ByAjit Kumar Singh
On August 4, 2011 the Government of Sri Lanka rejected the Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) two-week ultimatum to come out with ‘devolution’ details saying it is now set to embark on the process of Parliament Select Committee (PSC) to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict that has engulfed the nation for over three decades. The TNA had set the deadline earlier in the day, during the course of 10th round of talks.
The talks between the two sides, which commenced on January 10, 2011, appear to have hit a dead end for now. The TNA, which had publicly dropped the demand for a separate State immediately after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, was hoping to reach what it called an “acceptable political solution”. Alleged to be a proxy of the LTTE, the TNA had even dropped the demand for a federal-style solution and had agreed to talks under the provisions of the controversial 13th Amendment, which excludes any devolution of Police and lands powers.
Meanwhile, elections for 299 of the 335 local authorities in the country were held in two phases on March 17 and July 23, 2011. The elections for another 23 local authorities, including the Municipal Councils of Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, which were postponed under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) due to the Cricket World Cup and other reasons, as noted by Election Commission, are now scheduled to be held on or before October 17, and the tenure of these local authorities has been extended up to December 31, 2011. Surprisingly, all, except one in Ampara, of the postponed elections fall outside the Tamil dominated Northeast region. Elections to another two local authorities in Mullaitivu District are due, but have been repeatedly postponed due to alleged delays in resettling internally displaced persons (IDPs). The elections to the remaining 11 local authorities in the Northeast were held in 2008-09, and were not due in the present cycle. Local authorities are elected for a term of four years, which can be extended up to five. The last round of these elections for all other constituencies was held in 2006, when elections were conducted for 288 of the then 330 local authorities. Elections were not held in the remaining constituencies due to the then ongoing civil war.
The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) dominated the elections and won 249 local authorities, (including two contesting as the National Congress). The TNA won 32 local authorities (including two contesting as the Tamil United Liberation Front, TULF); the United National Party (UNP) won 9; the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won 4; and a UPFA-backed independent group won one local authority. There was no overall control in the four remaining local authorities, but the UPFA was the largest group in three, and the Up-Country People’s Front (UPF) in one. The UPF, which represents Tamils of Indian origin, is an ally of UPFA.
Predictably, the UPFA swept the polarised elections in the South. It also dominated the elections in the Eastern Province, winning 23 out of 35 local authorities, leaving just 7 for the TNA, 4 for SLMC and 1 for UNP. However, in the Northern Province, unsurprisingly, the TNA – as was the case in the 2010 General Elections when it won 14 out of 24 parliamentary seats in the North and East in the 225-seatre Parliament – swept the local bodies’ elections this time as well, winning 25 local authorities out of 30 and thus leaving just five for the UPFA.
The latest results have simply confirmed the deep and unchanging ethnic divide in the country, and will have an inescapable impact on TNA’s stand and politics. Indeed, immediately after the election results, the TNA stepped up its bargaining with the Government. In a Press Statement on August 4, 2011, it served its two weeks’ ultimatum on Colombo to come out with ‘devolution’ details, the structure of governance, the division of subjects and functions between the Centre and the devolved units, and on fiscal and financial powers. The statement argued, further, “As no response has been forthcoming for several months from Colombo’s side, no meaningful or purposeful discussion could be held on the discussion papers tendered by the TNA.” In addition, “Immediate concern was resettlement and rehabilitation of the IDPs, removal of High Security Zones, disarming the para-military forces operating in the North and East and the issue of political prisoners and detainees.” The TNA had talked about almost same set of demands in its Election Manifesto for the General Elections of April 2010.
The Government’s response has been far from encouraging. On August 4, 2010, the Government rejected the TNA’s demands, alleging that the Tamil party’s ultimatum for future talks reflected the attitude of the LTTE. UPFA parliamentarian Sajin Vas De Gunawardane, who is also the Secretary of the UPFA delegation, declared,
It is certainly not possible, nor is it consistent with the national interest, to make a final pronouncement on all these crucial issues, hastily and without wider consultation, at this stage. As much as the SLFP does not solely represent any community in particular, the TNA also does not solely represent the Tamil community. In the circumstances which have now arisen on account of the demarche of the TNA, the government will proceed with the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).
The proposed PSC will comprise 31 members, including 19 nominated by the UPFA and 12 by the Opposition. In response to TNA’s allegation that this was no more than a delaying tactic, President Mahinda Rajapakse argued that the PSC could work within a time frame to reach its mandated conclusions, avoiding any undue delays.
As of now, the PSC has not even been constituted. Even if it is assumed that, once constituted in the proximate future, it would come out with a report within a given (yet to be decided) time frame, its possibilities of success are already in question, with focused opposition coming from the TNA. Even if it were able to arrive at a consensus, its implementation would remain in question, as was the case of the Final Report of the much talked about All Party Representative Committee (APRC), submitted on July 19, 2010. The Final Report, based on a total consensus among all members on a power sharing solution within a “unitary” constitutional framework, has been swept under the carpet by the Rajapakse Government, and is now all but forgotten.
Meanwhile, international pressure to start a war crimes’ probe as well as to reach a political solution to the ethnic problem has increased, in the expectation that this would force Colombo to reason. The impact, however, has been far from salutary, provoking an even further hardening of stances. On August 9, 2011, Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne noted that, although the LTTE no longer existed in Sri Lanka, pro-LTTE organizations such as the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), British Tamil Forum (BTF), Tamil National Council (TNC) and anti-Sri Lankan NGOs, backed by western countries, were working under an agenda to tarnish the Sri Lankan image. With TNA and other political parties seeking to secure political benefits out of the international demands and pressures, the Government has become more inflexible.
Unsurprisingly, any solution to the ethnic conundrum in Sri Lanka remains as elusive as ever. Colombo evidently feels it has a mandate which cannot be challenged. Asked for his comments on the TNA winning a majority of local authorities’ elections in the Tamil areas and the consequent necessity of devolution of powers, Basil Rajapakse, Senior Advisor to the President, declared, brusquely, “The President has a bigger mandate not to give those powers. They are talking of the mandate, how about ours, one accepted by a larger majority in the country?” Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, claiming that that the “political solution talk is simply irrelevant”, observed, “We don’t have to talk about solution and various things any longer, because we have ended this terrorism in Sri Lanka. We have a Constitution. If there is further amendment needed then Government can speak with the elected representatives. Now we have representation from these areas.”
At least some residual problems do, however, persist. Despite resettling almost 95 percent of the IDPs (28,5000 out of 30,0000) and over 8,000 ex-LTTE cadres, out of 11,664 who were arrested or surrendered, the country is still under a state of emergency. Moreover, reports continue to emerge that LTTE cadres are in the process of re-grouping in Tamil Nadu (India), Canada and Europe. Cells of the Tigers allegedly survive in France, Great Britain, Norway and several Asian countries. A concerned Government has requested the European Union to ban all LTTE front organisations.
Colombo rightly sees no imminent danger from the surviving fragments of the LTTE, but this is poor grounds for the continued neglect and alienation of a large segment of the country’s population. Over time, the present orientation can only produce increasing frustration among the Tamils, and will eventually come to jeopardise the peace that has been won at tremendous cost, even as it slows down Sri Lanka’s recovery and the quantum and quality of support that would otherwise flow from the international community.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management