The Northern Election And Historical Stumbling Blocks

by Dharisha Bastians, 'Colombo Telegraph' courtesy 'Daily FT,' September 12, 2013

“Why,” the monitor asked the crowd, “wouldn’t you rather vote for the party that gave you new roads and buildings, the party that could continue to develop this region?” The answer from a Tamil resident of the North was succinct. “What is the point of new roads without dignity?”

Dhaisha Bastians

The weight of political memory is proving a crushing force in the island’s north and south, as the country prepares for one of its most significant elections since the end of the war. Will Sri Lanka’s political baggage result in the loss of a major opportunity to move forward?

Earlier this week, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa made what was possibly the most remarkable ruling party promise yet during its electioneering in the Northern Province. Thus far, UPFA election speeches have been confined to pleas of gratitude for liberation from the LTTE and post-war reconstruction, coupled with dire warnings about the ulterior motives of the Tamil National Alliance, which is likely to claim victory in the 21 September poll. Minister Rajapaksa struck a different note. Addressing a meeting in the Vaddukoddai electorate, considered a historic location in the timeline of the country’s ethnic conflict, Basil Rajapaksa vowed to hand over the Government’s much touted Uthuru Wasanthaya or “Northern Spring” programme over to the Provincial Government on 22 September, once the poll results were declared.

Under the Minister’s Northern Spring programme, the formerly embattled province has seen rapid reconstruction and astounding infrastructure development, arguably the ruling administration’s one major accomplishment in terms of genuine nation building in the post-conflict phase. The reconstruction and physical development is constantly lauded, by visiting dignitaries, cynical locals and even the UN in Geneva, which views the fast-paced growth as being an important milestone in bringing former conflict zones up to speed with the rest of the island.

Giving away the trump?

If the Economic Development Minister is serious about what state media has called his ‘Vaddukoddai Declaration’ that would mean the Rajapaksa Administration is poised to give up one of its most prized trump cards to a provincial administration over which it will likely have little influence when the election is fought and likely lost, on 21 September. Perhaps that is why Minister Rajapaksa added a caveat: “There is a choice for the people on September 21. They should decide whether they want freedom, peace and development with self rule in the province by their own representatives or on the other hand they want a group that will lead them back to the dark era with rhetoric of self rule without any means or resources to develop the province.” The allusion is clear; a provincial administration backed by the Government will be heir to virtually unlimited resources and therefore able to carry Northern development activities forward at the same pace, while a TNA led Council will possess limited funds with which to improve living conditions in the North. The statement encapsulates in an almost tragi-comic way, the Government’s dilemma with regard to the Northern election.

Why won’t Northerners bite?

From the outset, Government insiders say, there has been a sense of resignation within the ruling coalition about the outcome of the Northern election. The UPFA is fighting in the Northern Province in essence to prevent a TNA sweep of the poll. The resources at its disposal are immense and the full might of the regime, including the formidable factor of personnel and military infrastructure available in the region, are being put behind candidates fielded by the Douglas Devananda led EPDP, a coalition ally of the Government. From the perspective of the regime, the Northern people have no reason not to vote for UPFA candidates. The end of war has meant the most to the people in former conflict zones and the areas are seeing more modernisation and development than any other part of the country. Economic growth in the region has been immense. A great deal to be thankful for as far as the ruling party is concerned. From its ‘reconstruction is reconciliation’ paradigm, the Rajapaksa regime will continue to view the peoples’ overwhelming preference for the TNA as being ethnically motivated or more likely consider it an endorsement of its own opinion that all those who reside in the north continue to be sympathetic to separatist ideologies – because after all, its own candidates in the fray are ethnic Tamils too. Why else would a ‘liberated’ people decline to support its ‘liberators’ and choose time and again the proxies of their enslavers?

Human factors

Earlier this year, long before the Northern election was declared, the same questions were posed to a group of residents from the Northern Province by a senior polls monitor touring the area. The ‘opinion poll’ of sorts found that a majority would vote with the Tamil party if an election was held for the provincial council. “Why,” the monitor asked the crowd, “wouldn’t you rather vote for the party that gave you new roads and buildings, the party that could continue to develop this region?” The answer from a Tamil resident of the North was succinct. “What is the point of new roads without dignity?” The message was conveyed to the highest echelons of power in Colombo, but whether it was heard and understood is another matter altogether. Four years after the war, physical reconstruction alone has proven woefully inadequate in terms of addressing the issues facing the Tamil people of the Northern Province. After decades of oppression and tyranny at the hands of the LTTE, the northern political reality has been replaced with militarisation, land acquisition, disappearances, loss of livelihood, unfair trade practices by the military establishment and resettlement problems. New roads and railway tracks simply cannot compete. And yet, with just over one week to go before the historic Northern Provincial Council poll, Government leaders are still talking development and infrastructure at election rallies in the region.

