Sri Lanka’s powerful leader should seize time by the forelock

Saturday, 23 October 2010 04:34 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in New Delhi as Chief Guest at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh another opportunity to flag the need for a political settlement of the Tamil question and urge the Sri Lankan Leader to act decisively in this regard.

The resettlement and rehabilitation of Tamils displaced during the war remains an important issue and the Sri Lankan Government did well by attending to this task with the urgency it demanded at the end of the military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

But more than 16 months after that historic military victory, this is not the most difficult challenge before the Sri Lankan government. During this period, President Rajapaksa has won a second term in office. The ruling coalition, which he leads, has also been re-elected; after a few crossovers from the opposition benches, it enjoys a two-thirds support in Parliament.

Indeed, Rajapaksa has already made use of the coalition’s parliamentary domination to remove the constitutional two-term bar for a President. As any substantial political package addressing the aspirations of the Tamil and Muslim minorities is likely to require constitutional amendments, the present Parliament offers the best chance in nearly three decades to provide for genuine ethnic reconciliation.

It is true that the political leadership of the Tamil community, such as it is today, is divided on the specifics. However, like most conflict resolution experts, it seems agreed that the best way to resolve the Tamil question is through substantial devolution of power to the Tamil region, going beyond the 13th Amendment, within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

President Rajapaksa is absolutely correct in holding that any political solution to the conflict must be home-grown. He has projected the recently set up Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as the vehicle for building a consensus among all stakeholders.

But the terms of reference of this commission, set up to inquire into events from 2002 until the final stages of the military operations against the LTTE, may be too narrow to form the basis for a solution to a conflict whose roots go back more than five decades. Further, the findings of the All Parties Representative Conference are yet to be made public.

All this has given rise to an impression of drift. President Rajapaksa must be aware of these concerns as he gets ready to begin his second presidential term next month. Here is an unprecedented opportunity to turn the page, once and for all, on the country’s ethnic dispute. Sri Lanka’s powerful leader should seize time by the forelock.

(Text of Editorial appearing in ‘The Hindu’ of 18 October 2010)