In his soaring ‘rap on race’ – his initial response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy – a speech that should be studied by every reflective Sri Lankan (I watched it twice myself, having read the text once), Barack Obama drew his fundamental demarcation from his former pastor. He said that Rev Wright’s main error was in assuming that racism in America was endemic and in failing to recognise that US society was capable of change for the better; of evolution. This, said Barack, was the major difference between Rev Wright and Rev Martin Luther King the 40th anniversary of whose assassination had been commemorated throughout the US just months earlier.
Martin Luther King always dreamed that that America could change, improve – and indeed the very candidacy of Obama is proof that King was right and Wright was wrong.
This point is true of many of the critics of Sri Lanka, and of this administration. Their main weakness does not reside in their criticism so much as in their endemic pessimism and negativism; their refusal to recognise improvement and the capacity for positive change.
Nowhere is this truer than in their comments on the upcoming provincial elections in the East. Vital as the conduct and outcome of the Eastern Province election are, nothing should obscure the historic achievement of the election’s very holding. The elections constitute a rare example of a win-win outcome, or in this case, a "win-4" outcome.
The very ability to hold an election campaign and then an election in a contested territory in the context of a mid-intensity armed conflict is itself a triumph. In many countries with such conditions, any election campaign is blighted by far greater violence than this one has been. In fact the Eastern election campaign so far, has been characterised by remarkably little lethal violence.
The charge that the TMVP is armed is the height of hypocrisy in that most of those who make the charge were conspicuously silent when the province was tightly under the control of the far more heavily armed Tigers. Many of these critics were perfectly pleased to leave the Tiger militia in control of the entire North East during the CFA and under the ISGA or the PTOMS! It is, as Zhou Enlai once said, as if an unscrupulous gang which set houses ablaze took violent exception to someone who carried a lit lamp!
Inasmuch as the province remains the main unit of devolution, it preserves the main gain of the Indo-Lanka Accord and is a victory for four decades of political campaigning for the centralised unitary state to be reformed along the lines that the most enlightened opinion had suggested around the time of Independence.
The provincial councils were not only a long time coming, they were the result of intense pressure: armed struggle by the Tamil guerrilla movement and intervention by India. Having been born, these institutions were swiftly paralysed in the North East by twin armed rejectionists: the hardcore separatist Tamil Tigers and the hard-line centralists, the JVP. The paralysis of the North East Provincial Council was also greatly aided by the adventurism of the EPRLF (specifically Vardharajaperumal) and miscalculations by India.
Thanks largely to the LTTE, the Tamil people of the North and East and the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese of the East were devoid of adequate representation and devolved power for two whole decades. Now elections are being held to one of the two Councils and barring a catastrophe, the East as a whole – as a single autonomous unit, not a collection of local government authorities- will have an elected administration within a fortnight.
The fact that at this time of writing (Sunday May 4) no one knows who the winner will be indicates the genuinely competitive character of the contest.
Furthermore, given the almost equal distribution of the three ethno-religious communities, the electoral competition dictates that the winner must bridge the gap between at least two of those three communities. This is itself no mean contribution to inter-ethnic conciliation in our society.
No Sri Lankan government was able or willing to hold elections to the Eastern Provincial council for twenty years. It might be argued in the strict sense that no Sri Lankan administration was ever able to, until now, until the Rajapakse administration – because the election of late 1988 was managed and policed in all respects by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, not the Sri Lankan state machinery.
As significant a breakthrough as the Eastern provincial election is, the achievement of the Sri Lankan state is even more impressive when this election is taken together with the Government’s important Northern initiative, namely the institution of a High powered Committee or Special Presidential Task Force for Northern development, reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The idea itself has its precedents, and interesting ones at that: in 1995 the CBK administration and the LTTE in their exchange of letters, proposed a Northern authority or task force for reconstruction, but each had a different conception and in any event the Tigers resumed hostilities unilaterally in April. More ambitiously President Kumaratunga gazetted under Emergency Regulations in November 1999, an Advisory Committee to counsel the Governor of the Northeast on a number of subject areas including law and order. Unfortunately and yet so typically of that presidency, these Emergency Regulations lapsed in 2001, without this body ever being concretely constituted.
