ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 22
Columns - Thoughts form London

Agreements are fine but it takes two to tango

By Neville de Silva

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 pink.

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 agreed on.

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 and development.”

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 development.

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 weapon.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.