By Rajan Philips –
Disaffection has two different, not necessarily opposite, meanings: hostility and disillusionment. 13A and the NPC elections have provoked both hostility and disillusionment. Those who are hostile insist that 13A was imposed on a weak Sri Lankan President, is an infringement of and a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and is not acceptable to the Sinhalese. On the other hand, those who are disillusioned claim that the Tamils never accepted 13A as a fair basis for a political solution, and that it is structurally disempowered and will be ineffectual in execution in the Northern Province.
As well, the hostile camp led by the Secretary of Defence tried hard to forestall the NPC election and have 13A repealed. The disillusionment camp has been calling upon the TNA just to do the opposite: boycott the NPC election. Writing in The Hindu (7 August), Kumaravadivel Guruparan has asserted that “the 13th Amendment is no starting point to a political solution.” He offers no suggestion as to what would be an alternative starting point. The significance of the article is that The Hindu carried it, thus appearing to mark a departure from the paper’s editorial policy in recent years of lionizing President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If so, the departure is indicative of the growing disenchantment generally among Indian politicians, and the hostility particularly in Tamil Nadu, to the Rajapaksa regime.
The main hostile argument in Sri Lanka is that 13A was forced by New Delhi on a beleaguered JR Jayewardene, who in turn forced his MPs (allegedly with their letters of resignation in hand) to vote for 13A. If that was so in 1987, the question in 2013 is why Mahinda Rajapaksa not acceding to the trenchant advice of his brother and the BBS to repeal 13A and not have the NPC election? Why would he not do that and assert Sri Lanka’s sovereignty once and for all? Is President Rajapaksa not doing it because he is not as powerful as he appears to be? Is Mahinda Rajapaksa as weak and beleaguered as JR Jayewardene is constantly accused to have been when he signed the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement that led to 13A?
The one dangerous difference between JRJ then and MR now is this: Between 1983 and 1987, JRJ fired Cyril Mathew and isolated the chauvinists who had been wielding undue influence in his cabinet and government, whereas President Rajapaksa, after the end of the war in 2009, has been courting chauvinists and allowing those in his cabinet and government to sponsor their schemes. I am not casting any aspersion on the good person of Mahinda Rajapaksa. All the President’s good friends and his better advisers are saying the same thing.
Truth and half-truth among the Sinhalese
The truth of the matter is that whereas JRJ was able to corral the MPs of his Party to vote for 13A, MR has not been able to gather enough MPs for his negative purpose of ridding 13A despite his years of groundwork to entice MPs not only from his Party but from every Party in parliament. The tipping point against the repeal-13A move came courtesy of a small group of SLFP MPs who decided to take a stand on this matter even though some of them had earlier folded all too easily before presidential power in impeaching Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike. These SLFPers give the lie to the common assertion that the SLFP has always opposed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and the 13th Amendment it produced – because that assertion is only half-true.
The other half is that under Chandrika Kumaratunga the SLFP changed course and changed its position. Although the SLFP had earlier boycotted the first election to Provincial Councils, Chandrika Kumaratunga as the new leader started her winning march against the UNP by herself contesting and winning the Southern and Western Provincial Council elections. What is more, she went on to win presidential and general elections not on a platform of repealing or diluting 13A but on the promise of going beyond it. So where was the SLFP under Chandrika Kumaratunga, including Mahinda Rajapaksa? The latter was without his brothers then, and is flanked by all his brothers now. Therein is a damning clue as to where the SLFP is now.
While at it, what has happened to the JVP that too opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement rather destructively at that time? Its political positions are far more nuanced now than they were at that time. Electorally the JVP has not been able to establish anything except as an appendage to ruling coalitions. Its only achievement against 13A has been through the Supreme Court, a strange route for an organization that in its first coming described all courts as bourgeois fraud. And the Supreme Court has been all over the map in offering judicial opinions on constitutional matters, especially concerning 13A, to be of any positive use on them. As well, after the impeachment of its own Chief Justice it will take at least another political generation before that once hallowed institution could regain even a semblance of its former credibility, not to mention pride. Would Solomon or Sirimavo Bandaranaike have ever countenanced getting rid of a Supreme Court Judge through a Parliamentary Select Committee?
My point is that while there is no denying that the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and 13A were highly controversial when they were created, there is little truth in the assertion that the vast majority of the Sinhalese people were impeccably opposed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and 13A at that time and have been consistently insisting on their repeal ever since. If it is argued that President Rajapaksa would easily win a referendum among the Sinhalese against 13A, it could just as well be counter-argued that the selfsame President Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa would equally easily win a referendum among a good majority of the Sinhalese and more overwhelmingly among the Tamils and Muslims not only for 13A, but even for 13A+. To those who dream that in such a referendum Gota (against 13A) will best Mahinda (for 13A, or 13A+), there is a simple answer from recent past: Sarath Fonseka.
I am not suggesting that Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to do any of this. In fact, being too clever by half, he is trying to have it both ways – allowing the JHU to go on agitating against 13A and asking Douglas Devananda to carry on campaigning for 13A. The 13th Amendment has become a political football that is conveniently kicked around, with the President constantly blowing the whistle and shifting the goal posts in every direction so that neither side can score! How long can this go on? Will the NPC election bring matters to a head?