President Rajapakse went one better. On April 30th he announced to the Cabinet a setting up of such a body, until such time as the North is liberated and elections to that province are held just as in the East. This high-level Advisory committee has all three major communities equally represented, and is chaired, as befits the ethnic composition of the North, by its Tamil member, Minister Douglas Devananda (who would have been the beneficiary if President Kumaratunga had constituted the Advisory committee in 1999-2001). Tough, smart, experienced and patient, Devananda should be able to improve the lot of the Tamil people of the North.
The timing of the establishment of the Task Force is not fortuitous. It is all of a piece with the Eastern provincial election. Bracketed together, with these measures President Rajapakse has overcome a blockage of two decades and done for the North and East in terms of devolution, of power-sharing with the Tamil allies of the Sri Lankan state, that which leaders with a far more enlightened rhetoric were unable or unwilling to do in practice. Such is the cunning of History, but it is not unknown: it took Richard Nixon to make the opening to China and Menahem Begin to sign the Camp David Accords with Anwar el Sadat.
The situation today is thus roughly similar to that of exactly two decades ago, when the North East Provincial Council was set up. (Then too, elections were not held in the North, only the East.) Late 1988 was what Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the UN in New York and outstanding foreign policy thinker, calls a "plastic moment", a moment when the decisions we take can shape the future as at no other time.
We failed to emerge from the tunnel then, because of the obduracy of the LTTE, JVP and a needlessly protracted external presence. Today we have a government that correctly resists external presence and is explicitly committed to overcoming the LTTE. If we exit the tunnel this time, we are well placed to benefit from the explosive economic rise of Asia. The basic premise for this exit remains the military defeat of the LTTE. The Eastern election and the Northern Task Force provide the openings for the political, ideological and diplomatic isolation and defeat of the LTTE which must be either prelude or parallel for the military defeat of the enemy.
The lessons of Muhamalai 3 – the outcome of which seems to be more of a draw than the previous battles of 2001 and 2006 - must be absorbed, and these are four-fold: the enemy must be out-thought in order to be out-fought; predictable linear advance must be eschewed in favour of the element of surprise stemming from creative tactics of manoeuvre and mobility; such a war of manoeuvre and mobility in unpropitious terrain can only result from Air-Land-Sea battle concepts, requiring close cooperation and integration between all arms of the military; improved intelligence is needed to closely estimate the enemy’s capabilities and possible responses.
There are reasons to be optimistic of the final outcome, and indeed be proud of being Sri Lankan. The latest survey of public opinion, the Peace Confidence Index of the Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals majority opinion the country to be resilient, resolute and reasonable. The Sinhalese are almost (slightly under) 2/3rds of the country’s population, inhabiting very approximately, the Southern 2/3rds of the island’s land area. The majority of this majority "show a decrease in support for peace talks from 25.7% to 16.6 % since November 2007, while support for the government’s defeat of the LTTE remains constant". Most of the majority prefer peace talks after the war, while over 60% feel that the country is close to reaching a permanent settlement to the conflict. 62.5% of the Sinhalese perceive the security situation to have improved, 70% feel that the LTTE is militarily weak, and there is a 4% increase in Sinhala perceptions of the military strength of the government. Over 70% of the Sinhalese do not perceive the conflict in ethnic or ethnocentric terms - against the Other - but as a "war against terrorism". Most Sinhalese approve of "development NGOs" but disapprove of so-called peace/conflict resolution NGOs. The greater percentage of the Sinhalese polled approve of the abrogation of the CFA. 61.3% of Sinhalese are willing to undergo economic hardship for the sake of the government’s war with the LTTE, and list the war and world prices, rather than "government mismanagement" as the main reasons for the increase in the cost of living. There are "fair majorities" among the Sinhalese for an Indian role, in the war, peace talks and development.
"The Sinhala community express (sic) a high level of satisfaction", to use the phraseology of the CPA, with President Mahinda Rajapakse’s handling of a wide range of topics, demonstrating its balance, fairness and open-mindedness by being critical on the management of the cost of living. 73.5 % of the majority community are satisfied with his efforts to solve the conflict, 77.1 % approve of the President’s international relations, 68.8% approve of his management of the SLFP and 81% support his handling of social values. Most striking, and strikingly ignored by the foreign and local media, is the 91% approval rating among the Sinhalese for the President’s handling of the war (a statistic that should stick in the eye of local commentators fond of grotesque analogies with President Bush and Iraq!).
(This article represents the entirely personal views of the author.)