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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Tsunami & Aftermath > Chandrika’s Joint Mechanism & Tamil Aspirations
Chandrika’s Joint Mechanism & Tamil Aspirations
J. S. Tissainayagam, Northeastern Monthly
After months of dialogue, mutual recrimination and compromises, the joint mechanism for the distribution of tsunami recovery assistance awaits to be signed at the time this article is being written. But even if the government was to initial it now, which would be due only to pressure from the donor community and other international actors, the disappointment among the Tamils due to the indifference and niggardliness of the south will take a long time to assuage.
Though the exact details of the document are yet to emerge, the basic contours of the instrument were laid bare at the meeting called by the head of the government’s peace secretariat, Jayantha Dhanapala.
He said that the joint mechanism would be accountable to parliament and a line minister would be in charge.
The disbursement of funds, which is the sticking point, would be controlled by the treasury, though a face-saving ‘bank’ to be overseen by the World Bank, would be set up due to the LTTE’s insistence that an entity other than the government should be put in charge of the funds.
What this means is very clear. The government is unwilling to set up the joint mechanism outside the constitution. Let us not forget that this is not only due to the JVP’s pressure. It is what President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her advisors believe could be given to the Tamil people, although when it was beneficial to the south – as in the case of the CFA – the southern establishment did not hesitate to set up an institution outside the country’s supreme law.
The Tamils’ conception of the joint mechanism however rests on different fundamentals. The Tigers control large swathes of the northeast, which is also where the tsunami unleashed its worst. The area it controls forms a semi-state, which runs its own affairs with very little reference to the south. In other words, the joint mechanism had to become a reality in conditions where two systems were in operation in the same country. Further, even territories outside the strictly LTTE-controlled areas feel the Tiger presence palpably because the rebels do political work and have offices there. Besides, the entire northeast has been linked as one politico-administrative entity after the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and is known as the Northeastern Province, with a single provincial council. Political expression was given to the LTTE’s popularity in the northeast at the last election, with 22 of the 31 MPs being members of the TNA.
The Tamils also believe the peace process was structured in such a way that it would lead to progressive engagement where the two protagonists to the conflict would, by working together, create a culture of joint commitment to the common ideal of reaching a political solution to the ethnic conflict. But the three-year history of the peace process has been its reverse. It has seen the LTTE withdraw from direct negotiations (though not from the CFA) because of the unwillingness of the UNF to establish an interim self-governing authority for the northeast (ISGA). Today, months of dialogue has produced this rump of a joint mechanism that is a far cry from what the Tamils hoped would be achieved from setting up and running it.
As it is conceived today, to believe working the joint mechanism would help mutual trust and commitment is nonsense. From what Dhanapala said, the set-up has been designed in such a way so that safeguarding the interests of the ‘minorities’ of the northeast are made paramount. It is interesting to note that these ‘minority safeguards’ are in direct contradiction to the way other deliberative bodies function in this country, which is that of crude majoritarianism, with hardly any meaningful safeguards for the minorities.
The UNF government inability to reach an agreement on rehabilitation in the northeast was due to constraints in disbursing money. This is because the Sri Lankan constitution forbids institutions outside the purview of parliament to disburse funds. And we all know parliament works on the basis of crude majorities. Such financial controls did not allow bodies like the Northeast Reconstruction Fund (NERF) or the Secretariat for Immediate Humanitarian Needs (SIHRN) envisaged under the CFA, which would have disbursed funds directly for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the war-affected areas, to become a reality.
When the joint mechanism was proposed, Tamil commentators made pointed references that it would overcome the shortcomings NERF and SIHRN faced, assuming it would be established outside the constitution as the CFA was. But it was not to be. To Tamils and the LTTE, developing mutual trust with Colombo through the peace process is when they could have independent access to funds to implement their own rehabilitation plans, yet act responsibly while doing so.
This was what they hoped would be done through NERF and SIHRN, which did not materialise. The LTTE then drew up elaborate plans for the ISGA, which was a non-starter. With the tsunami affecting thousands of people in the northeast the Tigers hoped for independent access to funds pledged by the donors and administered by the World Bank to draw up and implement a blueprint for recovery and rehabilitation of the survivors. These ideals look ridiculous when the joint mechanism has to be accountable to parliament through a government line ministry!
The Tigers not traditionally recognising the Sri Lankan parliament makes this worse. They are forced to do that now because of the suffering of the people in areas they control. One cardinal principle in conflict resolution is never to force an opponent: here the government, while the international community watches on helplessly, is imposing the control of its parliament on the Tigers.
The LTTE however recognises now the futility of pursuing such negotiations with a government and president obviously reluctant to part with the controls a unitary constitution and presidential powers afford them. The Tigers realise that in the final analysis, haggling over the joint mechanism, has reduced them from discussing the elements that should go into a long-term settlement, to arguing about issues pertaining to the survival of a hapless group of tsunami-affected people. That is why the political wing leader of the LTTE S. P. Thamilselvan said recently that more important than the joint mechanism was the comprehensive implementation of the CFA.