The bitter truth that it may have won the war but lost hearts and minds in the North is being cast aside by the ruling regime however, in favour of other more convenient narratives.

Months of anticipation and its historic significance always meant that the Northern Provincial Council election would be the only one to really matter although three provinces go to the polls next Saturday. Locally and internationally, all eyes are focused on the battle for the Northern Council. After the TNA election manifesto was unveiled last week, the animosity between the Government and the main Tamil party has reached a crescendo, with the regime focusing an inordinate amount of its remaining campaign time relentlessly slamming the offending document. Viewed as a moderately phrased document by hardliners in the North, the TNA manifesto is being demonised in the South to an extraordinary degree. Following weeks of a largely uneventful campaign season, the TNA manifesto lent itself to increasing suspicion in the South about the much debated election and the likelihood of a TNA victory. The suspicion is fuelled for the most part, by sections of the Rajapaksa Administration.

A problem of language

At the 2013 Defence Seminar last week, Terrorism expert Prof. Rohan Gunaratne charged that the TNA manifesto was an avatar of the LTTE. On Monday, the Government’s Sinhala hardline coalition partner the Jathika Hela Urumaya quit the latest parliamentary process to field devolution proposals, vowing to defeat the 13th Amendment alone if it had to. Party strongman and Minister Champika Ranawaka claimed the TNA manifesto was proof that a TNA led Provincial Council would pursue a secessionist agenda. Ranawaka said it was in anticipation of such danger that the JHU had demanded the repeal of certain provisions of the 13th Amendment before the Northern election was declared. At a news conference on Tuesday, Minister Dulles Allahapperuma claimed the document was aimed at provoking the people of the south and keeping the Sinhalese and Tamils divided forever. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing an election rally in Vavuniya yesterday, pledged he would not allow “anyone else” to divide the country after he prevented Prabhakaran from achieving that goal. References to the Vaddukoddai Resolution adopted by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in May 1976 at its national convention are being bandied about liberally, even though the TNA document makes no reference to the creation of a separate state. The TULF’s resolution, for which it received a thumping mandate from the Tamil people in the 1977 election, made specific mention of Eelam and the ‘freedom of the Tamil Nation.’ The TNA document, clearly contentious in the south where the political lexicon has altered unimaginably in the past eight years, nevertheless constantly reiterates the necessity to find a political solution within a single country, even though the Tamil Party’s vision of that solution lies within a united, rather than unitary constitutional framework. The TNA’s position, as put forward in its policy statement for the Northern election is clear. It stands for a federal solution, with maximum devolution to the provinces. It seeks the re-merger of the North and East – a political non-starter, given the Muslim demographic realities of the East and certain opposition from the central government – and ‘self-determination’ or the right to govern themselves through their chosen representatives for the Tamil people. All of these proposals, for which the TNA is seeking a democratic mandate, are legitimate ideological positions within a democratic, pluralist political process. If ‘Federal’  has come to mean Eelam and ‘self-determination’ is defined as secession, the problem lies more with the prevailing lexicon in the south and less with the TNA’s policy statement itself.

Merger: a non starter

The North-East re-merger will remain a heavily polarising issue, but again one that is better addressed through a system of democratic checks and balances rather than Eelamist labelling of the party the Tamil people of the north are likely to resoundingly back at next week’s election. Even if it controls the Northern Provincial Council following the election, the TNA led council cannot unilaterally declare the North and East administratively merged. The Eastern Provincial Council will have to concur and that Council rests firmly in the hands of the ruling Government. Furthermore, the political ground realities in the East simply do not favour re-merger. The region’s large Muslim population enjoys significant political leverage in the Province, leverage that will be lost if the provinces are re-merged with the Tamil population becoming a commanding majority in the merged provincial unit. In an alternate reality, if the Eastern Province Muslims agree to the merger, the Government still has recourse to the rulings of the Supreme Court whose dictate in 2006 de-merged the two provinces after they were declared one in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

As much as the Government is attempting to rile up southern opinion against the TNA manifesto, and by extension the TNA, the only real problems with the document from a moderate perspective would be the persistent use of the words ‘Tamil Nation’ that leaves ample space for misrepresentation despite the fact that it appears to refer to nationality rather than statehood, and the party’s decision to stop short of condemning the LTTE, even when it refers to the expulsion of the Muslims from the North under the Tigers’ regime. As the campaign wears on, the TNA suffers from its own crises of faith and ideology, torn between pacifying Tamil hardliners and continuing its redefinition process to take over again as the country’s main Tamil political representative in post-war Sri Lanka.

