NEW DELHI — Peace seems to be eluding Sri Lanka. The latest parliamentary elections there has caused disquiet and confusion after the electorate failed to give a clear mandate to either Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA) or Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP).
Although the PA won 107 seats — two more than what it did in 1994 — the figure was still short of six seats for a simple majority in the 225-member Parliament. However, after marathon discussions, Kumaratunga was able to rope in the support of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party and the National Unity Alliance to form a government.
A tenuous coalition of this kind is unlikely to help sort out the bloody mess in Sri Lanka, where an ethnic clash between the minority Tamil population and the majority Sinhalese has been on for well over two decades now. The Tamils, whose most militant representative has been the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been demanding a separate homeland in the northeastern parts of the island.
Ever since Kumaratunga came to power in 1994, she has been making an unsuccessful attempt at resolving the crisis that also included certain political concessions to the LTTE.
An offer of an interim council with the active involvement of the LTTE did not satisfy the rabid organization, which kept the armed conflict with the Sri Lankan Army alive in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north.
Last August, Kumaratunga had to withdraw a peace plan that she introduced in Parliament, because she did not have the support of a two-thirds majority needed for any constitutional amendment. The plan would have given the 2.5 million Tamils a decisive say in a quasi- autonomous interim administration in the northeastern provinces. A federation of sorts would then have emerged.
Promise of referendum
Kumaratunga also promised to hold a referendum at the end of a 10-year period to find out if the people in the Tamil-dominated northern areas and the multiethnic eastern regions wished to remain as a single geographical entity.
She won the support of some moderate Tamil Parties, but ran into rough weather with the LTTE and the Buddhist clergy, which is the self-proclaimed spokesman for the Sinhalese.
Kumaratunga will probably find it all the more difficult to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table now, given her slender strength in Parliament. It is quite possible that she would not be able to present the peace plan in its original form.
To begin with, she does not have the necessary majority in the house to push it through. Even within her own party, the PA, she would need to negotiate her plan. Wickremesinghe, who has always said that the Buddhist clergy will have to be consulted before any peace overtures are made to the LTTE (read Tamils), feels that if Kumaratunga tries to push her plan through, the PA will split.
Jehan Perera, media director of the National Peace Council, told reporters in Colombo recently that “those who run the government should realize that they cannot go in for unilateral action, and must understand that they do not have the mandate to bulldoze through.”
Worse for Kumaratunga, the latest polling was marred by terrible violence, and since the proclamation of her victory, there have been allegations that her party had rigged the elections. Obviously, every action of hers would now be tightly scrutinized, and there is every chance that even her most noble intentions will be looked upon with deep suspicion.
It follows, then, that Kumaratunga must carry the nation with her — every shade of opinion, in fact — if she is to achieve even a remote sense of well-being and peace in the strife-torn country.
Sri Lanka’s business community has urged her to form a national government in the interests of stability, economic as well. With rising prices and a warning from economists that a recovery on this front can be tough, a feasible solution lies in at least the main parties — PA and UNP — coming together to draw a blueprint that can hope to take the sting from the brutalities perpetrated by the LTTE, believed to be currently on a massive recruitment drive which does not spare even very young children.
The question now uppermost in the mind of every Sri Lanka watcher is, will Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe say goodbye to their political differences and come together to steer their island out of harm’s way.
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