Kath Noble

Next stop, Jaffna

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 19, 2012

A few thoughts on the provincial council elections

Mahinda Rajapaksa must really love elections. Since he came to power, at least some part of the country has gone to the polls almost every year, sometimes more than once. We had local and provincial council elections in both 2008 and 2009, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010, more local elections in 2011 and now more provincial council elections in 2012. No prizes for guessing that in 2013 somebody somewhere in Sri Lanka will be voting.

I hope that it will be the turn of the Northern Province.

Concerns have been raised about the prospect of a TNA-led administration in the North, on the basis that the party may use the platform to push for more devolution or even a separate state, by itself or with the support of the West.

Indeed it might. The TNA hasn’t done enough to distance itself from the use of violence to achieve political ends, or to distance itself from the goal of Eelam. Both would have been helpful for its constituency and for the country, since distrust of the TNA’s intentions encourages or is used as an excuse by the Government to delay the much-discussed ‘political solution’, or to avoid it altogether. Perhaps the TNA is under pressure from the diaspora, or maybe it is yet to be convinced that the war is over.

Whatever, keeping it out of power by undemocratic means isn’t going to convince either the party or its supporters to change their ways. The voters of the Eastern Province demonstrated as much on September 8th.

There have been many fascinating attempts in the media to present the results of the provincial council elections in the East as a resounding endorsement of the Government and its policies. However, this is no more than wishful thinking.

For a start, the UPFA won by a margin of less than 1%, receiving 31.58% of the popular vote compared to 30.59% for the TNA. Given the usual massive abuse of state resources by the incumbent administration, it is ridiculous to suggest that people are anything like enthusiastic about Pillayan et al staying on at Trincomalee.

Also and most importantly, while the UPFA’s vote share fell by well over 10% of the total, the TNA’s went up by nearly 10% – it secured only 21.89% of the popular vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The TNA now enjoys the support of the vast majority of Tamils in the East. And it got eleven Tamils elected to the provincial council, compared to only one from the UPFA (the former chief minister, whose achievement has been questioned).

Being out of office clearly isn’t a problem for the TNA in terms of popularity.

Of course it isn’t. While the Government insists that life is now very good in the former conflict areas, a lot of people living there don’t agree. They aren’t so hopeful about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s development agenda. This we know from many sources, including the fact that according to official figures, 2,992 Sri Lankans crossed the sea to Australia in the first eight months of this year, compared to 736 in the last twelve months of the war. The vast majority of them were Tamils. And this data includes only those who reached their destination, not those who are now being caught by the Navy on an almost daily basis. Everybody is debating whether or not they should be classified as refugees, as if it would be quite normal for so many people to want to undertake such a perilous journey for economic reasons – it is not.

In the North, the TNA will be the sole beneficiary of dissatisfaction with the Government. The party has its faults, but at least it won’t put up any more signboards in Sinhala and English in areas where Tamils make up 100% of the population. (I am taking a trivial example not because there aren’t more important things to be done, but to demonstrate that it is will as much as ideas and resources that is lacking.)

The TNA must know that its prospects are only going to improve the longer it is prevented from challenging the Government, so it isn’t going to feel at all pressured to fall into line.

The other point to note from the East is that the SLMC too increased its vote share. At the 2010 parliamentary elections, the SLMC and UNP together achieved 26.57% of the popular vote, increasing to 32.80% in 2012. The ever-hopeful supporters of Ranil Wickremasinghe may like to think that the UNP is the party whose fortunes improved, but that is plain silly. It achieved 11.82% of the popular vote in the provincial council elections, compared to 20.98% for the SLMC. And for their information, 11.82% is pretty close to zero! The UNP is in a deep hole, electorally speaking, but it is hard to feel sorry for people who believe that clinging to the same leader for nigh on two decades is perfectly normal. If only their foolishness didn’t have such an impact on the rest of the country.

It is equally clear that the SLMC would not have seven provincial councillors if it had run under Mahinda Rajapaksa. The party leadership’s rumoured decision to form an administration with the UPFA, going against the wishes of its members from the Eastern Province and likely also the views of its voters for the sake of concessions in Colombo, is not very democratic.

Totally undemocratic are the moves reported by DBS Jeyaraj to persuade five of the eleven provincial councillors from the TNA to switch their allegiance to the UPFA, which if they had been successful would have given the Government its all-important majority without the need for the support of the SLMC. DBS Jeyaraj says that the TNA representatives were approached by military intelligence operatives with a range of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, including the offer to one provincial councillor who is also a building contractor of a major state infrastructure project and the threat to another that his young son would be taken into custody for alleged involvement with the LTTE.

As DBS Jeyaraj points out, attempts to engineer crossovers are nothing new, although the employment of military intelligence operatives certainly adds a novel and even more reprehensible dimension to the phenomenon.

Also, we don’t normally get to hear the details of the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.

For this we should be grateful to the TNA. It has shown us what politics in Sri Lanka has become, and how difficult it will be to clean up – Mahinda Rajapaksa is clearly very good at engineering.

I hope that we will find more reasons to thank the party once elections are called in the North.

Although the TNA did not stand up to Prabhakaran, for which it deserves the harshest of criticism, it is willing to stand up to the Government. And it would be in a position to do so in the Northern Province. A TNA-led administration could do what most Sri Lankans now agree is necessary and show the Government that it cannot get away with everything everywhere. The danger for the TNA and indeed for Sri Lanka as a whole is that as things stand its positions and actions can easily be dismissed as sectarian and extremist, which could end up deepening the divisions in society and further entrenching the Government.

