Sunday, 17 March 2002  
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Owning the peace process

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have looked quite regal in the shimmering 'ponnaadai' (golden shawl) bestowed on him by an appreciative Jaffna citizenry, but the Premier knows full well that the way forward for our island republic is toward greater democracy and pluralism and not autocracy.

That is the message Mr. Wickremesinghe, as well his Cabinet colleagues who accompanied him on that historic visit to the Tamil community heartland last week, hammered out again and again, wherever they spoke.

If the first fifty years of Sri Lankan democracy, post-Independence, had shown a trend towards a centralisation of power and authoritarianism, this new, post-colonial generation of political leaders seems to acknowledge that that trend has to be reversed and reversed quickly, if the slide into the abyss of national disintegration and chaos is to be halted.

So far, only the first hurdle seems about to be overcome: that of ethnic hegemony. After decades of upholding an ethno-centric State, at least the two major national political formations, the UNP and the SLFP-led PA, have, at last, abandoned that track in favour of ethnic pluralism and power-sharing.

Today, this first, completely post-colonial generation, epitomised by the President and the Prime Minister, have been thrown together to unravel some of that confusion sown by their elders. The majority of the Sri Lankan electorate, of all ethnic communities, has voted convincingly to lock the two national political formations they lead into a yet reluctant collaboration for ethnic harmony and peace.

It is that reluctance that betrays the un-addressed second national problem of greater democracy and the lack of institutionalisation of power.

Just as much as it is important that the Sri Lankan polity embraces, equally, all ethnic communities, it is also important that governance in this polity is practised within the institutions and the constitutional framework and not by personal fiat and feudal whim. The contest for power has to be framed within enduring norms and institutional processes and not based on spontaneous politicking, agitation and violent coercion.

The vagaries of the current political 'co-habitation' in power between the electorally more powerful United National Front Government and electorally weak but constitutionally potent People's Alliance Presidency are evidence of that tremendous frailty of our current national politics.

The UNF may have taken swift and intelligent steps towards laying the foundation for peace, and it may have been done using the valuable legacy of the previous PA regime's initiatives but, in other aspects of the political relationship, no quarter seems to have been given. Neither political coalition seems able to transcend the compulsions of competitive politics. If the President seems petulant in her postures, the Government's actions against some of her party rank and file begs questions.

The current wave of arrests of numerous PA legislators at various levels as well as party activists, all on charges of electoral irregularities, may seem, to the UNF, to be the legitimate redressing of very recent wrongs. But the PA's general political attitude is influenced by its perception that it has been singled out for this legal retribution whereas the miscreants of other parties, including those of the ruling coalition, have been let off.

Given the approach of local government elections and this country's long history of political harassment of opposition parties by the government of the day, the national political atmosphere is then befogged by the arousal of suspicions and anger, and hostile moves and counter-moves on both sides.

The leadership of both parties, perhaps, have yet to realise the enormity of the task ahead and the depth of inter-party collaboration that is required if they are to succeed in the peace effort. This new generation must understand, and understand quickly, that, firstly, as far as the ethnic problem is concerned, neither party can and should claim exclusive ownership of success in the peace effort. Secondly, the very mutual nature of the enterprise requires a moratorium on that raw contest for power that has, for decades, besmirched Sri Lanka's edifice of democracy.

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