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Northern Provincial Council: Prudence prevails for now

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( July 6, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Finally, a pragmatic perception, however episodic, of reality-- and a prudent policy move results. With President Rajapaksa’s decision to announce the holding of the election to the Northern Provincial Council after almost a quarter of a century (taken together with the re-arrest of the suspects in the murder of the Trinco 5), Sri Lanka seems about to take a significant step in the right direction; the next logical step forward – deferred imprudently for four years-- after the victory over separatist terrorism in May 2009.

While conventional wisdom has it that the imminence of the Commonwealth summit and the signalling from India are the main factors behind the President’s decision, my own explanation is that this ignores the President’s important visits to Japan and China, two Asian powers and traditional friends of Sri Lanka, and the assessment of Sri Lanka’s overall economic and strategic-diplomatic situation that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the experienced and shrewdly pragmatic political animal that he is, would have made subsequent to those visits.

Crucial to that assessment would have been the international factor; the issue of devolution and the Northern provincial council seen in its international dimension. President Rajapaksa bought as much time as he could for those in his camp who wished to consolidate in the ground in the North in a political vacuum. He seems aware that time and space are running out, that the risk of non-implementation would be prohibitive; that Sri Lanka would lack the economic and diplomatic capacity for the siege that would result not only from the unilateral redrawing of an inherited, uneven bilateral agreement but also the non-fulfilment of post-war international commitments far more freely entered into, coming as it did after the Sri Lankan military victory at the apogee of the achievement of the Sri Lankan state.

President Rajapaksa knows as the hawks in his camp do not, that the economic consequences of a Cold war with the neighbour and the larger world community would prise open as nothing else would, the politico-electoral space for a Hassan Rowhani or Nawaz Sharif option.

More optimistically, he could also be weighing the possibilities of different role, profile and pathway for both Sri Lanka and himself, with the assumption of the Commonwealth chairpersonship.

The process of the holding of the election is fraught, though. A battle is raging at the heart of the state. It is a battle over the Northern provincial council elections, the continued existence of the 13th amendment (certainly in its present form), and relations between Sri Lanka and the world (especially India), but taken as a totality it is nothing less than a battle over the future direction and destination of post-war Sri Lanka.

The target of all strategy, says Sun Tzu, is the mind of the opposing commander. However, those waging the battle against the holding of the Northern provincial council election are targeting not the opposing commander, but the mind of the commander-in chief, President Rajapaksa. There is a contest of political wills, and an arm-wrestling match has been underway to sway the President’s decision to hold the election in September 2013.

It is against this backdrop that we must locate trends in the state media. The state-run media are the mirror or sensor of trends and shifting power balances in the state itself. The preponderant ideology in and of the state media enable us to trace the pathways and production hubs of that ideology while indicating the networks that traverse the state apparatuses. Consider then a recent article by Mr HLD Mahindapala, prominent and prolix ideologue of the Sinhala supremacist expatriate network. He has a well deserved reputation for telling it as he sees it. While this may not always be the same as telling it like it is, this time his perception and the politico-ideological actuality coincide. He writes in the penultimate segment of his most recent polemic as follows:

“The issue facing the nation — and, of course, the President — is whether to perpetuate the illegally imposed injustice on the nation or not. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has given the courageous lead in rejecting the 13th Amendment in toto...There isn’t a single vestige in the Indo-Lanka Agreement, whether in its origins, its imposition or in its legacy, that makes it a benign or acceptable formula for all the peoples Sri Lanka to come together. It is an Indian solution to an Indian problem. It is divisive, corrosive and destructive. It has never been nor will it ever be the solution. The time has come to jump out of the box and re-imagine a new future. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has taken the first step decisive step in redrawing the road map to the future.” (‘Marxists are like Indians’, Daily News, July 5th 2013)

So, for HLD Mahindapala and his co-thinkers, while there is an issue facing the nation and the President, the lead is being given on this all-important political question by Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. What is more striking is his assertion that “Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has taken the first step decisive step in redrawing the road map to the future.”

Thus the lead is being given and what is more, the first step towards redrawing the roadmap to the future is being taken not by the elected executive President, a politician with four decades experience, but by a highly placed unelected official, however competent in his field of experience and expertise, namely military affairs and their management. If “the road map to the future is being redrawn”, the question arises, who drew the original roadmap to the future which is being re-drawn by the highly competent official? Furthermore, from where and when did the mandate derive by which any unelected official can take the lead on a political and diplomatic question and go further to re-draw the roadmap to the future?

