Time for ‘incremental devolution’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the 46th session of the UNHRC has ended up on expected lines, including possibly the vote-counts, it may be time that the stake-holders within the nation took a more pragmatic position to sit down and sort out their historic differences between themselves without involving third nations, regions or organisations. The initiative should rest with the Government, but they cannot do it in vacuum. They need to carry the moderate Tamil polity, or sections thereof, in what should be a final negotiated settlement, which could take them all there, on the road to permanent peace and prospective prosperity as never before.

The ruling Rajapaksas had it all going for them at the end of the war. The Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist right, numbering substantially, would have either accepted whatever they agreed on the other’s behalf in the name of a permanent political solution, no questions asked. They dithered, were unsure if a Maithripala Sirisena or the JVP would try to upset their apple-cart by rallying the Sinhala nationalists behind them – of course, separately, and overthrow them in democratic elections. The democratic overthrow did happen, but fronting for international Rajapaksa-haters was none other than Sirisena. The JVP backed them, despite a ‘foreign hand’ being clearly visible.

The Rajapaksas were alone not the only one to blame. The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa did get into serious consultations with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil representative body. The negotiators did come to certain conclusions, did progress on a few contentious fronts, as Land, though not Police. It however became clear that no issue was insurmountable, despite decades of mutual distrust and suspicions, between the Tamil polity and society on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala-Buddhist political masters on the other. The UNHRC session of March 2012, rather, the preparatory weeks and months for the same, torpedoed the talks. Many inside Sri Lanka and outside, the Tamil Diaspora included, celebrated – but the Tamil society back home had only reasons to curse their ill-fate one more time.

The arrival of Sirisena as President and his campaign-mate Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister changed nothing really for the Tamil people and even polity (read: TNA) despite the latter crawling when they were not even expected to bend. Old habits die hard, it seemed, but the end result was that there was a lot of cosmetic promises at the UNHRC sessions, over the so-called ‘consensus resolutions’, but none of the kind either, nearer home to the TNA – or, so it seemed. If the Wickremesinghe-chaired Steering Committee gave in a lot, it was possibly with the full knowledge that if and when incorporated in the promised new Constitution, they won’t pass muster in Parliament, and yet, they would have the Tamils and the international community backing them. In context, the intervening events ahead of the 2019 presidential polls ensured that the Steering Committee Report did not have to be voted upon in Parliament, which used to convene also as the Constitution Assembly.

Making good use

The time now the UNHRC has given the Sri Lankan State, if it could be called so, until the 51st session in September 2023, when alone there will be the next substantive round of voting – or, so it seems – is also the time available to all Sri Lankans to find the middle-path to co-existence and growth. As anticipated, the Government has already declared its intention to try and stall the budget for the UNHRC investigations, as mandated by the Council in the recent session, at the upcoming UN General Assembly (UNGA) session later this year.

Provoking the all-knowing West, which is always correct, by taking the UNHRC probe-budget to the UNGA / UNSC can only entail individual nations imposing individual sanctions on Sri Lankan individuals, no questions asked. If President Biden’s US were to return to the centre-stage of UNHRC after his predecessor had taken out the nation in his time, then, there is no question about such sanctions not working. In 2012, ’13 and now in 2021, the nation’s Chinese friends have exposed their limited reach in terms of voting figures at the UNHRC. Most abstentions came not because of China, Russia or Sri Lanka, but because either those nations (like India and Japan) wanted a conducive ground situation for the Sri Lankan stake-holders to sit down and sort out their age-old differences. Alternatively, abstaining member-nations did not have any stake in Sri Lanka for them to be worried overmuch.

One can now expect the Government, rather the ruling SLPP of the ruling Rajapaksas to go in for Provincial Council elections, either in toto, or in instalments, citing Covid pandemic as the reason and justification. That should silence a section of the international critics who had written it in, in the Preamble of the just-voted resolution. Yet, the abstaining members from 2023 can vote with Sri Lanka, if and only if there is a full-fledged political solution, and ethnic peace inside the country. Who knows, if it came to that, it could well be the West that could be chasing the nation for a consensus resolution loaded in favour of the latter. But there is a long way to go, or even think about such possibilities.

In the interim, the Government should take up the Constitution Assembly part seriously. The Tamils should focus their energies on their own rights and requirements, based on decades-long aspirations, and not get involved with larger concepts of ‘Unitary State’, ‘Executive Presidency’, et all. At the end of the day, a strong leader who can win parliamentary polls for his party on his shoulders, even in the absence of an Executive President, can do as much harm or good. It is not in the  current Constitution, but the over-dependence of parties on their presidential candidate first, and president, later, for winning parliament elections, alone has been at the centre of the crises attributed to the Executive Presidency, and by extension, the Unitary State.

Instead, the Tamil polity, divided as still they are, should formulate a common set of demands that are pragmatic to begin with, for the Sinhala polity to be able to sell it to their people, and also work with their Muslim brethren, who too can do with some internal support, to be able to negotiate with Parliament, if not President Gotabaya and his Government, to arrive at an all-acceptable new Constitution for now. This does not mean it should end here. After all, the present Constitution itself has been amended 19 times (barring the 12th Amendment that was never passed). At more appropriate times, they all could work towards improving upon whatever is now on offer, and go towards a better tomorrow, together. After all, Rome was not built in a day. What more, just as the Tamils have fears, doubts and suspicions about the Sinhalas and the Sri Lankan State, the reverse is equally true, no thanks to the LTTE, which is not there anymore.

The alternative is for the Government and the ruling SLPP, not to leave out the larger Sinhala-Buddhist polity, to continue to worry about UNHRC resolutions, investigations, actions and reactions for years and decades to come. That can make the nation excessively dependent on extra-regional nations like China, without receiving anything as substantial as a negative vote in UNHRC, to shake off the current and future processes. For the Tamils, and also the Muslims, it could well mean re-negotiating their own intra-positions in the light of the nineties’ past, and their uncertain future, jointly and severally. Who knows, the Tamils then may have to give up re-merger, in the interim, if not for good. So could some of the Tamil parties, give up their ‘maximalist positions’, which may not mean war and separatism – yet, unacceptable in a unified nation of the contemporary Sri Lankan thinking, going beyond traditional Sinhala thinking!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative,  Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


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