By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Having been in my early 30s, a Minister in the North-East Provincial Council a quarter century ago – I resigned within six months – I remember how easily it can all go wrong and what the landmines are. I also have some sense of how they may be avoided; what must be done and what is to be avoided by both sides.
The primary task of the newly elected Council led by Justice Wigneswaran must be to last its full term; to “remain at the crease” in cricketing parlance, putting runs on the board but not throwing one’s wicket away. As with a Presidency, so also with a Provincial Council and even more so, by which I mean that the tasks of the second term must not be attempted in the first.
It is likely that Tamil nationalist sentiment assesses the degree of external support to be such that the Government would be unable to dissolve the Council. That is a very risky calculus, because the NEPC was dissolved despite a far stronger external presence on the ground in the North-east, namely, the Indian Peacekeeping Force.
Two factors combined to effect that dissolution and a combination of such factors could do so again. One was political adventurism on the part of the Council, manifested in the announcement, not of an independent Tamil Eelam, but of a deadline and the intent to declare a separate state if certain demands were not met within a specific time frame. Those demands included a Sri Lankan troop pullback. In short, the first factor was a manifest threat on the part of the Council.
The second trigger was a strong Sinhala nationalist backlash against the Council and its political behaviour; a backlash that put the government and President Premadasa under severe pressure. Interestingly that backlash was no longer against the Tigers but against the Northeast Council precisely because it, rather than the LTTE, was seen at the time, as the beachhead of the giant neighbour against which the Sinhalese had tended over a very long period of history, to define their collective identity (rather like Vietnam in relation to China or Cuba to the ‘Yankee’ North).
In short, the long historical memory of incursion from Southern India and the shorter one of Western colonial rule, combine to trigger a backlash against a perceived political beachhead of external influence and interests.
What is often forgotten is the warmth of the early equation between two populists, the senior one a reformist, the junior a radical—President Premadasa and Chief Minister Vardarajaperumal; a warmth which does not (yet) exist between President Rajapaksa and Chief Minister to be, Justice Wigneswaran (not least because of the optics of the Prabhakaran pin-up and Tiger retro-chic in the TNA’s propaganda). Notwithstanding that early warmth, the relationship between Premadasa and Perumal degenerated into mutual aversion and antagonism within months.
Revisionist history has it that this deterioration was due to Premadasa’s tilt to the Tigers. That does not accord with the facts as they unfolded. Premadasa looked to the Tigers after the parliamentary election of February-March 1989 saw the pro-Tiger proxy, the EROS, sweep the board and the EROS leader Balakumar arrived in Colombo to make an opening to Premadasa. However, as the veteran Indian editor Shekhar Gupta, a bitter critic of Premadasa, recounted in a series of articles after his most recent visit, in January 1989, mere days after Premadasa had been sworn in as President on January 3rd, he summoned a meeting which brought together the Deputy Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne, dozens of officials and the cabinet of the North Eastern Provincial Council. The purpose was to kick start the bureaucratic machine, fast-track devolution and make the Council functional. I was there.
That promising start ran aground weeks later. What happened was that Ranjan Wijeratne strode into Premadasa’s room and showed him a set of advertisements in the state newspapers, which had been placed by the Council. The problem was that the Council referred to itself as the North East Provincial Government. Now from a Constitutional and legal perspective, Sri Lanka, as a unitary state, has no autonomous states or provincial governments, but rather provincial councils and provincial administrations (consisting of a cabinet). In any lexicon, an administration or a cabinet isn’t necessarily a government. An incensed Premadasa (who had vastly more self-control than the current incumbent) exclaimed “what Government? There is only one Government in this country! There are no other Governments!”
That marked the collapse of trust and the end of the relationship. The opposition, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, seized on the use of the term ‘government’ as a declaration, bringing intense pressure to bear on the Premadasa presidency. The outreach by EROS to Premadasa through the Mayor of Colombo Mr Ganeshalingam, the welcome extended to the EROS delegation by Premadasa and the opening to the Tigers came later.
The use of the term ‘provincial government’ by the North Eastern Provincial Council was no accident. It revealed a state of mind. That was the first fissure which signalled the dissolution of the Council a year later, in 1990.
The newly elected Northern Provincial Council must avoid such a fate, which in a lose-lose scenario will of course have negative consequences for the Government and the country too. One consequence could be a Kosovo-Sudan scenario, but the other could be prolonged military rule in the North with a greater degree of saturation than in previous years.
The source of error is in the realm of ideas. Sri Lanka is not a federal system and no party or devolved unit within a unitary framework should behave as if it is operating in a federation. It is also absurd to function on the basis that the Sinhalese and Tamil constitute ‘equal communities’ and that therefore the Government and the TNA are equal players. Every human being by virtue of their humanity has equal rights. These are intrinsic and inalienable. Every citizen whatever his or her ethnicity must have equal rights and equal treatment. However, Sri Lanka is not founded as a confederation or federation of constituent and equal communities. It does not recognise the right of self-determination however qualified that right may be. It is a democratic republic and a unitary state, the character of which can be changed only by majority consent at a plebiscite.
Dramatic as the TNA’s victory is its total strength in the North and East amounts to several hundred thousand votes in contradistinction to the many millions of Lankan citizens who disagree drastically with its views. The demographic composition of Sri Lanka is also vastly dissimilar to that of former Yugoslavia or India in which the various ethnic or linguistic communities were/are of roughly similar strength. Sri Lanka is not a patchwork. It has an overwhelming preponderance of a single ethnic community. Not even in a corporate entity are those who hold 75% of shares and those who hold under 10% regarded as equal stakeholders.
This structural asymmetry is a reality which is reflected and reinforced by democracy. This asymmetry does not give the Government or the Sinhalese the right or indeed the capacity to behave as overlords and treat the Tamils of the North as an internal colony of second class citizens. Overwhelming demographic preponderance is not a license for the subordination of an ethnic or any other minority. Similarly, however handsome the mandate given the TNA by 350,000 (out of 20 million) people, the relationship between the Northern Council and the State cannot ignore, still less override axiomatic asymmetries. The Ancient Greeks had it right. That which is equal must not be regarded unequally; nor should that which is unequal be regarded as equal. It is necessary that the realities of the unevenness of power be recognised. The Tamil people, it is said, voted for freedom. The exercise of freedom by a collective as by an individual is conditioned by who and where one is embedded; it is relational. A quintessential ‘modern’, Friedrich Engels, had it right when he said that ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’.