Starting Point For Reconciliation After Northern Election

September 21, 2013 at 7:17 pm

By Dr Jehan Perera

India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka’s President J. R. Jayewardene signing the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987

The holding of the elections to the Northern Provincial Council is the most significant political development relating to the ethnic conflict since the end of the war.  There were many who doubted that these elections would take place.  Apart from the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, there has been no other governmental initiative that impacts upon political issues that are of utmost concern to the Tamil people.

It is likely that the strong international pressure on the government to honour its war-time pledge to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and even go beyond to 13 Amendment Plus, in the words of the President, pushed the government to take this positive step.

In context of the lack of any other political progress towards addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the establishment of a Provincial Council for the Northern Province is the best possible advance. It will give the people of the North, the same devolved power that the people in the other eight provinces enjoy.  The quantum of devolved power to them is low.

This will offer an opportunity for the Northern Province to join with the other eight provinces to increase the devolved powers and resources, which the other provincial councils also wish to have.  The watchful eye of the international community is bound to continue to be on the devolution of power so long as Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process remains incomplete.

Among the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the issue of discrimination meted out to the Tamil people took a primary place.  To the extent that the people of the North will enjoy the same devolved power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy, there will be less discrimination.

Therefore, the establishment of the Provincial Council for the Northern Province has the potential to be an act of reconciliation.  The words of President J. R. Jayewardene when he signed the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987 ring true at this time.  He urged the people to protect this tender plant.  The Northern Provincial Council is a tender plant that must be protected.  Neither the people of the Northern Province nor the international community will be satisfied with sham devolution of powers.

It was perhaps inevitable that in the run-up to these elections controversies would emerge.  Politicians who seek the people’s votes in countries in which there are ethnic cleavages tend to appeal to ethnic nationalism to obtain the people’s votes.  It is easy to rouse nationalist passions, by saying that one’s own community is the greatest or the most threatened. The history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a story of both the government and opposition using nationalism to get the better of each other, even at the cost of the country’s peace.

The TNA manifesto and the speeches of its campaigners during the run-up to the election reveal the belief of our politicians in the power of ethnic nationalism to deliver the votes.  These include the demands for self determination, the praise for slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran and for an international tribunal to investigate war crimes and punish those found guilty.  This has evoked a reverse response in the two other provinces where elections are being held.  In the North Western and Central provinces, the government is calling on the electorate to vote for a strong government and against separation.

It is important that the increased polarisation in the polity due to the competing nationalisms of the electoral campaign should be overcome soon after the election is over.  There is no doubt that the provincial council system should be strengthened, not only in the Northern Province, but in the other eight provinces also.

There is a need to ensure that the provincial council system is provided with more powers and resources, including land and police powers that are already granted in the 13th Amendment and form a part of the Constitution.  The provincial councils cannot do this by themselves.  They need the cooperation of the central government if they are to achieve their goals of greater devolved power and more resources.  There needs to a spirit of accommodation and trust for such cooperation to be achieved.

It is easier to treat the other as the enemy and to condemn and refuse to work with them.  It is more difficult to explain to the people who vote that living in a multi-ethnic and plural society requires compromise and give-and-take for the sake of peace.  In a plural society one community or one group cannot decide by itself what it wants to do, even if it is the majority in that region or in the country.

When the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay was in Sri Lanka, she had a brief meeting with civil society groups.  She spoke about the importance of Nelson Mandela.  He had shown that it is sometimes necessary to compromise for the sake of peace.  Our country needs leaders like that too.

The TNA’s choice of former Supreme Court judge C. V. Wigneswaran to be its chief ministerial candidate gave the moral upper hand to the TNA. This must continue into the future, as morality is a source of power in itself.  The future administration of the Northern Province may be able to set an example by having higher standards of politicians that will persuade the rest of the country to emulate them.

The existence of strong civilian managed institutions, which the provincial councils can be if empowered, that ensure that the needs of the people are met, both at the provincial and community levels, is the most urgent need.

The starting point for national healing after the three decade long war is that all people should become more aware of the basic problems, fears and hopes of those of the other communities.  Unfortunately there are signs that the vicious cycle of conflict due to ethnic majority and minority nationalisms feeding on each other may start spinning again.

The government leadership, with its access to the government machinery and to the mass media, has the primary responsibility in educating the general population about the values and strategies necessary for reuniting this divided country in heart and mind.

The TNA as the front runner in the North, needs to do the same with the Tamil people whom they need to empower.  Together they have to find a path of development that reintegrates the people into the national polity.