Judging from the self-aggrandising rhetoric the president used when addressing the Sri Lanka Development Forum, she obviously did not regard the political implications of giving the Tamils a rump joint mechanism as serious. But if you pause to think about it, if she is going to make such a song and dance of being killed if she meets the demand for the joint mechanism, how is she going to summon the courage and the nerve to implement the ISGA or any other substantive proposal for a settlement the LTTE might submit?
So let us confess a basic fact: the president and government have duped the Tamils on the essentials of the joint mechanism. It is not the question of the disbursement of the tsunami recovery funds of which a large part will very probably come without hindrance as they are channelled through NGOs, and the much of the balance as well, because they are project-related. The joint mechanism (as did the ISGA) had implications for the long-term political settlement of the conflict, which were almost as important as disbursing funds. These lie un-addressed.
What also lies in the balance is how the Tamils are going to respond to the government if it agrees to sign the joint mechanism. In the event this happens there is every possibility the JVP could begin a campaign against it within parliament, and even be generally disruptive outside. The JHU could follow suit. In that event what will the TNA do? Does it support the government on the basis that the president and the PA have taken a meaningful step in the teeth of JVP opposition to sign and implement the joint mechanism? Or does the TNA undertake a campaign to expose the government’s charade and address the more fundamental issues affecting the Tamils, which successive governments have succeeded in sidestepping ever since the CFA was initialled?
While parliamentary protests have a number of strategic considerations that the TNA might have to take cognisance of, the agitation in Trincomalee have brought a seriousness of purpose in the way the Tamils engage with Sinhala opposition bent on causing mischief. The process that sparked the agitation has to be understood. Trishaw drivers near the Trincomalee market, who are supposed to be strong supporters of the JVP, were led by a member of their association to erect a statue of the Buddha near the clock tower. The person responsible for making the statue is from Nittambuwa, in the Gampaha District.
The main reason for Trincomalee town to remain volatile is that large section of its Sinhala population is not resident there, or even if they are, do not have deep roots in its soil. Unlike in other multiethnic towns where communities have a significant middle-class, which is resident and rooted there, the Sinhala population in Trincomalee, comprising mostly fishermen, are migrants. The fact they have not sunk deep roots in Trincomalee not only means they have no love for the land and could act irresponsibly, but that they could also abandon it in the event things become too hot.
Tamils feel their agitation has paid off. The hartal, which they organised and which paralysed the town, resulted in the JVP forces being a little more circumspect than usual. For instance it was expected there would be greater loss of life than there has been, though both sides have lobbed hand grenades at each other. What is more, the security forces peremptorily removed another Buddha statue that came up in Vijithapura, in Trincomalee.
To some the vigorously carried out hartal is a confirmation of the LTTE’s hand behind it. They see the confrontation in Trincomalee as a proxy war between the JVP’s international backers from the subcontinent and the LTTE. They believe that the tough stance of those involved in the protest is inspired by the Tigers, and that the tacit support they are giving the agitation is what keeps the JVP from going on the offensive. What is illogical in this theory is why the JVP’s backers would want a showdown in Trincomalee, cheek by jowl of their most prized possessions in Sri Lanka.
The JVP’s own motives for the agitation is believed to be due to failing support among the Sinhala people in Trincomalee, who view it with disfavour because it is not seen as doing enough to protect that community’s interests, as it is indulging in dramatic vote-getting antics such as trying to resettle tsunami survivors at McHayzer Stadium. Some Sinhalese, both in Trincomalee town and the district, believe the only salvation for them is to cooperate with the Tamils and the LTTE rather than senselessly defying them.
Pressure should be brought to bear on Colombo if it is to take Tamil demands seriously. One potent way of doing this is to make the northeast ungovernable. This writer, in the November 2004 issue of The Northeastern Monthly wrote, “Concerted political action could be taken to disrupt the smooth functioning of government in areas of the northeast, especially nerve centres like Vavuniya and Trincomalee. Hartals have paralysed provincial towns before. Not only will it paralyse administration but the commercial interests that use the northeast to make tremendous profits.”
But to sustain political action of this type, there should be a good enough motive. The public should feel the issue is worth agitating for. Second, the larger objectives of the agitation should also be made clear. But for the moment, the results of the Trincomalee agitation will be a good barometer to gauge public sentiments and how they should be mobilised. It is believed that hartals will be launched in Jaffna on the high security zone too.
But let us be clear about one thing: if the government signs the joint mechanism it will initiate a robust campaign to convince the people that a big ‘concession’ has been made to meet Tamil demands. That is not correct. It is now up to the LTTE and other Tamil political forces to re-forge the instruments whereby the Tamil struggle is to be waged to meet future challenges.