Disinformation, devolution and the presidency

By Dayan Jayatilleka

There’s something amiss with the tale that Justice CV Wigneswaran should take his oaths as Chief Minister before the Governor and no other; certainly not the President.

Watching the well-made, well researched and gripping movie Madras Cafe, and conscious of its gaps and oversimplifications, I was reminded that I have lived through those times and events as peripheral participant-observer, ranging from the run-up to the Provincial Council election to the assassinations of Rajiv and Ranasinghe Premadasa. That’s how I know that the first Chief Minister of the Northeastern Provincial Council took his oaths at the President’s House in Colombo and before President JR Jayewardene, though the rest of us Ministers of the NEPC were indeed sworn in by the Governor, ex-army commander Gen Nalin Seneviratne in Trincomalee.

That day at the President’s House, President JRJ almost wrecked my well earned revolutionary credentials. I had just been amnestied having spent three years in la vida clandestina (to borrow the title of the youngest Minister of Fidel’s first Cabinet, Enrique Oltuski’s revolutionary memoir) having been indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. From the corner of my eye I saw Chief Minister Vardarajaperumal gesturing frantically towards me and when I looked, it was President Jayewardene patting the space next to him on the sofa. When I walked over he declared "I was a friend of your father’s before you were born".

I don’t know who advises the President these days but I have a shrewd suspicion as to who provides ‘intelligence’. Just how intelligent those briefings are, is best evidenced by President Rajapaksa’s answer to Al Jazeera interviewer James Bays, who quoted something I’d written on the Weliweriya shootings and mentioned me by my previous designation. The President replied that I was with "a powerful NGO". Now that is entirely without foundation in empirical fact—which is to say it is utterly untrue. I neither am not a member of, nor am I ‘with’ any NGO, local or foreign, powerful or weak and I would dearly love to know the name of the one that the President believes I am affiliated with. The last NGO I belonged to was thirty years ago, and has long been defunct (an anti-racist organization called MIRJE).

I do not think that President Rajapaksa would say something he knows to be untrue, to a global television audience in the course of a full length one-on-one exclusive interview. Therefore I must logically conclude that, when taken aback by the interviewer’s reference to me and quote from my article, what popped out was the last thing he had been told about me by someone he held to be truthful or credible.

Coming as it does after the incident of Navi Pillay’s alleged remark about the DS Senanayake statue, we must assume that there’s quite a bit of disinformation going on. One wonders what was said to the President about the talks that were ongoing between the TNA and the Government delegation and especially about Mr Sampanthan. One can only guess at the spin, the spinners, their sponsors and end-users, and the motivations involved. One can also hazard a guess at what is being said about Mr Wigneswaran.

Would you believe that the entirety of Sri Lanka’s mass media got it wrong about the provincial councils and devolution? The headline was pretty standardised and the news, coming as it did on the heels of the TNA’s historic electoral victory in the Northern Province would have been portentous in the extreme, had it been accurate. The story was that the Supreme Court had ruled that powers over land (or ‘land powers’ in the local usage) were not vested in the provincial Councils but in the Government. This was billed as a radical revision of the 13th amendment and an outcome that had long been sought by its critics.

Had the story been true, it would have meant that a landmine had exploded under the prospect of political reconciliation and perhaps Indo-Lanka relations. Luckily it was not. The story had been misunderstood or spun by a person who gave the melodramatic interpretation to TV journalists covering the trial. The media failed to check the story and out it went.

Did no one wonder why the TNA wasn’t making a fuss or hadn’t protested to the neighbour? Obviously not and the reason is that there wasn’t much to fuss over.

Far from revising or picking at the seams of the 13th amendment, what the Supreme Court had done was to reiterate the letter and spirit of that amendment. Land and land utilisation (‘land powers’) was always a devolved subject vested with the province, subject to a caveat. The caveat was that state lands and inter-provincial irrigation schemes (with special reference to the Mahaweli) remained with the government. The recent Supreme Court judgement did not seek to tamper with that arrangement which has its roots in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam and Dudley-Chelvanayakam pacts. It reiterated that state lands were vested with the state, in contradistinction to the province. What it did not say – contrary to sensationalization by media misled by the ‘Sinhala spin’ of a hawkish person—is that land is not a devolved subject; it did not overturn the devolution of the subject of land and land utilisation to the province. What the SC did is to rectify earlier decisions by the Courts which, in overly liberal interpretations, strayed from the text of the 13th amendment. Of course, in a salutary slap in the face of both the Sinhala ultranationalist critics of 13A as well as the TNA’s ideologues of ‘shared sovereignty’, the Supreme Court reiterated Justice Sharvananda’s emphatic ruling in 1987 that sovereignty is vested with the Republic and there was no ‘subsidiary sovereignty’ enjoyed by the provincial councils in a unitary state such as Sri Lanka.

