By Jehan Perera –
One of the first decisions that the TNA had to take after its victory at the Northern Provincial Council elections was before whom to take the oaths of office. The overwhelming electoral mandate received by the party would have induced them to make the most of the occasion in symbolic and political terms. The option they were unanimous in rejecting was to have their members take the oath of office before the Governor of the Northern Province. As former army chief in Jaffna, Governor G A Chandrasiri has had to carry with him the legacy of that war which was very negative to the Tamil population n the North and East. The civilian casualties during the last phase of the war in the North exceeded any previous period of the three decade long war. This is a legacy that will take a long time to become erased from the consciousness of the people. Since the end of the war, and his appointment as Governor of the Northern Province, Governor Chandrasiri has also been working closely with the military that he once commanded in Jaffna.
The preferred option of the TNA was to invite President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Jaffna to administer the oath of office to the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. However, if their refusal to appear before the Governor meant that the President was obliged to go to Jaffna to administer the oath of office to the Chief Minister, there could have been negative interpretations in the rest of the country. Nationalist critics of the devolution process would have argued that the President’s journey to the North was an ominous sign of the increased power of the Northern Province and diminished power of the central government. In this context, the willingness of the TNA to have the oath taking ceremony of the Chief Minister in Colombo is another constructive and necessary step in the evolution of a political solution to the long festering ethnic conflict. This decision has ensured that a possible deadlock that could have eroded popular support for the devolution process was averted.
Both sides have shown flexibility on the issue of the oath taking ceremony. The government did not insist that the Chief Minister should take his oaths before the Governor in Jaffna. The TNA showed flexibility by agreeing to come down to Colombo to take the oaths before the President. The swearing in ceremony for the Chief Ministers of the Central and Northwestern provincial councils took place without fanfare at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo last week. This paved the way for a similar procedure to be followed in the case of the oath taking for the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. The supreme place of the Presidency, the central government and Colombo as the national capital even within the scheme of devolution of power was thereby reaffirmed. However, this has evoked a negative response by nationalist Tamil groups such as the Sri Lanka Tamil Lawyers Association which has condemned the oath taking before a President they accuse of committing war crimes.
Contrary to expectations, the manner in which the government and TNA have been dealing with each other after the provincial council elections has been on a constructive basis. It is to be hoped that the spirit of accommodation that is presently being displayed will continue into the future. When she was in Sri Lanka, and meeting with civil society activists, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay said that South Africa had learnt a lot from Nelson Mandela. One of those lessons was to be ready to compromise for the sake of peace. There is a famous saying of Nelson Mandela that “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace.” In the past Governor Chandrasiri has acted in a manner that the people of the North have felt to be unfair and harsh. He did so as an agent of the government. It now appears that the government is changing course.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s legal and judicial background makes him a person who is prepared to work within the law and the Constitution, and find solutions that are in keeping with the law. If the Governor is acting in the present in a cooperative manner, he also can be worked with as a partner so long as he is the Governor. It appears from reports that the meeting between Governor Chandrasiri and Chief Minister Wigneswaran where the latter was given his letter of appointment by the former was positive. In addition to giving Chief Minister Wigneswaran his letter of appointment, the Governor had also discussed the new building that is being completed to house the Northern Provincial Council. However, the concerns of the people of the North in relation to the demilitarization and return of land in the North cannot be got around.
When the war ended there was a general expectation, and especially in the North, that the military presence that had been multiplied during the time of the war, would be reduced. But this did not happen and, on the contrary, the military presence increased. The blame for the military involvement in civilian affairs has fallen primarily on the Governor. However, it is not fair to put the blame for the over-militarisation of the North on him alone. This is because the Governor of the Northern Province, and of all provinces, is an appointee of the President in terms of the Sri Lankan Constitution. Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, all high officers of state may be appointed at the sole discretion of the President. Government policy on the issue of de-militarisation of the North needs to change in a strategic manner to accord with the new political realities. As a former army commander in the North, who has the trust of the military, Governor Chandrasiri would be competent to be in charge of the demilitarization process.
In a similar way, it is important that the government should respond strategically to the SLMC’s recent demands in relations to the devolution of power. Although its top leadership holds important ministerial positions in the government, the SLMC has been in a tumultuous relationship with the government. It has been contesting elections separately. At the same time it has been deferential to the government even at the perceived cost of Muslim interests. However, after the Northern Provincial Council elections, the SLMC appears to be seeing the possibility of emulating the TNA in some measure. They appear to have got more emboldened by the TNA victory and by the government’s apparent willingness to devolve power to it. Accordingly the SLMC has started to make its own demands with regard to the devolution of power. It passed a resolution in the Eastern Provincial Council calling on the government to implement the 13th Amendment in full. It is now making a demand that the government should appoint a member of the SLMC as Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council.
The SLMC is citing an agreement it had with the government prior to the Eastern Provincial Council election last year that the ruling party and SLMC would share the Chief Ministerial and other ministerial positions on a rotating basis, among other agreements. The SLMC’s views need to be considered by the government in a positive rather than negative light. The SLMC is a coalition partner of the government. As such, it is supporting the government and not opposing it. The appointment of an SLMC member as Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council would justify the SLMC leadership’s continued partnership with the government in the eyes of their Muslim constituency. It would also ensure that the SLMC remains within the government coalition.
In a recent article, former government servant Dr Devanesan Nesiah referred to the work of Nobel Prize winning political economist and Harvard professor Thomas Schelling who specialized in the theory of strategic decision making and under whom Dr Nesiah served as teaching fellow for two years in Harvard classes. One of the lessons to be drawn from Schelling’s work is that relationships in a two-party conflict are more prone to total breakdown than in a three-party conflict. In the case of the former, each of the parties has an interest in being the first to attack the other by surprise. But in the latter instance, where there are three parties, no party has an interest in being the first to attack another. This is because the third party (the one that is out of the fray) can benefit from the conflict that will weaken the other two. Strategic thinking would be to empower the SLMC and make it a key stakeholder within the system of devolution like the TNA, in the interests of stabilizing the devolution process by defusing the potential two-party conflict.