Rooting for reconciliation
Northern polls portray the gaps as well as the bridges between communities in Sri Lanka and beyond
An eerie clam has fallen across the town of Jaffna, like an indrawn breath, as over 700 000 people across the Northern Province await to vote at critical elections on Saturday. Its outcome could change the entire political landscape of Sri Lanka and with it the future for its Tamil community.
Campaigning has been largely muted but it belies a real interest in the people to define their own future, politically at least. This interest has spilled over to people beyond the sun dappled shores of Sri Lanka with the diaspora keeping an eagle eye on the proceedings- at times criticizing and at other points exhorting support for the main Tamil party.
The provincial council system was established in Sri Lanka through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that was born from the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord that was controversially signed due to pressure from India during the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was latter assassinated by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and the war was to continue for another two decades before it was brutally ended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009.
But events did not end there with the Rajapaksa regime accused of alleged war crimes resulting in two consecutive U.S. backed resolutions approved by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2012 and 2013. The island continues to be regularly berated for its lackluster human rights record and had to battle to host the distinctive Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which it finally managed to lock down earlier this year.
The responsibility of CHOGM as well as the recent visit by UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, experts believe, has motivated the government to marginally change its attitude, though President Rajapaksa has stringently denied this. The long delayed elections for the north was also precipitated by the ruling party losing local government elections in 2011 but under international lobbying agreed to hold provincial polls in September 2013. The long wait was finally over.
Who should win ?
The discussions on who should win the elections has spilled over to the south as well with government affiliated parties arguing that the main election contender, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is sowing ideas on separatism through its election manifesto. If the TNA wins, they insist, an organization sympathetic to the Liberation Tami Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) will attempt to achieve that which the LTTE during three decades of war failed to do – a separate State.
Given such high stakes the northern provincial council poll has garnered focal status with regional super power India being a key observer of the events to be played out over the weekend.
Fears of the Tamil community are also fueled by government plans to roll back the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which has already scrambled out of the blocks in the form of an all-party Parliament Select Committee (PSC) whose decision India has agreed to accept.
Even though TNA has refused to join and Sinhalese nationalist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has walked out Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella as well as other mouthpieces of the government have voiced plans to introduce a 19th Amendment that would roll back the provincial system introduced by its unluckily numbered predecessor giving more power to the center. With it would go the chance for limited self-rule under a unitary State preferred by the Tamil community.
A northern provincial council under the TNA would be the best deterrent, that party believes, and the starting point for greater power sharing and a political solution to Sri Lanka’s bloody ethnic problem.
But the party has found it rough going partly because of unchecked illegal election campaigning practices by the government with documented reports by Transparency International on use of State resources, open support from officials including the Governor – and perhaps the most disturbing- alleged usage of the military to organize rallies. They have also found managing ties with India and Tamil diaspora while engaging with moderate Sinhalese a thorny dance.
“The TNA is talking about the control of Tamil peoples affairs within one country. LTTE was fighting for a separate country. The separatist agenda came with the LTTE and with their defeat that is over. We are not seeking a separate state,” the Party’s Chief Ministerial Candidate for the North and former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran told reporters on Monday in a clear effort to return to a moderate point.
The former Judge said that what the Government was doing to portray parties within the democratic mainstream as being the same as armed terrorists was very wrong. “This is so they can treat us also like the terrorists,” Wigneswaran said.
The Chief Ministerial hopeful of the North said it was time the President came up with a solution to the Tamil problem if he was unhappy about devolution.
TNA’s cause was not helped by a last minute salvo from former LTTE Chief Weapons Procurer Kumaran Pathmanathan who on Wednesday slammed them for cheating the Tamil people and hailed President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a ‘great leader’ who could solve the ethnic problem.
Pathmanathan alias KP believes the TNA election manifesto was separatist in content. This was KP’s first press conference after his surrender in May 20009 and subsequent “rehabilitation” by the government who made no attempt to prosecute him and now runs an orphanage for war-affected children.
“The TNA is attempting to send the young Tamil people back to war with its policies,” he said, urging the people of the north to accept the 13th Amendment as a final political settlement to the conflict.
Highly critical of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam and the diaspora, KP quipped that the purported LTTE Government in exile was like the defeated rebel organisation’s ‘past pupils association.’
“It is true I started it,” KP said, adding that the TGTE had now lost its relevance. “They are not really interested in addressing Tamil issues,” he said.
Pathmanathan said the northern people had a golden opportunity when they go to the polls on Saturday (21). “Don’t miss this opportunity, don’t listen to TNA lies,” he emphasized.
Keen to showcase ethnic harmony the army even arranged for media to be ferried to a wedding of former LTTE carders organized by them in Kilinochchi. The highlight of the colorful ceremony was the marriage between ethnic Sinhalese J. H. N. Rathnayake to former LTTE female rebel fighter Premarathnam Sugandhini.
