Feature Article

Joint mechanism mired in Sinhala politics

[TamilNet, Monday, 09 May 2005, 15:51 GMT]
The joint mechanism between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers called for by international aid donors has become the centre of political manoeuvres by the main Sinhala parties, in whose zero-sum calculations, international aid has a critical role to play.

Last Friday President Chandrika Kumaratunga met for several hours with the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), parliamentary ally of her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to persuade the ultra-Sinhala nationalists to back her plan to sign a joint mechanism with the LTTE.

Vimal Weerawansa
JVP's Propaganda Secretary, Wimal Weerawansa (right) and Tilvin Silva, JVP general Secretary.
But the JVP, in keeping with its oft-stated position on the matter, categorically refused to countenance any agreement on aid with the LTTE. The JVP is also standing by its threat to quit the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, if President Kumaratunga goes ahead with the deal.

The JVP maintains, as it always has, that the LTTE is a terrorist aberration which cannot be accommodated by a self-respecting Sinhala government and that to do so, would be tantamount to treachery.

"[Even] the Ceasefire Agreement was a gross violation of the territorial integrity of the country by demarcating part of land as the LTTE territory. The Joint Mechanism will go a step further as it will see the government sharing its supreme power to handle finances with the Tigers," JVP Propaganda Secretary, Wimal Weerawansa said of the February 2002 truce.

Justifying his party's stand at its May Day rally, JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe insisted moreover that the international funds belonged to the country and “could only be utilised by the government and not by an anti democratic group like the LTTE or some NGOs,” an echo of the party’s repeated assertion foreign NGOs are part of an international conspiracy to dismember Sri Lanka.

Earlier last week, ahead of her meeting with the JVP, President Kumaratunga vowed to form the joint mechanism despite the Marxists’ threats.

“The government may fall ... I might lose the presidency,” Kumaratunga said. “But those things are not of national interest unlike bringing lasting peace to the country.”

But, given her determined efforts to retain political power over the past several years, her threat is not being taken seriously. It is widely acknowledged that President Kumaratunga’s central political project is to abolish Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency and replace it with a powerful Prime Minister’s office, for which she would be entitled to compete, unlike a third term as President.

Furthermore, the JVP’s own call to patriotic arms has mobilised other Sinhala right wing parties, including the hardline monks of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Murmurs of discontent are reportedly also rippling through the other UPFA ranks, including the SLFP. The National Unity Alliance (NUA), a small Muslim ally of the UPFA, has also come out in opposition to the joint mechanism.

Meanwhile, the Patriotic National Movement (PNM), widely credited with propelling the JVP to power in the April 2004 polls, continues a popular campaign amongst the Sinhala people against the joint mechanism. More demonstrations are scheduled for this week.

Amidst a rising tide of Sinhala nationalist suspicion, President Kumaratunga is baulking at calling the JVP’s bluff. She has also been attempting to calm Sinhala nationalist apprehensions. Meeting Buddhist leaders last week, for example, she reportedly gave them an assurance she would dissolve the joint mechanism after its first year and as such, it could not lead to the separation of the country. The reaction amongst Tamils was predictable, whilst Sinhala suspicions have not been assuaged.

The impasse on the joint mechanism, moreover, is situated amidst the deep contradictions between the SLFP and the JVP on other key issues, including Sri Lanka’s long-delayed privatisation and de-regulation programmes which international donors have also been urging through implicit conditionality for their much needed financial assistance. Friction over the privatisation of the debt-riddled Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has, for example, also come to a head in recent weeks, with the President backing away amidst JVP fierce resistance.

Though the then main opposition SLFP and the JVP, the third largest party in Sri Lankan politics, joined forces to defeat the pro-peace United National Front (UNF) government in April 2004, there have always been strong differences and acrimony between the two, the difficulties in keeping the peace even compelling Kumaratunga to quit as UPFA chief shortly after the coalition scraped to victory last year.

