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Sri Lanka: Moving On

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By S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

The peace that was established with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 prevailed uninterrupted through 2013. As in 2012, not a single terrorism-related incident was reported from the Island Nation. The last such fatality was recorded on October 2, 2009, when an unidentified gunman killed two Army soldiers and injured another at Paranthakadathan in Mannar District. Moreover, while several concerns remain to be addressed, the country made dramatic progress in terms of post-war reconstruction, and also witnessed some positives in terms of reconciliation.

Crucially, on September 21, 2013, amid heavy security historic elections were conducted in the five Districts of the Northern Province - Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Mannar - for the first time since the establishment of the provincial council system in 1987. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in the country, secured a landslide victory, winning in all five Districts, securing 28 of the 36 seats for which elections were held. The TNA also secured two bonus seats on the basis of its percentage of votes in each District. Along with the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections, polls were also conducted on September 21, 2013, for the North Western Provincial Council (NWPC) and Central Provincial Council (CPC). Here, unsurprisingly, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured a convincing victory in both the Councils, securing 34 of 52 seats in the NWPC, and 36 of 58 seats in the CPC.

With the formation of the NPC the Mahinda Rajapaksa led UPFA Government fulfilled its promise of conducting elections in the Northern Province. On May 21, 2009, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, C. R. Jaisinghe, had declared, "We will hold Provincial Council elections in the northern region." Again, on July 11, 2012, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had committed to elections for the Northern Provincial Council in ‘just over a year’, stating, “We want to hold elections in September 2013. We are working towards it [the elections] in a systematic manner.”

The Government also met its commitments towards resettlement of civilians and rehabilitation and reintegration of LTTE cadres. Highlighting post-war achievements, Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella on August 28, 2013, emphasized that, during a short period of four years after the end of hostilities, approximately 300,000 displaced persons had been resettled. Meanwhile, only 232 surrendered LTTE cadres have been left in camps. When the three-decade-long war with the Tamil Tiger terrorists ended in May 2009, around 11,800 ex-LTTE cadres surrendered to the Security Forces (SFs). A large number of Tamils have also been enlisted by the SFs.

Further, in an attempt to instill confidence in Tamil civilians, 900 Tamil Police officers and 1,500 Sinhala Police officers fluent in the Tamil language, have been deployed to Police Stations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in order to avoid miscommunications and delays in providing services due to the language barrier.

In another milestone, the 22nd Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) was held in Colombo from November 15-17, 2013, under the chairmanship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The meeting went ahead despite calls for a boycott by several nations on the grounds of Sri Lanka's poor human rights record. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India decided not to attend the meeting in view of the opposition by political parties in Tamil Nadu, as well as within a section of his Congress Party. He was, however, represented by Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Tamil dominated Jaffna District after attending the inaugural CHOGM meeting, and remarked, there, “Let me be clear, using our position in the Human Rights Council we will work with them and call for a credible international inquiry into alleged war crimes if the (Sri Lanka) Government fails to do so by March next year. There is no credible set up for such investigation and they have to set it up. I will fully back an international investigation.”

President Rajapaksa, however, gave little evidence of succumbing to any external pressures. Referring to India's decision to send the Foreign Minister in place of the PM, Rajapaksa stated, "The Foreign Minister is here. I am satisfied." Further, he reacted defiantly to Cameron's call for an inquiry into alleged human rights abuses, on the second day of the Summit, Rajapaksa declared, "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. British investigations into the Bloody Sunday took 40 years to emerge." He was referring to the Bloody Sunday, when 13 civilians were shot dead in Northern Ireland by the British Army in 1972.

Soon thereafter, the Department of Census and Statistics started a nationwide exercise on November 28, 2013, to assess the loss of human lives and damage to property in the final stages of the war against the LTTE rebels. The Director General of the Census and Statistics Department, D.C.A. Gunawardena, stated, on December 26, 2013, that the survey had been completed by December 20, and the report would be available in March 2014.

Despite moves, an atmosphere of mistrust persists. The foremost reason for this is the issue of political autonomy. On September 29, 2013, TNA Member of Parliament (MP) Suresh Premachandran, in a media interview, stated, “We feel that there must be a long-lasting resolution… What we want is some sort of autonomous state for the North and the East.”

