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Sri Lanka: Decisive moment

By Ajit Kumar Singh

Following a historic agreement on August 20, 2015, between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on August 21, 2015, took oath as the 26th Prime Minister (PM) of the island nation. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the PM for the fourth time [having served earlier tenures between May 17, 1993, and August 19, 1994; December 9, 2001, and April 2, 2004; and January 9, 2015, and August 20, 2015]. Later in the day, the MoU was signed by the two parties. UNP and SLFP are the two major political forces in Sri Lanka, with a long history of bitter rivalry, and who engaged fiercely in the latest round of Parliamentary Elections on August 17, 2015.

The MoU is valid for two years, can be extended further with the consent of the two parties, and defines the process of formation of a National Government. In a nation seeking a final resolution to decades of ethnic strife, the formation of such a Government had remained a long standing demand across the political spectrum, more prominently since the decisive defeat in May 2009, of the protracted Tamil armed insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In the latest Parliamentary Elections, voters had given a fractured mandate, with none of the parties securing a simple majority. UNP, led by Wickremesinghe, secured 106 seats [93 ‘District-basis’ seats + 13 ‘National-basis seats’], falling seven short of simple majority in a 225-memebr House; the SLFP could get only 95 seats [83 ‘District-basis’ seats + 12 ‘National-basis seats’]. The main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which contests election in the name of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), as the TNA itself is not a registered political party, won 16 seats [14 ‘District-basis seats’ + 2 ‘National-basis seats’]. The main Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) won six seats [4 ‘District-basis seats’ + 2 ‘National-basis seats’]. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) got one ‘District-basis seat’ each. [The District-basis seats are those for which direct elections are held. There are 29 ‘National-level seats’, which according to the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which introduced Article 99A, that are decided on the basis of the total number of votes polled by the respective political parties or independent groups at the national level.]

The split verdict put the political class in a quandary and forced them to seek a compromise. Significantly, SLFP has virtually split into two factions – one led by incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and another led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was during the January 2015 Presidential Elections that Sirisena revolted against his political master, then incumbent President Rajapaksa, who was also the head of SLFP. Though Sirisena was thrown out of the party, he contested a successful election against Rajapaksa as a ‘common candidate’. Subsequent to his loss, Rajapaksa resigned as the head of SLFP and was succeeded by Sirisena. The latter, however, failed to establish full authority over the party. This became apparent when Rajapaksa successfully contested the Parliamentary Elections as the ‘Prime Ministerial candidate’ of the SLFP despite Sirisena’s direct opposition. Sirisena conceded later that he had allowed Rajapaksa to contest because he feared a split within the party though, under immense subsequent pressure, he also made the rather impractical declaration that he would not appoint Rajapaksa even if SLFP was to win the elections. Reports indicate that most of SLFP’s new Members of Parliament (MPs) are Rajapaksa supporters. The success of the MoU, consequently, will depend overwhelmingly on the role Rajapaksa chooses to play over the coming months.

It remains to be seen how long Rajapaksa remains away from the political centre stage as the National Government works towards reconciliation on the ethnic issue. It was, in fact, Rajapaksa who initiated this process after he defeated the LTTE amidst overwhelming international pressure. In case Rajapaksa chooses to create political instability in an effort to secure control of the Government after a hiatus, new challenges will confront both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. Interestingly, one of the most important features of the 10-point MoU is that it disallows the crossing over of MPs from one party to another.

These elections are also an endorsement of the reality that the peace which returned to the island nation in May 2009 will endure. Indeed, Inspector General of Police N.K. Ilangakoon noted on August 18, 2015, the day after the elections, “Since 2012, there have been 11 elections including nine Provincial Council elections, one Presidential election and the one which just concluded. The General Election 2015 was the most peaceful of all. This election was a turning point. We created the message that we can hold an election without violence, and we should continue this trend in the future.” Furthering the argument, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), an independent and non-partisan organization, noted that between June 26, 2015 midnight, when the elections were notified, and August 14, 2015, when the campaigning officially ended, it registered 143 ‘Major Incidents’, 17 per cent of the total incidents reported to it. The percentage of ‘Major Incidents’ had stood at 45 per cent, 56 per cent and 54 per cent in the 2010 Presidential and General Election campaigns and the 2015 Presidential Election campaign, respectively. [The list of ‘Major incidents’ includes murder, injuries, assaults, threat and intimidation, misuse of state resources, robbery, arson, abduction, damage to property, etc].

