MANY years ago, a former government agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained northern sentiment when elections were taking place. He said that there had been apprehension at the possible turn of events over which they had no control. The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country. I was reminded of these words of Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.
The main theme at the present elections in the south, and most of the country, has been the need to elect a strong government and to give it a two-thirds majority to change the constitution accordingly. The response in Vavuniya and Jaffna by the members of civil society was that a strong government would not heed the wishes of the people. Like people in other parts of the country, they felt let down by the political leaders and said they did not know for whom to vote. The issues that they highlighted as being their concerns were economic ones, such as the lack of jobs for youth and the harm to families caused by an unregulated micro credit scheme that made them vulnerable to the predatory actions of money lenders.
Civil society members in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna did not take up the issue of the 19th amendment and the possible threat to civil society space that the speakers from the south put before them. This indicated a longer term need to have educational programmes on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence in particular to ensure justice and non-discrimination. But they also did not comment or discuss the manifesto put out by the main Tamil political party, the TNA, which addressed longstanding issues of the Tamil polity, including self-determination, federalism, the merger of the northern and eastern provinces or the newer post-war issues of missing persons and accountability for war crimes.
The absence of public debate at the civil society meetings in the north on the political dimension at the forthcoming elections may reflect a wariness about speaking publicly on politically controversial matters. Civil society groups throughout the country have been reporting there is more police surveillance of their work. The fear of falling into trouble and being seen as anti-government may have restrained the participants at the civil society meeting in the north from expressing their true feelings. On the other hand, there is also the reality that existential issues of jobs, loans and incomes are of immediate concern especially in the context of the COVID-19-induced economic downturn. The short term concerns of people are invariably with economic issues.
ONE of the salient features of the present elections has been the general unwillingness of even the main political parties to address any of the issues posed by the TNA. This would be due to their apprehension of the adverse fallout from the electorate. It could also be due to their lack of ideas regarding the way forward. Apart from the 19th amendment another impediment to strong government that is identified by its proponents is the 13th amendment. In the run up to the elections there have been calls for the abolition of the 13th amendment, which created the devolved system of provincial councils, along with the 19th amendment that directly reduced the power of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions. The provincial councils have been emasculated by denying them of both resources and decision making power and are condemned for being white elephants. The failure to have elections to the provincial councils also has contributed to show its ineffectiveness.
Whenever they have been consulted the chief ministers of all the provinces have raised many issues suggesting that they need more powers to deliver development to the people. This has gone beyond the north or the east. Provincial councils with power may be the best option available at present to have a more peaceful Sri Lanka that accommodates its multi-ethnic and multi- religious diversity.
It has been noted by the political commentator DBS Jeyaraj that the TNA’s choice of focusing on issues of transitional justice in dealing war time violations of human rights led to the TNA aligning itself with western powers. This did not yield the anticipated benefits as the previous government failed to implement many of its commitments in regard to transitional justice. It would have been better to have focused instead on getting the provincial councils in the north and east to engage in more development oriented work which would have met the existential needs of the people.
Jeyaraj has also surmised that if the TNA had chosen the path of utilising the provincial council system for development work they could have obtained support from India, which had been the co-architects of the provincial council system in 1987 along with the then Sri Lankan government. India has a moral obligation to contribute to developing the north and east of the country where the war raged in full fury and led to immense destruction. India’s role in destabilising Sri Lanka and enhancing the military capacity of the Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, is a bitter and abiding memory which the journalist Shamindra Ferdinando has written extensively about.
WHICHEVER party wins the general elections needs to realise that majority rule should not ignore the rights of minorities, whether ethnic, religious, and political or the losers in dealing with controversial legislation and the 13th amendment in particular. The provincial councils are a tier of government that gives expression to the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in the country and empower a whole range of actors at the sub-national level. They too need to ensure guarantee of basic human rights, equality before the law and due process of law and focus on social, economic and political pluralism and promote values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise, and consent of the governed in as much as parliament does.
A creative suggestion made during the civil society discussion in Jaffna was for the provincial councils to implement what governments have promised to implement but have failed to do. An example given was that of reparations to war victims. The previous government pledged to set up a system of reparations in terms of the UNHRC resolution in 2015. But although an Office for Reparations was established very little was done. The question was whether the provincial councils in the north and east could not have utilised their resources for the purposes of instituting schemes of reparations as it would be clearly within the policy framework of the government.
The civil society meetings in the north suggest that the northern people are not showing overt interest in political issues as they believe these are non-deliverable at the present time. While the issues in the TNA’s manifesto will remain perennial ones to the Tamil polity, the people are looking for political leaders who will deliver them the economic benefits in the same way as in the rest of the country. Instead of using its majority status in parliament and seeking to abolish the 13th amendment and the provincial council system, and creating a crisis with the Tamil polity and India, the new government would do better to work through them to meet the material needs of the people.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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