And the truth about the suffering Tamil half
The Tamils have their own same-side, national and transnational, football game over the Thirteenth Amendment, with the TNA playing the game in Sri Lanka mal-refereed by the President. The President has his permanent bench of Tamil ‘reserves’ with scars of infamy from either their association with the LTTE, or by their opposition to it, or both. So it is not surprising that the TNA’s decision to contest the NPC election and its choice of Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as the candidate for Chief Minister elicited a plethora of opinions in the Tamil political universe. Mr. Guruparan’s piece in The Hindu is among the more reasoned of the criticisms targeting the TNA and Mr. Wigneswaran. Some of the attacks on Wigneswaran are beyond the pale and many of them are mangled nonsense posted on the internet by maladjusted anonymities. These attacks add nothing to Tamil politics or to addressing the existential challenges facing the Tamil people in the North, but say everything about the attackers who have never put pen to paper in their life but can now post a pathetic paragraph on the internet to prop their own wormy self-esteem.
The challenges facing the TNA and a potential TNA-led Northern Provincial Council with Wigneswaran as Chief Minister, are fundamentally different from the challenges that faced Tamil political leaders before the eruption of the ‘Eelam wars’, and the challenges that overwhelmed Tamil society during the ‘war years’. The challenges now are more fundamental in that they have to deal the postwar existential problems of the Tamil people in the Northern Province. The people are resourceful enough to keep running the only public institutions that ever flourished in Jaffna – schools, hospitals and places of worship, despite the severe physical damages that the war had inflicted on them. On the private side, retail commerce is holding its ground in the face of blatant intrusions by the Sri Lankan military. Farming and fishing the economic mainstays of the Province are still light years behind what they were before the war.
A large number of people who were evacuated during the war have not been able to get their property back. Worse, the government and the military are on a land-grab mission in the land-starved Jaffna Peninsula. The affected people have petitioned the courts in the proper way, rather than sending postcards of complains that the de facto Chief Justice had suggested as a way of symbolically opening the Supreme Court doors to the people after the Court had been forced to literally bang its door on his de jure predecessor. Even as Colombo is said to be basking in the shadow of a new statue for the late, lamented Sri Lankan patriot, Lakshman Kadirgamar, his son is petitioning the court to stop the government from seizing his father’s ancestral property in Jaffna.
The Sri Lankan courts have a stellar record in dealing with crimes and in adjudicating disputes between private parties, but a very tainted record when it comes to the equality of rights of the minorities, viz. the citizenship of the plantation workers, language rights, terrorism laws, North-East merger etc. The ‘land cases’ present a thorny dilemma to the hapless courts torn between the principles of justice and the expediency of Rajapaksa politics. Many, not just the petitioners, will be watching on which side the courts will land. And the courts will have to be watchful of a former brother Justice potentially commenting on their decision in his new capacity as an elected Chief Minister of the Province where the subject lands are located. All of this may be very exciting to political onlookers and judicial watchers, but the human anguish underlying the efforts of the petitioners to reclaim their rightful property must not be lost sight of.
Much has also been said and written about provincial police powers. According to Mr. Guruparan, this is nothing more than shadow boxing for in reality, regardless of legal pettifogging, the police strings are firmly in the hands of the President and his brother Secretary. This is a national problem that has created different regimes for dealing with crime and deciding punishment. Some crimes are punished, some are ignored, and some may even be rewarded. The specific problem in the North and East, and it has always been following the police and military recruitment criteria developed under N.Q. Dias in the early 1960s, is that the people living in those provinces and the police and military personnel posted among them have no shared medium of communication. What has made it worse is the continuing expansion rather than the abatement of the military after the war in the Northern Province, in general, and in the Jaffna Peninsula in particular. If the army could do what it did in Weliweriya, in the South, it does not need much imagination to figure out the daily predicament of the people in the North.
Possibilities and Options
That the government is to be blamed almost entirely for this postwar ‘state of nature’ in the North, is a no-brainer, but the practical question is how does one begin to transform this situation without making it worse for the people who are already suffering. The victims of war – orphans, young widows, women and men without vision and/or limbs – are a harrowingly large proportion of the population. They need redress now, and they cannot afford the luxury of self-determination for a future generation. There is a necessity to build an administrative platform, however rudimentary, for reconstruction and rehabilitation. There is an urgency to deal, not confrontationally, but firmly with the military governor and the intrusions of the army. There is a need for an elected leader to empathetically and purposefully mediate between the needs of the people in the North and the political powers in Colombo. And there is no alternative to start addressing these issues through the only political and administrative mechanism that is now available to the Tamil people.
No one is assuming that any or all of these tasks can be successfully accomplished. In fact, the whole exercise may turn out to be a frustrating failure. But it is important to establish that the exercise failed because of the obduracy and the intransigence of the government. Establishing that failure is in itself a necessary political task in the context of both Sri Lankan politics and Tamil politics.
On the other hand, and viewed positively, a TNA Provincial government in the North would create a new opportunity for President Rajapaksa and his government to undo the postwar misdoings and finally start the long neglected process of reconciliation. The two sides must start working on specific issues to find solutions rather than endlessly debating abstract generalities. The Rajapaksa government at the Centre may or may not respond positively to a TNA government in the North. But it would be wrong to blame the TNA for not boycotting the NPC election on the assumption that the Rajapaksa government will not do anything different after the election, or predictably will only make matters worse. That may well be, but sensible politics is not only about the art of the possible; it is also about exhausting all options.