'Autonomy package' - Much ado about nothing

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 26 July 2000, 20:48 GMT]
"If Prabhaharan had not pulled out of talks with the UNP government in 1990 and with the PA in 1995, he too would have been doing this futile political jig in Colombo, going from pillar to post like us in search of the political solution" said the leader of an ex-Tamil militant group reacting to Sri Lanka's main opposition party's decision announced Tuesday that it will not support the constitutional reform package in Parliament.

With general elections round the corner, ex-Tamil militant groups are increasingly concerned that they have nothing to show their Tamil voters, not even minor political concessions in return for supporting the Sri Lankan government's war against the Liberation Tigers.

The package fiasco couldn't have come at a worse time for ex-Tamil militant groups. They were preparing for the elections, scheduled to be held before November this year, hoping that they would have an unprecedented advantage at the polls this time in the form of a political settlement approved in Parliament.

Without a political solution to show their constituency this time too, they fear that they might lose their political legitimacy completely.

A senior politician of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) said that in hindsight the whole process of forging a consensus between the Sri Lankan government and the main opposition party, the UNP was doomed to fail from day one and that the ex-militants should have known this.

He said that the clamour of the Sinhala nationalists against it is much ado about nothing.

Firstly, according to him, the People's Alliance government had begun the dialogue with the UNP in an 'election year' when both sides would inevitably be bent on scoring over each other on crucial issues including a political settlement to the Tamil question. This 'election' dynamic was therefore bound, as always in the past, to compel the PA and the UNP to prove to their main Sinhala constituency that one was more Sinhala than the other, meaning that either party would not wish to be seen on the eve of elections as compromising Sinhala interests 'enshrined' in the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state and the foremost place given to Buddhism in the constitution. Conversely, the same dynamic was bound to compel each party to accuse the other of betraying the Sinhalese by giving too much to the Tamils or by striking secret deals with the Liberation Tigers portrayed as being detrimental to the Sinhala nation.

Secondly, the referendum on the 'entrenched clauses' of the constitution, particularly Article 2 (unitary state) and Article 9 (foremost place to Buddhism), was destined to fail, given the ethnic religious composition of the island. Both parties were mindful of the fact that had they agreed on the repeal of the two articles, Sinhala nationalist forces would have used the referendum as a launching pad to overwhelm them politically among the Sinhalese. This was evident in the manner in which both the government and the UNP rushed to assure the Buddhist clergy that they will preserve Article 9 which guarantees the foremost place to Buddhism.

Thirdly, the UNP was totally opposed from day one to the PA's proposal that Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would continue as the executive President for six years even after the adoption of the new constitution.

And above all there was from the beginning of the process an unavoidable temptation on the part of the government to entrap the UNP in the dialogue on constitutional reforms whereby any decisive move by the opposition either for or against the 'package' would have been to the government's advantage. A decision by the UNP to support the package with minor changes would have gone to the credit of the President as the one who initiated the whole process. On the other hand, a decision by the UNP to oppose would have been to the advantage to the government, particularly for alienating the Tamils from that party by impressing them that it (the UNP) is the 'villain of the piece', the sole obstacle to a political settlement to the ethnic conflict.

The UNP, a consequence, entered the dialogue with the government with strategic caution, on the look out for this 'entrapment'. The President has been telling the Tamils, whenever the opportunity arose, that though she was keen to give full autonomy to them she could not do so because the UNP was throwing the spanner in the works as it were. The UNP saw this as a clever ploy by the government to drive the Tamils away from the party.

The UNP also had the bitter experience of being stumped by the government with the assistance of the Tamils in Parliament on the question of abolishing the executive Presidential system by 15 July, 1995 as the PA had promised to do in its elections manifesto for the 1994 general elections. The PA extricated itself from the situation at the time by persuading the Tamil parties in Parliament to insist that the abolition of the executive Presidential system should be part of a complete constitutional change and not an amendment to the constitution. A UNP spokesman said that the party was therefore concerned that the government might score one over it in this round too with the aid of the Tamil parties such as the EPDP that are ready to back the PA fully for reasons other than political.

In the final analysis, as a leader of a Tamil group working with the Sri Lanka army put it, the package fiasco is another decisive nail on the coffin of the ex-Tamil militants who pledged to the Tamil people in 1987 when the Indo-Lanka treaty was signed that they would find a viable alternative to a separate state. "Thirteen years have gone by since we promised to deliver something as good as a separate state to the Tamils by abandoning our armed struggle and joining the democratic mainstream of Sri Lanka. But now even the little loincloth given to us under the Indo-Lanka Accord is in tatters. This is worse than being back to square one" lamented a chagrined eastern leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation asked by Tamilnet to comment on the failure of the government UNP talks.


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