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Election Rhetoric Notwithstanding There is no Escaping a Return to the Negotiating Table

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by N. Sathiya Moorthy

With the polity busy with alliance-formation, candidate selection and campaigning for the three Provincial Council polls, no one is talking about the post-war peace talks aimed at a political solution to the vexatious ethnic issue.

Neither is the Government talking about the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), nor is the TNA reminding it of the aborted talks that stalled mid-way without making any progress whatsoever.

The Government had promised that the PSC process would be concluded in six months flat. The indication was that the Government would not entertain extensions. Much more than six months have passed since, but the process has not even commenced. The TNA is not concerned about the time-frame, but is persistent only about the process. The party is particularly upset over the denial of an exclusive role for the self in such a course. The TNA’s entreaties to the Tamil-speaking Muslim polity, represented in part by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) too have not paid off. That is the message from the Provincial Council poll in the tri-ethnic East, a microcosm of the larger Sri Lankan society and polity. Thereby hangs the tale.

Already, there is speculation that the Government and the ruling SLFP-PA combine would use the results of the Eastern Provincial Council to deny the Tamils their due, and the TNA, any revival of the peace talks. The argument implies that the Government would win the Eastern PC polls. It enjoins that an electoral defeat for the TNA in the East could be used to argue that the Tamils in the country are happy with the post-war developmental agenda and are not as keen on devolution, as sections of their polity, post-war. The inability of the TNA to sweep the Eastern polls – whoever, or who all are the winners – would be enough to sustain the argument.

Yet, it is in the realm of possibility at the moment. It is not enough to sustain the post-poll formation of a new alliance minus the Government parties. The TNA could still come to head the administration in the East. It could still sustain the argument that the Tamils would have two Chief Ministers. It would be true even if the Eastern Chief Minister happens to be a Tamil-speaking Muslim, whatever the post-poll scenario.

Such a situation could flag more issues than solving any. On the larger firmament, the election of a TNA Chief Minister in particular could signal the emergence of a new national coalition. The contours of such an arrangement need not upset the apple-cart for the Government immediately. It did not help the united Opposition in the presidential polls of 2010, or the parliamentary elections later that year. But 2012 is not 2010, and the issues and focus may have changed, after all. The war-cry and war-victory will have to give place to bread-and-butter issues.

The anti-incumbency factor impacting governments across the world may unite the political Opposition, which otherwise refuse to work together, among parties or within individual parties. The TNA is no different. The leadership could see an electoral victory in the East as a vote for re-merger. There could be others in the party who may have other ideas. The ‘Karuna rebellion’ in the LTTE was not about loyalty and/or leadership issues. It was about the perceived discrimination of the East by the Northern leadership. It was so before the Federal Party was formed. It was so under the LTTE, too. For the TNA leadership should not overlook the fault-line. It should try and overcome the same, instead.

For the Government to argue that the Eastern PC polls is a referendum of sorts on the ethnic issue should it win the polls too would be presumptuous. Whether or not the TNA wins in the East, the ethnic issue is for real. The Government parties of today won the Eastern polls in 2008 a year after the LTTE was trounced in the sector. That did not alter the electoral situation even after the LTTE had been completely trounced. The North voted against the Government.

Addressing the opening session of the Sri Lanka Army’s international Defence Seminar, titled, “Towards Lasting Peace and Stability,” Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa outlined with pride – and justifiably so in parts, at least – Sri Lanka’s post-conflict efforts on Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Reconciliation. While he had a lot to say on the first four aspects, he did not have anything to say on (political) reconciliation, which is at the same time the cause and effect.

Interjected into to the earlier ‘Four-R’ aspects of post-war Government efforts in this year’s speech is a fifth one, namely ‘Reintegration’. It is here that different perceptions have haunted the ethnic dialogue of the past decades. Greater clarity thus needs to be given and obtained by all stake-holders. Greater sensitivity should also be employed in positioning ‘Reintegration’ – whether it should be before or after, or as a part of the ‘Reconciliation’ process.

An electoral victory for either camp, or any of the other camps in the East now would be pyrrhic at best. Neither side can flag it either to the domestic constituency or the international community in defence of their perceived positions. Neither side has clear perceptions, nor are they consistent with their known positions. The events and developments of the post-war months and years have shown and proved as much.

There is thus no escaping a return to the negotiations table. What shape it could take – whether the revival of direct talks between the Government and the TNA, or the PSC process – is what the results of the PC polls in the East could at best indicate. But the problems and solutions go beyond it all. That includes the possible results of the prospective polls to the Northern Provincial Council, whenever held.

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