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The Eastern Quagmire

The first ever election to the Eastern Provincial Council was, predictably, unfree and unfair. It was marred by violence and malpractices, though not on the same scale as the Wayamba provincial council election or the referendum. In all probability the UPFA could have scraped through, had the election been relatively free and fair. Going by their scale, the intimidations and the malpractices seemed to have vastly enhanced the regime’s majority rather than decisively altering the outcome itself.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and he cannot excuse himself by blaming the government’s abuses and excesses. The opposition did very little to mobilise national and international opinion against electoral malpractices, in time (for instance, there was no concerted effort to bring in reputed international monitors, as was done for previous elections). Without such countervailing pressures why shouldn’t the government abuse its power, given the Rajapakses’ scant regard for democratic and legal niceties and their dynastic project? In any case if Mr. Wickremesinghe is waiting for the government to voluntarily hold a free and fair election, the UNP will have to stay in opposition for many more years.

The Eastern defeat once again demonstrates that Mr. Wickremesinghe is a liability rather than an asset to the UNP. His appeasement of the LTTE is unacceptable to many Sri Lankans. That and his unwillingness to lay claim to the UNP’s pro-people legacy (not to mention his electoral counter-Midas touch - even the gold he touches turns into dross, electorally) mean that the UNP will have to replace him (and ditch some of his policies) if it is to break free of the losing cycle. Given the defection of Karu Jayasuriya and the lack of an acceptable alternative to Ranil Wickremesinghe inside the party, the most sensible way out would be a collective leadership with a mix of senior leaders and Young Turks. Provincial council elections will be held next year (if not earlier) and parliamentary and local government elections the year after. The UNP’s chances of winning any of these contests are miniscule if a makeover in terms of leadership and policies does not happen soon. After all, the SLFP had to stay for 17 long years in opposition, until it made comprehensive changes at the level of leadership and policy.

Such a makeover in the UNP is necessary also from a national and a systemic point of view. President Rajapakse knows that the UNP cannot mount a credible challenge to him so long as Mr. Wickremesinghe remains its leader. Therefore he would see no reason to moderate his conduct or to correct his errors. A belief in impunity encourages crimes and abuses. If there is no real fear of electoral failure why not spend billions on gargantuan cabinets and indulge the likes of Mervyn Silva? The regime needs to feel its electoral mortality for it to mend its errors and moderate its excesses, and that is impossible so long as the UNP is burdened with a Job-like leader.

The Fate of the Eastern PC

The fate of the Eastern Provincial Council is inextricably linked to its genesis i.e. the judicial de-merger of the Northeast. Sri Lanka officially accepted the traditional homelands concept and conditional merger of the North and the East with the Indo-Lanka Accord. Every Lankan leader since then (including the ultra Sinhala nationalist DB Wijetunga) abided by this commitment given to the Tamil people by the Jayewardene administration, irrespective of their own opinions. Whatever the misgivings about the merger, there was an unspoken bipartisan consensus that the status quo should be changed only as a result of a new power sharing deal. Anything else, it was correctly felt, would be regressive and thus a hindrance to the solving of the ethnic problem.

With the advent of the Rajapakses to the pinnacle of power, retrogression became both the norm and the fashion. Mr. Rajapakse seems to disbelieve the existence of an ethnic problem and tends to reduce the North-East crisis to a mere case of terrorism. He is lukewarm about devolution and has used the APC to buy time and deflect Tamil and international criticism. When a group of Sinhala hardliners filed a case in the Supreme Court asking for the de-merger, few doubted that they had the backing of the President. Moreover it was done when the judiciary and the executive were working in tandem, before their parting of ways for reasons unknown. When the Supreme Court ordered the unilateral de-merger of the two provinces, the government had the option of getting the parliament to overset it, since the UNP promised to support such a measure. Instead the President ordered the de-merger to be turned into an administrative reality. The setting up of a separate Eastern province was thus not a step forward but a step back, a return to the pre-Accord past.

Given this context what will be the fate of the new provincial council? Will the government actually share power with it or will it be turned into a mere appendage of the President (especially if Mr. Pillaiyan, who is dependent on state security for survival, is appointed the Chief Minister)? Will the new provincial council prioritise the needs of the Eastern people or concentrate on carrying out the orders and implementing the agenda of the government? The JHU is already on record declaring its opposition to granting the Eastern provincial council police and land powers. This declaration needs to be taken seriously because in the past the President has used the JHU to indicate his views and draw lines of demarcation between what is permissible and what is not. Mr. Rajapakse excels at negation through procrastination, as was demonstrated with the APC exercise. Will the same tactics be applied vis-à-vis the Eastern PC? Will every problem besetting it be used to make it dysfunctional?