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, reiterated his rejection of this notion on February 4, 2013, declaring, “It is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity. The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities.” Not surprisingly, on June 18, 2013, a Bill was presented to Parliament to abolish the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Bill is now with the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), formed on June 21, 2013. The main opposition United National Party (UNP), the Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, the TNA and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), are no longer part of the PSC for varied reasons, making the PSC redundant.

Land and Police rights to Provincial Councils are another source of disquiet in the Island nation. On April 17, 2012, TNA MPs led by Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told Indian Parliamentarians that Tamils need effective power devolution similar to the Indian system. TNA MP Selvam Adaikkalanadan had observed, “Power devolution without power is of no use... We need police and land powers for the Provincial Councils like the States in India.”  On September 28, 2013, former Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan also said the NPC should be vested with Police and land powers.

On July 30, 2013, President Mahinda Rajapaksa responded by arguing that Police and land powers had not been implemented since the introduction of the Provincial Council system, and that the issue should be given special attention now. Further, the Supreme Court, in a September 26, 2013, ruling, stated that land powers in Sri Lanka were vested with the Central Government and not with the Provincial Councils.

There is also continued skepticism over the implementation of the much-hyped Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report submitted on November 15, 2011. On November 29, 2013, for instance, TNA leader R. Sampanthan, asserted that the Government was yet to present a political solution to the national problem as recommended by the LLRC, and under pressure from some of its allies, the Government had set up the PSC ostensibly to find a political solution, but with the real intention of further delaying the process.

The presence of Army is another bone of contention. While the TNA is demanding the removal of the Army from the North and East, the Government insists that the number of troops has already been reduced and a complete withdrawal is not feasible. President Rajapaksa thus countered, “Then, if the other Provincial Councils also asked me to withdraw their Army camps all over the country where can I have the Army?” According to Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurasinghe, the number of military personnel had been reduced from 26,400 in December 2009, when he took over as commander, to approximately 13,200.

Adding to tensions is the new Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Vigneswaran’s attitude towards Colombo. On December 21, 2013, Vigneswaran alleged,

The latest we hear is that a former LTTE military commander is being commissioned to restart an LTTE outfit subservient to the powers that be… Our lands are being grabbed. Our businesses are being grabbed. Our employment opportunities are being grabbed and to say it most mildly our war widows and women are definitely not safe. Why does the Government not enhance its Police presence in the North and reduce progressively its Army presence if it does not have a hidden agenda? These are questions which must be posed by reasonable ordinary humane Sinhalese in the South.

Vigneswaran stressed, further, that Tamil speaking people, whether Tamils or Muslims, are not against the Sinhalese, but are certainly against the 'Sinhalisation' of the North and East.

The remnants of LTTE, though miniscule, continue to pose a limited challenge. Through 2013, there were reports of the activities of cadres and sympathizers, within and outside Sri Lanka. In one incident in support of LTTE, Tamil activists in Tamil Nadu, India, assaulted a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, identified as Bandara, at the Central Railway Station in Chennai, on March 18, 2013. Further, nine persons who were attempting to commemorate slain LTTE cadres on May 18, 2013, were arrested in Colombo. On September 5, 2013, a man, believed to be an LTTE supporter, committed self-immolation in front of the United Nation's Human Rights Committee building in Geneva, Switzerland. Again, eight persons were arrested on September 13, 2013, in the Kodikarmam area in Jaffna District on charges of having in their possession posters containing the picture of slain LTTE leader Vellupillai Parabhakaran. Police said this was the first time such posters had been found in the Northern Province since the war ended in 2009. Acknowledging LTTE’s surviving presence, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in another media interview on August 31, 2013, observed, "The LTTE (Tamil Tigers) sympathizer networks have been in this business for a long time. It was their big money-raiser. They are still doing it today."

Peace has certainly been established in Sri Lanka, and the capacities for disruption are, at worst, marginal. Nevertheless, sources of ethnic tension persist, even as much of the country's politics is framed in an ethnically polarized paradigm. It is imperative, for a lasting solution, for both Sinhala and Tamil to move beyond this confrontationist politics to forge a national destiny that can move beyond the memories of the years of bloodshed.

[Source: SATP]

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