By Jehan Perera –
Most of the political analysis at the present time revolves around the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The latest are the two options that the government appears to be developing, wooing supportive countries to come up with a counter-resolution, and wooing South Africa to assist in the formulation of a truth and reconciliation process as an alternative to an international investigation into war crimes. But there are also other important developments taking place in the country which require equivalent analysis. One of the most important of these is the relationship between the central government and provincial council and the sharing of power between them. The root cause of the war, which has led to the charges of war crimes, was the dispute about the sharing of power between the Sinhalese-dominated central government and the Tamil-majority parts of the country, specifically the Northern and Eastern provinces.
The issue of power sharing between the central government and provincial councils has come to the fore since last September, when the Northern Provincial Council began to function for the first time since the system of devolution was set up 26 years ago. At the present time, it is the only opposition-led provincial council. The other eight provincial councils are all controlled and dominated by the government. The Northern Provincial Council is acting as a true opposition, seeking to expand its powers and to challenge the central government’s unwillingness to engage in even a limited form of power-sharing. The views therefore that emanate from the Northern Provincial Council are a challenge to the government. The most recent challenge is the resolution passed by it that calls for direct air links between the Jaffna and the southern parts of India as well as the development of the harbor in the Jaffna peninsula that could facilitate trade links with India, which the government argues are outside the purview of the provincial councils.
The ideal situation would be one in which the central government and provincial councils do not work in opposition to each other in a zero-sum game, in which one side gains and the other side loses. The better way forward would be for all sides to gain through cooperation. But for this to happen there needs to be a change of spirit. There is no doubt that external relations are the preserve of the central government. But the provincial councils are entitled to contribute to the policy discussion, which has been the case in this instance. The Northern Provincial Council is not setting up its own airports and harbours, but is calling on the central government to do so. The approach that the central government ought to take and the spirit that should guide it was dealt with at a conference on Socio-Economic Development in the Northern and Eastern Provinces organized by the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka at which top academics made presentations.
The special feature at this conference was the invitation to the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C V Wigneswaran to be the keynote speaker at this prestigious conference involving the academic community. The speeches given by academic presenters at the conference focused on well researched numbers and statistics that gave a comprehensive view of the problems to which answers had to be found. On the other hand, the need for a fundamental change of approach was found in the speech delivered by the Chief Minister. His speech gave evidence of his grasp of the overall policy situation in the country. He spoke the blunt truth, but in a way that was meant to educate rather than to attack. In his speech he dealt with fundamental issues of governance that bear upon the fate of the entire country. He noted that there were three areas of policy failure in the government’s approach to the Northern Province, which have had consequences on the entire country and also affect its international relations.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran pointed out that Sri Lanka was a plural society in which there was a diversity of peoples. Accordingly, the effort to create one nation, by using the values and symbols of the majority community was not appropriate. In an apparent confirmation of what he said, the national anthem that was sung at the commencement of the conference was in the Sinhala language only. As a result the Chief Minister was unable to join in, for it was not sung in his own language. He said, “There is no point in declaring that there are no minorities in the country and that we are one people and thereafter banning the singing of the national anthem in the language of one segment of the people. Instead of a pluralistic approach we have taken a majoritarian approach.” However, indicating that his message had been heard, the organizers ensured that the vote of thanks at the conclusion of the conference was made in all three languages, including Tamil.
The Chief Minister also spoke of the importance of economic development that was meant to benefit the people. He said that “the failure to be people-centric and attempt top-down approaches to development is another policy failure.” The government has been focusing on big infrastructure projects that do not give priority to the people who live by the side of those big projects. They live in huts while next to them are big new government buildings and big wide roads that connect the North with the capital city. But in the case of development that benefits all, there is a need for consultation and for looking into the specific problems of each part of the country. The Northern Provincial Council’s proposal for an airport and harbor is an engagement on their part with the government, that ought to be taken up.
The third area of policy failure that the Chief Minister pointed to was government’s priority given to national security over democratic freedoms. He said that there was “a critical need to transform the central government’s counter-terrorism mindset focused on state security the post-war need for human security. Steps must be taken immediately to confine the military to barracks and to formulate a plan for a phased withdrawal from the Northern Province. This in turn should be followed by meaningful security sector reforms by the government. Sri Lanka does not need to have such a huge defence structure and manpower.” The military is an institution that epitomizes centralized and top-down decision making that is appropriate to situations where two sides are each trying to harm each other and is less suitable to be an economic or development partner in peace time.
The speech delivered by the Chief Minister was evidence of the continuing good will and sense of realism within the mainstream Tamil polity that sees itself as a part of the national polity and having a stake in the reformation of the whole. The intellectual rigour of the Chief Minister’s speech, together with his moral authority, made a positive impact on the audience of top level academics and other special invitees. The invitation extended to the Chief Minister was also noteworthy on account of the resolution that was passed a few weeks earlier by the Northern Provincial Council calling for an international investigation into war crimes. The action of the Northern Provincial Council in passing such a resolution could have been expected to upset and anger the government leadership. There is a need for overcoming the past and not getting stuck in it. This is best done through a political solution in which there is mutual forgiveness and reconciliation including making amends for wrongs done. This again requires the participation of both the central government and Northern Provincial Council.
In his own speech, and diverting from his prepared text, the Chief Minister said that he was prepared to consider working within a solution that was less than the ideal that was required, even though other leaders of his party held a different opinion. He said that there were many agreements and commission reports to draw insights and concepts from. He said that good laws could be subverted by bad rulers, whereas even bad laws could be used to promote the people’s interests by good rulers. Even the limited powers available within the existing framework of devolution, and available to the Northern Provincial Council, can be utilized for the good of the people if no obstacles are placed by the central government. It is important that the government should respond in a constructive manner both to the Northern Chief Minister’s speech and also to the resolutions of the Northern Provincial Council.
As the Sunday Times newspaper editorially commented, “Utilising Jaffna and Trincomalee as hubs for greater inter-connectivity with the South Indian region (not just Tamil Nadu, but the states of Kerala, Andhra, Telangana, Karnataka and even Maharashtra) is something that could bring in huge economic dividends, not just to North Sri Lanka but to the entire country.” Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s speech suggests that there needs to be a paradigm shift, and a whole new way of looking at problems, so that the provincial councils are able to work with the central government to deliver benefits to the people they are accountable to, and thereby to develop the trust of people in the different levels of government. This is the type of creative, forward looking and mutually beneficial solution that Sri Lanka needs today. The forthcoming Geneva session of the UNHRC needs to be dealt with in a similar spirit.