The backbone of the government’s campaign, however, is undoubtedly development with millions of dollars being spent on infrastructure projects. Electric screens flashing images of numerous roads, houses and bridges constructed by the government interspersed with a beaming President Rajapaksa dotted the Jaffna town ahead of the official close of campaigning while less flashier billboards are scattered across the peninsula.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa added his considerable star power to the campaigning by touring the former war zone last week, opening electricity stations, addressing rallies, observing development work and crowning his visit with the resuming of train services to former LTTE heartland Kilinochchi after the lapse of two decades. The writing is clear for the voters: pick UPFA candidates and the money will continue to flow. As the region hobbles back to normalcy, this is a powerful message indeed.
A recent report released by the Central Bank details economic development in the north, which has been improving its contributions to national GDP since the end of the war. It is seen easing from its impressive levels in 2010 and 2011 though still managing to fare better than its counterparts, while the east has emerged as the overall winner posting a growth of 25 percent and chipping in 6.3 percent of GDP share. Compared to the south job opportunities have also increased in the north, a study done by think tank Verite Research found.
Nonetheless the Central Bank’s efforts to attract investment from the diaspora have been largely unsuccessful with most Sri Lankans abroad having a love-hate relationship with their nation of origin.
“We in the diaspora, we have knowledge, we have expertise but what we need is integration between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims but we do not see this happening. We need a political solution that begins with the 13th Amendment but goes beyond it to ensure peaceful co-habitation,” political activist Lathan Suntharalingam told Daily FT.
Giving an interview in Zurich Suntharalingam, who was born in Chavacachcheri but left Lankan shores as a child, pointed out that even basic logistics such as issuance of visa for diaspora were seen as “discriminatory.”
“I have to pay Rs.100 000 to get my nationality back. It’s not a question of money. Why should I pay when I was born in Sri Lanka. It is my country. I have to pay to come back to my country. That is a discrimination in my view. This is not the way to get the diaspora back. There are so many ways to welcome back the diaspora in simpler ways,” he stressed pointing out that security concerns could be addressed by alternative means.
“Even the diaspora in other countries like contribute to development and we have so many ideas but we need civil society was don’t want to deal with the military. We want to put all money in education, health, housing and other community needs.”
Taking a bright view of the elections he was pleased that attempts to infuse normalcy “were moving forward,” but opined that it would take longer for real reconciliation to take root.
He also called upon the Tamil politicians to “to set our own vision for Sri Lanka. To find a way so we can live together and not be prey to vested international interests.”
The 45 000-50 000 strong Sri Lankans living in Switzerland, composed mostly of Tamils, also interact with members of their community who are seeking political asylum after enduring severe hardship and are afraid of prosecution by the Sri Lankan government making for a complex web of circumstances.
Yet a local survey done by non-government organization Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) ahead of the elections paints a more positive picture. The survey found in the last four years, majority of the respondents (63.7%) believe that development in the Northern Province has somewhat improved while 26.1% say that it has greatly improved.
When it comes to personal security, 41.3% state that it has somewhat improved in the last four years while 21.6% say that there has been no change. Almost 40% believe that their livelihoods have somewhat improved while 33.9% say that there has been no change.
Most respondents appear optimistic about the upcoming election with 34.2% believing that the elections will be free and fair while 24% say they may be free and fair.
Sri Lankan diplomats are also enthusiastically presenting this shiny image to the international community with the Head of Mission to the European Union, Ambassador P.M. Amza, telling the European Parliament “elections have infused political momentum into the once war-stricken region.”
A dozen political parties and 28 independent groups, have joined in the fray comprising a total of 906 candidates vying for 36 seats. After 25 years, 714,488 people registered as voters in the northern parts will be exercising their franchise.
Foreign and local observers
Foreign and local observers are also out in droves. An estimated 1600 monitors will be deployed along with four commonwealth observers and 20 south Asian and Asian observers. The Elections Commission will also field their own contingent of monitors.
Kenya's former vice president Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, who is heading a four-member Commonwealth mission, urged all sides to ensure the landmark elections take place without incident as his delegation entered a series of meetings in the town of Jaffna, the Commonwealth secretariat said.
"I call on all stakeholders to play their part to ensure that the remaining days of the electoral process promote confidence in voters to freely exercise their franchise," Musyoka said in a statement issued by the Commonwealth.
Reports of the monitors will be presented for local and international scrutiny after Sunday. Yet the power of the polls is limited.
“I am proud of my country but at the same time ashamed. We need to create the environment for the next generation to live together,” Suntharalingam said summing up the conflicting feelings most diaspora have towards what was once their home.
At such a pivotal moment the Sri Lankan government will be hoping it did just enough to win a decent chunk of the vote but at best this is only another step in the long road to winning reconciliation and peace in this troubled but beautiful island.
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