Political observers note that while the party’s Chief Ministerial Candidate Justice C.V. Wigneswaran struck a moderate chord in the early days of his candidacy, the rigours of campaigning among sections of his party that were strongly opposed to him appears to have pushed him to adopt a more Tamil nationalistic position in his campaign rhetoric. Hope lies however in the fact that Wigneswaran remains an anathema to the pro-LTTE Diaspora, as glaringly evident in Tamilnet’s constant criticism of his candidacy and more recently, the opposition to him emanating from the direction of Tamil Nadu. Observers say the shift in Wigneswaran’s rhetoric could be posturing from the stump and Tamil moderates are hoping once the electioneering is over and he turns to the running of the Northern Council, Justice Wigneswaran will return to his moderate positions and reiterate his determination to work with the Central Government.

Tough job for Wigneswaran

The mistrust of the TNA that the ruling regime is whipping up in the south will undoubtedly make a future Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s job harder. The former Supreme Court judge is pulling no punches lately, taking on the military hierarchy in the North and insisting that the armed forces leave civilian matters to the civilian administrators and the police force. TNA Leader R. Sampanthan has echoed these calls in a letter to President Rajapaksa on Monday (9) demanding that the army be confined to barracks to ensure the poll next Saturday is a free and fair one.

A Tamil National Alliance in the process of redefining itself as a political party in the post-war democratic mainstream has proven a thorn in the Government’s side more than once. In the absence of credible and effective opposition from the United National Party that is beleaguered by its internal battles, the TNA has emerged more than once, together with the JVP led DNA, as the alternative opposition. For the Government, in all its major political battles in the recent past, whether the Divi Neguma legislation, the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Northern land acquisition or the dilution of the 13th Amendment, the TNA under the leadership of Sampanthan and his trusted lieutenant M.A. Sumanthiran have proved formidable opponents. Sumanthiran, easily one of the current Parliament’s most eloquent and knowledgeable legislators, strengthens the TNA position by virtue of being untainted with the party’s LTTE proxy avatar since he entered the Legislature in the post-war Parliamentary Election of 2010. In the reinvention process the TNA is undertaking, Sumanthiran is the embodiment of the party’s moderate future. Justice Wigneswaran holds similar appeal. Despite the fact that the TNA is deeply divided over its future direction, if the Sampanthan-Sumanthiran-Wigneswaran faction prevails Tamil politics may not necessarily be in dire straits. To do so, the Tamil Party will have to withstand the compulsions of Tamil nationalists in order to guard against returning the political discourse to Vaddukoddai. That would be a case of playing into the hands of Sinhala hardliners in the south who would prefer that the debate were to rest specifically at that point. This will be especially relevant in the event that the TNA wrests control of the Northern Council.

The weight of memory

If the election campaign season is anything to go by, the future of the Northern Provincial Council will be tenuous at best. Accustomed to seeing LTTE spectres everywhere, the Rajapaksa administration will move swiftly and with brutal force to crush any kind of political administration in the North that signals a shift towards a more extremist position. Rhetoric in both the north and the south in the election run up proves that the weight of history is a crushing force. In the south, memories of Vaddukoddai are evoked alongside reminiscences of Trincomalee in 1990 when North East Chief Minister Vartharajah Perumal declared Eelam after the IPKF withdrew, prompting the Ranasinghe Premadasa Government to dissolve the Council. For a hawkish Administration that considers the defeat of the LTTE its seminal moment, it is a difficult memory to cast aside.

Hemmed in by its commitments to the international community, the Government has no room to manoeuvre with regard to conducting the election in the Northern Province, whatever its reservations about the TNA. Dissolving an errant Council post-facto on the other hand, is an eminently feasible prospect, bringing the status quo firmly back to square one in terms of devolution and a resolution to the country’s ethnic struggle. Between 21 September and perhaps the end of November or March 2014, a TNA administration in the North will have minimal wiggle room. What it does with that space, in terms of genuinely addressing the problems of the Tamils of the North and building bridges with the Government in Colombo will determine the lifespan of the soon to be constituted Northern Provincial Council.

Courtesy Daily FT

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