The provincial council system was set up in response to Tamil demands for separation in the face of brazen discrimination by the Sri Lankan state from the very time of independence. It was a compromise mediated by India in 1987 under the Indo-Lanka Accord to give Tamils a say in their own affairs while preserving the state without any breakup. It was for the Tamils. However, although every province would receive the same regional autonomy without making it seem a Tamil thing, the Northern and Eastern provinces were merged into one North-East Province through the Accord because the Tamil numbers in the Eastern Province were vitiated through systematic colonization using poor Sinhalese and prisoners, and through ethnic cleansing using massacres by the state’s dreaded Special Task Force. For the Eastern Province was not expected to survive on its own.
Ironically the Provincial Council system functions well in the Sinhalese provinces, but not for the Tamils for whom it was originally intended. By a Supreme Court order on 16 Oct. 2006 the North-East Province was broken up and, with internecine Tamil murders and Tamil massacres of Muslims, the government has been able to muster enough support to form a subservient local government in the Eastern Province as the Accord envisaged.
The Northern Province with Jaffna as its cultural capital is now being subject to ethnic cleansing after the government brought the civil war to a brutal close in 2009 through the criminal use of force on civilian targets and the subjection of the Tamil population to terror. Yet, the Tamil dominance of the Northern Province is still undiminished and will remain so until the government’s ongoing efforts at colonization and ethnic cleansing take root.
First Tamil Government
Given the government’s deep unpopularity among Tamils, if elections to the Northern Province are held today, they will lead to the first Tamil government since the weak North-East government of Chief Minister Varadarajaperumal. His government, established in 1988 after the Accord was signed with India, collapsed in 1990 under LTTE assault and the lack of funds from the centre which prevented any meaningful development, let alone a seat and desk for the Chief Minister.
When the LTTE fell in 2009, Varadarajaperumal said that the “major Hindrance to Democratic Movement among the Sri Lankan Tamils has been Removed.” At that time, he did not realize how deeply hateful the Sri Lankan government is towards Tamils and that the government could not countenance Tamils having a say in our own affairs.
Token Tamil in Government
In fact, the government has been keen to have a Tamil in the cabinet as a show of Tamil support, and therefore has cultivated the paramilitary leader Douglas Devananda, who is the lone Tamil politician from the North who stands with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Devananda broke off from the Eelam People’s Liberation Front over internal rivalries and formed the EPDP – the Eelam People’s Democratic Party. The EPDP lacked funds, so it is widely believed that Devananda resorted to the kidnapping of and extortion from Sri Lankan Tamils living in Madras. With various criminal cases pending against him in Madras over allegations of brigandry and murder, Devananda jumped bail in 1990 and, in the face of LTTE assassination attempts, took shelter with government forces in 1990, becoming a paramilitary ally of whichever Sinhalese government was in power. He was given control of the islands off Jaffna where the LTTE had no presence, and the navy, which protected him, was dominant. Although the EPDP continued in brigandry, he was deemed plucky by many Tamils who did not favor the LTTE and had themselves suffered at its hands
Devananda in a way hit the jackpot when, with an LTTE enforced boycott, he entered electoral politics in the 1994 elections, winning 9 seats in parliament with 10,744 or 0.14% of the vote, nearly all of it from the islands. He was made a minister, and so, the Sinhalese could claim that they had a Tamil in government, making it national in character.
Thus began the mutually dependent symbiotic relationship between Devananda and the Sri Lankan state. In the 2000 parliamentary elections he obtained 4 seats. Since then, with no LTTE boycott of elections, Devananda has managed to come to parliament with under 1% of the vote, most of it from the islands where the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) forged by the LTTE, cannot campaign because of physical threats from the EPDP. His one seat from the islands vote has been enough to keep him on as MP, allowing him to join the cabinet, continuing the appearance of the government’s national character.
