Historic opportunity for a settlement

This week saw a meeting of what was called the Committee on Development & Reconciliation (CDR), summoned by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to discuss issues in post-war Sri Lanka.
Although the meeting was convened somewhat hastily, we are encouraged by the response: some 18 political parties participated and these included the diverse likes of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the United National Party (UNP).

One might even go so far as to say that getting these parties to sit at one table is in itself an achievement- hitherto, they have all been recalcitrant participants in this type of exercise. The UNP and the JVP had withdrawn from the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), and the TNA had previously refused an invitation for talks with the President.

During the meeting, the President is reported to have expressed his appreciation of this show of cooperation from his political rivals, and urged them to respond to his invitation to rebuild the country, in the newly emerging post-war scenario.
What is of concern now is what political form this post-war scenario would evolve into. So far, discussions have centred around the controversial 13th Amendment to the Constitution, so much so that, it has become the new ‘F’ word in the Lankan political lexicon, replacing the once despised ‘Federal’ concept.

The government, through its various spokesmen, has dropped broad hints, that it was ready, able and willing to, not only consider the 13th Amendment as a means of Devolving Power to all communities, but also amenable to the prospect of going beyond.
The 13th Amendment, as we know, was foisted upon Sri Lanka at the height of Indo-Sri Lanka acrimony, in the latter years of J.R. Jayewardene’s rule, in the form of the infamous Indo-Lanka Accord. It provided for the creation of Provincial Councils, and also contained provisions to merge Provinces, subject to a Referendum on that issue.

In that context, it was significant, that a very high level delegation from Colombo’s corridors of power, comprising of a couple of Rajapaksa siblings visited New Delhi last week. Obviously, India would have been briefed about what Sri Lanka’s plans for Devolution of Power are.

But perhaps, even more significant was this week’s announcement from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, that a separate State for the Tamil community, the so-called ‘Eelam’ touted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was no longer within the realms of possibility.

If the pro-LTTE sympathisers ever needed a final nail in their coffin, to seal their aspirations, this must surely be it. Karunanidhi, at 85-years of age, leader to some 66 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu and five times chief minister of that State, should know when to call it quits, and this is what he has done.

All this points to the overwhelming fact that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is at a critical juncture in our post-Independent history. We have had several opportunities - most notably in 1948, 1956 and then, in 1977 - to resolve our political questions, and squandered all of them, due to petty politicking, usually between the two major political parties.
This year, 2009, presents yet another similar epoch, and we sincerely hope the President will utilise the immense monarch-like popularity that he has generated in the aftermath of the war, to good effect- to end, not only the military war, but also to terminate the political war as well.

Already, we hear the distant rumblings of dissent. The JVP is all gung-ho about defying the 13th Amendment unto death, and similar sabre rattling emanates from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Some whimpers of protest have been noted from the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) as well.

And that brings us to a valid question - just how much of support do these two parties command in the Southern electorate? Our estimate is that, at present, pitted against the political might of the President, they would together poll less than 10% of the popular vote, and therein lies the rub.

Thankfully, the major opposition party, the UNP has publicly stated that, it would support the 13th Amendment, and this should provide solace to the ruling party and the President, that it could push through meaningful political reforms that would eradicate the angst that all communities have about Devolving Power.

Ironically, most of the brains instrumental in forging a Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE - the likes of Ministers G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda - are now with the President, so, he should have no paucity of talent to fashion a political settlement worthy of the historic victory over terrorism the armed forces achieved in May.

A referendum is being talked about, and so it should be. The only Referendum this country had was to extend the life of Parliament, and one could argue that, that was not what referenda are meant for, since obtaining a national consensus on issues such as the Devolution of Power would be a far more worthy cause to hold a referendum.

A referendum at this stage, with the active support of the President, and offering reasonable Devolution of Power to all communities alike would be the best tool to rid this country of the cancer of communal disharmony.

Such opportunities do not come the way of every national leader - which is why President Rajapaksa should seize it with unbridled enthusiasm. It is a chance in a generation - and therefore, too precious an opportunity to miss out on.
To paraphrase Dickens, for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, these may be hard times, but great expectations abound.