By Jehan Perera –
It was past eight pm and most of the two to three hundred strong audience present at the open air theatre of the Centre for Performing Arts in Jaffna had not dispersed. They had come to be part of the golden jubilee celebration of the CPArts founder, Fr N M Saveri. Most of the audience was composed of women and youth. Despite the lateness of the hour there was no sign of uneasiness or tension. This was unimaginable during the years of the war. There was no visible presence of security forces. The relaxed and peaceful environment can be taken as one of the positive features of the post-war period.
Every visit to Jaffna can be a learning experience to those who are outside of it. Due to the long distances and travel time, life within Jaffna is not so well known to those who live in the south of the country. The cost of coverage can be a deterrent. Media reports that cover affairs of the north are sketchy in the national media, which is based in Colombo. The journey from Colombo to Jaffna can take between nine to eleven hours depending on the willingness of the driver to take risks with the hawk-eyed traffic police waiting to catch their next victim. The air fare is prohibitive, costing as much as international flights to South India.
One of the ways in which regular travelers to Jaffna seek to minimize the loss of working hours involved in the travel to Jaffna is to travel by night. There are a large number of big buses that depart Colombo in the late evening and arrive in Jaffna at the crack of dawn, and vice versa. On this occasion, I travelled along with colleagues from CPArts by van that travelled through the night. It was a remarkably trouble free run and not once did the security forces ask us to disembark though they stopped our vehicle on several occasions to check on the driver’s documents and to peer inside. There was a night life of sorts at the restaurants all along the way and at the temple in Murugandy where the bazaar was open for purchases of food, drink and fruits, all of which was very wholesome, and the night air was cool.
The cultural show at the open air theatre, which began at around five pm and went on till after eight pm, provided an opportunity to meet with many people who were a captive audience. It was easy to walk around in the open air and engage in conversation with them. Many of those who were present had come out of respect for Fr Saveri and his life’s work in seeking the unity of people of different cultures and religions through arts and culture. The language of artistes is universal and so they can be a powerful means of unifying people and overcoming differences to effect social and political change.
A matter that was uppermost in the minds of many who were in the audience that evening was the government’s decision not to hold the provincial council elections for the Northern Province for a further year. The government has recently announced that the elections would not be held until September next year on account of logistical matters that need to be attended to, including demining, resettlement of all displaced persons and updating of the electoral registers. Government spokespersons have even gone so far to say that they want a perfect election in the Northern Province.
Needless to say, the government’s resolve to hold perfect elections in the North, and to delay the elections for a further year, sounds peculiar in the face of the government’s decision to dissolve three other provincial councils prematurely and to hold elections in them, despite criticisms by election monitors of various imperfections and abuses of the electoral process, not least the manipulation of electoral time tables for politically opportunistic reasons. The inconsistency of the government holding premature elections in some provinces while delaying holding elections in another province can be taken to be another act of discrimination and misgovernance.
The people I spoke to in Jaffna in the open air theatre during the cultural show questioned the inconsistency of the government in saying that the Northern Province is not yet ready for elections. The fact is that both national and local level elections have already taken place in the north, including the Presidential elections and General Elections, both of which took place shortly after the conclusion of the war. Therefore it is not difficult to see that the reason for the government to delay the Northern Provincial council elections has more to it than what government spokespersons are prepared to admit.
The government’s position that it cannot hold the elections in the north are the unfinalised issues of voter registration and resettlement to take place before free and fair elections can be held. It is now over three years since the end of the war. The government’s stand with respect to elections in the north is in contrast to its actions with regard to the Eastern Province. Within a year of defeating the LTTE in the east the government held provincial council elections in the east despite the existence of similar post-war issues. Ironically, the Eastern Provincial Council is one of the three provincial councils that the government has decided to dissolve prematurely and hold fresh elections.
It can be surmised that the main reason that the government is holding the elections to the three provincial councils at this time is to obtain a re-affirmation of the people’s mandate. This will send a message to the world at large, including all those who are might wish to join the opposition in a mass campaign, that joining the opposition is a futile exercise. More people are likely to join a cause that they reasonably expect to prevail in the end and fewer are likely to join a cause that is doomed to fail. When faced with a government that cannot be defeated the tendency would be to fall in line with those in power rather than to oppose them in a losing and personally costly exercise.
The government will also be hopeful that by winning the elections in the three provincial councils just prior to the important meetings in Geneva with the international human rights community, it will be strengthening its position to rebut their queries. The elections are scheduled for September this year and the next meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is in October. A victory for the government in the multi ethnic Eastern Province, where the Tamil and Muslim communities are in the majority, can be taken as a message that the ethnic minorities are also behind the government. This will do much to bolster the government’s position that it is satisfactorily dealing with human rights issues through the implementation of its National Human Rights Action Plan, the Social Integration Policy Framework and the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
However, these political and strategic expectations of the government are unlikely to materialize in the case of elections that are held in the Northern Province. This is a province in which the Tamil population is well over ninety percent. The government has failed badly in all elections in the north in the post-war period with the exception of the Jaffna Municipal Council elections which were boycotted by the main Tamil party, and which the government won through its partner the EPDP. The people I spoke to at the cultural event were prepared to accept that the government has improved the infrastructure of the area and they are relieved that there is no more war. But they resented the absence of democracy even three years after the war.
What the people of the Northern Province want more than anything else, those I spoke to said, was to have those whom they elect also make the decisions that affect their lives. The government’s delay in restoring full civil administration to the north means that there will be a vicious cycle. So long as the government is mistrustful of the Tamil people of the north, and the Northern Province remains the one province in the country in which provincial council elections are not held, the government will continue to alienate the people of the north and keep communal discord alive.