North’s challenge

Print edition : September 20, 2013

“POST-WAR” is one term you keep hearing all the time in Sri Lanka. The three-decade-long ethnic conflict, which tore the island nation apart before it ended in May 2009, has become a reference point in the country’s history.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a range of views, often articulated through concerns over allegations of war crimes, inadequacies in resettlement, the delay in arriving at a long-term political solution to the Tamil question, and the extent of power that would be devolved to the provinces.

It is in this context that the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council assumes significance. Elections are to be held on September 21 to the Northern, North-Western and Central Provinces.

All the same, while we continue to shine the spotlight on northern Sri Lanka, which bore the brunt of the brutal war between the Sri Lanka Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the upcoming election gives the state an opportunity to introspect and analyse its larger political agenda. Factoring in some of the developments in the south might be important in understanding this.

The end of the war marked a new beginning for the country. But there are some discomforting signals emerging from the south that serve as pointers to the country’s post-war course, particularly this year.

The controversial impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January on charges of failing to disclose her financial interests, abuse of power and showing disregard for the Constitution was seen as a big blow to democracy.

Parliament’s move to impeach her came right after her judgment preventing the dilution of powers granted to the provincial council under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Just as the country was coming to terms with the impeachment, there were clear signs of an emerging Sinhala-Buddhist wave threatening to cause a new divide in society.

There were unmistakable indicators of a growing intolerance towards the predominantly Tamil-speaking Muslim community which forms about 10 per cent of the country’s population.

The first few manifestations of such intolerance came in the form of a campaign in February against halal certification by a relatively new Sinhala Buddhist organisation, Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS.

The attack on a Muslim-owned apparel chain in March sought to strengthen the doubts. The BBS even spoke of a ban on the niqab. In the following months, sporadic attacks on a few other Muslim places of worship were also reported.

In early August, a Sinhala mob attacked a mosque in suburban Colombo, injuring at least five persons. The incident evoked fear, anger and concern.

Role of the army

A pertinent question to ask at this point is what role does the state visualise for its army in the post-war context.

Until now, criticism against the army was largely centred on militarisation of the north. However, when three people died in a clash between the army and residents of Weliweriya, near Colombo, on August 1, angry voices questioning the role of the army in civil matters could be heard loud and clear in the south. Local residents were protesting against contamination of groundwater by effluent released from a nearby factory.

All these have to be factored in while studying the current political climate in Sri Lanka.

At one level, the fact that the election to the Northern Provincial Council is being held for the first time is seen as a positive move on the government’s part. At another level, the opposition to the implementation of the 13th Amendment causes concern.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proclamation in July on holding the Northern Provincial Council elections saw shrill debates dominate political circles.

The 13th Amendment came in the wake of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Besides allowing for a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces through a referendum, it grants the provinces legislative powers through provincial councils and executive powers through a board of ministers and a chief minister. The 13th Amendment also devolves powers, including those over land, to the provinces.

Those opposed to the amendment feared that devolution of powers might rekindle the demand for a separate state for the Tamils. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and Rajapaksa’s brother, stated explicitly that empowering a “hostile” provincial administration with land and police powers would have grave repercussions.

Senior Ministers have maintained that the government in Colombo will not part with land and police powers. A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was formed in June to study the 13th Amendment and suggest possible changes. Some people question the credibility of the exercise, since representatives of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are not on the panel.

Following these developments and a few rounds of shuttle diplomacy, India sent out what National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon described as a “clear message” to Sri Lanka. While India would like to take at least part of the credit for pushing Sri Lanka to hold the provincial elections, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Colombo in November is said to be another important reason why Sri Lanka is being cautious.

It is certain that the provincial elections will be held, but one must wait to see if holding elections to the Northern Provincial Council will actually translate into the devolution of powers, and result in a political solution.

Much will depend on how best the civil administration of the heavily militarised Northern Province is able to challenge the all-powerful Governor appointed by the President. It would also be important to see how much financial autonomy the provinces will have, for local projects are heavily dependent on investments from Colombo.

The TNA, an amalgam of Tamil political parties, which is said to have a good chance of winning the election, has fielded retired Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate.

In choosing someone with his background and standing, the TNA seems to have sent out a message that it is mindful of the challenges it will have to face.

While it grapples with this challenge, the TNA will also have to reflect on its own politics. The primary criticism against this alliance is that it is too much into rhetoric, which is grounded in Tamil nationalist ideology, and too little into active field politics.

The government’s engagement in the North has been primarily about infrastructure development, that too with the active involvement of the army.

As Sri Lanka prepares for the provincial elections and begins another chapter in democracy, it might want to pause and see how the past four years, post-war have been.

Meera Srinivasan

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