What, in Mr Mahindapala’s rendition is that lead that has been taken? It is “rejecting the 13th amendment in toto”. Nowhere has the country’s elected President and Commander-in chief rejected the 13th amendment in toto. He has just demonstrated conspicuously that he entertains a rather different view, perhaps not out of conviction but an accurate perception of larger realities, including the economic. An important facet of that economic reality is best glimpsed in the recent news story ‘Japan Overtakes China as Largest Lender to Lanka’ (Daily Mirror, July 5, 2013).

The Mahindapala rendition is given some credibility by the latest interview ( Daily Mirror, July 4, 2013) given by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, in which devolution is rejected, there seems to be an preference for the national ethnic ratios to be reflected in the Northern province, the BBS is but a reaction to over-assertion by minorities, criminals are to be treated as terrorists, and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is pretty much said to be none of our neighbour’s concern. The following quotes from the interview provide a microcosm of the perspective and paradigm:

“...It is nothing but true and correct that in the North and East there must be the same percentage of the majority community. When 78% of this country comprises Sinhalese how does such a vast landmass in the North become 98% Tamil. Isn’t this unnatural? This was forced. Natural growth was prevented.”

“...No I don’t believe in devolution because of the above points I mentioned. If devolution is for administrative purposes that is of course legitimate. But if one thinks that devolution would provide an answer to the national problem that is something that I don’t agree with...I think that’s [the complete repealing of the 13th amendment] the way forward...”

“This again I see as a reaction to some of the claims and things done by the minorities. We shouldn’t let these things come out. Remember the majority community is 78% but if some 8% or 10% of the community tries to bring various issues all the time it creates a suspicion among the majority community. It creates insecurity within the majority community and obviously there will be sections reacting to that. This is what happened...” (‘I Deplore Any Form of Extremism’, Daily Mirror July 4, 2013)

Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s interview constitutes a useful discourse in that it is possible to discern the socio-political map of Sri Lanka after it has been ‘re-drawn’ (as HLD Mahindapala puts it).

What this ideology corresponds to is the dangerous phenomenon identified by the late Fred Halliday, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the London School of Economics and research professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. He defined it as ‘The Miscalculations of Small Nations’. His case studies included Georgia and more classically Cyprus and he explores “the self-inflating nationalist ideology...with its heady mix of vanity, presumption and miscalculation...miscalculations about the capabilities of one’s own forces and the reactions of others”. (‘Political Journeys’ 2011, p 241-247)

Since the emphasis in Sri Lanka is on the rejection of the foreign and the celebration of the national, and since a touch of retroactive intellectual nepotism will not be frowned upon, the volume ‘Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva’, which contains his attempts to educate National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali on the abiding geopolitical realities that should disabuse us of the notion that we can emulate Israel in our treatment of the Tamils of the North.

Mervyn remarks “...It was the presence of Tamil Nadu, the south Indian state, which forced us to broaden the discussion and our perspective...if the arrival of a 60,000 strong Indian peace keeping force did nothing else, it certainly did compel us to widen the range of inquiry further...a regional perspective is inescapable given the sub-continental cultural matrix and history. At a time when national borders are vanishing, the borders in our own minds need to be erased in the interest of serious inquiry and discussion”. (‘Crisis Commentaries’, 2001: P. 170)

The hubris of having defeated the LTTE must not delude us into thinking that we won a war against the source of the Indo-Lanka Accord. We must recognise the limits of our victory. We must also recognise the limits of our power. We must understand that however excellent our armed forces are and in whatever way we seek to configure their presence in the North, while attempting to re-configure the North itself, in a worst case scenario, which is not purely imaginary but is an extrapolation of our 1987 experience, we cannot ensure supplies of ammunition, fuel and food, for our island which is highly vulnerable to naval embargo and a no-fly zone. I would also recommend that the militant Sinhala ultranationalists read the famous ‘Melian Dialogue’ in Thucydides’ ‘History of the Peloponnesian Wars’. It is the exchange between the leaders of the small, strategically placed island of Melos and the Athenian envoys who made them an offer they shouldn’t have refused but did, with disastrous consequences. That exchange is regarded as paradigmatic by the Realist school in politics, history and international affairs.

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