In a crucial development, voters in Tamil dominated Northern Sri Lanka defeated all those who were the ardent supporters of the now defeated-LTTE. Significantly, the Crusaders for Democracy (CFD), a party of ex-LTTE cadres which even fielded one of the bodyguards of slain LTTE ‘chief’ Velupillai Prabhakaran, reportedly secured just 0.6 per cent of the vote and no seats. Similarly, parties aiming to resurrect the ‘ideas’ of LTTE were also shown the door. The Akila Ilankai Tamil Congress (AITC), which wanted “full self-determination” for the Tamils as the LTTE did, according to reports, garnered five per cent of the vote and no seats as well.

In a more open endorsement of the defeat of LTTE’s ‘ideas’, the TNA, which had rejected the demands of ex-LTTE cadres to contest as TNA candidates, won nine out of 13 seats in the Northern Province. The TNA stressed that it is not a secessionist party and it only demands a power-sharing arrangement in a unit of a re-merged Northern and Eastern Provinces under a federal structure, as existed earlier. TNA leader R. Sampanthan had thus stated on May 9, 2015, “We have never asked to divide the country. We have very clearly said that a political solution should be formulated through a local process. The Tamil people should be given a suitable political solution soon and they should also be given equal rights.” Echoing a similar conciliatory note on May 18, 2015, the Chief Minister of the TNA ruled Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran stressed, “The environment is now much more positive. Without delay, we must work towards the all important goal of maximum devolution for the Tamil speaking people.” The TNA, meanwhile, has decided to provide outside support to the National Government.

There is clearly an encouraging environment for the new Government to work towards a conclusive settlement. President Sirisena had stated, “Achieving national reconciliation with the minority Tamil community is a priority for the new Sri Lankan Government and winning hearts and minds is more important than reconstructing war-devastated buildings.” It is now time to demonstrate that this was not mere rhetoric. The gains of the past years are, of course, irreversible, but the potential for mischief has not been altogether neutralized. The United States Department of State in its Annual Country Report on Terrorism for 2014, for instance, notes that despite the military defeat of the LTTE, the group’s financial network of support continued to operate throughout 2014.

Worryingly, the island nation, like many other countries in South Asia, is also facing a threat from Islamist extremism, including some emerging linkages to the Islamic State (IS). According to reports, a 37-year-old Sri Lankan national, identified as Mohammed Niram aka Sharfaz Shuraih Muhsin aka Abhu Shuraih Sailani (name given after he joined the IS), who graduated in Sharia Law from Pakistan, has reportedly died fighting alongside the IS. Reports indicate that at least one other Sri Lankan, going by the IS nom de guerre Abu Dhujaana Seylani, is also thought to be with IS in Syria, and several other Sri Lankan nationals may also be fighting for IS in Iraq and Syria. The group is believed to have some sympathizers within Sri Lanka as well.

A Government committed to national unity and a resolution of the residual ethnic issues can ensure that the nightmare of terrorism through which Sri Lanka endured for over three decades can be treated as no more than a tragic chapter of history. Sri Lanka has displayed enormous sagacity in the wake of the LTTE’s defeat, and has done exemplary work in rehabilitation and the restoration of the Northern Province. If the remaining grievances over power sharing and equality of status and rights to all citizens can be resolved, the little remaining potential for destabilization could easily be defused.

Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management

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South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) is the largest website on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia, and creates the database and analytic context for research and analysis of all extremist movements in the region. SATP has been set up to counter the progressive distortions regarding, and the international community’s neglect of, the wide range of terrorist movements within South Asia, and particularly in India. SATP establishes a comprehensive, searchable and continuously updated database on all available information relating to terrorism, low intensity warfare and ethnic/communal/sectarian strife in South Asia.

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