By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The Sinhala hardliners within and outside the administration and state structure would have us believe that the Northern Provincial Council is a zero sum game; that a win for the TNA is a loss for the rest of us. There is certainly a risk– what with the moderate Mr Sumanthiran slipping ‘internal self determination’ into his recent article in The Hindu, as if the subcontinent doesn’t recognise the code word, however qualified. However, the game is multiple-sum. From the vital perspective of political pluralism, which is a low flickering flame in this country right now (and not entirely due to President Rajapaksa), a TNA run Provincial council, or a SLMC or UNP or JVP run council would be as healthy as the CBK-led Western PC was in 1994, and for the same reasons.
In fact the advantages for Sri Lanka’s national interest, of a TNA led Northern Provincial Council could outweigh the dangers and disadvantages.
The Israeli model of ‘creating facts on the ground’ and occupation by stealth mode which is envisaged by some hardliners for the North, runs contrary to the interests of North-South reconciliation, Sri Lanka’s relationship with its neighbour and with the world at large. As much by reflex as by design, that model is also sought to be replicated in part and by stages in the rest of the island. A TNA-run Northern Council would serve as a modest but useful counterbalance to this negative dynamic.
A TNA run Provincial Council will be good for democracy and therefore, for all the people of the island. Why so? A hazardous ideology is being tested out and preached to our armed forces in which ‘national security’ is said to be “the foundation of our freedom” (as the Secretary to the Minister of Defence, Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said in his keynote speech to the Kotelawela Defence University). National Security was regarded as the foundation by regimes ranging from Hitler to Pinochet. By contrast, the universally accepted and proven foundation of freedom is democracy and the recognition of the inalienable equal rights of all citizens. National security is not the ‘foundation’ but could be described as the ‘protective wall’ of freedom.
The Northern Provincial Council will be an Opposition led council and will provide a much needed counterweight in a situation in which the traditional checks and balances including the separation of powers are being eroded and fundamentally questioned.
The judiciary has been rendered less autonomous and more conformist by the impeachment motion and subsequent choices. A bill on media ethics has just ducked behind the curtain but lurks there. The 18th amendment, though not fatal to democracy as shrilly alleged, has sundered the social contract which (even in Russia) grants great power to the Executive in exchange for a term limit. The self-inflicted debility of the UNP, JVP and FSP has resulted in a crisis of leadership of the opposition, vitiating the competitiveness and damaging the balance in the political system, notwithstanding the existence of proportional representation.
This leaves the TNA. Despite the war and its aftermath, the TNA is in far better shape than the Southern Opposition, not least because it has a more able and respected leadership at the top. There just isn’t anyone like the Sampanthan-Sumanthiran duo in the politics of the Opposition in the Southern two thirds of the island.
Just as in late 1982, the only occasion on which the authoritarian Jayewardene juggernaut was stopped was by the voters of Jaffna, today, three decades later, it is only the voters of the North who have resisted the regime through the ballot box, and done so under conditions of fairly tight control.
Given that the balance in our polity has been almost lost, it will be healthy to have a Provincial Council run by an elected Opposition party. It will prise open much needed political space and present the regime with some element of democratic competition in that it will set an example of what is possible.
Apart from legitimate political, security and sovereignty concerns regarding the prospect of a TNA run administration—concerns which I share and was among the first to point out in my critique of Mr Sampanthan’s 2012 Convention speech in Batticaloa–there are three uglier, subterranean reasons one may guess at, for the reluctance to devolve.
One is the fear of the erosion of political monopoly; the allergy to actually share power in any authentic measure. This is the logic of authoritarianism.
The second is that devolution runs contrary to the Israeli model of settler-colonisation and close control that is the template so beloved of the security bureaucracy. That is the logic of Occupation as entertained by the ‘deep state’. In many countries the deep state uses civilian political and social movements as proxies and pressure groups to box in the elected civilian leadership.
The third is that the very idea of any Tamil or Muslim administered provincial council is to the Sinhala chauvinists, as sunlight is to a vampire. This is the logic of ethno-religious absolutism.
If unable to prevent the holding of elections in September, it is almost certain that those who stand opposed to the concept of provincial level devolution will attempt to de-stabilise the Council, with a Gaza type state of siege, economic suffocation and a political putsch as the endgame.
This will help neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils. For the Sinhalese, the pushback from India and the West together with the erosion of support within the Non-Aligned and the BRICS will prove difficult to withstand. The deep state which boxes in the elected civilian leadership will find that it has boxed itself in together with that leadership in a double envelopment by India and the US.
Already the spate of endorsements by Govt controlled Provincial Councils of the truncation of their powers, only draws attention to those areas of the country in which such endorsement is not forthcoming, namely the North and the East. Thus are the N-E merger and the Tamil Eelam map recreated, by courtesy of the Sri Lankan government!
Not that this will be a zero sum game with all benefit accruing automatically to the Tamils, because the endgame (especially in the Southern two thirds) may be neither simple nor swift.There is only one way for such an outcome to be deflected and that is for the TNA to learn from the Sinn Fein/IRA and reach out to all elements in the Southern political spectrum, engage in a sustained multi-track dialogue, persuading and being persuaded. The Sinn Fein not only arrived at a consensus with the Labour government, it succeeded in neutralising Ian Paisley’s Ulster Loyalists.
The TNA must do what it accuses the Government, not without reason, of having failed to do, namely negotiate seriously and arrive at a consensus. There can be no sustainable devolution without broad support from Southern democrats who are themselves patriots. In short, the TNA must convince at least the moderates among the nationalist Sinhalese. It must also convince the professional military. Nothing less than a pledge by the TNA not to unilaterally cross the red-line of the existing 13th amendment can achieve such a consensus which could save both communities from entering a deadly minefield.