The sweeping victory of the Tamil National Alliance in local elections in Sri Lanka's North lends a fresh perspective to talks with the government that lie ahead.
More than two years ago the guns fell silent in Sri Lanka, ending a three decade-old civil war with the LTTE. But voices demanding an acceptable solution that accommodates Tamil aspirations are still strident. The country's leadership is seeking to meet these demands within a national unity framework.
The expected landslide victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — the most popular political formation in the Northern Province, which before the war ended openly supported the armed secessionist movement — in the local body polls held in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province last Saturday has provided a platform from which the TNA can launch its renewed demand for an enduring long-term solution to the problem.
The elections have cleared the air once again on which party represented the Tamils of the North. President Mahinda Rajapaksa inaugurated a slew of schemes ahead of the elections. As many as 13 Ministers were in Jaffna and other parts of the Northern Province through the campaign. While the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) made some gains in the North, the war-battered people still placed their faith in the TNA.
The elections affirmed that the lone Tamil Minister in the Sri Lankan Cabinet, Douglas Devananda, was a marginal player. His party, the EPDP, contested the polls as part of the UPFA. Some senior members of the EPDP contend that this was a mistake and ascribe the defeat to their being part of the UPFA. While the rest of the country preferred the UPFA (it won 250 out of the 335 local bodies in the country), the North was firmly with the TNA (30 local bodies).
With the local elections done, and the Northern Provincial Council election expected to be held in 2012, the TNA and the government have come back to the negotiating table. The TNA's victory lends a fresh perspective to the talks. It also gives the Tamil alliance a chance to exhibit its maturity while obliging the government to show better understanding and sensitivity.
Progress in the talks is imperative for the next step — a Select Committee of Parliament, which will consider the Tamil question, and come up with a proposed solution, including constitutional amendments, that will then go to Parliament. This move has been criticised by the TNA as yet another ploy to delay giving Tamils their rights. But in a country where any solution to the ethnic question is likely to be portrayed by chauvinist elements as a sell-out of national interests, the government clearly feels it is left with no choice but to involve all stakeholders in the process of finding a political solution.
Some commentators in the media have expressed scepticism about the parliamentary Select Committee route, citing examples from the past on the fate of such committees. Given the challenge of finding a worthwhile meeting ground between an exceptionally strong government and a hopelessly decimated opposition, the government has certainly given the impression that it appears to be in no hurry to push through a solution. It appears keen to create a perception that it would yield no ground to Tamils that even remotely hints at autonomy. In Sri Lanka, the words ‘autonomy' and ‘secession' have often been used interchangeably and Mr. Rajapaksa has made it clear that he will not allow anyone to divide the nation again.
The President had told The Hindu earlier that he had a solution to the Tamil problem in mind. In later interactions, he made it clear that he did not want to impose any solution. He wanted talks involving all stakeholders, but with the government and the TNA taking the lead, to map it out. His broad idea was to accord the maximum possible devolution without sacrificing the sovereignty of the country. The prospective political solution came to be known as ‘13th Amendment-plus,' with nobody apparently clear about the specifics.
The question that has been raised often is this: How much devolution is enough to run a Province in a small country without the central authority bearing down on it? There seem to be no ready answers.
As for democratic governance, for decades there has been no such institutional structure or framework for it in the North. The elimination of the LTTE as a military organisation in May 2009 gave rise to expectations that democratic elections would be held as early as feasible. Twenty six months after the war ended, eight out of the nine Sri Lankan provinces have elected Provincial Councils; the Northern Province is the only one without one. The powers of a Provincial Council might be limited, but an elected Northern Council would be a starting point for people to voice their grievances, opposition politicians feel.
While the LTTE's defeat weighs on the TNA, triumphalism and the need to cater to its Sinhala vote base have made it difficult for the government to concede the space required to make the Tamils, widely perceived as the vanquished, feel at ease. Opposition politicians, NGO activists, and some in the intelligentsia point to several moves in the North that could be misconstrued as the reason for the deep wedge between the minority Tamil and majority Sinhala communities.
For instance, there have been reports of lower level officials, who only know Sinhala, being posted to the North. Tamils in that region, unlike those in the plantations, hardly speak the Sinhala language. Opposition politicians have also expressed concern over the resettlement of ex-servicemen along the A-9 highway that leads to Jaffna from Colombo.
Apart from rehabilitation and livelihood issues, Sri Lanka will have to address the issue of missing persons. The chaotic last phase of the war, in which civilians were trapped between the Army's shells and the LTTE firepower, led to the loss of a large number of lives and many disappearances. Many persons are yet to be accounted for.
As Sri Lanka debates how best to integrate the northern Tamils into its evolving concept of Sri Lankan nationalism, individual players in the international community have been trying to apply pressure on the island nation. The Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group, points out that all three communities — Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims — have suffered “immensely.” It wants the major international partners in the region to “send a strong message against increasing authoritarianism and condition aid on transparency and restored civilian administration in the north and east.”
A few recent developments have focussed attention on Sri Lanka since April 2011. One is the report of the United Nations Secretary General's Expert Panel on Accountability in Sri Lanka, which has held both the government and the LTTE responsible for the mass civilian casualties during the last stages of the war (There is also the U.S. State department report for 2010, the Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lanka and the International Crisis Group report). The second is a Channel 4 video that showed what it asserted were extra-judicial killings and other atrocities in Sri Lanka. The third item is a book The Cage, authored by an ‘insider,' Gordon Weiss, former U.N. spokesperson in Sri Lanka, castigating Sri Lanka's handling of the final stages of the war and faulting the international community for doing little to limit civilian casualties.
Although the Sri Lankan government has maintained that it carried out a humanitarian operation to rescue people from the LTTE's clutches, a U.N. Panel, which relied on, among other things, over 4,000 depositions and satellite images, came up with five findings against the Government of Sri Lanka and six against the LTTE.
Ever since the release of the United Nations report, Sri Lanka has been on a diplomatic offensive, seeking to win friends across the globe. China, Russia, and a few other countries have openly supported the Sri Lankan viewpoint — that the country was being unnecessarily victimised and that the U.N. Report did not help reconciliation in any manner. The release of the Channel 4 video and the Weiss book also saw Sri Lankan diplomats defend their country combatively across western capitals and even in Colombo.
India, one of Sri Lanka's staunchest allies, is somewhat impatient with the pace of rehabilitation and rebuilding in the Northern Province, for which India has offered wide-spectrum support, and with the pace of working out a 13th Amendment-plus political settlement in the post-conflict period. But there is also evidence of Indian tardiness in implementing the rebuilding work, especially the massive housing programme, Sri Lanka's big neighbour has undertaken in the North.
From a distance, the brutal and bloody war against the LTTE seems to have been the easier campaign to win. Now Sri Lanka battles complex international and domestic pressures as it marches ahead to realise its dream of a bright and prosperous future for its people.