On September 21, elections were held in three provinces of Sri Lanka — the Sinhala majority North Western Province (NWP) and the Central Province (CP) and the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. While the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) returned to power in NWP and CP, with nearly 60 per cent of votes, it suffered a humiliating defeat in the NP. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured a landslide victory, winning 30 of the 38 seats, polling 78 per cent of the votes. C V Wigneswaran, the chief minister designate, topped the preference votes with a tally of 1,80,000 votes.
The stark political reality is growing ethnic polarisation. Students of South Asian history would recall a similar situation in Pakistan. The December 1970 elections triggered the worst political crisis. The Awami League, under the charismatic leadership of Mujibur Rahman, not only won in East Pakistan, but it also secured a majority in parliament. In West Pakistan, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, secured the majority.
Yahya Khan refused to invite Mujib to form the government. It was followed by brutal suppression of democratic rights and a reign of terror ensued. Events moved swiftly, finally, the Mukti Bahini, with the solid support of India, was able to bring about the liberation of Bangladesh. While widening ethnic chasm was the common denominator, there were basic differences between the two countries.
Colombo should recognise the grim realities and immediately initiate steps to bring about ethnic reconciliation. This would involve basic attitudinal changes. After the defeat of the Tigers, Colombo rightly claimed that the threat of terrorism has vanished. There was no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. What is more, Rajapaksa wanted to consolidate his support among the majority community. He successfully exploited the triumphalism and projected himself as the “saviour” of the Sinhalese race. In the majoritarian sway that ensued, the hopes and aspirations of other ethnic groups were ignored.
The government must realise that the Tamils have genuine fears and grievances. A solution can be found only by sharing power with the Tamil minority. A solution will not come about from the deliberations of the Parliamentary Select Committee where the Tamils will be outnumbered. A dialogue between the government and the TNA is the need of the hour.
The phenomenon of Tamil militancy was an offshoot of the policy of majoritarianism followed by successive Sinhala-dominated governments. Equally tragic, the self-proclaimed liberators of the Tamil community — LTTE — turned out to be an engine of oppression. The fact is Tamil struggle for justice and equality has been pushed back by 30 years. Pragmatic solutions suggested at various times — the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the subsequent 13th amendment, the draft Constitution of 2000, the recommendations of the expert committee appointed by the Tissa Vitharana Committee — could not make any headway because of the competitive one-upmanship of the Sinhala polity and equally reprehensible policy of obstinacy of the Tigers.
Colombo’s policy towards the Tamils in the post-LTTE period is based on the premise that rapid economic development will enable the government to win the Tamils to its side. The UPFA campaign in the recent provincial council elections highlighted the rehabilitation of the internally displaced people and the return to normalcy in the Tamil areas. The Tamils proved through the ballot box that man does not live by bread alone. Reconciliation can take place not by economic development alone, but by respecting diversity and pluralism.
The Tamil leaders also need to do considerable introspection and adapt themselves to post-LTTE realities. The TNA, till the demise of Prabhakaran, was a mouthpiece for the Tigers, either out of fear or admiration. Numerous lives, including some of the brightest Sri Lankan Tamils — Neelan Thiruchelvam, Amirtalingam, Lakshman Kadiragamar and many others — fell prey to the cult of the bomb and the bullet perfected by the LTTE. While all these barbarous acts were being perpetrated, the moderate Tamil leaders, who are now with the TNA, withdrew into a shell of silence. The famous lines of Martin Luther King come to mind: “We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” The TNA can rise to the occasion only if it distances itself from the lunatic fringe in the Tamil diaspora who still subscribe to a separate state through armed struggle.
On the eve of assuming power in the NP, the odds seem to be against TNA. The last few years have seen the whittling down of the provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment. The merger of the north and the east has been undone by a judicial pronouncement. The president and the defence secretary have made it clear that police powers would not be devolved. Equally disconcerting is a recent judgment of the Supreme Court. The judges have pronounced that the rights over land would be exercised by the federal government. With no control over land, police and with limited financial resources, how can the TNA administer the NP? What is more, the army is omnipresent, whether the Tamils want to hold a sports meet or a birthday party, the army clearance is essential.
The need of the hour is to form a broad united front to relentlessly struggle for the restoration of democracy and bring to end authoritarianism in the island. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai, at the end of her one-week visit, pointed out that Sri Lanka was moving in an “increasingly authoritarian direction”. In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council she warned Colombo that if the government failed to engage in a credible national process with tangible results, including the successful prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations, the international community will initiate its own enquiry mechanisms. Struggle for democracy within Sri Lanka, with solid support from the international community, will definitely bring about change in the political system. For only a genuinely democratic government can bring about ethic reconciliation.
The writer is former senior professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.