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 Global Perspective

November 26, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 34

Rukshan Fernando
Rukshan Fernando, former Asian Coordinator of the International Young Christian Students Movement (IYCSM) works with the Caritas Sri Lanka National Office coordinating the National Peace Program.



For a timeline of the separatist conflict in Sri Lanka, visit Key events in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's tenuous peace

By Rukshan Fernando

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka -- There has been widespread fear that the struggle between the president and the prime minister for political power may sabotage the peace process between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, and the government.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga surprised everyone Nov. 6 by taking over three key ministries (defense, interior affairs and communications) and suspending Parliament while Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was in the United States. The president acted just days after the LTTE had submitted its first proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the North and East of the country, which the Southern polity met with mixed reactions.

Since the United National Front, led by the United National Party, came into power in the parliamentary elections in December 2001, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and President Kumaratunga, who was elected in 2000, have lived in tense cohabitation. Both carry legal and moral authority by virtue of their respective electoral victories, but the president has wide-ranging executive powers, including the power to dissolve Parliament, and holds the post of supreme commander of the armed forces. This concentration of power has raised questions about the government's ability to rule effectively.

No single issue has brought this out more than the peace process. The United National Front government has gained widespread local and international acclaim for engaging the LTTE in a peace process. A ceasefire has held for more than 21 months, despite some minor hiccups. This has raised hopes that one of Asia's longest and bloodiest ethnic conflicts -- more than 64,000 killed and a million displaced -- could end with a negotiated political solution.

Though the president has proclaimed her support for a peaceful resolution and devolution of power, she has criticized the government's handling of the peace process, accusing the government of sidelining her as well as conceding too much to the LTTE and thus endangering national security and sovereignty of the country.

The LTTE, who have never hidden their preference to deal with the prime minister rather than the president, issued cautious notice that they are "closely monitoring the situation in the South." But on a recent trip to the North and East of the country, people told me that the LTTE is retreating into its jungle hideouts. People also told me they are scared.

In the Eastern town of Trincomalee, an area savaged by the war and where tensions remain high even during the ceasefire, I spoke with Fr. Francis Dias, director of the Catholic church's Justice, Peace and Development Office.

He said, "The LTTE is retreating into Vanni because they are scared of what might happen when the president has become the defense minister." Dias added that the president's actions might affect political activities of the LTTE in areas controlled by the government.

In the war-ravaged Northern capital of Jaffna, people told me they are scared that war might break out again. Bishop Thomas Soundaranayagam of Jaffna said Nov. 25 that the peace process is in a situation of uncertainty.

Many civil society groups view the president's actions with concern and are urging the president and prime minister to push aside political party differences and work together to find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

The Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Sri Lanka held the two main political parties responsible for the present crisis and called on them to "strike a political deal of compromise and consensus that would see to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka." The religious superiors added that having a president and a prime minister from the two main political parties who can cooperate and work together is in the best interest of the country.

A statement from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka emphasized that the "only salvation for the country lies in the cooperation and collaboration between the two main political parties, alliances for the sake of peace and welfare of the people." The bishops reiterated their call for a "government of consensus."

Even the diplomatic community, notably the United States, Britain and India, has voiced concern that the president's actions should not jeopardize the peace process. Norwegian diplomats, who have played the major mediating role between the government and the LTTE, withdrew their involvement until political stability returns to Colombo.

To a certain extent, it seems these voices are being heard. The president and prime minister have met twice and have indicated their willingness to work together to carry the peace process forward. They have appointed a committee comprising their handpicked representatives to work out the modalities. The president has also indicated willingness to consider the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority as a starting point for negotiations and has instructed the military to abide by the ceasefire.

Though many feared the president might extend Parliament's two-week suspension or even dissolve the body and hold a new general election, this has not happened. Parliament reconvened last week to debate about the budget for 2004.

While what I heard in the North and the East made me apprehensive, now I'm wondering whether this situation might actually bring the premier and the president together, at least to move the peace process forward. One of the weaknesses of the peace process has been the lack of involvement of the president -- who also leads the opposition party. After all, the political alliances the two lead have ruled Sri Lanka since independence and account for 80 percent of all votes in any election. Thus, if the two leaders can come together, the peace process would undoubtedly be back on track.

After years of political rivalry, this may sound too good to be true. But if the LTTE, which waged an armed battle for a separate state, has renounced the demand for a separate state as well as a military solution and is talking peace, why can't the president and the premier and their parties do the same?

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