By Jehan Perera –
A highlight of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to the United States to participate in the UN General Assembly was the photo opportunity he and his wife, Shiranthi, had with President Barack Obama and Mrs Obama. All four in the photograph looked extremely relaxed and happy. It was lovely photography, and the President’s media team recognized this, for they shared it with all of the national media which reproduced it on their front pages. The photograph also hinted at the possibility of a thaw in the US-Sri Lanka relationship that seemed to deteriorate over the past few years. At the UN General Assembly, President Rajapaksa spoke about the post-war development process in which the peaceful election and political empowerment of the Northern Province took centre stage. He also appealed to the international community saying, “It is clearly the responsibility of the international community to assist with these efforts and to ensure their success for the benefit of all the people of Sri Lanka.”
However, not all the messages coming to Sri Lanka after the provincial council elections have been equally positive. The day after the President spoke in New York, the position taken at the Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Council by its Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay following her weeklong visit to Sri Lanka proved to be a red flag to the government. She referred to a central issue of concern to the government when she said that she “detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern to the Human Rights Council.” She called on the international community to consider taking steps to remedy this situation by launching an independent investigation if the Sri Lankan government had not done so by March 2014, the next occasion on which the UN Human Rights Council will be meeting in Geneva.
In addition the decision of the Canadian government to downgrade its representation at the Commonwealth Summit to be held in Sri Lanka in November, and to lobby against Sri Lanka, would be a disappointment to the government. It will be important to the success of the Commonwealth Summit that this Canadian position is not replicated by other countries. The Indian government’s whole hearted participation at the Commonwealth Summit will be crucial to its success. The government therefore needs to navigate its way carefully through the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, as this is an issue that has major implications for India especially in an election year. The Sri Lankan issue is of great importance in Tamil Nadu state, and the Indian government’s political survival may hinge on whether or not it gets Tamil Nadu’s support.
The holding of peaceful elections for the Northern Provincial Council has been a very positive action in term of setting the country in the direction of a sustainable political solution to the long festering ethnic conflict. The implementation of the system will not only be watched keenly by the ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka, but also by the international community. This is why the US, EU, India and Japan have all publicly expressed their support for the election of the provincial council and to their expectation that the government and TNA will work together in partnership to resolve the problems of the people. The EU statement expressed “trust that within the framework of the Sri Lankan Constitution, national and provincial authorities will cooperate fully to that end.” It is important that the entire system of provincial councils will be strengthened and not only in the North.
With the election of the Northern Provincial Council the system of devolution of power that was agreed upon by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments in 1987 has at last come to fruition, even if less powers than originally envisaged have been devolved. Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the provincial council system the fact that the Tamil-majority Northern Province will enjoy the same, albeit limited, powers as the Sinhala-dominated provincial councils can lead to a greater sense of equality and non-discrimination. The root causes of the ethnic conflict have much to do with the sense of inequality and discrimination which is an affront to human dignity. At the first stage, it will be necessary for the Northern Provincial Council to set itself up, and obtain what the other provincial councils have. At the second stage, they could seek to obtain more powers and resources, ideally in partnership with the other provincial councils who would also dearly like to have more powers and resources at their own disposal.
What is now needed is goodwill and restraint on all sides to make the existing provincial council system work well on the ground, so that it will be a service to the people and not be seen as white elephants, as the President’s secretary once said in an unguarded moment. The TNA’s decision to invite President Mahinda Rajapaksa to enable them to take the oath of office before him is an important symbolic gesture. Likewise the invitation extended to the prospective Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C V Wigneswaran by the Governor of the Northern Province General Chandrasiri to discuss the setting up of the new administration is likewise a symbolic gesture, in which a hand that is extended in respect needs to be taken. There is a need for both sides to be sensitive to public opinion, as no political solution is possible without the people’s support on both sides.
Obtaining the people’s support for a sustainable and long term political solution is not an impossible dream. On the contrary, it is very much possible, and it is this that makes the present times so exciting and full of opportunity. It has been pointed out by that the results of the three provincial council elections showed a sharp contrast between the choices of the voters in the Northern Province and those in the Central and Northwestern provinces. It is also a fact that nationalism was a campaign theme in all three provinces, which has led to a general feeling that the country is more divided than ever after the election. In the Northern Province the vote against the government was by a majority of about 80 percent whereas in the other two provinces it was in favour of the government by a majority of about 60 percent.
In the Northern Province those who campaigned on behalf of the TNA called for the right of self-determination for the Tamil nation and referred to the LTTE as a freedom fighting group. In the Central and Northwestern provinces, those who campaigned on behalf of the government urged the voters to cast their votes for the government that had saved the country from division and won the war over the LTTE. The result of these elections and the campaign themes, therefore, suggest that the polarisation between the Tamil-majority North and the Sinhala-majority South is acute. This would bode ill for national reconciliation. However, while the case for ethnic nationalism was strong in the North, which has suffered war and discrimination on that account, it was less strong in the South where other issues have taken centre stage. This was seen by the votes of the people in the two southern provinces.
Although the elections have created an impression of strong ethnic polarization on account of the government’s defeat in the Northern Provincial Council election, the reality is more nuanced. It is important to note that none of the candidates put forward by the government’s nationalist allies such as the NFF and JHU won seats, while those put forward by the old left government allies which have traditionally been sympathetic to Tamil and minority aspirations such as the NSSP and CP did win seats. Therefore, the appearance of ethnic polarisation is not so sharp at the community level. The weakness of the opposition in the South gave the government an unbeatable advantage. The voters did not feel they had a viable alternative to vote for. Therefore, ethnic polarisation was not the only, or main, reason for the election outcome. If there is goodwill and restraint on both sides, and the international community provides a supportive environment, the balance between self-determination and national unity that the provincial council system provides for can be improved to pave the way to reconciliation.
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