By Jehan Perera –
The inauguration of the Northern Provincial Council took place in its newly constructed building in Jaffna. Protocol was followed and the Governor of the Northern Province was accorded his due place in the opening ceremony, notwithstanding repeated demands by TNA leaders to replace the former General with a person drawn from civilian life. Photographs in the media showed the Governor in the middle flanked by the Chief Minister and TNA leaders. This was yet another sign that the new provincial administration led by Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran would function within the letter and spirit of the law. As a former judge who rose to the Supreme Court on account of both seniority and merit, Chief Minister Wigneswaran would have an orientation to function within the law of the land. This would be reassuring to those who are concerned with the past history of ethnic conflict and the bid to divide the country through illegal means.
On the other hand, in keeping with his training, former Justice Wigneswaran could be expected to exercise the powers conferred on him by law and the Constitution. In his inaugural address to the Northern Provincial Council the Chief Minister succeeded in striking a balance that should be acceptable to those on both sides of the divide. In his inaugural speech, Chief Minister Wigneswaran couched potentially controversial issues in moderate language. He affirmed a long standing demand of the TNA and many of those who support the provincial council system, when he said that the Northern Provincial Council was ready to wield police and land powers that have not yet been devolved to any of the provincial councils by any of the governments since the passage of the 13th Amendment and the setting up of the devolved provincial system in 1987.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran also echoed the repeated call of TNA leaders for a governor with a civilian rather than military background. He also said that internal self-determination was possible within a united country. The new Chief Minister therefore did not shy away from difficult issues and addressed them directly. At the same time he also specifically affirmed that the Tamil people had rejected separatism and violence at the provincial council election. This would be a message of reassurance. The concept of internal self-determination was one that came into prominence during the heyday of the LTTE, and was seen as the alternative to their demand for separation. The concept of internal self-determination at that time was also invariably seen as encompassing the demand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, which is anathema to most of the Sinhalese population and possibly also the Muslim population.
There is no doubt that contentious issues are bound to come up in the future with regard to both the empowerment of the Northern Provincial Council and the delivery of services to the Tamil people. Therefore, sustaining the working relations between the newly constituted Northern Provincial Council and the Sri Lankan government would be the most important challenge for anyone concerned with the country’s longer term welfare. The present time in which there appears to be a new beginning in North-South relations is one that realists might say will end after the Commonwealth Heads of Government come and go, but optimists hope will continue into the future even if with ups and downs. So far the optimists have the upper hand. The government and the Northern Provincial Council have on more than one occasion been able to overcome their differences to reach a mutual accommodation.
One of the first of the potential break points came soon after the elections to the Northern Provincial Council when the issue of the Chief Minister’s oath taking came up. A worst case scenario could have arisen if Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran had refused to take his oaths of office before any high level representative of the Sri Lankan government and instead taken it before his party leader in Jaffna as some sections of Tamil opinion both locally and internationally lobbied for. This would have sent a message to the rest of the country that the Northern Provincial Council had separatist aspirations. However, the new Chief Minister travelled down to Colombo and took his oaths before President Mahinda Rajapaksa. With this one act he reassured the Sri Lankan government and the population at large that the Northern Provincial Council intended to be a part of the national polity and its basic structures of governance.
A more recent challenge that arose was when the Chavakachcheri local authority in the North passed a resolution that LTTE cemeteries that had been destroyed by the Sri Lankan military after the end of the war should be rebuilt. When the LTTE controlled the North, they built impressive cemeteries for their fallen cadre. They called them Martyrs Cemeteries and they served as a rallying point for Tamil nationalism, especially on those special days when the LTTE held very moving and stirring memorial events that could induce new recruits to join them. But apart from the LTTE’s agenda of recruitment, the cemeteries served another purpose of enabling families to mourn their dead relatives. Indeed, one of the saddest sights at those LTTE cemeteries was to see parents weeping over half-sized tombs that contained their young children.
The issue of rebuilding LTTE cemeteries could have become a volatile one if the Northern Provincial Council had taken up their cause. The Sri Lankan defense authorities expressed concerns that other local authorities in the North would now make similar demands and eventually the movement to rebuild LTTE cemeteries might even spread to the East of the country. However, neither the Northern Provincial Council nor the leadership of the TNA have supported this cause. It is a sign that they do not wish to confront either the government or the security forces on this emotional issue. The government needs to appreciate and accommodate this stance of the TNA leadership including the Northern Provincial Council.
It is significant that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that was appointed by the President foresaw this potential flashpoint. They recommended that all who died in the war should be commemorated at a special event on National Day. Although the LLRC report has been out nearly two years, and two National Days have passed, the government has yet to implement this recommendation, although it claims it is implementing the LLRC recommendations. It would be a positive gesture if, in the meantime, the government considers setting up memorials where the LTTE cemeteries once stood and where all victims of the war can be remembered. Reflecting the new spirit of partnership such establishing of memorials should be done in cooperation and after consultation with the Northern Provincial Council.
Another area where the Northern Provincial Council can work in cooperation with the government is to ensure Indian government participation at the highest level at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. India has probably been the single most important factor in the achievement of even a limited degree of devolution of power in Sri Lanka. At the present time there are questions being raised as to whether Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh will actually attend the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka due to strong opposition in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Diaspora groups, international human rights organisations and political parties in Tamil Nadu have taken a very strong stance against CHOGM being held in Sri Lanka. They have pointed out that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold Commonwealth values and should not be honored by the other Commonwealth countries coming to it.
The preparations being made by the Sri Lankan government for the Commonwealth Summit are an indication of how much importance it places on the success of the event. Government leaders are informing the people that after the Summit, President Rajapaksa as chairman of the Commonwealth will be leader of 53 countries. The symbolic importance of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s participation at CHOGM is huge from the Sri Lankan government’s point of view. It is said that President Rajapaksa is a pragmatic politician. He therefore helps those who help him. With his immense political power at this time and his popularity with the majority of people, what he can do for the Northern Province, and its war-battered people, is enormous if he chooses to do it. Even this speculation shows the possibility of constructive engagement that could not have been envisioned a few months ago. It shows how much conditions have changed.
There is speculation that the Sri Lankan government might invite Chief Minister Wigneswaran to be part of the Sri Lankan delegation at the CHOGM. Whether such an invitation is given and accepted is still only in the realm of speculation. The TNA will also have to consider the implications of going in opposition to sentiment in Tamil Nadu state in India and in the Tamil Diaspora, which have stood steadfastly for the Tamil cause. Another possible area of exploration would be for the government to consider the issue of devolving police and land powers, even in some limited fashion as a preliminary step. This would address one of the main issues that have dogged Indo-Lanka relations, which is the non-implementation of the 13th Amendment. It is also an issue that has been raised by Chief Minister Wigneswaran in his inaugural address.