By Jehan Perera –
Once again the government swept to a comfortable victory at the provincial council elections in the Western and Southern provinces far outstripping its main rival, the UNP, by huge margins virtually everywhere except for Colombo city where the ethnic and religious minority vote predominates. Both provinces that the government retained control over are important ones. The Western Province, which includes Colombo, is the most populous and prosperous one by far, accounting for over a quarter of the country’s population and a half of its national income. The Southern Province has gained in importance during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose ancestral home is located there. The Hambantota district from which the presidential family hails has witnessed unprecedented economic development that includes a gigantic new harbor and airport.
The political shrewdness of the government ensured that the elections to the two provinces were timed to coincide with the vote on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The day after the vote in Geneva, and just prior to the provincial elections, the main opposition party, the UNP, issued a statement that said “It is now crystal clear that the government set the date for the Western and Southern Provincial elections for March 29, in the full knowledge that it would face a resounding humiliation in the international arena two days earlier. It is nothing short of despicable that the Rajapaksa administration has chosen to turn a major crisis facing Sri Lanka internationally into a political rallying point in order to consolidate power.” The US-sponsored resolution in Geneva was passed by a margin of 23 to 12 with 12 abstentions.
During the election campaign government members made it clear that they wanted the voters to deliver a strong verdict in their favour in order to combat the UNHRC resolution. The government’s campaign was two-pronged. It emphasized that the resolution sought to punish the leaders of the government and army who had defeated the LTTE and preserved the unity of the country. The shooting of a policeman that occurred in the North during the campaign period, and heightened security measures including arrests of human rights activists and cordon and search operations in the northern part of the country, became reminders of times past. The seemingly inexplicable arrest of two internationally known human rights defenders was perhaps for this purpose. It was used to make the point that the country needed a strong government at this point of time when it was being besieged from both within and without.
The second prong of the government’s strategy was to emphasise its massive investments in infrastructure, which was most evident in Hambantota but also visible in other parts of the two provinces. This has come about through its centralization of power and focus on economic development. The government’s economic strategy has been accompanied by its sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the Sinhalese ethnic majority who form the bedrock of its support base, and who formed the vast majority of voters in the two provinces, with the significant exception of Colombo city. Therefore, viewed in its larger perspective, the government’s victory at the provincial council elections would be an affirmation of its present strategy of governance.
However, a more critical appraisal of the election results would reveal a need for the government to adjust its strategy. On the one hand, this political strategy has had the effect of alienating the ethnic and religious minorities who form up to 30 percent of the country’s population. It has also run headlong into collision with human rights groups. On the other hand, the elections have also revealed new developments that include an actual erosion of the government’s margin of victory, as compared to the previous provincial council elections held in 2009. This erosion of popular support has been accompanied a strengthening of the smaller opposition parties. These are the newly formed Democratic Party headed by former army commander General Sarath Fonseka and the older established JVP which is newly headed by Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
Both the Democratic Party and the JVP campaigned strongly on issues of political rights, good governance and economic mismanagement stemming from corrupt practices. Both of these parties, and their leaders, have been severely victimized by the erosion of the Rule of Law that commenced decades ago and which has reached a nadir at this time. During the election campaign they were often denied the freedom to hold their campaign meetings by government authorities and they were also attacked with impunity by government supporters. The shifting of a sizeable proportion of the popular vote to these two parties show that issues of political rights and good governance are important to the people of the Sinhalese majority South, just as they are to the ethnic minorities living in the North and elsewhere. It would be well for the government to take this emerging reality into account when it fashions its answer to the challenge posed to it by the US-led international community in Geneva.
In Geneva, for the third year in succession the Sri Lankan government’s confrontational posture in dealing with the issue of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council failed to deliver results. The resolution passed on this occasion constitutes a sharp escalation of the international pressure on the government as it authorizes the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up an international mechanism to probe into Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. The resolution has mandated the High Commissioner for Human Rights “To undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability, with assistance from relevant experts and special procedures mandate holders.”
However, despite its defeat there was one unexpected development during the vote which indicates a possible way forward. This was the abstention of India which had previously voted against Sri Lanka at this forum. The Indian decision to abstain came as a surprise. With elections due to take place in India next month, and the political parties in Tamil Nadu state being unanimous in their support of a strong resolution at the UNHRC, Indian support in favour of the resolution was considered to be virtually certain.
The Indian representative said that India’s decision to abstain was due to its opposition to an external investigation mechanism which would be intrusive and undermine Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. India has not taken the position that investigating past human rights violations and war crimes and punishing perpetrators, is the way to reconciliation. On the contrary, India’s favoured strategy is the devolution of power and the implementation of the 13th Amendment that was an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.
Along with India there are other important countries that also reject the punitive approach to reconciliation, including South Africa and Japan. The most likely reason as to why they abstained would have been to keep lines of communication and possibility for engagement with the Sri Lankan government open to help address the human rights and governance concerns highlighted in the resolution. These three countries constitute a formidable third force that can mediate between the Sri Lankan government and the US and its allies that forced through the resolution. However, their abstention from the vote does not necessarily mean that there need not be any process of accountability and truth seeking, only that it should be an internal one.
Through the LLRC process, which focuses on good governance and recovery of the war-affected population, there is still the possibility of reunifying Sri Lanka from within and gaining more support internationally. The goal would be to satisfy all parties primarily victims from actions from both sides and introduce legal and other safeguards, such as Freedom of Information, Freedom of Media, Witness Protection and laws to protect the functioning of Civil Society as these are the bulwarks of an open democracy. None of these would be one-off or stand-alone actions. Healing and reform are processes. The South African interlocutors have made it clear that their support to a national investigation is conditional upon it being based on multi-party cooperation and political reform. These are not going to be easy conditions for the government to accept.
However, the gradual leaching of its support base, as evidenced in the provincial elections that were just held, and the significantly increased international pressure after the UNHRC resolution, are reasons for the government to consider a new strategy of maintaining its internal public support as well as coping with the demands from the international community. The old ways of centralization, militarization and demonization of the other must go. In the months ahead, Sri Lanka must find ways of moving forward to national and mutually acceptable closure processes with a substantive process of grieving, memorials and reparations to those who have suffered for long years so that they would not need to go as far as Geneva to air their grievances.