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The Road to Normalcy – The Diplomat

[MISC, Tuesday, 26 January 2010 09:02 No Comment]

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

SRI LANKA REFUGEES The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last May has breathed new life into the democratic process for once marginalised groups in Tamil politics, says Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe. And, as Sri Lankans prepare to head to the polls, he says a new optimism is emerging that their society can be rebuilt.

For many, the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which brought to a close over two decades of civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives, marked a welcome end to the darkest and bloodiest era in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history.

But the defeat has also left a void in Tamil politics. The LTTE’s intolerance for democratic processes and dissident Tamil opinion saw it spearhead a sustained campaign to eliminate rival Tamils that is widely believed to have included the assassination of more than 50 Tamil leaders from 1975 to 2008.

‘Killing people…opposed to the LTTE was one of the greatest wrongs of the LTTE,’ says SC Chandrahasan, son of the late Tamil leader SJV Chelvanayakam, who founded the Federal Party and who believed in non-violence. ‘It not only eliminated many experienced and talented leaders, but also prevented many up-and-coming people from contributing to the cause of the Tamil-speaking people of the island.’ Estimates vary as to how many rival Tamils the LTTE ‘eliminated’ during the conflict, though most range from between 8,000 to as many as 18,000 Tamils. ‘This is one of the things that prevented the LTTE from becoming a popular movement,’ he adds.

Tuesday’s election–Sri Lanka’s sixth presidential election–is expected to be one of the closest in decades and pits President Mahinda Rajapakse’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), against the United National Party (UNP), which has been revitalised since the emergence of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as leader. And both sides have been making significant efforts to secure Tamil votes, a bloc whose support many commentators believe could be decisive if the race is tight.

Rajapakse has so far secured the support of seven Tamil parties, and in an effort to placate Tamil voters has expedited reconstruction and large development projects in Northern and Eastern provinces and pledged to implement the 13th Amendment, which essentially provides for regional autonomy at the provincial level.

The UNP, for its part, has traditionally been seen as supportive of ethnic minority interests and has typically attracted Tamil support and votes. Indeed, as part of his election platform, Fonseka has offered to move beyond the 13th Amendment as a way of addressing Tamil grievances, and the party has also attracted the support of the Democratic Peoples Front, which has a seat in parliament and a Tamil support base in the Colombo District. The most significant boost to the UNPs campaign, though, has been the support obtained through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka’s largest Tamil democratic party, which holds 22 seats. 

However, it remains unclear how the Tamil vote will play out now that the LTTE is no longer trying to stifle rival voices. Opinion was divided among Sri Lanka’s main Tamil parties over the LTTE defeat, although the four Tamil constituents of Rajapakse’s government–the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the Up-Country Peoples Front, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal and Eelam Peoples Democratic Party–were united on the issue. In addition, the influential Democratic Tamil National Alliance(DTNA), which includes the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front-Naba (EPRLF-Naba) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), also endorsed the outcome. 

EPRLF-Naba Secretary Thirunavakkarasu Sritharan, for example, claimed, ‘President Rajapaksa will go down in Sri Lanka’s political history as the leader who ended the fascist violent culture in the country.’

PLOTE leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan, meanwhile, said: ‘We welcome a new era, the reintroduction of democracy and pluralism to the northeast. The LTTE is finally defeated. Democracy and pluralism were long denied to the Tamil community. They [the LTTE] failed to understand the political reality that a separatist state for Tamils was unattainable.’

However, the TNA, a loose confederation of four influential pro-LTTE parties formed in 2001, essentially denounced the government’s victory and rejected conciliatory overtures such as a meeting with Rajapakse (although some TNA members of parliament met with him on an individual basis). There were similarly mixed feelings among ordinary Tamils. For many, although there was a palpable sense of relief that the insurgency was over, they remained burdened by a sense of uncertainty about the future, feelings exacerbated by concerns over how the Sri Lankan government might use its newfound strength.