Lost Opportunities of 2009
The end of the war in May 2009 saw many civilian deaths – at least 40,000 or 70,000 depending on which UN report one reads, and as many as 140,000 according to The Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph, the much respected Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Mannar. But that period also exposed the Jaffna population, with its peninsular mindset, to an understanding of what the LTTE was capable of. Until then most Jaffna Tamils (who also predominate the expatriate Tamil groups) had adulated the LTTE as heroes who sacrificed much for the welfare of the Tamil people – remaining happily oblivious and deliberately blind to LTTE atrocities against civilians, especially in the Vanni (the mainland below the peninsula) where child conscription was rampant. All this was denied by peninsular Tamils, and these stories were suppressed as being sourced by Tamil traitors. But as the war was ending, even as there was clear evidence of genocide (as I described in The Hartford Courant), stories also emerged of LTTE atrocities against civilians (as I expressed in The New Indian Express and The Island); of civilians being used as human shields and being shot to death upon trying to escape; and of LTTE leaders fleeing with their families and looted gold hoarded by the LTTE, while forcing children to fight the brutal army. These new stories came from ardent LTTE supporters who had gone to serve them, and from respected civilians who had been forced to retreat as human shields with the LTTE as the fearful army advanced. An engineering student whom I know well enthusiastically went to serve behind LTTE lines upon graduation, but with his eyes newly opened during the 2009 climax, testified to atrocities by both the army and the LTTE to international evidence gatherers who deposed his evidence. To many of the LTTE faithful this was all news and an eye-opener, although their view of the army as brutish needed no recalibration.
As a result, when elections were held for the Jaffna Municipal Council on 8 Aug. 2009 immediately after the defeat of the LTTE, it was a chance to see what effect the removal of the LTTE had had on Tamil minds. The government (i.e., Devananda’s EPDP) secured 50.67% of the vote while the TNA got merely 38.28% of the vote. It was a magnificent improvement for the EPDP which had previously struggled to hit the 1% mark.
The government now only had to treat Tamils well and it would have had us constructively cooperating on reconstruction and reconciliation. But the government’s undoing was its intrinsic anti-Tamil ethos amounting to Tamil-phobia. The North was flooded with troops who regularly rape and rob. Bishop Rayappu Joesph recently testified to a visiting Indian parliamentary delegation of how when a young girl was raped by a soldier, the army offered her marriage to the rapist who was already married – underlying the impunity for Sinhalese criminals preying on Tamils and the government’s lack of commitment to law and order, including the simple laws on bigamy.
Everything is watched. Even a meeting (which I attended) of the organization Noolaham, which is devoted to preserving old Tamil books, was disrupted and held up till the army could bring in an intelligence official who could understand Tamil to sit through; all our names and identity cards were then recorded as we left. It was enough to make even those few of us interested in our culture to never attend a Noolaham meeting again.
Thus when the Local government elections were held on June 23, 2011, the government preceded the ballot with a lot of election manipulation, road building and other development work, jobs, free shoes for children etc. Despite these illegal efforts (for reporting which I had an arrest order issued against me), when the elections results came, they were telling: the government was roundly defeated. Even in the LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s Valvettithurai, a hotbed of Tamil militancy, it got 2 seats to the TNA’s 7. Although better than the less than 1% before the war, it was a clear, major reversal of the Jaffna municipal election results. The government had dissipated all goodwill it had earned.
Some dismiss the municipal elections as a Jaffna town syndrome where the popular mayor Alfred Duraiyappah used to get elected off and on as Mayor and MP; but that explanation is too simplistic. Duraiyappah used to get elected with the help of a significant Muslim population in Jaffna; the 50.67% showing by the government in 2009 was thus truly a sea change without the Muslims (Jaffna having been cleansed of them by the LTTE in October 1990). Any goodwill the government had in 2009 had now been dissipated.
