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Friday, July 19, 2024

That illusive Northern Election

From time to time, politicians from the South, especially during various phases of political negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have dangled a particular carrot before the Tamil community from the North and East – elections in the provinces to elect their own representatives.

Tamil political parties for their part, particularly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), for years had resisted the idea, claiming the absence of civil administration and a suitable climate for engagement in political activities. In 2008, a former LTTE cadre was installed in office as Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. Now it is the turn for the former war-ridden Northern Province to hold polls, albeit with some snags.

Different to the East
The North differs from the East, not simply in terms of demography and geography, but also by the politician the soil produces. It also makes it a political pie which is difficult to consume. If the East lacks a shade or two, North does not, despite all the violence it had gone through and survived. The LTTE may be crushed, but the average citizen’s political aspirations, though dormant, will not easily die.

The North is also a political hotbed that later turned into a theatre of violence, and though claiming to be enjoying normalcy, civil administration proper, still eludes the region.

The government had given a firm commitment to India that in 2013 – with the war now being history – independent elections will be conducted in the North. The Provincial Councils were also the peaceful preposition to avoid future violent confrontations. But from the beginning, there was absolute mistrust on both sides, and the LTTE, spurred by India that fed militancy among Tamils from the North and East, continuously behaved like the proverbial ‘Scrooge,’ always wanting more. But this was no ‘Christmas Carol’ but realpolitik.
Provincial Councils were introduced to Sri Lanka in 1987 following the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, bringing with it, a strong dilution of the political positions adopted by the Tamil militant groups including the LTTE. Indeed, having fed Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, it was one attempt by India to curb the growing monster of militancy, in its own backyard.

In hindsight, the LTTE as the so-called sole representative of the Tamil people – had only achieved death and destruction on behalf of the people it sought to represent. Yet, if the government in its overconfidence feels that it would be a cakewalk when elections are held in the North that would amount to a serious miscalculation.

No amount of political amnesia can wipe out the fact that the PCs were a solution offered by Colombo together with New Delhi, and it sought to dilute and dissipate the call for the recognition of a traditional homeland. An accord was signed and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was brought to Sri Lanka, according to terms of that agreement. All three parties to the agreement would have had their own share of misgivings, but that’s a pledge Colombo needs to honour, at least now.

Crushing the political spirit

Besides, if Colombo feels that the North is politically crushed, completely, with the defeat of the LTTE, it only needs to look at the political reactions of the people soon after the war, when the TNA handsomely won the local elections. That was the true political expression of the average voter, silently influencing the political landscape.

That silent yet potent political message will not be ignored, even if the government is keen to field a militant-turned government politician who opposes the TNA, and swears by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Douglas Devananda, or a former media spokesperson for the Tamil Tigers and a prisoner of war, Daya Master.

The government cannot also forget that PCs were created to devolve power to the North and the East where a section of the people – both politicians and militant groups – clamoured for self-rule. The United National Party (UNP) demonstrated amply its inability to trust the Tamil politicians, including the pro-Indian groups, when it drove the first elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Varadaraja Perumal of the Eelam Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPRLF) to desperation, and to flee the country, having defiantly raised a flag in Vadukkodai, declaring the North and the East a separate State.

Though there had been no repeats of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) again, the political frustrations that had been passed down the generations should be understood in their proper context, and the elections, if held as announced, should provide the necessary platform not just to elect representatives but also to build peace and true reconciliation.

It also means there cannot be elections of the kind that Sri Lanka witnessed, post Accord. Having benefited from India’s support to crush the LTTE for which the Centre continues to pay a political price to Tamil Nadu, it is no longer possible to pussyfoot. Similarly, some of the issues appear to repeat themselves, such as the absence of a conducive political climate for conducting polls and the continued domination by the military.

The UDI by Perumal paved the way for President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in the clutches of the Janatha Vimukthi Peamuna (JVP), having pledged that the IPKF would be sent back to India, and there was no true implementation of the Accord and the PC system. Though introduced to appease the political appetite of the Tamil people, principally from the North, to date, it is the North that had been denied the right and the opportunity to politically administer the areas where they are the majority community.

 Rajapaksa agenda for North

The Rajapaksa administration’s approach with regard to the Northern polls is not too difficult to decipher. In 2006, through a Supreme Court Order, the government had the North and East demerged. The Eastern polls were held, a Chief Minister was installed, a former LTTE regional leader. Four years after the war victory, the government is for the first time, considering it timely to transfer political decision-making power to the local people.

But there are unspoken rules. The government will seek and will tolerate a council that will directly or indirectly come under its writ – in every sense of the word. Besides, the serving governor is a former military officer, Major General G.A. Chandrasiri. The decisions, it is commonly known, are taken by the Presidential Task Force (PTF).

 There is a developmental agenda and the only active players are either party to the government or those strongly supportive of the government. In developing the former war zones, not just the TNA but any other group that does not politically see eye to eye with the government are excluded.

Undoubtedly, this will create serious issues of legitimacy and public acceptance, if polls are conducted in the North. Then again, the lands are being acquired by the military for so-called development work and the military writ is foremost in a region that is yet to find local politicians who could decide its future course.

The North, whether one would admit or not, is militarized terrain. To that extent, the TNA’s former claim that the region being unprepared for polls holds true: Before anything, the North needs demilitarization of a different kind – one that restores civil administration where the brass buttons do not decide the fate of a people that suffered the scourge of war for nearly three decades. Only then will it be appropriate to hold polls in the North.

Courtesy Ceylon Today


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