It’s anybody’s guess why London was chosen as the venue for the latest round of ‘secret parleys’ on the ethnic front, but like any other things in London, New York or most big cities of the world, when it rains, it pours. It’s not that discussions and negotiations of the kind should not be held in utter secrecy, for them to succeed, but it’s also necessary that those secrets are kept secret until secrecy had served its purpose.
It’s also anybody’s guess why the Government had to be represented in the London parleys, or why it had to be represented at the level of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera? Does it mean that the Government leadership was hopeful of an early settlement to the ethnic issue, or had hoped to fast-track the same through high-level representation and involvement from early on or it was an effort at reconciling facts and fiction as they had learnt second-hand when in the Opposition.
Either way, it does not explain why Minister Samaraweera was present at a discussion where overseas governmental representation of the Swiss, Norwegians and South Africans had a role to play – substantial as would be assumed, or secondary or even tertiary as the Minister would want the rest of Sri Lanka to believe. If it was for encouraging Tamil Diaspora engagement and investment in the war-torn Northern Province, then there was no need for ‘foreigners’ in the pack. If it was about educating the Diaspora about the war-time peace parleys, which should explain the presence of Norwegian peace envoy Eric Solheim, as Minister Samaraweera indicated later, it does not justify his own presence, per se.
All that the London parleys may have brought out are these the internal contradictions within the Tamils, particularly the Diaspora, the inherent weaknesses in the Government position viz the issues on hand and the persona that it has handled or has left out. It’s the Diaspora differences that have exposed the ‘secrecy’ attending on the parleys, and the Government should re-think its strategy on that count alone.
Not the first one…
By blowing the lid off the ‘secrecy’ attending on the parleys, Diaspora factions, and their social media networks, have also acknowledged/exposed that London was not exactly the first time such parleys had taken place. Truth be acknowledged, it was not even at Berlin in 2012, and later twice in Singapore in more recent times that the discussions had taken place. The Swiss-aided project should date back to the war-time parleys among Tamil groups, held at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo (March 2009), though at the time, they hosts claimed that they had provided only the venue, pens and paper.
Now that it’s acknowledged that Minister Samaraweera had participated also in a Singapore meeting of the kind earlier, the Government should have convinced itself that some progress had been made for him to be present at the London parleys. His statements, both within and outside Parliament, referred to the London talks but seemed to have made no reference to earlier engagement(s). Whether the Government would have come out with the information had it not been for the Tamil Diaspora factions’ eagerness to expose the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the internal politics within the political amalgamation begs an answer – but that should not come in the way of any parleys that could help end the ethnic dead-lock, still.
It’s unfortunate thus that the Government’s current efforts are getting belittled alongside the Sinhala-Buddhist politics during the long and extended run-up to the parliamentary polls. The Government cannot blame others, including the Rajapaksa faction of the ruling partner in President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA combine. Knowing Sri Lankan politics as they had known, the leadership should have been prepared for it all, and also prepared all concerned over it all. That should include the political Opposition, without whose acceptance, if not outright support, no solution of any kind could be implemented effectively.
With the result, the Government’s participation in the London parleys boil down to addressing the concerns genuine and not-so-genuine – concerns of the international community, ahead of the UNHRC session, where the ‘impending probe report’ is already making waves at least outside the chamber and campus. Already, Tamil Diaspora factions have begun mentioning referring the matter to the International Criminal Court. Some of them have also condemned South Africa which is supposed to be providing a model for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process for ‘not handing over Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the ICC’ to face war-crime charges.
It has thus become necessary for the UNHRC and other international players on the one hand, and the incumbent Sri Lankan Government on the other to decide as to what they intend doing with the probe report even before it is tabled in the September session. The leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, like that of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in its time, should have known as to how hard-line Tamil groups, under the garb of the LTTE, had led them by their nose to where exactly they had wanted the Government to be and repeatedly so. Theirs cannot be accidental or runaway decisions any more, but has to be a conscious one, whatever that be.
TNA unity in trouble, but…
The London parleys, or the secrecy attending on them until exposed by Diaspora factions, have shown up the TNA unity for whatever it’s worth. Once again, and ahead of the parliamentary polls, where party nominations are traded more according to the loudness of one’s voice and/or noise, there are claims that the party had not been taken into confidence. According to reports, it’s not only those like self-styled ‘TNA spokesperson’ Suresh Premachandran, who did not know, but even the duly-elected Chief Minister of Northern Province, Justice C V Wigneswaran, seemed to have been kept in the dark.
Even without all these, Wigneswaran too has been in the news, and for wrong reasons. At a recent, regular meeting of chief ministers with President Sirisena, he is reported to have brought up ‘private deals’ with party MPs on development projects and budgets for the North. Whether it made any connection or not, around the time of the London parleys, he was quoted as saying that the armed forces was ‘drugging’ the Tamil youth in his Province – a charge stoutly denied since.
Earlier, Wigneswaran has had a controversial resolution passed by the NPC not long after the new government had come to power at the Centre, and has also kept one row after another raging, since…Whether any of them has had anything to do with the visible strains within the TNA on the one hand, and the dominant ITAK, to which the Chief Minister too belonged, is anybody’s guess.
The best that the Government can hope to succeed on the reconciliation front, if it’s serious about it, is to keep the negotiations going with the TNA, change-the-face of the Northern Province and its people, and for the latter to send out a message and a strong one at that to the Diaspora. Whether legit or not, Minister Samaraweera was present at the London parleys where GTF’s Suren Surendran was present (along with TNA parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran).
The GTF itself is a divided house after Suren & Co started talking soft, but there is the TNGTE, formed ahead of the GTF in the post-war era. There are other factions too that do not subscribe even to a ‘united Sri Lanka’ as may be different from a ‘unitary Sri Lanka’ as it stands now. TNGTE’s prime minister Rudrakumaran stays in the US, and its self-styled ‘government in virtual world’ as different from a ‘government-in-exile’ held its ‘parliament session’ in Germany recently. Who then is the Sri Lankan Government talking to in London, when all of it, including the purported aim of inviting Diaspora investments, would have been better served by direct and near-exclusive talks with the TNA back home, and nearer home.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)