No longer marooned
The pact signed between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government and the main Opposition, United National Party (UNP), could play a key role in resolving the ethnic conflict in the war-torn island nation. About 2,000 combatants and civilians have been killed this year alone in fresh violence that has made the 2002 Norway-brokered ceasefire irrelevant. Hopes of salvaging the ceasefire faded last week when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) carried out its worst-ever suicide bombing, near the northeast town of Habarana, followed two days later by an attack on the tourist hub of Galle. It is against this backdrop that the two parties have reached an agreement under which the UNP will apparently support the government “in the pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the ongoing conflict”.
This is significant, not least because the two parties together control 125 seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament. An SLFP-UNP consensus is vital to muster a two-thirds majority to push through any constitutional change to allow power-sharing with minority groups. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, have been meeting regularly to work out just such an agreement on several national issues, including the ethnic problem, electoral reforms and good governance. There seems to be wide agreement that the SLFP alone cannot resolve the complex ethnic issue and should seek consensus of all major political parties.
Having said that, the new pact is probably just a tentative first step towards putting the derailed peace process back on track. Although both the LTTE and the government have agreed to attend the Geneva talks, neither side has shown willingness to stop attacking the other, or to make any compromises. Now that the two major political parties have come together, it is possible for the government to present a united political front that will enable them to prevent being played off against one another, as well as offer the LTTE the benefit of dealing with the significant chunk of the Sinhala-dominated political class.