Many analysts doubt the JVP would wish to sacrifice the considerable electoral and political advantages accruing to it both from being part of a coalition with one of Sri Lanka’s major parties and also being in government. The JVP increased its seats in parliament from 16 to almost 40 after it tied up with the SLFP. Some observers doubt it could sustain this Parliamentary presence by competing on its own.

But others argue that the JVP has been unable to fulfil many of the pledges of economic betterment it had made its voters. Its strident and implacable opposition to a deal with the LTTE and its constant assertion of a rising threat from the Tamil north are an effort to keep disillusionment at bay amongst its core voters, they argue. As such, exiting the government whilst wrapping itself in patriotic colours may be its best option.

Meanwhile, President Kumaratunga, desperate for international economic assistance to keep her cash-strapped administration afloat, has apparently little choice, despite her barely disguised repugnance for dealing with the LTTE, but to enter into a joint mechanism with the Tigers.

International donors, who withdrew their backing in 2000, frustrated with her then People’s Alliance (PA) government’s failure to resolve the ethnic conflict and poor ‘good governance’ performances, are now standing firm that there must improvements in these areas. Reconciliation with the LTTE and neo-liberal economic reform have thus become strong conditionalities for their backing.

Amidst the political infighting of the past few months, Kumaratunga has contributed to her difficulties by allowing the JVP to claim the vanguard of Sinhala nationalist opposition, in a bid to ingratiate herself with international donors. Perhaps recalling the strong backing donors extended to her PA administration in the late nineties, despite the escalating war, Kumaratunga hopes donors will today be sufficiently convinced of her newly adopted pro-peace stance to begin disbursing funds and thereby prevent her government’s collapse.

But President Kumaratunga’s difficulties are being compounded by the JVP’s linking of its anti-privatisation stance to its Sinhala patriotism. "The JVP will stand against the division of the country and not allow some groups within the UPFA to go ahead with moves to privatise state resources," Amarasinghe declared at the May Day rally.

Despite its orthodox Marxist claims, few doubt the JVP’s ideological commitment to its Sinhala-Buddhist doctrine. But the party, which led two abortive and bloody insurrections against the state in 1971 and 1989, is playing a more complex political game when it continues to oppose the two key demands of donors and decries a “neo-colonialist conspiracy to divide Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka’s serious economic difficulties, exemplified by the relentlessly soaring cost-of-living and rapidly widening gap between rich and poor, provide ideal conditions for the JVP’s further growth. The JVP’s core vote base in the Sinhala rural areas, boosted by the support of frustrated jobless youth, is steadily being expanded amidst deteriorating economic conditions by its superb cadre-based machinery.

The JVP, promoting itself as a bulwark against the predatory Western-inspired economic policies it accuses the SLFP and, especially, the market-friendly United National Party (UNP) of being prepared to foist on the Sinhala masses, is fuelling and then exploiting anxieties amongst the rural poor, even implicating the LTTE in this imperialist, anti-Sinhala plot.

Its sophisticated self-promotion is best exemplified by events in the wake of the tsunami’s devastation (which occurred amongst sections of its core vote bank). Despite being part of the ruling coalition, the JVP has managed to channel widespread anger at the state’s inefficiency and inaction into popular support for it and its policies. Aid despatched by the government was brazenly distributed by red-shirted party activists as if supplied by the JVP. The SLFP can do little as displaced Sinhalese in emergency camps daub anti-government slogans on state-supplied tents, whilst vowing to back the JVP at the next elections.

On the other hand, President Kumaratunga is relying on international funding to improve economic conditions, provide housing and jobs and halt the JVP’s carving out of new constituencies from her SLFP’s underbelly. Of course it is questionable whether the SLFP will be able to revive its fortunes against the efforts of the JVP’s expanding grassroots machinery even then.

