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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2345

The Geneva outcome and the SLFP-UNP détente

By Dayan Jayatilleka

So that’s that then. The peace talks I mean. While it would have been infinitely better for talks to have opened the way for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, that hope itself was utopian, given the character of the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran, described by pioneering Che Guevara specialist Oxford’s Prof Andrew Sinclair in his Anatomy of terror: A history of terrorism, as "more extreme than Bin Laden."

As for performance at the talks themselves, the game was drawn, though one can only speculate as to how much better we’d have done - if only in being able to utterly eclipse the Tigers and tilt the international coverage - had the team been reinforced by Jayantha Dhanapala, Sarath Amunugama or Milinda Moragoda.

In practical terms therefore the choice was between the talks ending in deadlock or the Sri Lankan government being coerced or cunningly cajoled into unilateral retrenchment. It is infinitely better that the latter didn’t take place, that Colombo did not blink, despite the weakening of our position due to the recent reversals – entirely predictable and avoidable –suffered by our military.

Therefore the breakdown of the talks is not entirely a bad thing. It clarifies matters and focuses the collective mind on what is fundamental, on what is real: war, politics, diplomacy, and economics. We can now get on with the practicalities of facing (which includes intelligently anticipating) and resisting the LTTE.

SLFP-UNP MoU

Détente means ‘the relaxation of tensions’, which is what the MoU between the two major parties has achieved; nothing less, nothing more.

One does not have to trust Ranil Wickremesinghe (which I do not) or be satisfied with the contents of the bipartisan MoU (which I am not), to welcome the agreement between the ruling party and the main opposition (which I do).

The opening address of the chief Sri Lankan delegate to the Geneva talks, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva shows that in a situation in which the Sri Lankan side had been weakened by its defeats in Muhamalai and Habarana, the only thing we really had to show for ourselves was the tentative bridge-building between the governing and main democratic opposition parties, the SLFP and UNP.

In a struggle against fascism, a broad front is an imperative, and the broader the front or bloc the better, even if it is with those who had helped in fascism’s rise! Any bloc between either of the main democratic parties and the smaller ones ( be it JVP or ethnic minority) would by definition be narrower than one which brought together the SLFP and UNP, which together represent the overwhelming bulk of the country’s people.

It is true that the agreement between the two parties is not a robust rebuttal of terrorism, but it does draw the UNP into an accord which is critical of terrorism. That is a first, in almost a decade! The MoU is certainly a dilution of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’, but MC is accepted only by those who voted for it, and no broader bloc could limit itself to that election platform. The broader the bloc, the more diluted the programme. That is inevitable.

Bitter but Better

Such a bloc is possible only on the basis of a common denominator. That denominator could have been higher if the UNP had another leader or had the dissidents been capable of ousting the present one (as distinct from defecting by degrees), which is another way of saying the same thing. But that did not happen. Therefore the choice was of a narrower front with a dissident section of the UNP or a broader one ‘from above’, i.e. with the existing leadership. The better – if bitter - option was a broader front, especially with the reversals incurred by the military. A bloc with the UNP as it exists has the drawback of being with the Tiger’s tacit ally or ‘asset’ Ranil Wickremesinghe, but has the compensatory virtue of drawing together, or at least lowering the hostility between, the two major southern – Sinhala - parties. This neutralises, or slightly narrows for a span of time, the division among the Sinhalese. That is surely worth some sacrifice of political correctness!

The JVP finds itself left out and to a lesser extent so too does the JHU. This is a pity. President Rajapakse did attempt to bring the JVP into the fold. As the Nandana Goonetillaka affaire shows, the JVP adopted far too extreme a stand to make this possible. Had the president accepted the JVP’s proposals the country would have been isolated. Without external resources, we cannot fight a war.

A bloc between the SLFP and JVP would be far narrower than that between the SLFP and UNP. It is also of lesser strategic importance, given the social sectors that the UNP represents. Be it the villages or the armed forces, it is the UNP and SLFP, in whichever order, that commands the overwhelmingly larger number. Therefore a bloc between these two unites more people or lessens enmity between a greater number, than would one between the SLFP and JVP.

The rapprochement between the SLFP and UNP helps the economy, buoys investor confidence and sustains international support, all of which are more important after the failure of the Geneva talks than before. Given the Tigers, Geneva could have been a “success” only if we surrendered, and fortunately we didn’t. If the SLFP-UNP compromise did not exist, the state and the country would have had no fall-back, especially in its international relations and standing. We may have been written off.

What does the JVP have to offer that can offset the gains, however short-term, of even a temporary, unsteady rapprochement with the UNP? Joint military exercises with its favourite state, North Korea?

Today we still have some hope that we can offer the outside world: the Southern détente, the All Parties Representative Committee and the promise of maximum devolution. Though it was entirely insincere on his part, even Tamilchelvan had to welcome the southern consensus and promise to resume talks if and when it produced a solution. That indicates the value and power of this political asset.

Though positive on balance, the bipartisan MoU has its dangers. To my mind Ranil Wickremesinghe entered the bloc for at least three reasons: to forestall the crossover of an important segment of the party; to turn the JVP on the SLFP; and (less obviously) to penetrate the Rajapakse administration and the state apparatus and pull the plug on it at a time most propitious to Prabhakaran. Still, the agreement was a risk worth taking, for the reasons that have been set out here.

President Rajapakse now has to watch his back and not permit either the Ranil faction or the JVP- JHU to subvert the state apparatus and the military machine. He must solidify the bloc with the UNP so as to forge closer ties with the UNP dissidents and win over the UNP’s rank and file supporters even if Ranil Wickremesinghe pulls his party out of the accord and back-stabs the administration. Winning over a section of the UNP’s social support would expand the SLFP’s base as a moderate centrist party, enabling it to win an election even without the JVP’s support. Above all the president must build upon the MoU, strengthening the bipartisan consensus, imparting momentum to the APC/APRC process, implementing a solution to the Tamil question with or without the LTTE- and it will almost inevitably have to be without (and against) the LTTE!

Meanwhile we must await Mr Prabhakaran’s celebration of his birthday with a gigantic fireworks display, and hope that our armed forces can spoil his party by raining (incendiaries) on his parade.

- Asian Tribune -

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