by Sumanasiri Liyanage
The United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance, in my view, reached its climax at the Parliamentary election held in April 2010. Since then although the UPFA government has been able to secure the support of more MPs to obtain two-third majority necessary for constitutional changes, it seems its support base is decreasing gradually. The cancellation of the scheduled address by President Rajapaksa at the Oxford University may be treated as the first major setback for President Rajapaksa and the UPFA government.
It is likely that the UPFA will lose the control of a substantial number of local government councils at the forthcoming local government elections owing to the fact that the living standards of people have not proportionately increased although the economy has recorded a high rate of growth. As I still believe that I place myself within the UPFA mass base, this is an internal critique of the UPFA government, its policies and its administration.
The cancellation of the President’s talk at the Oxford Student Union raises many questions. It was clear that the Sri Lankan High Commission office in London had failed miserably to make a correct situation assessment prior to the visit of the head of state. President office should have done its own independent situation analysis before the acceptance of the invitation by the Oxford Student Union, the prestige and reputation of the inviting organisation notwithstanding. Since this was not an official invitation by the Government of the United Kingdom, there is no ground to place the blame on the UK Government over the cancellation of the talk.
There are 300,000 Tamil Diaspora in the UK. And it is not difficult for the Tamil Diaspora living in Western European countries to cross the narrow English strait to come to London to participate in a protest. Trans-border movement of Diaspora has happened in the case of previous protests as well. President’s tour was arranged just after one of the most important days in the LTTE calendar, Hero’s’ Day, that was celebrated in London at a well attended meeting. Had the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK monitored these developments that would have served as an advance warning to the President’s Office of the possible developments. Knowing very well that the Tamil Diaspora can mobilise large numbers of people for a protest in the event of President Rajapaksa’s address, Oxford Student Union would have seen the possible security implications before it extended invitation to a head of state.
However, it appears that the President’s Office has blindly accepted the invitation without doing necessary homework taking into consideration all aspects of the issue. Hence I think Minister Weerawansa should have organised a protest not in front of the UK High Commission, Colombo but in front of the President’s Office and the office of the External Affairs Ministry for their lapses as regards the visit of the head of state without making a careful situation analysis. In my view, the President’s Office, External Affairs Ministry and the Sri Lankan High Commission Office in London should take the full responsibility for this embarrassing situation and humiliation which the President of Sri Lanka faced owing to the cancellation of the scheduled talk at the Oxford Student Union.
War has ended in May 2009. However, the UPFA government has so far not taken any significant action to address political grievances of the Tamils. I am not referring to economic development projects in the North and East. One important thing that the government should seriously think about is that Tamil armed struggle began because Tamil youth felt that they did not have opportunity to participate in decision-making process that affect them directly. So the post colonial state has been under constant contestation since 1948. It is simplistic to depict this contest as an attempt to form a separate state although in the hands of LTTE it developed subsequently into a separatist armed struggle.
When I visited London couple of months ago, many Tamils raised time and again the marginalization and neglect of the political issue in the UPFA agenda. A substantial section of Tamil Diaspora in fact has expressed their willingness to participate in the North-East reconstruction process if the government demonstrates its willingness to devolve power to people so that they could take decisions that would impact on their lives. Instead of addressing these issues, some Sinhala academics and think tanks have even suggested that the limited constitutional provision enacted by the 13 th Amendment to the Constitution be repealed.
One may argue that Tamil Diaspora is capable of organising this kind of resistance abroad but this would not have had an impact on Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. In my opinion, this perception is wrong. Hence, the government, in the post war situation should engage Tamil Diaspora to find a political solution to the problem. Armed conflict can be ended in multiple ways. In Sri Lanka, it happened through a military victory of the government security forces.
However, this fact does not negate the necessity of addressing the root causes of the conflict. Can the government win local government elections in the North and East on the basis of its work on resettlement and reconstruction alone? I would answer this question in the negative. There is no doubt that the post war situation has created a new space with lots of opportunities. However, we should not forget that the new situation has also generated new and serious challenges. Is the UPFA government capable of facing these challenges? The cancellation of the Oxford Student Union talk signifies the UPFA government’s political impotency and administrative incapacity with regard to the Tamil national question.
The best opportunity to resolve the Tamil national question is available for the UPFA government and it should not be allowed to pass by adopting confrontational attitudes towards Tamils in Sri Lanka and Tamil Diaspora. As the President very correctly has argued in his UN speech, the negotiation is the best way to resolve social conflicts, the need for using other methods in exceptional situations notwithstanding.
(The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya)