|Rajapaksha in Jaffna ( file photo)|
Political Editor/Sunday Times
• Brisk business in whisky and luxury shops; most people don’t want another war but seek life with dignity
•UPFA going all out this week to prevent two-thirds majority; large crowds at all political meetings
JAFFNA, September 14 – Business is booming in this northern capital. The contrast with the City of Colombo is striking.
Shops stocked with satellite dish antennas, some to view Tamil Nadu TV channels, overflow to the pavements. They are aired only a few hundred miles away from the Palk Strait, the thin but marine rich seas that separate Sri Lanka and India. Showcases display flagons of premium Scotch whisky and exquisite brands of Cognac. Large screen high definition television sets, placed on the roadside windows by electronic stores, show Tamil movies.
If all that is for the nouveau riche, who have mushroomed after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, there is also an equal share for those who come from the ‘proletariat’. Factory off-runs of garments with popular brand names like Levi’s, Wrangler, Adidas, Nike, Aeropostale, Mango and Gap are among those piled on payments. They sell more than the small wheeled stalls that market Ulundu Vadai. Even visitors from the South are lured by it. The Central Bus Station is busy as services operate to different parts of the country from Jaffna. The services include not only Colombo but Panadura, Matara and Kataragama. There are yet others to Kandy and Trincomalee.
Pavements are being newly laid in city streets, much like in Colombo, and roads are being topped up with brand new layers of asphalt. Concrete and wooden poles have come up along the roadside as power supply from the national grid has arrived. More residents will have electricity now. Telephone cables are being laid for more connections. That will no doubt pave the way for more residents to access the internet in a society where learning is almost next to religion. The story of development is further reflected in the large loads of cement bags workmen pile on tractor-trailers, lorries, vans and even hand carts. This has created job opportunities for skilled and unskilled labour. Masons and carpenters are earning premium wages. Buildings, some multi-storeyed, are springing up in the city and suburbs. This is the same story in the other four districts besides Jaffna — Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu. There the road development programmes are intense.
Many a house has been converted to guest houses or restaurants to accommodate the large volume of domestic tourists and a lesser number from abroad. Upmarket restaurants are full. A striking feature at night is how relatives crowd a table as their expatriate next of kin or friend hosts a meal. A status symbol is a flagon of Black Label or Chivas Regal Scotch whisky. Food is ordered lavishly. Wine stores are better stocked than those in the south, a marked contrast to the period when Tiger guerrillas dominated the ground. Only one brand of Arrack in pocket sized bottles was then popular.
A strong reminder about who is behind the success story of development comes from atop a multi-storied building. It is from a giant screen on a roof in the fast changing skyline. Facing the National Hospital and the Central Bus Station where hundreds gather, the screen displays round the clock crisp, clear colour footage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is seen inspecting development projects in various parts of the country or amidst troops in their colourful camouflage. Similar screens are in other parts of the town too. It is axiomatic for residents as well as visitors, to see the fast changing face of Jaffna on the ground and only raise their heads to look upwards to know who is making it possible.
Now there seems another paradox. The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration is looking up to nearly 715,000 voters in the Northern Province to say “yes” to its development programmes that are fast changing the face of Jaffna and other areas. There is little doubt that the transformation from the war-battered days to a modern Jaffna City and a new North is under way. Every day passes with more change. Rajapaksa wants an endorsement during the first ever Northern Provincial Council (PC) elections next Saturday. The PCs were set up under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as part of measures to address Tamil grievances. However, then the Northern and the Eastern Provinces were merged and had only one Council. They were separated following a Supreme Court ruling on October 16, 2006.
A tour of the Jaffna peninsula and some of the adjoining districts tells a story that is different from both the North Western and Central Provincial Council polls, also on the same day. Other than a few posters on walls and lamp posts, banners or paintings of candidate numbers on the roads are absent. There is no feverish polls activity. The only clashes have been intra-party, that too largely within ruling party candidates. A few party offices decorated with their party’s colours manned by less than a handful dot various intersections of the peninsula. Strikingly enough, in the island of Delft, the handful of posters to appear were that of a candidate from a lesser known group. Just opposite the Delft Government Hospital, I saw an impoverished calf eat up a couple of them. Otherwise, most parts of this rustic island, had posters of a smiling Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda. This fishing and farming maze of corals where some 1,500 families live, is his strongest support base.
Any visitor to the north, particularly the peninsula, could conclude that there was little or no enthusiasm in the NPC polls. That is furthest from reality. The absence of overt political enthusiasm or vibrancy does not mean the northern electorate has gone quiet or has become totally resilient. The cause for the lull is perhaps fear or restraint, or both. However, there are strong undercurrents. Conversations with a cross section of the people I met clearly highlighted two key elements. One is that they do not want to go back to the bloody “war years” again. They said they had “suffered immensely” and lost “near and dear ones.” One of them said “it is not that we have no problems. Some of them we have are quite serious. Yet we have learnt to be happy now.” A Government sales outlet manager declared, “My family and I are for the UPFA. It is doing so much.” However, Siva, an employee of a hotel said, “My family and I will vote for the most suitable candidate. I am not going to say who that is.” His family and he lived for three years in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu and came back to Sri Lanka under the auspices of a UN agency. Thereafter, he had lived in a similar camp in Puttalam where the majority were Muslims.
They have now been re-located to the peninsula. Like Siva, there were many who were non-committal and had reservations on some issues.
Despite lack of overt interest in the polls, crowds do turn up for political meetings. President Rajapaksa drew a large number when he addressed a rally in Mannar on Wednesday. It was the same yesterday when he declared open the Kilinochchi Railway Station. One may argue that the Government side had the advantage. But this was not confined to the UPFA alone. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) also drew a crowd that exceeded the number of people at its rally outside the Fort Railway Station early this month to protest the Weliveriya shootings. If the people came to a ground near the much venerated Kandasamy Kovil in Nallur first for a musical show, they waited behind for the last speaker – Ranil Wickremesinghe. His speech in Sinhala was simultaneously translated into Tamil. Larger crowds were drawn by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief ministerial candidate, C.V. Wigneswaran too. Of course, in today’s politics, crowds are no barometer to ballots, but it was indicative of the interest in the democratic process of the politically astute northern voter.
In another paradoxical situation, the two main contenders at the polls – the TNA and the ruling UPFA – appear to be fighting the polls campaign not in the north but in Colombo. The reason — the main plank of the TNA campaign — its Manifesto. That threatens to widen the chasm between the UPFA Government and the TNA. It is much the same way the earlier UNP Government that entered into the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was locked in a heated controversy over the proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA).
Though the TNA manifesto does not go as far as the ISGA proposals, it contains the main elements of the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976. Its main component was “self-determination.” However, the TNA has included the line that it should be “based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka”. The reference to the “federal structure” came after it was incorporated in one of the communiques issued from the Norwegian sponsored round of peace talks in Oslo in October 2003. Among the other TNA manifesto demands that have angered the UPFA leaders are:
•Power sharing arrangements must be established in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure, in a manner also acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim people;
•Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty shall necessarily be over land, law and order, socio-economic development including health and education, resources and fiscal powers;
•There must be meaningful de-militarisation resulting in the return to the pre-war situation as it existed in 1983 before the commencement of hostilities by the removal of armed forces, military apparatuses and High Security/Restricted Zones from the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
•An Independent International Investigation must be conducted into the allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws made against both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE during the last stages of the war, the truth ascertained and justice to victims and reparation including compensation must be ensured;
•Persons who are detained without charges must be released promptly and a general amnesty should be granted to all other political prisoners;
•There must be finality reached with regard to thousands of missing persons and compensation must be paid to the next of kin;
•Tamils who fled the country must be permitted to return to their homes and a conducive atmosphere created for their return
The TNA manifesto also dealt with the two vexed issues which the Government wanted to remove from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — police and land powers. On the Police force, it said the “most effective” for the North-East would be “those directed by the Provincial Council.” In other words, the TNA wants to ensure the existing provision in the Constitution remains. On the land powers, it said “there can be no reconciliation without the reform of the existing policies over land ownership, control and use that target the linguistic and cultural identity of the North-East.”
An equally disturbing irritant was a remark by TNA’s chief ministerial candidate Wigneswaran at a polls meeting that the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran “is a hero.” The remark has been made at Valvettiturai, the birthplace of the slain LTTE leader. Jaffna’s Uthayan newspaper reported on his speech. Here are the relevant extracts:
“Prabhaharan is indeed a hero. President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows that the L.T.T.E leader V. Prabhakaran is a warrior. I am not only the person who is in this opinion. The President of this country, Mahinda Rajapaksa has also recognized Prabhakaran as a great hero. I speak out while being on the soil of the birth of Prabhakaran. He is not a terrorist. When Prabhakaran was alive, the President came forward on his own to grant 13 plus and more than that. Now that Prabhakaran is no more, the President has begun to speak of 13 minus and even to the extent that there is no such thing as 13th Amendment.
