By Jehan Perera –
The passage of the second US-sponsored resolution at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva appears to have served as a wake-up call to the government. One aspect of the government’s response has been to hire a new public relations company in the United States. This PR effort seeks a favourable revision of US policy through a more professional approach than the previous PR effort. The mandate of the new public relations initiative is to positively project the government’s achievements in post-war rebuilding to those that matter in the US policy making circles. It is also to obtain more space and time to achieve reconciliation on the ground.
The international community and diplomats in Sri Lanka, are watching for progress on the ground. Changing the messenger matters little when the message from the ground is a negative one. Therefore, the implementation of the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, as called for by both the first and second US-sponsored resolutions in Geneva, are of great importance. In particular, the implementation of the government’s LLRC action plan will be a visible manifestation of its sincerity. An easily verifiable indicator of achievement would be to hold the provincial council election for the Northern Province, as promised by government leaders at various forums, and also in the LLRC.
The government would also be concerned about the cauldron of hate that is being brewed a mere 30 kilometers across the northern seas. The agitation in Tamil Nadu gets its political backing from across the Indian political spectrum from the Sri Lankan government’s failure to honour its promises to the Indian government. The government’s war-time promise to improve on the devolution contained in the 13th Amendment and make it “13th Amendment plus” was a basis on which the Indian government gave the government its support during the war against the LTTE. The least that the government can do is to implement the 13th Amendment in the Northern Province, as it has in the rest of the country. The best that the government could do is to ensure that the elections to the Northern Provincial Council are free and fair and not in contempt of those ideals.
Unfortunately, the reason for the upsurge of organized violence in the North in recent weeks is almost certainly due to the provincial elections that are expected to be held for the Northern Provincial Council by September this year. The target of the violence has been the TNA. First, a political meeting organized in Kilinochchi by four leading MPs from the TNA was attacked by a mob in the vicinity of a police station and in a town with a large number of military personnel. The inaction of the security forces on the scene together with the inaction of the MPs own official security detail is suggestive of tacit governmental approval of the disruption of the meeting. This attack was followed by one on the Sudaroli newspaper office in Kilinochchi. Staff members were severely assaulted. As the attackers got away without being apprehended by the security forces, and this newspaper is owned by a TNA MP, it is not difficult to perceive a governmental hand in this attack as well.
Government spokespersons have denied a government hand in it. At a media conference Minister Dullas Alahapperuma denied that the government was behind the two attacks and said that they condemned the attacks and had appointed police teams to investigate them. The government routinely denies any role in perpetrating extra-legal violence. More significantly, however, the Minister had admitted that the government coalition had not won the majority of votes at local government elections held in the Northern Province, but added that it was the government’s achievement that elections there could be held at all. He is reported to have said that “Whoever wins the Northern provincial council election, it is our victory that created the situation to conduct the poll in the province.”
The government’s concern is that a TNA led provincial council could take actions that are at cross purposes with the plans and visions of the central government. It is undoubtedly concerns of this nature that has led Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to argue that a hostile provincial administration in the Northern or Eastern provinces could be detrimental to the national reconciliation process. In a media interview he has even said that “such an administration could be as intimidating as the conventional military challenge posed by the LTTE.” The Defence Secretary has also said that the ongoing crisis in Tamil Nadu on issues relating to Sri Lanka is an example of how the devolution of powers can be abused.
The problem for the government is that the Northern Provincial Council election is one that it feels it cannot afford to lose. To a government that wishes to concentrate power in itself, the idea of losing power over a provincial council is not something that they find acceptable. The recent electoral verdicts in areas where Tamils are a majority have invariably been in favour of the TNA, which is the main Tamil opposition party. A provincial government would provide more legitimacy to the TNA when it speaks to the country and to the world. At the moment the TNA members can only speak as MPs who are a small minority in a Parliament in which the government holds a 2/3 majority. But if they win the provincial council elections, the TNA will speak as an elected government, and with greater authority.
Despite these misgivings, it now appears that the government has decided to take the plunge and hold the provincial council elections for the Northern Province as promised. Too much is at stake for the government to falter on the promise it has made. The alternative would be a possible follow-up to the two UN Human Rights Council resolutions that could go so far as to call for sanctions against Sri Lanka or for an independent international commission to probe into human rights violations and war crimes in the last phase of the war. Further, the government may feel that it can pull off a surprise victory at the Northern Provincial Council election, just as it did at the Jaffna Municipal Council election in 2009 using the economic and other resources at its disposal.
On the other hand, it may be premature for the government to bank on victory at the polls in the North at this time when the wounds of war have still to heal. It would be a tragedy if strong arm tactics, such as those that are now being practiced in the North, serve to alienate the Northern voter and their representatives even more. The TNA must not be seen as an enemy, to be defeated by any and all means as in the war. Instead they should be seen as another democratic political party and beneficiary of the war’s end. It is also important for government leaders to consider that unjust victory breeds hatred in the minds of those defeated, and the higher good for them and for the country is reconciliation.