By Rajan Philips –
If the 1980s were tumultuous, the 1990s were more transitional, even if not less tumultuous. In this ‘potted’ history, it is not necessary to recount all the details of the 1990s and the first decade of the new 21st century. Suffice it to focus on developments that have had a continuing influence on current events and the farce of 2021. The UNP and the JVP, which more or less came together in 1977, were gone by 1994, after seventeen years of assorted achievements. The UNP would never return to the same pinnacle of power that it seized in 1977. The JVP with a new generation of leaders transformed itself into a democratic political party with mixed results. The first half the decade saw the disintegration of the UNP under the weight of the presidential ambitions of three rival contenders – President Premadasa and his two younger challengers, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The LTTE took out every one of them in 1993 and 1994.
LTTE violence took off in the 1990s after the JVP had been finished off in the late 1980s. In a telling commentary on that period, Wikipedia lists the names of political leaders, parliamentarians, professionals and political activists who were killed by the JVP, the LTTE, other Tamil groups and the armed forces over three decades of violence. The 1990s began with the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and ended with the killing of TULF MP and Legal Academic Neelan Tiruchelvam in 1999. The old leadership of the TULF, with the exception of M. Sivasithamparam, had been wiped out in the late 1980s. That included TULF leader A. Amirthalingam, a consummate politician and parliamentarian, who started off as a fiery federalist and turned himself into a mellowed separatist.
As the 90s wore on, the LTTE asserted itself as the sole representative of the Tamils. It waged war against the state and its forces but not to capture the state of Sri Lanka but to establish a new state of Tamil Eelam. The JVP’s mission was different, but its ultimate objectives were never clear. Lacking the LTTE’s military prowess, it never seemed plausible that the JVP was serious about capturing state power through violent means. Politically, the JVP swung from its ultra-left attacks on a manifestly leftist government in 1971, to undertaking ultra-right attacks against the most rightwing government in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The left-right cleavage was not part of the LTTE vocabulary.
On the other hand, although it railed against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the presence of Indian armed forces in Sri Lanka, the JVP scrupulously avoided taking potshots at the Indian Army. The LTTE, in contrast, cut its military teeth fighting the Indian army and found common cause with the Sri Lankan government under President Premadasa to fight a common enemy. There was even grudging admiration among sections of the Sinhalese for the LTTE’s choosing to take on the Indian Army. For the record, the Indian Army came to Sri Lanka on the invitation of one Sri Lankan President and left Sri Lanka at the request of the succeeding Sri Lankan President. Hardly the modality for an occupying force. War or peace, Sri Lanka was again left to its own devices.
Illusions of Peace
The second half of the 1990s and the first half of the next belonged to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her presidency began with a bang of charismatic inspiration but petered through for want of a clear focus and purposeful efforts. Perhaps her singular failure was not single-mindedly moving to abolish the executive presidency as she was universally expected to. She was also the first and, until Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived on the scene 25 years later out of nowhere, the only person to become President without previously being a Member of Parliament. Her parliamentary inexperience, untrammeled access to presidential power, not to mention her political ego, all combined to vitiate the promise with which she had led the People’s Alliance to power.
With the benefit of hindsight, we might say that parliament started becoming inexorably poorer from thereon. It is far worse now, in 2021, and for many new reasons. And it has taken a JVP-alliance (NPP) MP, in Dr. Harini Amarasuria, to take a spirited stand in defense of parliament and parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka – against presidential authority and media hypocrisy. The ironies of history, you might say, but more on it later.
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) deserves full marks for starting the peace process during her presidency, but she showed inexplicable naivete in choosing to rely on people from her social circles to take the lead in serious peace mediations. The LTTE was going to be a difficult peace-dance partner anyway, and it required much more than social brokering to make any headway. In the end, the LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating her during her election campaign for a second term in office in 1999.
The main irony of that period was the nasty competition between Chandrika Kumaratunga (leading the SLFP) and Ranil Wickremesinghe (leading the UNP) for leadership in the peace process. It was a total about-turn from previous decades when the two main Sinhalese parties fought one another over who was giving more concessions to the Tamil Federal Party, even though what was on offer was way less than what would be included much later in the 13th Amendment. In any event, the CBK-RW competition over peace turned out to be counterproductive both to the peace process and to their respective political calculations.
It may not be wholly accurate to say that presidential politics was the main driver of the peace rivalry, but it is impossible to view the rivalry in isolation from presidential ambitions. All the constitutional changes proposed by the CBK government included provisions to protect her powers, which made it even easier for RW and the UNP to reject the proposals out of hand and even, in one instance, make a bonfire of them right in the well of parliament. As for Ranil Wickremesinghe, his obsession with becoming a President, or at least a presidential candidate one more time (after two attempts in 1999 and 2005), became quite obvious when he deliberately subordinated every initiative of the yahapalanaya government (2015-2019) to that single obsession.