N. Suntharesan, president of the Batticaloa District Chamber of Commerce and Industry, perhaps best captured the pervading mood when he told The Nation newspaper: ‘In one way we’re really happy that the LTTE is finished. All these days, successive governments accused the LTTE of being a stumbling block to any development or even power sharing.’

‘But now, with the LTTE no longer in existence, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen. The Tamil people feel that the victory has given the government and especially the armed forces the upper hand,’ he said, noting the government repression surrounding ethnic riots in the 60s, 1977 and 1983. ‘They’re worried that if the government’s military becomes more and more powerful, they won’t have anybody with military power to counteract this. [But] I think with a proper development plan and a meaningful political package, this fear in the minds of the Tamils could quickly be allayed.’

Such views were in large part down to uncertainty surrounding the fate of the nearly 300,000 Tamil refugees who required urgent humanitarian attention. Legitimate concerns over the length of time for screening and resettlement of internally displaced people aroused suspicion–and provoked some international criticism–over the government’s true motives behind severely restricting refugees’ movements, although the government went a long way toward easing these concerns when it granted the majority of such people freedom of movement from last October.

But the general uncertainty and lack of visible improvement in conditions for Tamils likely influenced the results of the Northern Province’s first local government elections. In the Vavuniya Urban Council, a stronghold of the Democratic Peoples Liberation Front–an affiliate party of the PLOTE–lost out to the TNA, which carved out an unexpected victory.

Despite excessive caution following the LTTE’s defeat, the government still took incremental steps toward relaxing its security posture. This was demonstrated as early as last May, when it launched a major drive to recruit 2,000 Tamil-speaking police constables in Eastern Province. On June 17, 2009, The Island newspaper reported in Batticaloa District that the police still had 74 check points.

However, by September, the situation in Eastern Province had changed markedly, as demonstrated in a report by Sunday Leader journalist R. Wijewardene, who wrote: ‘To travel to Batticaloa through the emptiness beyond Medawachchiya and through the once fraught towns of Valaichchenai, Kiran and Eravur in the darkness – without fear or check points is to experience, in a journey, the magnitude of the changes that have gripped this country over the past few months.

‘A night time journey to Batticaloa has been impossible for almost three decades. Daylight reveals the full extent of the changes that have taken place in the town and the surrounding area…there’s a relaxed, unthreatening air on the streets of Batticaloa that speaks volumes about its progress.’

‘Check points are virtually non-existent and newly recruited Tamil officers now patrol the streets and people move freely at all times. Once forlorn bars, restaurants and hotels are crowded extraordinarily not with foreign visitors or NGO workers but with Sinhala businessmen and tourists. Scenes that have been unimaginable for years…are now almost routine.’

Similarly, in Northern Province, the Sri Lankan government eventually restructured its security priorities. In August 2009, for example, the Sri Lankan Army appointed Major Gen. LBR Mark, an ethnic Tamil, to oversee the Jaffna Security Forces. In October, the Sri Lankan Police began a major recruitment drive for the first time since 1979 to enlist 500 Tamil police constables from the Jaffna Peninsula to serve in Northern Province. In November, the government announced that travelling outside Jaffna Peninsula and Up-Country regions no longer required security clearance, while on the last day of last year the night time curfew in Jaffna was finally lifted.

The changes have continued this year, and last month the strategic A9 highway linking Jaffna to the south of the country was opened to allow 24-hour, unregulated civilian access. Such steps toward the demilitarization of Northern Province have enabled its reintegration into the island’s economy and society.

‘Jaffna is returning to normal,’ says Rev. Dr. Thomas Sundranayagam, Bishop of Jaffna. ‘Lorries are daily bringing goods to Jaffna and also agricultural and fishing products are being sent to Colombo and other parts of the country. Commercial activities are taking place and the people are also very happy. They can now easily visit Colombo and other areas.

‘People from the South also come to Jaffna. During the Thaipongal and New Year they saw a lot of people from the South, visiting Jaffna, some of them visiting the area for the first time.’

