of dramatic defeat at the provincial level and face the prospect of Presidential and parliamentary elections. Then and only then would a rapid revival as in 1988, be possible. When that year opened it was not clear whether JR Jayewardene would remain for a third term. When it closed, Ranasinghe Premadasa was the leader. What happened was that the party was paralysed at the grassroots and it was obvious that revival—indeed survival—required a rupture with the Establishment and a wrenching transfer to the only personality with the patriotic populist profile capable of competing with the SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In 1988 it was an armed ultra-nationalism that paralysed the UNP. Today it is the tectonic shift during the Long War that has changed the socio-political and ideological terrain to one of ‘permanent patriotism’. The UNP needs to ‘pivot’ towards an inclusive and pluralist patriotism.