Shortly after the end of the war in 2009, President Rajapaksa declared that in Sri Lanka there would no longer be an ethnic majority or ethnic minorities but only a majority who loved the nation and a minority who were traitors. Apart from the warning inherent in this statement to those who were political dissenters, there was also the implication that a political solution based on the notion of ethnicities and majorities and minorities based upon them would be unnecessary after the defeat of the LTTE. The logic of this position is that a political solution was only discussed because of the pressure of the LTTE, and now with its destruction there was no need to take that discussion forward.
In keeping with the President’s immediate post-war policy statement and despite the passage of nearly five years since the end of the war there has been no fundamental shift in the government’s approach to the ethnic conflict. The talks with the main Tamil opposition party, the TNA, and the government’s effort to form a Parliamentary Select Committee to discuss a political solution has gone nowhere. This is not the government’s failure alone. Nearly all public intellectuals from the Sinhalese community who support the government, which is the politically dominant voice in society, appear to have also taken the cue from the President that there is no ethnic conflict to resolve. But Tamil minority voters have repeatedly challenged this assumption.
So long as there are unresolved ethnic grievances the electorate will tend to vote along ethnic lines. The government’s policy of formulating and promising policies of economic development as an alternative to political reform have been repeatedly rebuffed by the ethnic minority electorate. Not even the personal campaigning by the President himself and the government hierarchy has proven able to turn this vote in the direction of the government. Although the government’s delivery of economic infrastructure development may be appreciated it too was not able to provide the government with the votes of the ethnic minorities either in the North, East or in Colombo where the ethnic minority vote predominates.
Elections to the Western and Southern provincial councils were not due till the end of this year. The announcement of early provincial elections at the end of March, which is the very period when the UN Human Rights Council is expected to vote on the resolution on Sri Lanka, can only have one purpose. It is to negate the impact on the people of Sri Lanka of a negative resolution that seeks to penalize the government and its leadership. The government will make maximum use of international pressure for domestic political gain. It will also seek to obtain a resounding people’s mandate that will wipe out any discredit that comes out a resolution of the UNHRC. The direction of the government’s political campaign in these circumstances can be anticipated.
Already the signs are evident as to what the government’s electoral campaign will centre on. The government campaigners will seek to bring the threat to national sovereignty and territorial integrity to the fore, and thereby submerge all other grievances that that the people may have. The concerns about corruption, rising cost of living and the criminal impunity of those connected with political power will be relegated to the margins by the threat to the nation. The international community’s determination to ensure accountability is seen as a desire to punish the country’s leaders for what happened during the war, and has aroused the nationalism of the Sinhalese majority. The international focus on the last phase of the war in which the LTTE was defeated for special investigation is seen by them to be siding with the forces of separatism.
The speeches by government leaders these days relate to the threats to the country’s sovereignty with promises being made to protect the country from being divided. They accuse the opposition of joining with the international community, with the TNA in particular being accused of also trying to divide Sri Lanka without being interested in solving the problems of Tamil people. However, the reality is that the TNA led Northern Provincial Council has been rendered powerless to solve the problems of the people due to the non-implementation of the devolution of powers contained in the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Although the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council last September was generally welcomed as a positive move by the government in the direction of a political solution this has not being borne out by subsequent developments.
The contest over the positions of Governor and Chief Secretary of the Northern Province illustrates the larger issues in the governance of the country in relation to the devolution of power. It appears that the TNA has now eased on its original demand for the removal of the Governor. In the exuberance of their resounding electoral victory at the provincial council elections in September, the TNA demanded the immediate removal of the Governor who it accused of blocking the decisions taken by the elected councilors. However, the appointment of the Governor is the constitutional prerogative of the President. This is not the case with the Chief Secretary of the province, who is the head of the provincial public service. The 13th Amendment states that the Chief Secretary should be appointed by the President in concurrence with the Chief Minister of the province.
The present Chief Secretary for the Northern Provincial Council was appointed prior to the election of the Northern Provincial Council when there was no elected Chief Minister. It was reasonable to expect that after the Northern Provincial Council was established that the Chief Secretary should step down and a replacement selected with the concurrence of the Chief Minister. At a meeting a fortnight ago between the President and the Chief Minister this matter was brought up and the President agreed to make the change the very next day. But this has still not happened. The government needs to permit the Northern Provincial Council to function like other provincial councils, and without being frustrated by petty issues such as keeping a Chief Secretary whose appointment is not in keeping with the wishes of the elected provincial council.
The government has an opportunity to show its sincerity to make the system of devolved power work very soon and without delay. This would empower the TNA administration to meet the needs of the people of the Northern Province, and in doing so send a message to the international community that political reconciliation is on track. If not, the gap between the government and the Northern Provincial Council, and between the people who have voted for these two entities, is bound to grow to the detriment of national unity and give the international community more reason to seek to intervene in the country’s internal affairs. The complaint of the Northern Provincial Council that it is powerless and cannot deliver benefits to the people needs to be remedied by the government. But it increasingly seems that such positive actions will have to wait until the current cycle of elections is completed.
There is a belief that a presidential or general election will be held later this year or early next year, following on the provincial elections. The government’s reluctance to accommodate a political solution to minority ethnic grievances at this time would seem to come from its calculation that it cannot afford to lose its hold over the Sinhalese majority electorate in the context of impending elections. This is an electorate that can give the government a permanent majority and the prospect of long term rule so long as it does not fracture. The issue on which the Sinhalese electorate is most likely to get divided on is that of a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Therefore the government is unwilling to change its policy with regard to the ethnic minorities or implement the devolution of powers to the North.
While this winning formula is to the benefit of the current government it is not so for the country. No country can reach its full potential if it is divided internally. The government emphasis on the past war, and on alleged continuing threats to the unity of the country, creates and recreates ethnic polarization within the country. It serves to justify to the Sinhalese majority the government’s militarized approach to the governance of the North and the failure to implement the devolution of powers. But without some measure of devolution of powers there cannot be a winning of hearts and minds of the people of the North and East, which is the essential requirement of national unity.
In any conflict within a country that is multi-ethnic, and in which there is disagreement on the distribution of political power, a just solution requires the consent of the ethnic majority. If the government is not prepared to win the support of the majority community to take the country in the direction of a just political solution, the conflict is bound to continue and to get aggravated. . However, this pragmatic and election-winning political approach, which is power-centered and not problem-solving, will not resolve the main problem facing the country. The ethnic conflict is the problem that gave rise to three decades of war. The answer to the conflict has to be a just sharing of power between ethnic majority and minorities. It is in the context of failure to evolve an internal answer that the answer to the government’s failure has come to be seen as international pressure.