Fear trumps hope

A long-delayed election to the Provincial Council on September 21 in formerly war-devastated Northern Sri Lanka could have been a harbinger of justice. But it may well turn out to be a false promise that further alienates the Tamil minorities.

Provincial government elections are potentially constructive in post-war environments as they create local administrative structures represented by popularly chosen candidates who reify the principle of autonomy.
But since Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated national government in Colombo has ruled out genuine devolution of powers to the provinces, especially the North and the East where Tamil-speaking minorities dominate in numbers, the Provincial Council elections are a form of window-dressing and democratic façade to a unitary state structure that has failed to accommodate the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities.
The formerly pro-separatist Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which used to be a mouthpiece of the now-vanquished militant movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has swept the Council election in the Northern Province. In a nod to the new dispensation after the defeat of the LTTE and the complete takeover of the province by the Sri Lankan Army, the TNA has watered down its maximalist claims for a separate nation-state comprising the Tamil-speaking people from the North and East of Sri Lanka.
The victorious TNA’s chief minister-to-be and a former justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, C.V. Wigneswaran, has argued that Tamils have “absolutely no necessity to separate” from Sri Lanka. His demand for federalism and greater autonomy within “one country” is a throwback to the early Tamil nationalists on this South Asian teardrop island before the rise of the LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and other secessionist militant leaders in the 1980s.
The clock has turned back 30-40 years in terms of the Tamil sub-nationalist ideational universe in Sri Lanka, but the crucial question is whether the central government in Colombo is any wiser and more magnanimous today in dealing with prickly minority rights claims than it was before militancy and counter-insurgency drowned the country in a bloodbath.
The regime of the hardline Buddhist Sinhalese Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, was recently described by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, as “increasingly authoritarian” where “democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded”. The mistrust that Buddhist fundamentalists in the Sri Lankan government nurse towards the largely Hindu, Christian and Muslim peoples of the North and East borders on paranoia.
President Rajapakse’s model of reintegrating the North and East after his victory over the LTTE in a punitive war in 2009 has been one in which the Sri Lankan Army sits in the driver’s seat as the ultimate guarantor against the resurgence of secessionism. A centralised, unitary state whose writ in the North and East is enforced by a humungous military presence is seen by the elites around Mr Rajapakse as the only guarantee to keep the minorities from agitating and demanding more than what they deserve.
In this schema, even if Provincial Councils in the North and East have elected local governments, key executive authority stays with the Sri Lankan military. The governors of both these restive provinces are retired Sinhalese military officers who wield considerable influence on the overall policy-making levers. Unlike in India,
where governors of state governments are mainly ceremonial and chief ministers exercise almost total control over day-to-day functions, President Rajapakse and his coteries envisage unitary authoritarianism to keep elected Provincial Councils tied down with little practical power of their own.
So, despite foreswearing its former ideology of secession of the North and East from the rest of Sri Lanka, the TNA’s ability to preside over a workable autonomous political and economic future for the minorities is severely repressed. The charitable view about the Provincial Councils is that they will eventually get empowered and find wiggle room within the stifling confines set by the Sri Lankan Army and the central government. The councils may indeed one day succeed in winning autonomy after the eventual fall of the dictatorial Rajapakse. Having elected councils, however feeble, is thus better than nothing at all.
At present, Mr Rajapakse’s emphasis on a militarised version of “economic development” as the cure to the ills of the North and East, and Colombo’s prioritisation of infrastructure and livelihood schemes under the watch of the Sinhalese Army, is marginalising chances of real autonomy. The atrocities committed by the Army in the final years of the long war against the LTTE are yet to be accounted for. The clampdown on civil and political rights after the fall of the LTTE has drawn global criticism for its harshness and insensitivity. Sri Lanka as a whole is under the thumb of an illiberal political class, which has been impinging on freedoms of both Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking people.
In such a milieu, should one place hopes in Provincial Council elections as a means of deliverance? The most effective healer after a prolonged war — justice for the impunity and crimes against humanity — has been sidelined in Colombo’s “developmental” politics in the North and East. With the formerly radicalised local Tamil parties in adjustment mode and armed militancy no longer an option, there are few organised forces to accomplish demilitarisation and end of the Sri Lankan Army’s rule in the North and East.
The campaigning for the Provincial Council election in the North was marred by heavy Army interference that favoured President Rajapakse’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and browbeat the TNA with the aim of narrowing the margin of victory of the latter and keeping Tamil parties under check. Yet, the TNA won by a landslide, showing that the much-touted “economic development” platform of the SLFP does not appeal to minorities who resent inequality and second-class citizen status the most.
In hindsight, Sri Lankans will realise that Mr Rajapakse’s myopic majoritarianism harmed national unity and occluded pacification of the minorities. The broadmindedness and large-heartedness which inform successful post-war transitions to peace elude Sri Lanka. Electing Provincial Councils is no panacea when the polity as a whole is stuck in a vengeful and chauvinistic frame.

The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs

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