Photograph courtesy The Independent

The Rajapakse Administration’s desire to host the a global event,  the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGAM) suddenly forced the Administration to do something which was anathema to its decision making hard line Sinhala nationalist brain trust, which was to have to heed and take note of international opinion and global standards, especially on ethnic minority and human rights. They just could not have the luxury of straddling the world stage ceremoniously as CHOGAM hosts and ignoring international norms, standards and opinion. To do the former, they had to accommodate and deal with the latter.

Now the Indians, who had long been reduced to wringing their hands in despair at their diminishing leverage with their near abroad Colombo government, even as the Chinese moved in as the Sri Lankan Government’s ask no questions ally, infrastructure provider and commercial lender at exorbitant rates, suddenly saw an opening and with a considerable degree of diplomatic finesse, pulled off quite a few diplomatic coups. First they, made common cause with internal dissenters within the UPFA, such as the Muslim SLMC, the old left parties, the CP, the LSSP and the NSSP to ensure that the proposed 19th amendment to the constitution which sought to do away with the powers of the provincial councils was shelved. Before that they had in roles, complimentary to the Japanese, ensured that President Rajapakse actually went ahead and held a credible election in the North, for the first ever post war Northern Provincial Council (NPC).

Prior to the NPC polls, the Rajapakse Administration could play various political games, claiming that its regional allies like the EPDP were credible Tamil political interlocutors and that the governing UPFA’s own support in the North was reasonable, a plurality if not a majority. Well the electoral reality is a matter of record, TNA with almost 80% of the vote and the Rajapakse Administration’s UPFA, barely 18%. It really doesn’t get more lopsided than that, in favor of an opposition party ever. The TNA has a two third majority in the Northern Provincial Council and swore in the first opposition controlled provincial administration led by Chief Minister, Justice (rtd) CV Wigneswaran.

The choices before the Rajapakse Administration

The Rajapakse Administration faces a rather stark choice with regard to the TNA controlled Northern Provincial Council. The desired and preferred option would be, for the Government to be generous and cooperative with the NPC and provide it with the space and facilitation required to address the effects of the war on the Northern civilians as the former principle theatre of the conflict. This requires basically an attitude similar to that of the victorious allies in the Second World War, who had both the Marshal plan for Europe and very generous political arrangements for the defeated Japanese including retaining their Emperor in whose name the war had been fought. Initial indications are that the Rajapakse Administration is open to this possibility, once it gets over its own ideological hang-ups. The advantages of an effective TNA controlled provincial administration in the North are obvious.

  1. A strong, moderate and pragmatic TNA is the best antidote for a more extreme and alienated Tamil Diaspora. The TNA and the Diaspora are not allies, the Diaspora is actually the opposition element in Tamil politics, opposed to the TNA for being too moderate and seeking to replace the TNA as the representatives and the voice of the Tamil people. The elements in the Diaspora that are supporting the TNA, such as the London based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) are essentially sections of the Diaspora who realized quite early on, that without a presence on the ground in Sri Lanka, their long term relevance, except for nuisance value to and political pressure on their host governments, would be questionable.
  2. An effective TNA political leadership in the North through the provincial council is also containment on more extreme political elements in the minor political parties of Tamil Nadu; the general TNA desire to be robustly Sri Lankan, on the fishing issue for instance would provide an effective and credible counter to the more vociferous South Indian political elements. The TNA has to date stayed away from the politics of Tamil Nadu, sought no allies or sympathy regionally, strictly limiting their engagement in India to the Center.
  3. The third and most compelling argument why the Rajapakse Administration should facilitate the NPC is probably the most compelling internal argument for the regime. It was all promised in the Mahinda Chinthanya Way Forward, the 2010 manifesto of the Rajapakse presidency. Way back in late 2009, as the war was ended, President Rajapakse actually realized that he had the time and political space with his constituency to implement the existing constitutional provisions on devolutions contained in the 13th Amendment. That is why presidential candidate Rajapakse promised it. It is also why this assurance was given to the Indian government as well. A successful NPC is ultimately a Mahinda Chinthanya promise and actually no concession at all but rather a delayed fulfillment of the President’s own electoral promises in his manifesto.

The choice before the TNA

The TNA also faces a new challenge, especially for its old hands and veteran operators, war horses of the likes of Mavai Senathirajaha and Suresh Premachandran. They have been around for a long time and for the first time in three decades of politics suddenly have the responsibility to govern. The responsibilities of governance, challenges the exclusionary isolationism or the non engagement policies of more hard line Tamil politics. Though such policies are often seen as a safe political refuge by Tamil politicians wary of been taken for ride by Sri Lankan governments, in reality hard line isolationism is more All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) than TNA, it is Gajen Ponnambalam rather than Sumanthiran. Figure out what the Tamil people voted for, Gajen and the ACTC sits around in Jaffna, listening to an echo of their own voices, with no solution for the ills facing the people. In contrast almost 80% of the Northern people vote in the TNA who led by, Party leader Sambanthan, National Organizer Sumanthiran and Chief Minister Wigneswaran, the TNA has a senior team which now has the responsibility of using even the limited devolved powers at their disposal to address the effects of the conflict and the needs of the war affected people.