By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Chanaka Amaratunga died tragically on the 1st of August 1996. Almost exactly 9 years previously he had penned the Liberal Party statement on the Indo-Lankan Accord, which still stands as the most intelligent assessment of that seminal episode in modern Sri Lankan history. It was a ringing assertion of principle and moderation at a time when dogmatic opponents of the Accord were suggesting that disaster had struck us, as though a remedy was not urgently needed for the disasters the country had been going through for years.
The relentless erosion of democracy – with the referendum that postponed elections, the political arrests and torture and murder that were widespread (Ananda Sunil for example, and the state sponsored murders in Welikada in 1983), the intimidation of Judges of the Supreme Court who delivered unwelcome judgments or statements (which the West delighted in during those Reagan days, when ‘our bastards’ were protected whatever they did) – and the ruthless suppression of moderate Tamil opinion had led to violence that was corrosive. Though it is now argued that the Indians prevented what would have been certain victory over the Tigers in 1987, that was certainly not assured, nor could it have led to lasting peace and reconciliation, given the deep resentments in the country at the time, in the South as well as the North.
But while diehard opposition to the Accord was myopic, much worse was the acceptance of all its provisions without demur. Indeed the only change made because of opposition by those who were in favour was the removal of English from equal status with the other two languages – the Left Parties made this their only serious objection to what the President had agreed. There was no mention of the need to allow debate and discussion (media freedom was not something people were concerned about in those dark days), of the urgency of having elections nationwide, of the preposterous provisions regarding enforced merger of two Provinces. Even the usually idealistic Vijaya Kumaranatunga forgot some of the principles for which he had fought bravely in the previous period, and seemed to have no reservations about what had been agreed.
In such a context, the statement the Liberal Party issued, with its cautions that subsequent events showed were fully justified, deserves to be read again. Seventeen years after Chanaka died, his analyses of what Sri Lanka was going through, remain the most illuminating of our political writings.
STATEMENT ON THE INDO-LANKAN ACCORD AND ITS AFTERMATH
The Liberal Party welcomes the belated acceptance by the Government of the principle of extensive Provincial Autonomy, its commitment to a fundamental revision of the political and constitutional structure of this country to create democratically elected Provincial Councils with their own Governments and the acceptance of Sinhala, Tamil and English as equal official languages in terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 29th July 1987. The Liberal Party and the Council for Liberal Democracy have over the past six years continually asserted the necessity of Provincial Autonomy and of a language settlement based upon an acceptance of Sinhala, Tamil and English as equal official languages. The Liberal Party which has throughout its existence unequivocally opposed racism in all its forms, and repeatedly condemned the violence in which thousands of Sri Lankans of all races have died, hopes that there will now be an end to hatred and violence and a determined progress towards unity based on individual liberty and a truly free society.
Although Liberals emphatically support the principle of genuine autonomy and respect for all forms of diversity, there are aspects of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord which we cannot accept. Above all, the Liberal Party emphatically condemns the secretive, repressive, illiberal and undemocratic manner in which the Accord was imposed. We cannot accept that so fundamental a revision of the political and constitutional structure of this country can be imposed in a context of a complete ban of public meetings and demonstrations, an imposition of a censorship of the press that is sweeping and arbitrary, a completely one-sided media exercise whereby leading members of the Government who support the Accord have been permitted to justify and defend it at length while the opponents of the Accord within and without the Government have totally been denied access to the media. The Liberal Party expresses its deep disappointment that several persons of enlightened and democratic opinion have permitted themselves to be so carried away by the prospect of peace that they have entirely ignored the brutal repression with which the Government has sought to stifle all criticism of the Accord. The Liberal Party appeals to all those who truly value individual liberty and liberal democracy not to be blind to the arbitrary and authoritarian manner in which the Government has attempted, to impose the Accord on an unwilling people.
The Liberal Party is convinced that the unrepresentative manner in which the Accord has been imposed denies even its undoubted positive features of legitimacy, and may result in so bitter a opposition as to endanger those positive features. It seems to us that the manner in which the Government has sought to bring the bloody ethnic conflict to an end demonstrates that it has failed to understand the lesson of the past years — that intolerance of dissent, that the repression of the strongly held convictions of sections of our people, produce that bitterness and frustration which makes violence inevitable. It is tragic that the Government, having helped to exacerbate the violence of extreme separatists, is now assisting by its intolerance a new spate of JVP inspired as well as more spontaneous violence. The Liberal Party deeply deplores the wanton destruction that accompanied the announcement of the accord but it also emphasises that unless the Government, permits the free expression of opinion, extremism and intolerance will be enhanced.
