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Back to Barracks Necessary for Free and Fair NPC Elections

| by Laksiri Fernando

( September 11, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) After an end of a war or a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), ‘decommissioning and demobilization’ are considered crucially important for sustainable peace. These are universally accepted principles although the Sri Lankan ‘rulers,’ though elected formally, have some contempt about them, for reasons best known to them.

Instead of asking as far as ‘decommissioning or demobilization,’ the TNA Parliamentary Group Leader and the President of ITAK, R Sampanthan, has requested the President “to take steps to confine the military to the barracks and remove the biggest obstacle to the conduct of a free and fair poll on the 21st of September” for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC).

The government may be commended for holding the elections to the NPC, at last, although it should have been done ‘soon’ after the end of the war in May 2009. This is what was done in the Eastern Province, after the area was cleared from the LTTE menace. Even ‘how soon’ could have been flexible, but holding it long after almost four and half years is not good for reconciliation or sustainable peace. If it was held within a year, the situation could have been entirely different.

It is possible that the extreme chauvinist forces such as the JHU within the government was holding back the President, perhaps connivance with the Defense Secretary, not to hold the elections as clear from their stance on the now aborted 19th Amendment to abolish the 13th Amendment altogether. Now they have withdrawn from the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in finding a ‘constitutional solution’ to the controversy. The decisive factor in holding the NPC elections undoubtedly is the international pressure whether one likes it or not.

Same goes for the military control of the North, not to speak of ‘decommissioning and demobilization’ for a moment. The ‘defense establishment’ takes considerable pains to explain to the international community and/or the UN about the military withdrawals from the North. However, the two terms – decommissioning and demobilization – have never entered into their vocabulary. ‘Decommissioning’ means the withdrawal of the military from active engagement in public affairs (i.e. law and order) and ‘demobilization’ means the gradual reduction of armed forces from a war situation to a peace situation.

If the government had seriously believed that there was a risk of the LTTE being resurrected for another war or subversion within few years, then at least armed forces could have been ‘demobilized’ from the North in readiness for deployment as necessary. This is not a difficult task given the logistical situation in the country or the technical capabilities of the present military. What has happened instead is not only the active deployment of the army ostensibly in ‘law and order’ matters, of course of reduced numbers, but also the involvement of them in administrative and civilian matters. This has amounted to a virtual military rule in the North. This was most conspicuous symbolically, the Governor of the Province being a former military officer, a retired Major General.

At least after the announcement of the elections, the situation should have been changed. Given the extreme ethnic sensitivity of the NPC elections and the past history such as the fraudulent 1981 Jaffna Development Council Elections, complete free and fair election is of paramount importance. Any military interference in the election process is a gross violation of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). To the former, Sri Lanka has adhered its commitment, and of the latter, Sri Lanka is an obligatory national party. There is no escape on the basis of ‘sovereignty or patriotism.’

In his letter to the President dated 9 September 2013, Mr. Sampanthan has pointed out the following, which are serious allegations:

“The rumor that the military has nominated some candidates on the Government Party, i.e., UPFA list is fuelled by soldiers pasting posters promoting those candidates and guarding such posters from being torn down even by election officials. There was at least one instance when we made a written complaint that the army was distributing building materials to the voters at Navanthurai, Jaffna, with hoardings of some candidates kept in the background. A photograph showing a candidate physically participating in this event with the army was published in a newspaper. The election officials who visited the scene found the allegation to be true but were not able to stop it. These are only but a few glaring examples of the blatant manner in which the military is now engaged in the election campaign for the Government Party, UPFA. It is also a matter of record that at least three of our candidates were threatened by the army on the day we submitted our nominations.”

It is also disturbing to note what former Justice C. V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Ministerial Candidate of the TNA, has revealed although I must add that both a former Major General being the Governor and a former Supreme Court Judge possibly becoming the Chief Minister in the NPC are not good for democracy or independence of the public service (including the military) even if the army is withdrawn (hypothetically) from active engagement in the North after the election. If not, there is sure to be a confrontation or contradiction between the informal military rule in the North and the elected NPC. This goes completely against any expectation of reconciliation.

What is more worrying is not so much of the role of the Governor at present but the role of the Army Commanding Officer for the North, also interfering in political and election matters quite blatantly. There is a specific Commanding Officer for the North, as if there is still a war even after four years of its conclusion. The following is what Mr. Wigneswaran has said on the military interference as reported by the Colombo Telegraph on 10 September which is my main concern in this article.

“Last few meetings I have been referring to the undue interference visible from the Armed Forces resident in the North in relation to our Northern Provincial Council Election. I chanced to find a good example of it today. Today’s Sunday Thinakaran [8 September], a pro-government paper, carries a news item wherein the Commanding Officer of the Army in the North, Mr. Mahinda Hathurusinghe, is reputed to have given an interview to the Thinakaran stating that he strongly objects to Mano Ganesan who had come into the North as a Tourist venturing to criticize interference from the Army at the local polls. He went on further to say that I am [Wigneswaran] looking at the Northern politics through my Colombo glasses and that he is surprised at my Supreme Court judgments.”

A serving army officer has no business in giving a political interview to a newspaper, a pro-government or otherwise. He has no business to criticise a politician, a former judge or not, and after all Mr Wigneswaran has now opted to become a politician although my opinion says that he should not have done so, whatever the good intentions, for the reasons of integrity and principles of good governance in general.

When Mr Sampanthan’s letter was published in the media, there were some valuable comments highlighting the ‘other side of the coin’ and I wish to highlight what Dr Rajasingham Narendran said. He made two main points as far as I am concerned, and the first was that “Please also advice some of your platform speakers, including MPs to moderate their words. They are undoing what you are apparently trying to achieve. Moderation in words and acuity in a workable program are the need of the hour.”

Second was that “Please also set an example to change the nature of politics in Sri Lanka. The south is waiting with an abated breath to see what the TNA and the Tamils will do with a NPC they control. Answer them with a positive and principled but determined approach, both in the prelude and the aftermath of the elections.” On the second point, I must also say that the TNA Manifesto was a disappointment on which I might return at least mildly on a later occasion from the point of view of reconciliation.

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