Although it was her refusal to pursue a negotiated peace with the ever-growing LTTE hardened donor sentiment most at the turn of the century – that and the economic meltdown in the wake of the destruction Katunayake airport paving the way for the UNP’s ascension. But despite her pro-peace volte face of late, there are other donor doubts.

Despite having strong economic management credentials – some economists argue that the PA’s performance during the late nineties rivalled even those that might have been expected of the UNP – President Kumaratunga’s administration has proved unable to address Sri Lanka’s endemic corruption or to restrain itself from vote-courting welfare expansions. More importantly, President Kumaratunga’s unabashed pursuit of power, exemplified by her readiness to thwart democratic procedures, suspending Parliament and ruling by Presidential decree, has irritated the international community, particularly donors.

All of which bodes well for the main opposition UNP. To begin with, the UNP, under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, has wholeheartedly embraced the economic reforms agenda demanded by the donors, as underlined by its neoliberal blueprint, titled ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ published in 2003. Moreover, despite the stalling of its Norwegian-brokered face-to-face negotiations with the LTTE that year, the UNP retains its image as pro-peace.

Toppled by the SLPF-JVP combine last year, the UNP is awaiting a serious rupture between the two which might pave its way to a return to power. The UNP is confident that hardline anti-LTTE, anti-talks platform on which the UPFA came to power last year is splintering under international pressure and so is the alliance.

For the past year the UNP has been consistently criticising the UPFA’s handling of the economy and the peace process and taking unhelpfully contrary positions on key issues.

Earlier on this year, for example, the UNP came out firmly in support of a joint mechanism with the LTTE whilst the JVP began its vehement opposition to it. That, moreover, was when the joint mechanism was merely a proposed concept. Now, when several months of negotiation between Colombo and Kilinochchi have resulted in an agreement that both sides are prepared to sign, the UNP is deftly avoiding being put on the spot.

On the one hand, the UNP insists it will fully support the proposed joint mechanism because the party does not want the people living in the North and the East to suffer. Yet when asked if it will is prepared to support President Kumaratunga if she signs agreement, the UNP argues it cannot, as it has no idea what’s involved.

The UNP’s contradictory positions stem from twin objectives – to avoid throwing President Kumaratunga’s a political lifeline or becoming a target for the Sinhala nationalist upsurge triggered by the joint mechanism whilst at the same time not antagonising the Tamils or the international community.

The UNP is goading the JVP on in its intransigence to the joint mechanism. UNP Parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne declared, for example, "the JVP is not bothered about the poor people. They are only shouting slogans."

As long as President Kumaratunga is not prepared to sign the joint mechanism with the LTTE, the JVP and UNP are both potentially in a win-win situation. If donors stand firm by their assertion that a joint mechanism is a necessary condition for aid, popular anger will continue to rise against President Kumaratunga and her administration. Though part of the ruling coalition, the JVP has proved able to distance itself, in many voters’ eyes from the government’s failings while the UNP also hopes to benefit from rising popular discontent.

But the JVP has the best of all worlds. If donors decide to ease Kumaratunga’s difficulties by easing their conditionality on economic reforms and, especially, the joint mechanism with the LTTE, it will claim the credit for courageously defending Sri Lanka’s dignity in the face of international pressure. Not only will any economic improvements further boost its political standing, the JVP will consolidate its grip on the Sri Lanka’s substantial Sinhala nationalist vote. When the south benefits from aid at the expense of the north and east, even the UNP, still nursing its pro-peace credentials, can benefit from Tamil and Muslim outrage.

The imbroglio will be exacerbated as time goes on. Expectations that the imminent donor conference would compel President Kumaratunga to call the JVP’s bluff have proved wrong. With the mid-year monsoons looming, hundreds of thousands of people are facing continuing misery. Whilst it was unlikely sufficient aid would have flowed through the joint mechanism in time anyway, there is, as yet, no prospect of any improvement in their condition. The only certainty is further political turmoil as Sri Lanka’s main parties put their electoral ambitions before ordinary people’s welfare.


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