And, although the military has grown in strength since the defeat of the LTTE, evidence so far suggests there has been an ongoing process of demilitarization throughout Sri Lanka.

The ruling UPFA is hopeful that the speedy restoration of normalcy will translate into Tamil votes in the upcoming election. The credibility of the opposition’s key Tamil backer, the TNA, meanwhile is in question, with internal divisions making it unclear how solid the TNA voter base really is and to what extent it can really claim to represent Tamil interests in Sri Lanka.

Among the intra-TNA factions, the most dominant group has stated its preference for the UNP and has endorsed Fonseka. And, while the second-largest group at one time called for the boycotting of the election but was persuaded to participate, the third group supports Rajapakse.

Such disunity suggests the results of the election could have a decisive role in shaping the TNA’s future, and could even answer the question of whether it can survive at all. TNA leader R. Sampanthan said in September that he supported ‘adequate autonomy for the Tamil people within the framework of a united Sri Lanka,’ and also indicated that he believes the implementation of the 13th Amendment would be insufficient.

TNA lawmaker and LTTE advocate MK Sivajilingam, meanwhile, caught the mood of the group well when he was reported as saying recently: ‘We, as representatives of the Tamil people, feel that there’s an immediate need to address the issues of the Tamil people through a federal solution or one which reconnects the North and the East. We don’t think any Southern candidate will agree, although they speak of a 13 plus solution. The Tamil people need self-determination and autonomy. Even implementing 13 plus will not solve our problems as long as control is held in the centre in Colombo.’

International Influence

But there’s also an international dimension to the issue of Tamil loyalty. In the aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat, India has indicated that it prefers a settlement that includes the full implementation of the 13th Amendment so as to ensure stability on its strategically important southern periphery. However, this means the TNA’s position (and opposition to the Amendment) is increasingly at odds with India’s foreign policy interests. Since the pro-LTTE parties were routed in the Lok Sabha (India’s parliament) elections last May, India has made clear gestures aimed at influencing the Tamil vote, including voicing its disapproval of the TNA election platform.

In July, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, although telling the Tamil Nadu Assembly that US President Barack Obama’s election suggested race was no longer a factor in politics and that a Tamil could soon ‘rule Sri Lanka,’ cautioned Tamil Nadu politicians against making provocative remarks. ‘This isn’t a conflict between the governments of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka…If we end up saying something against the Sinhalese community, it will only affect the Tamils there.’

Similarly, BBC Sinhala reported that M Karunanidhi told the Assembly that Tamil Eelam or a ‘separate country’ was unrealistic and that only by working with Rajapakse could a solution to the strife be found. Indeed, Karunanidhi reportedly stated categorically that the 13th Amendment ‘is possible, not Tamil Eelam.’

This position was reinforced earlier this month when Subramaniam Swamy, the Janata Party leader in Tamil Nadu, urged Tamils to vote for Rajapakse if they wanted more Indian support and comes as India takes an increasingly tough line with the TNA, including last month when it denied access to TNA lawmaker and LTTE advocate MK Sivajilingam, who was to visit Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

The key to the Tamil’s future will be, according to former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations, Dayan Jayatilleka, whether Tamil nationalism can ‘demonstrably break from the LTTE and “Prabhakanism” and from the secessionist goal.’

‘The Sri Lankan state would naturally feel it’s unsafe to consider as a peace partner and ally in nation-building a party or group that failed to arrive at a consensus with it on these issues,’ Jayatilleka says. ‘Public opinion could be reluctant to fully devolve power to such an entity.’

The LTTE flourished in a quite different geopolitical environment, one far more conducive to a separatist insurgency. But the situation today, complicated  by the competing regional interests of India, China and the West, will almost certainly leave the TNA’s separatist platform increasingly at odds with the region’s evolving political dynamics.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst who has published widely on South Asian and Indian Ocean security issues.

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