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Governing The East Like North

by Jehan Perera

(August 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As the election campaign in the Sabaragamuwa and the North Central provinces hots up and nears its climax so has the rhetoric. The main plank of the government's campaign has been the pledge to rid the north of LTTE control by military victory on the lines achieved in the east. This promise is being backed by government reports of further military advances into the LTTE strongholds of the Vanni region in the north. The electorate in the North Central Province, which shares a common border with both the Northern and Eastern provinces would be particularly susceptible to this campaign. The prospects of an end to the LTTE, and to the end of the war with it, that has dogged the country for the past quarter century, would also be a vote winner in other parts of the country, including the Sabaragamuwa province.

The government has been constantly setting new deadlines for the defeat of the LTTE in the north. The passing of every deadline is being accompanied by the setting of a new one of a few months more. The reality is that the LTTE controlled territory that has been recaptured by the government in the north is still considerably less than northern territory under LTTE control. The theoretical and practical indications are also that the battles to come will be harder and more costly.

The costs of the war are undoubtedly heavy and apart from the rising cost of living they are to be seen in the large scale displacement of the civilian population from the battle zones. About 200,000 people have been reported to be displaced due to the recent rounds of fighting and many of them are living in appalling conditions under trees in the forests and without adequate medicine, food and other basic necessities of life. The UN and other humanitarian organizations are regularly expressing their concern about this situation, which is obtaining notoriety for the country in the international human rights community. In addition, other indications of the cost of war have been coming in the form of reports of LTTE and military casualties.

Despite these grievous costs of war, public support for the war continues to be high. A recent visit to the rural hinterland of the Southern Province revealed that most people appear to have accepted the government's logic that the ongoing military offensive in the north is the only way to deal with the LTTE and to bring peace to the country. This is only partly due to the government propaganda about the prospects of a quick military victory. It is also due to the general loss of faith in the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the face of the LTTE's track record of foiling efforts at peace making.

The government claims that it has successfully eliminated the LTTE from the governance of the east, and is now set to repeat its success in the north by using military force.

Eastern promise

The government's success in militarily retaking control over the whole of the east, in conducting the eastern provincial council elections, and in making a former LTTE cadre the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province is regularly referred to by government spokespersons. This was also one of the statements made powerfully by President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the SAARC Summit meeting of South Asian leaders held in Colombo earlier this month. The President is also reported to have assured the visiting Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh that the government would indeed implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed subsequent to the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.

This peace accord envisaged the substantial devolution of powers to the contested northern and eastern provinces, the conducting of provincial elections to give democratic legitimacy to the new arrangement and the disarming of all militant organizations. The Indo Lanka Peace Accord was an expression of India's vision as to the basic parameters of how the protracted ethnic conflict could be brought to an end.

By conducting the eastern provincial council election shortly after militarily retaking the east from the LTTE, the government has sought to implement the 13th Amendment in regard to the Eastern Province. But formidable problems continue to obstruct the restoration of a satisfactory degree of normalcy in the east following the elections. A factor that impacts most severely on the people's sense of normalcy in the east would be the continuing high level of militarization and impunity in which unaccountable armed groups are part of the landscape together with a strong presence of the Sri Lankan military.

The holding of provincial elections in the east was only a first step in the restoration of the government's social contract with the people in that province. Integrating the local government and provincial administration with the people would require the devolving of financial power to the local authorities. Unfortunately it appears that financial decisions with regard to large development projects are continuing to be made in Colombo and by the central government's officials who are based in the east. The government needs to do more to both politically and financially empower the locally elected politicians of the Eastern Provincial Council to take over governance and economic development.

The other problem that the people of the east continue to face is the insecurity that comes from armed groups that act with impunity. In accordance with democratic theory, the Sri Lankan constitution holds that sovereignty lies in the people. The people temporarily transfer their sovereign power to those whom they elect to form the government. This power transfer takes place on condition that the government provides the people with their basic security and protects their human rights at a minimum. Unfortunately, this theory of the social contract can be seen violated in both the north and east, and in places like Colombo, where it concerns Tamil citizens in particular. Due to the ongoing military confrontations between the government and LTTE, they live subject to the ever present reality of human rights violations, that take the form of displacement, abduction and arrest.

Rural south

By way of contrast, my visit to the rural hinterlands of the south showed a society where the government is delivering on security and positive engagement with the people. There is no sense of any breakdown of law and order. The local police and government administration are well integrated into the wider society. People generally feel that they have access to their local officials from the government.

Among the events that took place, for instance, in the Matara district over the past weekend, was the awards given to milk farmers by a private company, the producers of Lucky Yoghurt and other milk foods and fruit drinks. Attending this large and well organized ceremony was Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena who is also the political representative for the area. Another event was a political rally organized by the newly formed People's National Front headed by breakaway JVP leader Wimal Weerawansa. The active involvement of leading politicians is a sign of a vibrant political democracy where government leaders seek to be responsive to the needs of their constituents

This is what the government needs to ensure for the people in the north and east of the country . At the present time the dominant feature they encounter as the government is its military.

Due to the conflict with the LTTE, even the government's civil administration in those parts of the country is headed by retired military personnel who, presumably, will continue to retain their military way of doing things. As the basic step in peace building for the future, the government needs to show its Tamil citizens that it honours its social contract with them in the same way as it does with the Sinhalese people of the south.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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