Does anyone remember that the Government won the local authorities election in August 2009 in the North with 54% of the vote? How did they crash to 18% in four years? Does it not parallel the decline from 29 votes to 13 at the UN in Geneva within the same four years? What does this say of the regime’s post-war policies outside its cultural comfort zone of the Sinhala majority two-thirds of the island (and that too mightily assisted by the catastrophic entrenchment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader of the main opposition party)?

Was the present complex and even problematic strategic situation facing the government and the country in the aftermath of the Northern election foreseeable? Could the phoenix like rise of the TNA to the centre of Tamil politics have been foreseen soon after the war? Could it have been prevented or minimised?

Yes it was explicitly predicted four years ago, and the evidence exists to prove it. In an interview conducted by Thava Sajitharan in the Sunday Lakbimanews and reproduced on DBS Jeyaraj’s Transcurrents on August 16th 2009 under the caption ‘If Political Vacuum Continues TNA Will Overtake EPDP, PLOT’ the following appeared:

"Q: When asked 2 1/2 months ago about Sri Lankan government’s efforts to implement a political solution, you said: ‘Which government could be accused of non-implementation a mere 10 days after the end of a 30-year-war?’ What is your position now?

A: ...The results of the recently concluded municipal election in Jaffna and urban council election in Vavuniya clearly show that now is the time for a political solution. If there continues to be a political vacuum, the Tamil progressive moderates such as the EPDP and PLOTE will be weakened and overtaken by the TNA by the time of the parliamentary election next year. If the TNA sweeps the parliamentary election while continuing to uphold its stance of rejecting the 13th amendment as insufficient and calling for "internal self determination", the island will present a picture of clear ethnic division, polarization and deadlock. Colombo will not have a truly constructive Tamil negotiating partner that the Sinhala public and the armed forces can trust. It will be difficult to have Northern Provincial Council election and devolve power to an NPC dominated by a TNA which rejects the 13th amendment as too little.

Conversely, it will be difficult to postpone such an election indefinitely, problematic to dissolve the Council after election is held, and unwise to abolish the NPC by scrapping the 13th amendment with no alternative acceptable to the Tamils. An ethnic zero-sum game will be the result. Negotiations will be sporadic and unsuccessful. There may be a political process but that will be open-ended, while the existential situation of the Tamil people deteriorates on the ground. This means that the Sri Lankan crisis needlessly becomes intractable once again. The only way to avoid such an impasse with its tragic consequences of a renewed cycle of conflict, this time non-military but worse, civic, is to reduce the alienation of the Tamil people of the North. This can be done by giving the people some degree of local autonomy and representation, while Colombo’s Tamil partners such as the EPDP still remain a viable political option. Now the time is running out and as the election results show, Tamil disaffection is growing rapidly.

Q: Going by the views you expressed in the media, you expected people in Jaffna to endorse the present administration’s stance in the MC election...how do you read the outcomes of polls in Jaffna and Vavuniya?

A: I certainly did not expect the Jaffna people to endorse the present administration’s stance, and I have never written anything which could even remotely be interpreted to mean that. I did expect that Jaffna people would opt for Douglas Devananda, and this they did, which is quite significant, though they did not do so quite as clearly as I thought. That was not Douglas’ fault. If he had been allowed to contest under the Veena sign as he was when he was a minister of an earlier cabinet, he would have secured more votes. If he had caved into pressure and joined the SLFP, he may have lost." (Lakbimanews, Aug 16, 2009)

The interview was of course, with me. Following a series of articles already in June-(mid) July 2009 in the pages of The Island, arguing that the abolition of 13A was not possible for geopolitical reasons, that delay will cost us India’s diplomatic support and weaken our successful united front of Geneva May 2009, that time was not on our side and tardiness would revive the TNA to the detriment of the EPDP, I was engaged in a polemic by a journalist, a former adherent of the militant Sinhala ultranationalist NMAT (National Movement Against Terrorism of which BBS strongman Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thero was a member), fan of Champika Ranawake and fellow traveller of the JHU. It turns out that he may or may not have been a proxy for powerful members of the ruling establishment. The polemic drew in Emeritus Prof Carlo Fonseka in a civilised attempt at arbitration.

The day after the debate ended, the Government sacked me from my post as Ambassador/Perm Rep to the UN in Geneva. Today the jury is in. Sometimes it isn’t gratifying to have been proven right in one’s prophecy. A high price is being paid for prejudice, myopia and opting for a militarist neo-conservative analysis over a Realist one, by the Government and State, in Geneva and Jaffna. The price may be higher, come March 2014. I daresay those who gave the advice to opt for one course and penalise the advocates of the other, more Realist path, are still making the decisive policy inputs and wielding a policy veto, perhaps more than ever before. While that is dangerous, what is sadder is that the price will be paid not only by the rulers and the regime but also by the armed forces and the country.

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