Back during his rivalry with CBK over peace initiatives, Ranil Wickremesinghe stunningly turned to the LTTE to strike a counter peace partnership to CBK’s peace partnership with the TULF. I am not aware of any public recounting of the mediation that brought RW and the LTTE together in a peace initiative. But objectively, it is fair to surmise that Ranil Wickremesinghe reached out to the LTTE as a counter to CBK’s peace alliance with the TULF. What was fairly well known throughout the JRJ presidency was that President Jayewardene cunningly kept not only the TULF but also the JVP from joining forces with the SLFP/Left opposition at that time. In the end, there was no ultimate benefit to anyone from JRJ’s Machiavellian politics. The presidential house he built so adroitly would be eventually lost to the UNP. Now it seems it is lost forever. And it will be for other more upstart aspirants as well.
As JRJ’s successor, President Premadasa took a different tack, reaching out to the LTTE to get the Indians out. We know how that tack or track ended. The TULF that was left hanging, or what was left of its depleted leadership, broke with the UNP and turned to Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance for a new kick at what had become the proverbial viable solution, while Ranil Wickremesinghe modified the Premadasa approach to reengage the LTTE with Norwegian insurance. To their credit, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe ‘fought’ over how to make better peace with Tamils, rather than about waging a more brutal war with the LTTE. They both admitted that the Sri Lankan state had failed in the building of its nation and were committed to creating a plural and inclusive polity. While their political spirits were willing their presidential flesh led them astray.
And their peace-fight was nasty. They could not work together even when they were forced to cohabit as President and Prime Minister between 2001 and 2004. Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, dashed everyone’s expectations of peace dividends by giving, not for the last time, free rein to corruption in government. For her part, and in what she would later admit to being among her more grievous mistakes, President Kumaratunga dismissed the Wickremesinghe government in 2004 (which she had the power to do under the pre-19A Constitution, unlike Maithripala Sirisena who flouted his own 19th Amendment in October 2018), dissolved parliament and won the parliamentary election in April 2004 with provisional support from the JVP.
The results of the April 2004 parliamentary election gave false hopes to President Kumaratunga and the JVP (that won 39 out of 105 UPFA seats in parliament, its highest on record), relegated Ranil Wickremesinghe to the opposition backwaters for the next ten years, and signaled the emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the next presidential candidate from the true south. The country went through the tsunami devastation in December 2004, but that did not help the political leaders get any wiser about working together. The Supreme Court abandoned President Kumaratunga when it rejected her finesse to extend her second term by one year. Ranil Wickremesinghe even thought that Chief Justice Sarath Silva was helping him for not impeaching him earlier!
Those who had serenaded CBK during her rise lost no time in leaving her as her fortunes waned. Mahinda Rajapaksa became the SLFP-UPFA candidate by acclamation. He reached a new agreement with the JVP. The unkindest cut of all was delivered by the LTTE to Ranil Wickremesinghe who thought that his election would be a no contest. Mahinda Rajapaksa won the November 2005 presidential election by the squeakiest of margins, while Tamil voters in the north were ordered to stay home. Basil Rajapaksa’s familial prophesy that there will be a President from the south was finally fulfilled. But there were other dynamics at play.
Illusions of Restoration
In my last instalment published two weeks ago (April 25), I alluded to Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming the presidential beneficiary of a new strand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism fueled by the Jathika Chinthanaya school of thought. The school of thinking that JC advocated has not universally been accepted in Sinhalese political society. At one level, the electoral victories of Chandrika Kumaratunga (PA) and the partial successes of Ranil Wickremesinghe were moments of political pushbacks to the creeping influence of JC thinking. At another level, both the SLFP and the UNP were forced to come to terms with ‘JC forces’ and include them in their political alliances often on their (JC’s) terms.
The presidential system and proportional representation in parliamentary elections facilitated the emergence of alliance politics. The era of programmatic united fronts of political parties was gone. Serious political programs gave way to lawyerly Memorandums of Understanding. Multiple parties with bilateral/multilateral MOUs could come together under an umbrella alliance for contesting elections. The April 2004 parliamentary elections were the breakthrough election for the new Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organizations.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the most electorally successful offshoot from the JC school, won nine seats in the election, all won by Buddhist Monks. The JVP which had been courting JC ideologues and followers from the 1980s, was part of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s alliance (UPFA) and won 39 seats. It was the JHU that successfully challenged President Kumaratunga’s attempt to extend her second term limit in the Supreme Court in August 2005. JC’s political consummation came within months, with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the November presidential election. That it came with support from the not so hidden hand of the LTTE did not dampen the significance of the moment. Mahinda Rajapaksa was acclaimed as the most authentic Sinhala Buddhist political leader since independence.
In terms of political analysis, the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been described as the restoration of the linkage between the Sri Lankan state establishment and the political hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The linkage had apparently been ruptured since July 1987 when JR Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Looked at it another way, the state of Sri Lanka which has traditionally been accused of alienating the Tamil and Muslim minorities, would seemed to have found a way to alienate even the Sinhalese majority.
And the restoration that was apparently achieved with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, has not turned out to be as consequential as anticipated. To wit, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the Thirteenth Amendment that it created have survived two terms of Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and may yet survive the first term of Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. At the same time, a full restoration of the linkages between the state of Sri Lanka and all its ‘peoples’ will require a more sensitive and nuanced understanding as well as appreciation of the nationalist compulsions of the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. Anything less can be nothing more than a farce.
(Next week: The end of violence and the beginning of farce).
Part – 1 – The Tragedy Of 1971 & The Farce Of 2021