By Kumar David –
The Northern Province conducted its Provincial Council (PC) elections smoothly, the TNA scored a resounding victory and the NPC Administration has been installed with Wigneswaran as Chief Minister. This notwithstanding blood curdling warnings from BBS, like minded extremists and Gota, their de facto patron, foretelling division of the country, demanding cancellation of elections, and vowing to repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment (13A). The army did its bit to disrupt proceedings including, an at once comical and sinister foray, into the newspaper printing business; but again to no avail. The lesson to draw is that chauvinism is not as strong as thought. Extremism could not work up the muscle to get the elections annulled, failed to draw tens of thousands to rallies, nor were there marches of any notable size or militancy.
Let us reflect on this welcome but unexpected turn of events as it yields pointers on how to defang the chauvinist viper more effectively. First allow me to enumerate the reasons for this happy conjuncture. The list is in what seems to me the order of priority.
a) The influence of the international community (IC) over local polity is far greater than analysts have been prone to grant. Therefore the IC must further increase pressure till Colombo is compelled to entirely desist from rights violations and trampling on judicial independence.
b) The NP election victory was a tidal wave; therefore the regime had no option but to bow down. True, it was forced to hold the elections because of CHOGM, but after the results it had no option but to accept the verdict of the people, CHOGM or no CHOGM.
c) The TNA conducted itself with tactical wisdom and succeeded in reassuring the Sinhalese that it wanted a fair deal for the Tamils and had no sinister plot up its sleeve.
d) A majority of Sinhalese, at least after the event, think it fair and just that the Tamils should have their own elected PC in the Northern Province.
e) Most Sinhalese do not buy Gota’s ‘tiger lurking under every bush’ gonibilla yarn. Fear of secession has passed after the elimination of the LTTE.
These are the reasons why the mood in the country changed for the better, and to repeat myself, chauvinism was forced to retreat. The NPC Administration is getting down to the job (let us see how it fares). At first it seemed Rajapakse had scored a triumph by pulling off CHOGM (see Rajan Philips “CHOGM a victory for President Rajapakse” in Sunday Island, 27 October) and was comfortable in his seat. The buoyant mood has since been dented and the government has become jittery; panicky closure of universities, deportation of Australian and New Zealand parliamentarians, and the embarrassment of issuing and then rescinding visas for the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. Manmohan Singh’s absence is the biggest disappointment so far, but the bigger disaster would be if the move to deny Rajapakse the Commonwealth Headship gains traction; but I think this won’t materialise.
Hence there is good reason to expect Rajapakse to conduct himself in future rather better than during his previous years in office as he now has to project an at least semi decent image. But there is still too much uncertainty to say anything definitive.
The IC can call the shots
It is not as simple as: “Rajapakse was keen on CHOGM and thereafter a two year presidency of the Commonwealth, so he put his head down and did as he was told”. No, it is crucial to appreciate that the power of the IC is substantial, not momentary. Lanka cannot survive by playing off China against the Rest, or gaming between Delhi and Beijing. The Indian Express has faulted Manmohan Singh for “opening the door to our backyard to China” and the Lankan regime may be tempted to game in the Indian backyard. This will be a disaster as our continued survival depends on a favourable international environment and the regime can be destabilised if it does not evolve a minimal working relationship with the IC at large. It is a matter for regret that the IC has been reluctant to exert muscle and twist Colombo’s arm more forcefully than it has so far on behalf of human rights and democracy.
British PM David Cameron is determined to visit Jaffna; I believe the first foreign leader to do so, and may be joined by others. Cameron was under pressure either to boycott the summit or to “have some very tough words” with Mahinda Rajapakse. The Lankan regime is thick-skinned and deceitful and will not be troubled by anyone’s tough words. It will make promises it has no intention of keeping. But a Cameron et al visit can be useful if the TNA uses the opportunity wisely. It should not limit itself to Northern development and war crimes issues, but also raise rule of law and judicial independence concerns on behalf of the whole country. This possibility has been spotted by Lankan officials who have declared: “He (Cameron) is trying to interfere in our internal affairs, seeking to placate his domestic opposition”.
Cameron is on record saying; “I’m not happy with their human rights record. I’m not happy with what they’ve done following the conflict and we’ll have some very frank conversations to make those points”. British High Commissioner John Rankin has insisted: “London’s concern is not limited to war crimes, but also rule of law and we expect Sri Lanka to demonstrate its willingness to respect Commonwealth values as Colombo takes over as Chairperson-in-office of the 53-member bloc after the summit”. He added “Sri Lanka must probe allegations by Britain’s Channel 4, which accused the country’s forces of executing surrendering Tamil rebels and shelling civilians in no-fire zones during the civil war”. But this regime and military may be too crafty and cunning for suddhas to figure out.
Can chauvinism be defanged?
CHOGM has so far been a triumph for the President and the remaining serious headwind is the unlikely threat to deny him Commonwealth Headship. It has also been positive in other ways; for example the government has been compelled to accredit Channel-4, the station which aired the cold blooded murder of LTTE prisoners by the army. (The team could still be kicked out at Katunayake on arrival). The campaign by monks, Gota and the army to stop Northern PC elections fizzled out and white van incidents, violations of human rights and assailing journalists have declined. Chauvinism had so little impact that the President could afford to ignore threats. Hence it is time to re-evaluate the influence of chauvinism in the political domain. The anti-Muslim campaign too seems to have abated. If chauvinist loonies get up to tricks during CHOGM they will be smashed. Therefore something of a win-win situation for President, Tamils and democrats has materialised due to the regime’s desire to overcome its pariah status in the international community in the run up to CHOGM.
Arising from this changed landscape and this favourable conjuncture there is a possibility of implementing ethnic reconciliation and people-based economic and social development programmes in the North. There is a popular and stable provincial administration in the North, and in the wake of the CHOGM success, Rajapakse should be feeling more secure. This is a situation in with both sides can make concessions without needing to look over their shoulders at extremists. Will the regime grab the opportunity and make a bold decision to cooperate with the NPC? Keep your fingers crossed.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran, for his part, has been bending over backwards to please the government and there will be no serious obstruction from the Tamil side to reconciliation and sensible economic programmes. Actually there has never been obstruction because Tamils have been on the losing side for 50 years. The trouble makers have been Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists and regimes which have been afraid to tame them. Post May 2009 was an opportunity for wise political leadership to prevail, but Lanka is not blessed with this priceless commodity. A new window has opened and the government is feeling a little snug.
What could foul everything up is if the national economy runs into serious difficulties or if Colombo gets into a serious spat with Delhi and/or Tamil Nadu in this pre (Indian) election period. The signs are that Lanka’s debt and budget deficit problems are continuing to worsen. Corruption is eroding not only the social but also the economic fabric of the nation and it is not abating. It is not likely that Rajapakse will do anything to reverse either trend. The nation’s highest court steadfastly plays poodle. None of this is good news. Though the post-CHOGM and post-NPC circumstances are favourable the ethos of those in power may have ossified beyond salvation. Regarding the relationship with India, post the Manhohan Singh boycott, there have been no signals yet how Colombo intends to play its cards in the next period up to the Indian elections. The complication for the Rajapakses is that a BJP led government would be more hostile to them than the Congress led alliance has been so far.