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Message from north

[MISC, Tuesday, 9 August 2011 12:29 No Comment]

(frontline) Tamils in northern Sri Lanka repose their trust in the Tamil National Alliance in the local body elections.

20110826281706401 At a polling station in the northern town of Kilinochchi on July 23.

THE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an umbrella organisation of parties that openly supported the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), made a convincing win in the local body elections in the predominantly Tamil northern Sri Lanka. This was the second round of local body elections in the country.

Of the 65 local bodies that went to the polls on July 23, the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won in an overwhelming 45. But the story was different in the north, where the TNA won 18 local bodies and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which contested in league with the TNA, two. Elections were held to 20 local bodies in the electoral districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Digamadulla.

In the first phase of the elections, held on March 17, the TNA bagged 12 local bodies, the United National Party (UNP) nine, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) four, the National Congress two, the Upcountry People’s Front one, and an independent group one.

According to the Elections Secretariat, the UPFA secured 512 seats, making it clear that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policies were still popular with the people. The second largest party in the country – going by the local body election results – is the TNA (183 seats).

The UNP managed a dismal 137, and this has given rise to serious dissent within the main opposition party yet again. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was nearly wiped out; it managed to win a mere 13 seats. In contrast, the TULF, which was fast losing relevance after the TNA occupied the political space it had vacated, secured 12 seats.

In every single election since 1956 in Sri Lanka, and through the 1970s, the northern and eastern Tamils have voted the federal party to power in their consistent bid to assert their demand to live as equals. Every single government in Sri Lanka since independence has failed to accommodate the legitimate political and other aspirations of the Tamil people. And in every single instance of ethnic violence – in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1980 and 1983 – the Tamils were the worst affected.

This time around the victory was under exceptional circumstances. The ruling UPFA had the upper hand. The President himself inaugurated a slew of projects ahead of the elections, and as many as 13 Ministers were positioned in the Northern Province until the elections were over. There were also reports of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and government officials campaigning for UPFA candidates.

“The run-up to the elections was marred by violence, and the election day itself witnessed several incidents, including one killing,” said the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that researches and critiques public policy. “The present elections were held according to the 2010 electoral register unlike the polls held in March 2011 which used the 2009 register. A significant factor in this is the reduction in the number of registered voters in Jaffna district. Another key point is the holding of local government elections in parts of the north such as in Kilinochchi after more than two decades… an important point to note is the tactics used by candidates, political parties and others to influence and deter a free and fair election taking place in the north. Violence and violations of electoral laws were also reported from other areas of the country,” the CPA said at the end of polling.

The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP, led by Douglas Devananda, a constituent of the ruling alliance) feels that the presence of too many Ministers may have scared the people away from voting for the UPFA. Seniors in the party said that their party would have done better had it not been part of the UPFA in the north. Devananda, the lone Tamil Minister in the Sri Lankan Cabinet, campaigned long and hard and still spends a considerable amount of time in the province. He nurses an ambition to become the Chief Minister when the provincial elections are held. These elections might be a little further away, he admitted, because of the poor showing of the UPFA in the local body elections. The President had earlier said that he planned to hold the elections in 2012.

TNA’s worries

The victory in the local body elections has put the TNA on notice. In peaceful places across the world, a victory in the local body elections means just that much: that voters expect the elected to make sure that their basic civic needs are met.

In northern Sri Lanka, where elections were held after a gap of two decades in some places, the Tamils did not fall for the inducements and instead voted for the TNA. Hence, the vote effectively means that the Tamil people have placed their future in the hands of the TNA.

The Tamil alliance is not in a great situation, given that many elements in the government still consider it a proxy to the Tamil Tigers. There have been instances where the TNA has spoken in different voices, largely because it is not a monolithic party like the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu.

Speaking in Parliament before the elections, TNA leader R. Sampanthan made it clear where the TNA stood and what it wanted for the Tamil people: “The Tamil people have expressed their willingness to live as equal citizens within a united and undivided Sri Lanka.” He drew the attention of the government and the country to the imperative need to address the core issues of the conflict and to evolve an acceptable political solution that will bring about genuine reconciliation and harmony amongst the different communities and peoples who inhabit Sri Lanka.

Contours of a solution

Though the government and the TNA are still discussing the contours of an acceptable political solution, the government’s decision to take the Parliamentary Select Committee route means that the solution will be inclusive and will be endorsed by the country at large. Inclusive solutions are the outcome of long-drawn-out and painful negotiations, and these take time to materialise.

But the TNA cannot wait that long. It wants the government to arrive expeditiously at an acceptable political solution that addresses the core causes of the conflict. It also wants a structured programme to be implemented urgently to enable people displaced and affected by the war to rebuild their lives.

The government is not prepared to concede ground here. It wants the solution to be discussed with all the stakeholders. It feels that any short-circuiting of the process will prove to be counterproductive to the party in future elections.

Some in the intelligentsia argue that Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was President, had proved that devolution could be sold to the Sinhalese in the south if they were reassured enough. The argument is that if Rajapaksa wants to use his extraordinary powers to impress upon the people the necessity and inevitability of making a deal with the people of the north and the east, then he will be able to garner the support of the Sinhalese. This is no easy process, and it will take time – possibly even a few years – to usher in an acceptable change of attitudes.

But since no such move is in sight and the Sinhala nationalist sentiment is on a high, any solution that makes concessions to the Tamils – which are unavailable to other ethnic groups with respect to autonomy or federalism – will be treated as a sellout.

It is in this context that elements in the Sri Lankan government criticised the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (which provided for the setting up of a Provincial Council and a High Court for each province and making Tamil an official language and English the link language).

The critics, including a former Chief Justice, were against an India-imposed formula for settling the Tamil question.

Rajapaksa has made it clear that he will not concede land and police powers to the north. He has underlined the need for a political solution that will be guided by the tenets of Buddhism.

Responding to the criticism on the 13th Amendment, India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon made it clear when he was in Colombo in June that it was an amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. “It is their amendment,” he said, and added that it was up to Sri Lanka to call the solution by that name (13th Amendment) or by any other. The bottom line is that the Tamils need a solution that recognises their legitimate hopes and aspirations.

From these broad outlines actually emerge the contours of a solution. The government has made it clear as to what is acceptable.

Reliable sources say that the government-TNA talks too are based on this premise.

Pressure on Sri Lanka

For now, there seems some urgency on the part of the government side in the talks largely because Western nations, the militant Tamil diaspora, the Western press and international NGOs have stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka.

The blocking of financial aid to Sri Lanka by the United States, the report of international NGOs such as the International Crisis Group (“Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than ever”, July 2011), the report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (April 2011), the Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent meeting with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and their discussion on the Tamil question in Sri Lanka – all these have put additional pressure on Colombo.

The government has indicated that Emergency rules that have been in force in the country for three decades will be lifted. Also, travel restrictions to the Northern Province have been relaxed.

The general consensus among diplomats based in Colombo is that if there is adequate progress on the Tamil question, the uncomfortable questions relating to war crimes, documented by many agencies, will be kept in abeyance for now.

Even as the TNA impresses upon the government to make headway in the talks, it appears that it will be in the government’s own interest to take up the face-saving offer.

“I think the time has come for this grave question to be addressed,” Sampanthan told Parliament. “It is absolutely fundamental that the forces of nationalist brinkmanship should no longer influence the political agenda on the other side…. I have not the slightest doubt that the vast majority of people in the country – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – are amenable to an honourable, acceptable and peaceful political solution.”

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