Northern Provincial Council
The government had lost significant ground. So the Provincial Council continues to be run by the government, this time under a military man appointed governor without elections. If elections were held, we Tamils would have our first government after 1990, with an official Tamil voice far more powerful and convincing than that of one minister in government becoming an MP in an electorate where others cannot campaign, and those who do have their hands chopped off as done by Napoleon, an EPDP paramilitary member. As if in anticipation of a humiliating rout of a government which claims to have saved the Tamils from the LTTE, State Minister Susil Premajayantha announced on March 4, 2011 that there would be “some months’ delay” as “land mines are excavated in the North and resettlements are done in the proper manner, before the northern provincial election will be held.”
However, under intense Indian pressure it was announced that elections would be held in September this year. The unexpected announcement was seen as one more common lie to India to buy time. Such promises have been amply documented with one statement to India and another to local constituencies, finally resulting in breaking word to India. The elections in September were widely seen as another false promise to buy time with India and the then impending action at the UNHRC.
However, the US resolution effectively made the election a promise to the world by incorporating in the UNHRC resolution the line “Welcoming the announcement by the Government of Sri Lanka to hold elections to the Provincial Council in the Northern Province in September 2013, [etc.].”
Backing off now is very difficult and would lead to severe repercussion the next time Sri Lanka is before the UNHRC – which would be soon. As a result the government seems to be going ahead. The latest date for the elections announced by the elections commission is August.
Why No Show for the International Community?
One would expect a clever, sensible government, particularly one without any principles, to put on a show of compliance with the UNHRC resolution for the international community. The government has an excellent record of holding long inquiries that go nowhere as under the Disappearances Commission (see Kishali Pinto Jayawardena’s Report for the International Commission of Jurists); and of lower level soldiers being found guilty while senior persons responsible get away scot free. Two good examples are the 1996 case of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy (the 17-year-old Tamil schoolgirl who was raped and murdered, with her mother, brother and friend who went looking for her also killed), and the 25 Sinhalese schoolchildren of Embilipitiya forcibly disappeared in 1989 by soldiers. In these two examples, according to the International Commission of Jurists, “junior officers were convicted while their superiors were left untouched, despite evidence (particularly in the Embilipitiya case) that responsibility for these grave crimes lay higher in the chain of command.”
A third example is the Bindunuwewa Massacre where LTTE-ers who had surrendered and were in rehabilitation were murdered with the connivance of the police and the army. But after conviction by a Presidential Commission, the Supreme Court let the convicts off on appeal, making the adverse unsympathetic comment that a murdered 12 year old conscripted child was a terrorist.
So why is the government rejecting the UNHRC resolution and digging its own grave instead of deploying its usual tactics of show trials? I believe it is because war crimes culpability goes very high up the Sri Lankan chain of command. In The Sunday Leader (Dec. 13, 2009), General Sarath Fonseka charged that he had “learnt that Basil [Rajapaksa] had conveyed this information [about the proposed surrender of the LTTE’s senior leadership] to the Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa – who in turn spoke with Brigadier Shavendra Silva, Commander of the Army’s 58th Division, giving orders not to accommodate any LTTE leaders attempting surrender and that ‘they must all be killed’.”
But the government unexpectedly took The Sunday Leader story by Frderica Jansz head-on instead of denying it as expected. It accused Fonseka of treason. Fonseka and his handler Mangala Samaraweera with others held a press conference on the following day, Monday, where they seemed to deny the truth of the Jansz report. They would have got away with it making Jansz seem unethical, except that the then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis’ cable of Dec. 14, 2009 to Washington on her lunch-meeting with Sarath Fonseka and Karu Jayasooriya (of the UNP) recounts her discussions on Fonseka’s accusations of orders to shoot surrendering LTTTE-ers. The cable confirmed that Fonseka did indeed make the accusations as reported by Jansz. Fonseka comes out as wooly headed for having admitted it to the US ambassador at lunch, not knowing that he would, as The Hindu’s B. Muralidhar Reddy put it, do a volte face at the same afternoon’s press conference.
