Beyond Sri Lanka’s Big Brother syndrome
Colombo’s moves to control subjects connected with state security, and indirectly demography, must not trample on the aspirations and rights of the Tamils and other minorities
Amidst the entire range of complexities that mark the situation in Sri Lanka one fact remains incontestable: President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his three brothers — Defence Secretary Gotabhaya, Basil, who controls politics and economic policies, and the soft-spoken Speaker of the Parliament, Chamal — are the arbiters of their country’s destiny.
The institutions of democracy as provided for within Sri Lanka’s democratic constitution operate but neither the parliamentary opposition nor voices of dissent within the ruling alliance have the strength to put a brake on the objectives that the Rajapaksa brothers, especially the President, have set for themselves and, by extension, for their country.
It is clear from the policies the Rajapaksa brothers have pursued since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 that their principal objective has been to prevent forever the emergence of a similar organisation. Now, the surest way to ensure that objective would be to take steps to erode, if not eliminate, separatist sentiment among the Tamil community. And the first measure in this direction would be to implement the 13th Amendment and the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, especially with regard to incidents of excessive or malicious use of force against civilians in the last few months of the anti-LTTE operations. However, President Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya in particular, have always been critical of the 13th Amendment devolution process which created the provincial councils and gave the provinces meaningful powers including over land and the police. The legislation they wish to promote now would effectively take away these powers. They also desire that in future, constitutional changes regarding provincial powers could be accomplished by Colombo with a simple majority of provinces siding with it. This would lead to Colombo retaining in its hands the authority over subjects that are connected with the state security apparatus and, indirectly, demography.
President Rajapaksa would like to get these changes through before the Northern Council elections which he has announced would be held in September. It is pertinent that he wishes to hold the elections prior to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. For the time being, the proposed changes are being resisted by some ruling alliance partners.
A recent visit to Colombo and Jaffna enabled this writer to hear a range of voices and also see the reconstruction activities that have been undertaken by the Sri Lankan authorities in the latter city and area. The resettlement work and the reconstruction of physical infrastructure in the four years that have passed since the LTTE’s defeat have been good. While there is a civilian administration in place, the Governor is a retired army officer and this is a ground for complaint. It is true that Colombo would have had little option but to rely on the army in the immediate aftermath of the conflict for resettlement and development work. However, popular sentiment would now be addressed by reducing the army’s salience. The acquisition of land for the expansion of defence facilities is a major ground for complaint.
One of the most contentious issues relates to the size of the defence force to be stationed in the Northern Province. Almost all sections of Tamil opinion are convinced that if the defence forces are placed in large numbers in extensive military facilities, their sole objective would be to coerce the Tamil population. The basis of this belief is that the threat of violent separatism has disappeared with the defeat of the LTTE. The Rajapaksa view, endorsed by many Sinhalese, is that this is not so. It strongly holds that the ambition of a separate Tamil state is widespread, especially in the influential Tamil diaspora. The diaspora is currently focused more on putting pressure on Colombo on human rights issues. However, in future it can promote violent activities and an empowered province in the north may provide them with a base.
There is no easy resolution of these two fundamentally contradictory visions. In the 21st century, terrorist violence is an issue but the security of plural and multi-ethnic states is best guaranteed in satisfactorily addressing the reasonable aspirations of ethnic and religious minorities including their quest for identity, justice, democracy and development. On their part, minorities must shun violent approaches and understand the concerns of the majority communities. Historical memory, ancient grievances and the dubious lessons of battles lost and won in centuries past cannot guide leaders, particularly those who control the destinies of peoples and countries in this digital age.
The 13th Amendment is the cornerstone of the position of the overwhelming majority of the Tamil political class. It has already been diluted by the decision of the Court regarding the inadmissibility of the merger of the Northern and the Eastern provinces. Any further weakening of the Amendment is unacceptable to them. The Indian position too is to support the implementation of the Amendment. Recently, the Union Minister for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, urged his Sri Lankan counterpart that elections for the Northern Provincial Council need to be held within the time frame announced by President Rajapaksa and under the present provisions of the Constitution. While India is firmly committed to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, the entire country shares the concern expressed in Tamil Nadu for the rights and welfare of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. Will President Rajapaksa take these views into account and if he does not, what can and will India do? The communication channels which have worked successfully to diffuse situations in the past now need to operate urgently.
(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan.)