By Jehan Perera –
Five years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka remains a post-war society that has yet to make the transition to a post-conflict society. While the violence has ceased, the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to war remain to be addressed. There continues to be extreme political polarization between the government and the Tamil and, more recently, the Muslim polity. The government has in recent weeks being talking in terms of the revival of the LTTE and Tamil separatism. In recent months, a new front has opened up with the renewed targeting of the Muslim minority, which shows that the build-up of extremist Sinhalese animosity against them, has not stopped. The attacks against the Muslims have not enjoyed popular support, but they are becoming regular enough to sow seeds of fear and apprehension within the Muslim community.
The anticipation that presidential elections will be held early next year, or sooner, has received a boost after a government minister made an announcement to this effect in parliament. However, this announcement does not bode well for those who wish to see more devolution of power or a focus on the rights of the ethnic minorities. The recently held provincial council elections made it starkly evident that the ethnic minorities are not voting for the government. This will strengthen the resolve of the government to look to its Sinhalese voter base to prevail at the forthcoming elections. This may account for the lack of deterrent and punitive action against those who attack the ethnic and religious minorities. But there is a danger here. The government’s policy is to gather all Sinhalese under the banner of ethnic nationalism. It may lose out with more moderate Sinhalese who have spoken out against the actions of the nationalists who attack the minorities.
Instead of politically addressing the grievances of the ethnic minorities, the government has preferred to follow a conflict management strategy. At its heart is to co-opt the opposition parties, by offering them positions in the government and thereby seeking their acquiescence. A second strategy is to use the military to suppress any possibility of public agitation. The third, and most benign, is to emphasize its achievements in terms of economic development. The government has been able to show macro level statistics which show unceasing progress in per capita incomes, high rates of economic growth, especially in the North, and visible infrastructure. This has led the population at large, especially those living in the South of the country, to believe that the needs of the war-affected people are being adequately taken care of by the government.
Indeed, there are positive signs emanating from the North. There is continuous development work taking place, with new roads being built or improved. The impact of roads on the well being of a society cannot be underestimated as they are like the arteries of a living body. They can transform the appearance of the buildings on either side of the road, which themselves are being upgraded or newly constructed. There are more shops and more money being spent in them. In addition, in recent weeks there are indications that the TNA is prepared to be more conciliatory and accommodating in working with the government, even prior to obtaining the fundamental political reforms that they have long demanded.
So far there has been little or no manifestation of trust or inclination for such dialogue visible. But this may be changing for the better. The active role that is being played by South Africa in this regard is to be welcomed. The most recent South African initiative has seen a visit to South Africa by a TNA delegation which followed a previous visit to South Africa by a Sri Lankan government delegation. It is through forward movement with regard to a mutually acceptable political solution that the government can best restore its credibility with the moderate sections within the country and the international community. There is a need for dialogue and negotiations, without which problems that affect communities and their nationalistic aspirations can be solved.
The TNA appears to be moderating its position with regard to engaging with the government, which suggests that a new peace process is in the offing. Disengagement means that each entity operates in its own sphere without accommodating the other, whereas engagement means that the possibility of accommodation is increased. The first indications came when Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C V Wigneswaran implied that the TNA could join the Parliamentary Select Committee. He said that if the TNA brought to the table reports and recommendations of committees that had addressed these matters in the past, and directed the PSC to move forward from where these committees had left, the TNA had no reason to keep away from the committee. Another TNA leader Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran welcomed the initiatives of the Chairman of the PSC Nimal Siripala de Silva and the Chief Minister, and added that the PSC was clearly the vehicle by which the government intended to achieve its objective. The government must make the exercise more than a time-buying effort.
In these circumstances, it might be better to think in terms of problem-solving behaviors that are possible rather than what is ideal. Those who act on the basis of political rights may wish to stand separate from the government and oppose it and prevail. But the government will either ignore or seek to weaken them. In the study of economics there is the theory of the second best. In welfare economics, the theory of the second best concerns what happens when one or more conditions cannot be satisfied. If one optimality condition cannot be satisfied, it is possible that the next-best solution involves changing other variables away from the ones that are usually assumed to be optimal.
The reasoning is that imperfections in information and market conditions make the best outcome a difficult one to obtain. In going for the best solution in an imperfect world, no solution may be the outcome.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran has followed up on his conciliatory statements by joining both the Jaffna and Kilinochchi District Coordinating Committee Meetings which he jointly chaired along with Minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development Douglas Devananda. This was the first time that the Chief Minister had participated in such a meeting. Development activities, various issues and future plans were discussed at the meeting. Education, Health and Resettlement were discussed in detail. The Chief Minister however was also critical of the government. He said “By clipping the wings of the NPC, the Central government is trying to take the upper hand through its agents. Therefore, to make our presence felt with our demands for the NPC we are attending these meetings.”
The Chief Minister added that if the government decided to serve the people in the Northern Province in a constructive manner, they would extend their cooperation to it. At this meeting The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) again raised the issue of private land being acquired by the Government in the Jaffna District. At the meeting, all parties in the Northern Provincial Council agreed on the need to urge the government to stop acquiring private land and to return land acquired in Valikamam North under controversial circumstances. The army had last year acquired privately owned land in Valikamam North amounting to nearly 7000 acres despite opposition raised by the owners and the TNA. The issue was raised at the Jaffna District Coordinating Committee meeting held in Jaffna under the joint chairmanship of Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and Minister and EPDP leader Douglas Devananda. Minister Devananda has been a long time loyalist of the government. But he joined with the opposition on the issue of land acquisition by the government.
Similarly Minister Rishard Bathiuddin is another strong loyalist of the government. While remaining in the government, and loyal to it, he has taken up a confrontational posture with sections of the government led by nationalist Sinhalese on the issue of resettlement of the displaced Muslims. In other words, he is engaging with the government on behalf of his constituencies and not trying to operate on his own where he can be either ignored or weakened as an enemy. What the government needs to do most restore is its credibility. So far it has failed to convince that it is sincere in its intent. As a starting point to building confidence amongst the ethnic minorities, the government can resolve in a fair and amicable way, the problems brought to it by its own ministers who are from the ethnic minorities. If this happens regularly enough there will be an incentive for those in the opposition, like the TNA, to work closer with the government, if only to resolve the burning issues of the people they were elected to represent. This seems to be the best that can be hoped for at the present time.