The LTTE would find a functioning provincial council in the East with extra powers a threat because of its demonstrative effect. But the Tigers will gain a new lease of life in the East if the Eastern PC becomes like all other provincial councils, with little real power and even less interest in serving the populace. The situation will become infinitely worse if the East is turned into a fief for warlords where the people are subject to child conscription, extortion and violence. If the Eastern provincial council fails, it will be used by the LTTE as proof of the impossibility of meaningful devolution and thus of the need for separation.

Will the regime be able to look beyond its immediate parochial interests and understand the need to make the Eastern PC work for all its peoples? Not if its general conduct is anything to go by. According to an answer given by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva in parliament, Mihin Lanka has so far cost the country Rs. 3,500 million. If the Rajapakses really prioritised national interests, this staggering sum of money would have been spent on some socio-economic or military necessity rather than on a superfluous airline (the sole purpose of which seems to be to elevate the President’s name to the skies and provide lucrative jobs to his favourites). For instance the Armed Forces are seeking public contributions to build houses for soldiers. Imagine the number of houses that could have been built by Rs. 3,500 million! Unenlightened self interest is thus the motive force of the regime and this is likely to undermine the Eastern PC just as it is undermining the polity, the economy and even the war effort.

The LTTE’s successful attack against a SLN ship in the Trinco harbour is one more indication that this war will not be over in the foreseeable future – despite the grandiose claims of the Army Commander. The heinous assassination of Ms. Maheshwari Velayuthan, an advisor to Minister Douglas Devananda, while she was visiting her dying mother, once again demonstrates the barbaric nature of the Tiger. Unfortunately the President clings to the mirage of a fast victory and the Leader of Opposition is committed to the false hope of peace through appeasement. Sri Lanka is in a state of limbo, imprisoned between these two sets of unrealistic expectations, with no discernible way out.

Sticks, Stones and Words

Sticks and stones can break bones, words cannot. But when a place is permeated with words of anger, hate and suspicion, violence becomes unavoidable. "Words! Mere words!" exclaimed Oscar Wild; "How clear and vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them…. They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things…" (The Picture of Dorian Gray). Without the words of Cyril Matthew and others of his ilk, the Black July would not have happened; their words created the dry prairie which caught fire with the Four Four Bravo Operation and the resultant 13 deaths. David Neiwert, American author and commentator, calls such verbal offensives ‘eliminationist rhetoric’. It’s a contagion; in the US, the once staid conservatives have begun to echo the rabid rants of racist/religious hardliners. Consequently xenophobic nonsense such as a conspiracy by Latin immigrants to create a separate country called Aztlan in the states once part of Mexico or illegal immigrants infesting America with leprosy have crept into mainstream conservative discourse.

Eric Hobsbawm uses a phrase from Karl Kraus to define religious fundamentalists, calling them the symptoms of ‘the disease of which they purport to be the cure’ (The Age of Extremes). The JHU and its ilk go a step further; they create the disease which they then offer to cure. Since 1987 ruling parties have been careful to prevent their members from using incendiary language against minorities. This positive (and given Sri Lanka’s unalterably pluralist nature, necessary) development was negated under Rajapakse rule, with the lunatic fringe becoming a valued member of the government. The JHU’s latest antic is a court case which seeks to plant the fear of Muslim expansionism in the minds of Sinhala Buddhists: "The Jathika Hela Urumaya filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court today (May 13th), seeking an injunction against the construction of a 500-unit tsunami-housing complex near the Digawapi sacred area. The Saudi-funded project is to be located in a 150-acre plot of land owned by the Hingurana Sugar Company. The petitioner….claims it would damage the Buddhist heritage in the area, especially as the houses are to be given only for Muslims…. When contacted, JHU spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe told 'Lanka Dissent' that the houses were being constructed in Panama, Potuvil and Akkaraipattu would be given only for Muslims, and that the Sinhala Buddhists living in the areas are unfairly treated" (Lanka Dissent.com). The obvious logic of the houses being constructed for tsunami victims (the majority of whom were Muslims from the East) and the Sinhala Buddhists living in the vicinity not being tsunami victims is incomprehensible to those with minds unhinged by extremism.

In the post-Kosovo General Election in Serbia, the pro-EU moderate Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic won an astounding victory over the pro-Russian nationalist parties with their retrogressive vision. With this vote the Serbian people demonstrated their willingness to learn from the past and move forward. We too must remember the errors of our own past and make a conscious effort not to remake vis-à-vis the Muslims the mistakes we made with Tamils. Especially in the East, that powder keg where stability and normalcy cannot prevail if the three communities, which live cheek by jowl, do not accept each other’s presence, respect each other’s rights and exist, if not in amity, then with tolerance.

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