ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13
Columns - Telescope  

APRC demonstrates the south's inability to meet Tamil aspirations

By J.S. Tissainayagam

Tissa Vitharana

Developments in the APRC during the past fortnight show it up for what it is - a clever device used by the government to cover its goal of militarily crushing the LTTE and terrorising the Tamil people of the North and East. The stripping of the APRC's pretences was precipitated by the UNP placing an August 15 deadline for the APRC's draft report. On the appointed day, the SLFP and the MEP called for the adjournment of the APRC until President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with government representatives participating in the exercise.

The SLFP-MEP demand for adjournment was followed by the withdrawal of the UNP from the APRC on the plea it was a useless exercise if parties in the government could not reach a consensus on what could be offered the Tamils.

However APRC chairman and Minister Tissa Vitharana told the media that despite the APRC's abrupt suspension, the draft report would be presented. Snippets leaked to the media described the draft as going further in power sharing and devolution than the ruling SLFP's proposals, which had recommended that the district be the unit of devolution, while the unitary character of the state remained unchanged.

Differences between the SLFP-MEP and the APRC's chairman triggered sections of the media opposed to the government and interested in undermining its unity to spring into the fray implying there was a split in the government ranks with the hardliners - especially the MEP and extreme Sinhala nationalists within the SLFP - attempting to scuttle the APRC, whereas the more moderate elements such as the traditional left, were willing for greater accommodation.

If this indeed is true we are seeing 'moderates' like Minister Vitharana being tolerated within the government's fold despite his ideas on vital issues related to resolving the ethnic problem being fundamentally different from that of the president. But is this possible? Would the present regime, notorious for controlling everything from Temple Trees, actually permit senior ministers in the government to speak against the president's wishes?

The answer is: no. The government speaking in two voices is not a demonstration of new-found democracy in party or coalitional politics, but the government continuing to use the APRC as part of its counterinsurgency strategy to militarily destroy the LTTE. With the formation of the National Council comprising the UNP and dissidents of the SLFP, and the JVP openly opposing the government, President Rajapaksa realised his options were limited. And his first response was to firm up ties with the ultra-right JHU. Cementing of the bond was not without conditions, however. The JHU, opposed to devolution of power, demanded the government dissociate itself with the APRC. This was the reason for the SLFP and the MEP to move for the APRC's adjournment.

There was a snag, however. The international community and India, which had placed great stock on the government putting forward a credible set of proposals on political devolution, would not obviously be amused by the suspension of the APRC. They had to be appeased. And there was no better way to play the politics of appeasement than for the government to allow the chairman of the APRC himself to appear to take a position critical of the ruling party.

This strategy is not new. The APRC was crafted by the government to be the kid glove over the mailed fist of militarily clearing the East of the Tigers. When the international community raised issues about human rights violations, military attacks on civilian targets, or IDPs, they were told the grand plan was for a political solution to the ethnic problem based on proposals emerging from the APRC to restructure the Sri Lankan state. And the international community was quite content to shut up.

The APRC was also exploited to undermine the Tigers politically. The government propaganda machine claimed to pursue a duel strategy of 'liberating' the East from the Tigers and drawing up plans for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem through the APRC, while the LTTE's sole objective was prosecuting an armed struggle towards a separate state.

The government using the APRC to disguise its military mindset shows clearly that it does not believe in working towards peace through constitutional change. If the APRC was used to obscure plans to achieve a decisive military victory in the North and East, it becomes part of a military strategy and not an instrument to push forward a negotiated political solution.

In a larger context, the APRC fiasco also demonstrates the inadequacy of labelling solutions as 'political' and 'military' and placing them in watertight compartments. The political and military are both intertwined and cannot be separated. They are, however, cunningly used as instruments of propaganda to over-simplify the complex processes that are at work. We see similar objectives in trying to break up Tamil resistance to the Sri Lankan state by categorising it as extremists/moderate. US President George W. Bush did it on an international scale by placing countries of the world in the camps of good/evil!

Even though Colombo and the international community have labelled the LTTE and that section of the Tamil community that supports it, as 'extremist,' that stop at nothing less than carving out a separate state, successive governments have shown that consensus-building exercises for power-sharing initiated by them (such as the APRC) are strictly subordinate to their military strategy.

Therefore to say that only the LTTE, egged on by extremist Tamils is working towards militarily establishing a separate state, while the 'moderates' are willing to resolve the conflict within the Sri Lankan state system and are cooperating with the Sinhala leadership is a fallacy. Opposition by strident Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to power sharing through federal structures, which the APRC was addressing, demonstrates only too well that even minimal devolution necessitates armed struggle.

The near-defunct APRC exercise is a reflection of the incapability of southern nationalist politics to share power with other communities. Realising this mindset, the Tamils demand a political structure that guarantees their rights and insulates them from extremist political formations in the South. The problem is to discover political structures that guarantee this within the Sri Lankan state system.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.