Colombo Telegraph

First Steps In Sri Lanka

By The Economic and Political Weekly –


A small door has opened with the victory of the Tamil National Alliance.

The Northern Provincial Council election in Sri Lanka, which the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won resoundingly with over 80% of the votes polled, attracted an unusual level of national and international interest, being the first Provincial Council election to be held in the North since the Indian Army pulled out in 1990. Unresolved questions about the war contributed to this interest in a major way. The election, it was anticipated, would be an occasion where the people would deliver their verdict, and they did so with a voter turnout of 70%. After years of apathy, the public suddenly seemed to believe that an expression of their protest would change things for the better.

The powers of the council, never spelt out clearly, have in practice been whittled down over the years, yet even the token powers it retains over land, and law and order are seen by Sinhala nationalists as a bridge to separatism. The post-war reality, on the contrary, is that the government has taken over large tracts of land, depriving Tamil residents of their land and livelihoods. It has offered Sinhalese families incentives to settle in the North on one-and-a-half-acre plots, while a landless Tamil family is at best entitled to a quarter acre. Behind the massive government expenditure on infrastructure and Sinhalisation lies the neglect of war-affected Tamil civilians, maimed, traumatised and broken families buried under the government’s claim that it fought a war with zero civilian casualties, intimidation and surveillance by the military, and militarisation of all aspects of life.

The vote was a positive rejection of a government which was indifferent to the people’s real feelings while deluding itself that the people should be grateful for roads, electricity and railways – public utilities that any government must provide. Another important reason for the high turnout was the week-long visit of United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay just 19 days before the polls on 21 September.

Regrettably, the TNA’s election rhetoric had plenty on Tamil valour but little on the reality of Tamil suffering. The nature of their campaign, based on the rhetoric of Tamil exclusivism, prevented them from attempting to build bridges with Sinhalese and Muslim people based on common interests. On a more sinister note, they tried to boost their fortunes by massaging latent LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) sympathies and branding their electoral rivals as traitors, although people have increasingly come to understand the LTTE’s true nature and realise that its intolerance was largely responsible for the irreplaceable losses they have faced. The TNA’s rhetoric made indomitable heroes of LTTE conscripts cynically forced into the doomed battle that ended the war. Their insensitiveness on this score was matched by crocodile tears for the civilian deaths for which their support for LTTE propaganda was partly to blame. A huge gap was in evidence between the TNA’s rhetoric and the true plight and misery of the people.

One candidate kept out by the TNA, Gnanasakthi Sritharan, could have brought in the dimension of social reform that was missing from its programme. Gnanasakthi has long experience working among and mobilising the poor. As a member of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) women’s wing, she played a leading role in the women’s protest against fratricidal bloodletting among militant groups in 1986. After seeing at first hand the harm done by the advancing Indian Army in her village of Urumpirai in October 1987, she opposed the EPRLF joining forces with the Indian Army. When the war ended in 2009, she returned to active work among the rural villages.

Ananthi Sasitharan, who was elected on the TNA list, represented the important constituency of those whose husbands or relatives surrendered to the Sri Lankan army at the end of the war and then disappeared. There are hundreds in this category, and there is no closure for these losses. Ananthi deservedly attracted support by her courageous defiance of the state forces’ intimidation, including a recent attack on her home. Her election gives the missing a voice. But another category – the thousands who went missing under the LTTE’s regime – has never had a voice. The international community ignored them because they wanted to bring the LTTE into an impossible peace they thought was more important. The TNA too finds those killed by the LTTE an embarrassment, as the number includes many of their leaders and colleagues who were branded traitors by the LTTE. Advancing reconciliation among the Tamils themselves demands a struggle for democracy and openness.

The government’s idea of development through building roads and infrastructure on borrowed money does not go beyond turning the country into a giant tourist resort where the north-east would be a satellite of big money based in Colombo. The centralisation of all development funds and activities was taken a step further in January when the Divi Neguma Bill placed development funds, formerly controlled by the provincial councils, in the hands of Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother. In this set-up, it is not surprising that there is no development that aims to give people viable livelihoods and stop the haemorrhage of the educated young. The TNA’s victory and even the little authority the provincial council would have, gives an opportunity for thinking through what form the people’s demand for autonomy should take.

*This is the Economic and Political Weekly Editorial of Vol – XLVIII No. 40, October 05, 2013

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