“This was because President Rajapaksa accepted Prabhakaran as a hero. He came forward to yield concessions to the Tamils. But he is not prepared for it now. Prabhakaran is not a terrorist. He is a hero and a warrior who fought for the liberation of the Tamil nation. A Sinhala newspaper that interviewed me recently, quoted me saying that I had said Prabhakaran is a terrorist. I told them Prabhakaran is not a terrorist and that he is a great hero. It is the angle from which we look at, that makes the estimation of the person. In my view he is not a terrorist.
“In Kandy, Keppetipola Dissawe who fought against the whites was declared as a terrorist and punished, but now the Sinhalese have installed a statue and celebrate him as a hero. Once viewed by the Whites as a terrorist, was later declared a hero and warrior. It is in the same manner, Prabhakaran is seen to me as a liberation fighter. What is said then was given priority and published in the Sinhala media…..”
Wigneswaran defended his remarks. He told the Sunday Times “Those who are criminals today or those who are wanted people today can become the heroes the next day. I am completely non-violent and vegetarian. I don’t kill. Now I am a politician. So I reflect what people say. They don’t look at him as a terrorist.” His comments in Valvettiturai came as Diaspora groups called for “demilitarisation.” A similar call was also made by United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay during a visit to Colombo.
Wigneswaran’s comments drew an angry response from Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe, Security Forces Commander in Jaffna. This is when I posed the question during a meeting with him at the Security Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in Palaly. His reply: “Mr. Wigneswaran has said Prabhakaran is a great leader. He has said if it is needed we will have to take up arms again. If that is the feeling of northern politicians, how does one talk of militarisation. We are not here for law and order matters. That is a Police job. National security is the concern of armed forces. Therefore there is no case of our getting back to pre-1983 positions. We cannot do that taking into consideration the threat perceptions, the undercurrents of the international community and the Tamil Diaspora. They are busy sowing the seeds of separatist sentiments. They have a serious hold on the public here.”
He said that the Army was 43,000 strong in the Jaffna peninsula in 2007. “When I took over in December 2009 it was 26,400. We have now brought the number down to 13,100,” he added. If you take the Anuradhapura District with training facilities included, the strength is much more. “There is no justification to say the Army has the largest concentration in Jaffna. We are now arranging all our camps in Government buildings and land. We are returning private property,” he declared. Only the 52 Division headquarters remains on private land and will soon be re located. Excerpts of a Q & A with Major General Hathurusinghe appear in a box story on this page.
The Bishop of Jaffna, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundaranayagam, on the other hand, argues that the presence of a “large Army” being needed to prevent any possible separation is “imaginary.” During a meeting at the Bishop’s House at Bastian Junction along the A-9 Jaffna-Colombo highway, he said “when the war was completed, we thought the demilitarisation would come. That has not happened. They have reduced numbers but there is still a large presence of the Army. People think there is no basis for the fear that there would be an agitation for a separate state.”
Bishop Savundranayagam added: “The Tamil expatriates believe in the idea of an Eelam. There is nothing of that sort here. People here say they do not want the war. They say they only want to live with dignity with powers and rights. That is what the Government should promote. If you ask the people there is a certain amount of fear in them. There is an underground force which wants to say the Army has the power, the Government has the power and no one should criticise. The people want to be free. Local newspapers complain that they are under threat. The press must have the freedom. Generally speaking there is this fear that the war could come again.” Excerpts of a Q & A with Bishop Savundranayakam appear in a box story on this page.
A total of 906 candidates from 85 political parties and independent groups are contesting in the five districts of the Northern Province. There is little doubt that the TNA would be the winner. Even Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the architect of development activity in the North through Uthuru Vasanthaya or Rennaisance of the North, has said he would end his role as its head after the polls are over.
However, the question everyone talks of is whether the TNA would receive a two thirds majority. The UPFA’s chief ministerial candidate Angajan Ramanathan and his team, backed by several cabinet ministers, are stepping up their campaign until Wednesday just to avoid this happen. For such a sweeping majority would entail a string of political problems. Not that the TNA would embark immediately on demands for Police and Land powers. The Government is still in a strong position to defeat any such moves. One of the TNA’s first tasks if a two thirds majority is won, the Sunday Times learnt, would be a motion to unseat the Governor and call for the appointment of a non-military person.
Jaffna’s Security Forces Commander Hathurusinghe said he was willing to work with an elected Provincial Council. However, he said he would resist “any moves at separation that come from any quarter.”
Thus, four and half years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, the North returns to civilian rule of sorts after next Saturday. That is history by itself.