Any credible inquiry into war-crimes allegations, seeking genuine accountability will hit and raise questions about the Rajapaksas, damaging them irreparably. If Basil and Gothabaya Rajapaksa are implicated as seems likely from what we know, no one would believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa is guilt-free and was kept out of command responsibility by his brothers.
That is why they cannot afford the presence of a legitimate Tamil government in the North holding the powers and possessing the credibility to call witnesses and document their accounts of the dastardly deeds culminating in May 2009.
Saviours of the Sinhalese Race: the Matale Graves
The Rajapaksas have effectively used the defeat of the LTTE to pose as “Saviours of the Sinhalese Race.” It has certainly helped them at elections.
But a major setback for the Rajapaksas is the discovery of the Matale graves where 154 skeletal remains were buried when the second JVP insurrection was crushed by the army. Gothabaya Rajapaksa was the commanding officer at the time, posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer tasked with bringing the JVP under control. Among his Company Commanders were Lieutenants Shavendra Silva, Jagath Dias, and Sumedha Perera, who are now the principal suspects in the war crimes against Tamils. Due to these graves Sinhalese too are demanding investigations. The Rajapaksas’ previous claims about having saved the “Sinhalese Race” ring hollow.
Any possible connection between Gothabaya Rajapaksa and the Matale murders would raise this question: How can those who murdered Sinhalese children so brutally and in such large numbers, credibly claim to be saviours of the “Sinhalese race”?
War crimes inquiries are therefore absolutely anathema to the Rajapaksas even if done for show. No Tamil government that can aid in evidence gathering would be tolerated.
Spreading Terror in Preparation of Elections
Now that the announced date for the northern elections is drawing near, the government is in a dither. It really seems too late to call them off after the welcoming statement from UNHRC.
So their Kayts tactics are in full play. The government is unleashing the same election rigging tactics it deploys in Kayts at every election. The 2003 Annual Report of Reporters without Borders describes EPDP cadres led by one Napolean murdering TNA members coming to Kayts for election campaigning. The Vavuniya High court dutifully released the man without confiscating his passport, despite the murder charge pending. Napolean was thus permitted to jump the nominal bail set at his EPDP lawyer’s request.
The same report also describes journalist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya’s experience when the police attacked and insulted him when he took note of the licence number of a police vehicle in which persons were being beaten by policemen. When he went to the Maharagama police station to file a complaint, he was arrested for being drunk on the public highway and obstructing the police. His experience bears marked similarity to my own when I wrote of police vehicles without number plates in Kayts and ended up with charges. Similarly the BBC Reporter Nimalrajan was murdered by EPDP paramilitary men with full impunity.
We have just seen the beginnings of the same terror tactics being deployed against the TNA with the full force of the army, police, and the EPDP paramilitary cadre. Ceylon Today reported with eye-witness testimony that when the TNA office in Kilinochchi was attacked this month, law enforcement authorities arrived late and that when the assailants who were caught were given into their custody, the assailants were released. The BBC reported that the widely read Tamil language newspaper Uthayan, which reports much of the government’s underhanded dealings against Tamils, was torched and that newspapermen continue to be attacked in various parts of the North.
The army flooding the North is said to have 1 soldier for every 6 Tamils. Now permanent bases are being constructed with facilities for their families. It is expected that these soldiers with their families will be voting. That by itself will tilt the electoral result.
Reports from Jaffna this week state that 18,000 Sinhalese families are being resettled as persons chased off by the LTTE during its massacres of Jaffna Sinhalese in October 1987. It is absolutely doubtful that there were 18,000 families then and even if there were, that they could be traced after 25 years, and that, even if traced, they would want to return, disrupting their now settled lives. I believe that these are simply militant Sinhalese being planted in anticipation of the elections to vote and to terrorize.
Will these tactics be enough to scare the Tamil people from going to vote, thereby allowing the government to win the Provincial Council? Or will we Tamils have a Tamil government after more than two decades, even if it be with few powers but the legitimacy to speak up for our rights and needs as the voice of the people?