ON the evening of March 11, heads of foreign missions based in Colombo received an invitation from the Foreign Ministry to gather at the office of Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama the following day at 11 a.m. for a briefing on the just-concluded local body elections in Batticaloa district. Similarly, members of the local and international press corps were called to his office for another briefing on the elections. The invites raised several eyebrows. What has the Foreign Ministry got to do with the conduct of local body elections in just one of three eastern districts?
For the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and its Foreign Ministry, the Batticaloa elections constituted an extraordinary feat for more than one reason and deserved to be promoted as such.
The logic and objective of showcasing the Batticaloa elections to the international community is three-fold. First, the government succeeded in conducting the elections without any untoward incident in an area, parts of which were wrested from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) less than a year ago. Secondly, the government can take credit for bringing a section of the LTTE, the breakaway faction led by Vigyanamurthy Muralitharan alias Col Karuna, now led by Pillian, into the political mainstream. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reflection of the commitment of the government to usher in democracy in the erstwhile LTTE-dominated areas and provide an idea of the shape of things to come in the East and eventually in the North, parts of which continue to be under the control of the Tigers.
A beaming Bogollagama told the diplomats and subsequently the press that through the elections concluded on Monday [March 10], Sri Lanka has continued to show to the local and international community that this government has a plan and will deliver on its promises to restore normalcy in the areas affected by the present conflict.
He described the local body polls as an important milestone in the governments policy of restoring democratic rights to the people in areas that were previously dominated by the LTTE and said they heralded the transition of the TMVP [Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal] into the democratic political mainstream. Successful conclusion of this election also augurs well for the planned Provincial Council elections that will follow, he observed.
The Minister expressed the hope that the international community will recognise the significance of the change taking place in the East politically, economically and socially and that further assistance will be forthcoming for the completion of this task. He made it a point to recall his statement made on January 4, that the termination of the Cease Fire Agreement did not in anyway hamper the process of moving towards a negotiated political settlement, and that in fact it gave broader space to pursue this goal through an inclusive process, which included all the minority groups of Sri Lanka.
I observed that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while dealing militarily to eliminate the scourge of terrorism from our land, will spare no effort in our bid to arrive at a practical and sustainable political settlement, he maintained. The Minister said that with the proposals of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) presented on January 23, the government had taken the first step in this regard.
After 20 years, Sri Lanka made a commitment to see that the 13th Amendment of 1987 was to be fully implemented to benefit the areas it was most intended to serve. This was a first step in a continuing process for greater devolution of power, with the objective of achieving a final and durable political settlement, he explained.
On paper, the Batticaloa elections were contested by nine political parties and 22 independent groups which fielded 831 candidates. It saw a turnout of 161,749 electors, accounting for around 60 per cent of the 270,471 registered voters. It was the first local body election in these areas in 14 years. The TMVP won eight of the nine local bodies that went to polls, while the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won the Batticaloa Urban Council.
The TMVPs sweep came as no surprise to local political observers. After all, it was a one-horse race following the decision of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to stay away. The TNA and the UNP cited the disturbed law and order situation and the failure of the government to disarm the TMVP as the reason for their boycott. However, there is little doubt that the elections disproved the prophets of doom. Contrary to apprehensions of large-scale violence, they passed with no significant event or reports of irregularities.
The Minister informed the diplomatic community that arrangements to improve the law and order situation in the East were under way. According to him, new police stations have been established, while existing stations are being strengthened to provide a better service to the community. Some 2,000 Tamil-speaking police officers were being recruited to serve the province, of whom 175, including 50 women police constables, had already been recruited, trained and deployed, he said. The restoration and strengthening of the civil administration was under way, for which office buildings were being provided and new staff, especially those who knew Tamil, were being recruited.
These measures are in line with the recommendations of the APRC, which has called for the full implementation of the provisions of Chapter IV of the Constitution on Language. These include the recruitment of Tamil-speaking police officers in sufficient numbers to enable Tamil-speaking members of the public, not only in the North and the East but in the country as a whole, to transact business in their own language in police stations. Other steps include recruitment of staff and procurement of equipment to enable the Tamil-speaking public to deal with Ministries, government departments and other public body in Tamil as well as the regular holding of mobile clinics with officials well-versed in Tamil to assist in solving the problems of the Tamil-speaking people, he said.
However, the Minister could not answer satisfactorily the question why the government had so far not acted on the other recommendation of the APRCs interim report for the establishment of an interim set-up in the North. There is some delay in the finalisation of the names. At the moment I am not in a position to give any timelines on when the set-up would come into force in the North, he said in response to questions.
Notwithstanding the various issues relating to the conduct of the local body elections in Batticaloa and the larger issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of people in the East, there is absolutely no doubt that the LTTE has not been able to stage a comeback in the East after it was ousted by the military in 2007.
It is certainly not a coincidence that on the day of the elections the LTTE issued a public statement attacking India for aiding the Sinhalese government in the suppression of Tamils. The statement, perhaps the first of its kind directed at India in several years, is a manifestation of the growing frustration of the Tigers in the face of sustained military onslaught.
Titled Is the Indian state attempting yet another historic blunder?, the statement said that the state welcome given by the Indian state to the Sri Lanka military chief, Lt. Gen. G.S.C. Fonseka, who was leading the Sri Lankan states war of ethnic genocide against the Eelam Tamils, had deeply hurt Tamils.
The decision of the Indian government to take Fonseka to Srinagar appears to have intrigued the Tigers. It is beside the point that there is no cogent explanation from New Delhi on the travel of the Army chief to Jammu and Kashmir.
The Sri Lankan state is facing many warnings and condemnations for its attempt to seek a military solution and for its enormous human rights violations. The Indian state also knows this truth. Yet, while pronouncing that a solution to the Tamil problem must be found through peaceful means, it is giving encouragement to the military approach of the Sinhala state. This can only lead to the intensification of the genocide of the Tamils, the LTTE bemoaned.
It further said that it wished to point out to the Indian state that the historic blunder it had committed would continue to subject Eelam Tamils to misery and put them in the dangerous situation of having to face ethnic genocide on a massive scale. On behalf of the Eelam Tamils, the LTTE kindly requests the Tamils of Tamil Nadu to understand this anti-Tamil move of the Indian state and express their condemnation.
Returning to its old tactics, the LTTE used the opportunity to argue that it still had not abandoned the Norway-sponsored peace efforts and that it was ready to take part in such efforts. The LTTE is clearly cornered and is feeling the heat. However, the peaceful conduct of the Batticaloa elections is no cause for the government to feel ecstatic. It has to do much more and on a sincere and sustained basis to win back the hearts and minds of the people of the North and the East.B. Muralidhar Reddy