Functioning in an era when politics, not war is at the foe

By: J. S. Tissainayagam - Comment

Though there have been concerted efforts by the detractors of the TNA, both Sinhala and Tamil, to discredit that party as composed of a bunch of spineless individuals who would rather lose their self-respect than their seats in parliament, the LTTE’s open acknowledgement that the TNA commands its approval, and the TNA, in turn, stating that it would campaign on a platform of the Tiger-authored ISGA proposals, assists greatly in clarifying issues of vital concern for the Tamils.

The political and strategic closeness between the TNA and the LTTE has been the single-most important factor in denying nosey outsiders the chance of exploiting a situation where the parliamentary party remains ‘moderate,’ while the armed party is represented as ‘extremist,’ a phenomenon clearly seen in the case of the Palestinian peace process, where Israel and the United States use the Hisbollah and Hamas threat of violence to wrest concessions from the PLO and its chairman Yesser Arafat.

In the Sri Lankan peace process, it is the potentially most violent group, the LTTE that is today spearheading moves for dialogue, without having to fear a parliamentary entity undermining or outflanking it by doing deals with friend and foe, a character in some parliamentarians we have seen before.

On the contrary, it is in the south that extremism in politics has emerged. In that part of the country, which boasts of adherence to democratic principles (at least after the ruthless emasculating the JVP between 1987-1990), extremism is slowly but surely creeping into democratic institutions and, today, hopes to find representation in parliament through the forthcoming polls.

The TNA’s platform it appears would be seeking to get an endorsement for the Tigers’ ISGA proposals from the Tamils, which will be vitally important for the next stage of the peace talks, if indeed the south is still interested in continuing them.

The official position of the LTTE is that it is willing to negotiate with any party voted to power at the 2 April general election. However, the Tigers are also on record that they would want any government in Colombo negotiating with them to acknowledge their status as the sole representatives of the Tamils. They have also expressed reservations in renegotiating the Ceasefire Agreement stating that what they have signed with the UNF should continue.

Though the UNF believes that the UPFA’s reluctance to acknowledge the Tigers as the sole representatives of the Tamils would render it impossible for LTTE-UPFA dialogue, one does not know whether the prospect of forming the government in the event it wins more seats than the UNF, will soften the UPFA’s stance and make the Alliance more conducive to take less extreme positions than it is now occupying as it plunges into the hurly-burly of an election campaign.

Though the LTTE occupies a neutral position as far as its support to the party emerging victorious from elections goes, the TNA is expected to give tacit support to the UNF. This is due to the perception that unlike the UPFA and the parties that constitute it which have rejected out of hand the ISGA proposals, the UNF was not even given a chance to respond to them before President Chandrika Kumaratunga wrested control of the three ministries and prorogued parliament, thereby plunging the country into chaos.

The thinking appears to be that given a chance the UNF might have come out as willing to negotiate on the proposals rather than reject them totally. This position of the TNA is also understandable because neither the SLFP nor the JVP have given any cause for building confidence, which is a vital ingredient before talks take off. Finally, the TNA’s tacit support of the UNF could also be that the Tamil party is at least in partial agreement with the UNF that the profile of international involvement in Sri Lanka’s peace talks should remain rather than admit new players, or old players seeking to play new roles.

The agreement is also manifest in the UNF refraining from contesting the Jaffna District and the TNA not fielding a list in Colombo, which gives the UNF a good chance of garnering the Colombo Tamil vote.

While acknowledging this, there is one important point that is obscured by the TNA’s support of the UNF. That is the essential procrastination of the UNF on a number of matters during the last two years it has been in government. It has displayed the most pathetic reaction to allowing rehabilitation in the high security zones of Jaffna, delayed vacating places of worship, public buildings etc. in a number of areas in the northeast, done absolutely nothing to get either industry or services moving in the former battle-torn regions except permit every consumer good available in the south to be sold freely and facilitate the outflow of funds from the northeast.

The UNF has also sought to negotiate various defence deals and pacts with its international backers apparently to create a safety net, but which Tamils feel could one day be turned on them if the ceasefire falls apart and the country slides back to war. In other words, whenever it was expected to act to alleviate the suffering of the Tamils, the UNF procrastinated, but behind this façade of indecision, underhand moves were going on to strengthen defence of the state.

A facet that will emerge after the election, assuming the UNF forms the government and the peace talks can resume where they left off, is that the new regime would be expected to respond to the ISGA proposals. They will have to, at least, begin negotiations on it. One thing that might compel such a dialogue is that only support from the TNA will keep the UNF in office, if the UNF forms the government. Despite this, the question: is will the UNF be in a position to pursue meaningful negotiations or revert to its favourite delaying tactics?

With extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism emerging as a factor to contend with at the forthcoming election, could the UNF, even if it wins more seats than the UPFA and goes to form a government with the TNA, discuss these proposals or negotiate on them? Even if it is returned to power it will be unlikely it can break down the ethnic hatred and racist exclusivity the campaign of the ultra-right Sinhala parties is going to throw up.

Knowing the characteristic indecision of the UNF and the readymade excuse – it has to contend with Sinhala extremism in the south – once again there will be no delivery on promises. Once again, the displaced and the refugees will be kept hanging on to a thread of hope that might be severed at any moment, while containing the military harassment will be even harder if the president’s party gets more seats than it has now and ends up neck to neck with the UNF.

What has to be also bourn in mind is that the LTTE says it will not go back to war unless provoked by forces of the south. If that is he case, whatever forward movement we can expect has to be on the political front. And if indeed it is to be on this front, it has to be more purposeful than having round after round of peace talks. There has to be an infrastructure put in place whereby development, rehabilitation and other services to the northeast begin to flow systematically and uninterruptedly.

It is this issue of how rehabilitation, resettlement and development are going to be delivered to the people of the northeast, possibly in an atmosphere of procrastination from the south that should form a cornerstone of the TNA’s election campaign with that of the ISGA proposals. It will have to tell the people of the northeast how it is going to set about the business of governance depending on the various scenarios that might unfold.

An election campaign has to be fashioned depending on the need of the hour. For the Tamils of the northeast the need is how it is to look at the future where not only the more Sinhala nationalist party, the UPFA could be dismissive of their demands, but the UNF too, despite all the goodwill in the world, remains hamstrung in the face of racist politics emerging from the south.

The task of the TNA is not to subtly acknowledge its support of the UNF, but to tell the Tamils how they could face a future where politics emerges to the fore in the north, but also where politics in southern Sri Lanka put obstacles in the way of the northeast’s progress.

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