The Liberal Party is also gravely concerned atthe enactment of the Accord by a Parliament whose legitimacy is seriously in doubt. Liberals have insisted since the infamous Referendum of 22nd December 1982, by which the life of this Parliament was artificially extended for six years, that we refuse to accept the legitimacy of the present Parliament. The lack of legitimacy upon which we insisted has clearly been established in the Report on the Conduct of the Referendum issued by the Commissioner of Elections. The Liberal Party asks all those who truly believe in free political institutions whether they can, in good conscience, consent to the enactment of legislation to implement the terms of the Accord by a Parliament that cannot truly claim to represent Sri Lanka? Likewise the Liberal Party is concerned that the Accord has been arrived at with the Indian Government which cannot claim to be representative of any party to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, in consultation not with democratically elected representatives of the Tamil people but with a group of terrorists whose totalitarian nature, abominable cruelty and intolerance is plain to the world. Can we truly assume that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam represent the wishes of the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces? The Liberal Party believes that the Accord between India and Sri Lanka should only have involved a cessation of hostilities, a process of disarmament and Indian supervision of the conduct, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, of a General Election that should be held throughout the island. The substantive settlement should be the product of open negotiations between democratically elected and representative political forces.
The Liberal Party expresses its deep concern about some of the provisions of the Accord. In particular, the Liberal Party is opposed to the merger of any two provinces of Sri Lanka (and therefore of the Northern and Eastern Provinces) even for a temporary period without the prior consent of the people of such a province or of the democratically elected Provincial Council of such a province. While we recognize that there would have been difficulties in the negotiating process which resulted in this particular formulation, to Liberals it smacks of authoritarianism and deceit. The Liberal Party is convinced that the inclusion of a provision in the text of the Accord, whereby ‘the President may, at his discretion decide to postpone . . . . a referendum’ seeking the views of the Eastern Province which has been promised before the end of 1988, suggests a secret agreement whereby the people of the Eastern Province may be subjected to a long governance by a single Provincial. Government of the North and East.
The Liberal Party is very concerned by the implications of Article 2.16 (c) of the Accord whereby the President of Sri Lanka may request, without any limitation of time or numbers, the military assistance of India in the implementation of the Accord in any part of Sri Lanka. While it is entirely acceptable that Indian troops may be necessary to perform a peacekeeping role in the North and East, the Liberal Party is concerned that the Government may invite Indian troops to suppress legitimate opposition to the Accord elsewhrere.
While the Liberal Party has consistently opposed the lack of democratic solidarity in the Government’s foreign policy which led it into a dangerous flirtation with dictatorial regimes in the region and elsewhere in Asia, unsavoury organizations of mercenaries and shadowy agents of espionage, and therefore welcomes the abandonment of such a policy in terms of the Accord, we regret that some aspects of the annexure to the Accord give the impression of an acceptance by Sri Lanka, of Indian tutelage. The Liberal Party has always advocated friendly relations with India and advocated a solidarity of the South Asian democracies. Accordingly while we fully acknowledge the necessity of a constructive Indian role in the resolution of the present conflict, the Liberal Party supports a Commonwealth peace-keeping force in which India would play a major part, rather than an exclusively Indian one, for the supervision of the General Election and the subsequent Provincial Elections which we propose.
The Liberal Party sincerely believes that a lasting settlement of the ethnic conflict will be possible only in a context of freedom and bipartisan agreement. We therefore believe that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party must abandon all equivocation and make clear its proposals for a resolution of this conflict. It would be irresponsible for the principal democratic opponent of the Government not to recognize and openly acknowledge that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, plural society. The Liberal Party calls upon the SLFP to recognize that no group has an exclusive or primary right to Sri Lanka, that all its citizens must befree and equal. The Liberal Party calls upon the SLFP to make an unequivocal commitment to Provincial Autonomy on the basis of nine provinces and to support the linguistic equality of all Sri Lankans by supporting the declaration of Sinhala, Tamil and English as official languages. Any appeal by the, democratic alternative to the current authoritarian and unrepresentative Government to an exclusively Sinhala nationalist constituency would be disastrous for Sri Lanka –for liberal democracy, for national unity and ultimately even for the SLFP itself.
The Liberal Party which fully supports a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and truly pluralist Sri Lanka calls for the enactment of Provincial Autonomy and the settlement on language in the only context in which they can achieve a lasting unity and peace — a context of freedom and democracy.