Agreements are fine
but it takes two to tango
Whatever the protagonists on either side of the
barricades in Sri Lanka’s seemingly intractable problem might
say, the carrot and stick approach of the so-called international
community (actually a fistful of countries) brought the warring
parties to Geneva once more.
At times it was the carrot of more money in the
kitty for development and who would shy away from that, especially
when the booty is big enough to skim off the top with few questions
asked and even few answers expected.
That happens on both sides is well known to those
who follow the deeds and misdeeds of politicians and self-styled
liberators of various hues.
|The historic signing: ‘Now the SLFP
and the UNP have decided to cohabit, temporarily at least. But
such habitation should not be cosmetic, a public attempt to
fool the people’.
But do not imagine for a moment that the LTTE’s
Wanni leaders and their diaspora experts gathered in Geneva are
going to give anything away because suddenly there is some kind
of a southern consensus-at least between the two major political
parties that have ruled but rarely governed, Sri Lanka since independence.
To be charitable to the Tigers, if such an act
is possible without trampling on some moral principles, let us say
they bit the carrot held out by interested foreign parties that
have dabbled in Sri Lanka’s long standing problem, invited
or uninvited. A free trip to Geneva and back after some acrimonious
verbal and physical clashes in recent months, an opportunity to
interact with the Tamil diaspora and leading LTTE figures from different
parts of Europe who could make the journey and another chance to
bypass customs’ checks on their return, escorted possibly
by their Norwegian minders.
If one was confined to the Wanni for months with bombs raining from
above who would not long for a long trip to anywhere such as cuckoo-clock
land even if only for a few days.
But those who bite the carrot do not necessary
chew it. So the current round of Geneva talks is hardly like to
produce anything in the way of substantial movement towards a settlement.
There will be plenty of sparring and some skirmishes but, I hope,
few verbal punch ups that would turn even the staid Swiss and equally
staid Norwegians a distinctly carmine red- or should one say salmon
One reason for this is the eleventh hour Memorandum
of Understanding (MoU) between the President Mahinda Rajapaksa and
opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that has eluded others for
quite some years.
Many years ago when Junius Richard Jayewardene
was president and there was the prospect of Sirima Bandaranaike
winning the election and becoming prime minister I asked Mr Jayawardene
what would happen if she did indeed win.
“Then I would have to cohabit with Mrs Bandaranaike,”
he said with that smile he would sometimes break into when in a
particularly mischievous mood.
President Jayewardene was drawing a parallel with
the political situation in France at the time.
Now the SLFP and the UNP have decided to cohabit,
temporarily at least. But such habitation should not be cosmetic,
a public attempt to fool the people. If it is to be meaningful such
cohabitation must be productive.
With the military reversal suffered by the Tigers
in the last couple of months mitigated somewhat by two suicide attacks
that might have been averted or minimised had the security services
been more alert, the LTTE prepared to go to Geneva with their military
image partly restored with a bit of spit and polish.
But the MoU has given the south a new political
complexion. In recent years the LTTE had held out the argument,
and it did have some validity, that the constant bickering between
the southern political parties, meaning of course the majority Sinhala
parties though they do have Tamil and Muslim adherents, and the
lack of a coherent policy for solving the North-East problem, made
a negotiated settlement virtually impossible.While naturally there
were other issues that stood in the way of a lasting solution, in
the eyes of the LTTE this lack of a bipartisan policy was the real
stumbling block to negotiations. True enough the LTTE used this
argument widely to try and convince the wider world why they had
no alternative to an independent state.
Certainly there were those who were convinced
by this and the more quarrelsome and irritatingly trenchant the
southern parties jockeying for political power became, the more
the world came to accept that the LTTE had an argument, though most
hated the violence and terror the Tigers unleashed on others including
their own people.
The MoU therefore has come at a critical time
because, for the moment at least, it undermines the LTTE argument
about the lack of a southern consensus without which there cannot
be fruitful talks.
Now that sense has prevailed and produced consensus
and undermined to some extent the traditional LTTE argument of southern
division, the Tigers would want to watch how this unfolds in the
coming months and perhaps over the two year period during which
this détente is valid.
So it is for the SLFP and UNP to make it work.
It is easy to reach agreements when political and economic pressures,
both internal and external, make them timely and immediately necessary.
But the legitimacy and the ultimate validity of
such agreements would not be judged by the signatures on them but
by the genuineness of those who affixed their signatures and the
political forces they represent, in implementing the terms and conditions
The MoU states that the two sides “after
careful and sustained deliberation have agreed to collaborate in
addressing the national issues in regards to peace, good governance
While peace, of course, is central to the agreement
and what the vast majority of Sri Lankans wherever they live would
dearly wish, it would be difficult to achieve without good governance.
By peace I do not mean merely the current imbroglio
but peace everywhere in the country which would allow sustained
This larger peace cannot be achieved without good
governance which requires genuine empowerment of the people, the
respect for the rule of law and democratic institutions, the elimination
of corruption, transparency and accountability.
Sadly successive governments have been lax in
observing one or more of these vital ingredients of good governance
although our leaders have faithfully put their signatures to the
declarations of Commonwealth heads of state and government that
have advocated this repeatedly as an article of faith.
Corruption, for instance, has spread like a cancer
in the body politic and now it is so rampant that it has become
a distinct odour in the civic nostril.
If the two main parties wish to restore faith
in the political system then they must act in unison to fulfil the
undertaking they have given in the agreement they signed.
Both parties need to remember that they represent
majority thinking in most of the country. If they now fail the people,
the people will fail them the next time round when they seek public
support at the ballot box.
The same goes for the rule of law. All the recent
criticism by foreign governments and civil society have centred
mainly round the issue of the breakdown of the rule of law, the
impunity with which people are killed or disappear or made to disappear
and lack of will to punish the guilty.
The two leaders in particular, if they really
believe in what they have agreed to and this is not a mere charade
to while away the next two years as their cronies and those near
and dear make merry at the expense of the people, have to act to
fulfil their promises.
Sri Lanka already enjoys the dubious distinction
of having perhaps the largest number of ministers, deputy ministers
and other sundry office bearers in any government.
If this political co-operation is to lead to a
further increase in such positions which bring unjustifiable power,
privileges and perks it would only lead to a further erosion of
public confidence in our ability to govern ourselves without stealing
from the public purse.
There are already many skeletons rattling in the
cupboards. If the two leaders now do not act decisively to control
their own ranks and put an end to what the whole world can see,
they will reap more than public derision.
They will jointly hand over to the Tigers the ultimate propaganda