For that reason, and of course also as a matter of principle, the West should firmly resolve to say and do absolutely nothing.

It is only a matter of time before Mahinda Rajapaksa starts to fear elections.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 19th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Unsettling news on resettlement

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 5, 2012

Questioning the official narrative that people displaced by the war are now home and dry

The Government has been trumpeting its success in resettling IDPs to all and sundry of late. Hardly a week goes by without some reference to the official statistics, which indicate that at the end of July there were only 5,443 people remaining at Manik Farm, while another 7,329 were staying in welfare centres elsewhere in the Northern Province. That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands the Government was accommodating at the end of the war. What’s more, according to a recent statement by the Minister of Resettlement, the whole process will be finished by the end of September, with the resettled having been provided with ‘all their requirements’.

In a sense, this is only fair, since its critics were just as vocal in their absolute certainty that the displaced would be kept in camps indefinitely, or possibly exterminated – I recall much talk of Hitler and his final solution.

Still, it may not be accurate.

Last week, the Diocese of Jaffna issued a report that raised serious doubts about the Government’s claims, suggesting that it was deliberately misleading the public about the ground reality in the North – in particular, the authors said that resettlement was a long way from satisfactory.

It is an appalling failure of the media that most of us will not be sure who to believe. The recovery of the war-affected regions of the country is one of the most important stories of the day, yet instead of sending reporters to find out what is happening – where people are living, how they are surviving and indeed what they think about their future in a newly-reunited Sri Lanka – we are reduced to reading about what GL Peiris tells various dignitaries. A few days ago, for example, it was reported that he had informed the Archbishop of Colombo that many foreign visitors had been deeply impressed by its progress. What conclusions we are supposed to draw from such ‘news’ is not clear.

Meanwhile, the ‘commentariat’ is divided into people who blindly accept what they are told by the Government and people who always believe the exact opposite as a matter of principle.

I suspect that there are two elements to the truth.

First, the Government continues to believe that the only displaced people who count are those who left their homes in the final year of the war.

The official figures that are publicised so eagerly don’t include at least tens if not hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who are still very much displaced. The war produced IDPs over several decades, not just a few months in 2008 and 2009. Many of them are living in pathetic conditions. They are spread across Sri Lanka in makeshift ‘temporary’ accommodation, sometimes with relatives and friends. They are also abroad, as the Government finally acknowledged last week by announcing that in 2013 it will start negotiations with India on the return of refugees from camps in Tamil Nadu.

Resettlement of these people is a much harder task, which is why the Government generally prefers to pretend that they don’t exist – there are bound to be numerous land and other resource conflicts, such as the one Rishad Bathiudeen inadvertently brought to our attention with his intervention in the dispute between Muslim and Tamil fishermen in Mannar.

If the Government were really serious, it would admit that there is still a lot of work to do, and it would get going with it straight away.

Secondly, there was never any plan to provide the resettled with ‘all their requirements’, so the suggestion that they are perfectly fine is bound to be a lie.

The Government only ever intended to give them basic materials. The rest is up to the IDPs themselves, plus India and its project to construct 50,000 houses and whatever contributions NGOs want to make. According to the Government, whoever fails to make the beneficiary lists of these agencies will just have to get back to work and save up if they want to rebuild their lives.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the destruction was at least partly the fault of the State.

Some people may be inclined to argue that funds are limited and so priorities have to be set, and it is obviously right to prioritise among the IDPs according to the urgency of their situations. Indeed, considered in isolation, they would have a point.

However, let us think for a moment of the areas in which the Government has not been concerned with prioritising.

Take the expansion of facilities for the Security Forces. Camps have been set up at great cost all over the Northern Province. They are within their rights and indeed wise to do so, since they must have a presence throughout the island – although they should obviously act in a much less careless manner, minimising the disruption caused – but this is not the point. What is important is that it has been done extremely rapidly. This shows what can be done when the Government is truly determined.

Money is not an issue – it was announced last week during the visit of the Chinese Defence Secretary that the Government would be taking another $100 million loan to build accommodation for military personnel in the North.

Never mind that this could buy another 20,000 Indian houses, although they are certainly needed. Borrowing from China means that there won’t even be jobs.

Next come Buddha statues. While the Government has been humming and hawing about which of the people who dodged bullets and bombs for a generation should receive help in rebuilding their homes – resulting in India making even slower progress than usual – and worrying about how to monitor the work of NGOs who come forward to contribute in case they mention inconvenient topics like human rights, elections or horror of horrors a political solution, people keen to erect Buddha statues have faced no such bureaucratic hurdles. There is apparently ‘better than single window clearance’ for such investments. Buddha statues have sprouted at a tremendous rate in places where there are virtually no Buddhists to appreciate them, most disturbingly actually on top of Hindu temples.

Such priorities don’t sound like Buddhism to me.

Given that neither the spread of Buddhism nor the entrenchment of the Security Forces is welcomed by the population of the Northern Province, it is only natural for them to make a comparison with the efforts the Government is making towards resettlement.

We may not hear about their unhappiness due to another key point the Diocese of Jaffna made in its report – intimidation and violence are still rife in the North.

Reconciliation by force must be one of those ‘home-grown’ ideas we’ve heard so much about.

It is safe to suggest that no elected body representing the people of the Northern Province would have dared to take decisions in this way, which is why provincial council elections are needed. Under the current system of governance, the population has near zero ability to influence policy on matters of the utmost importance to them. Members of Parliament from the North have absolutely no power, and their moral authority as elected representatives doesn’t get them very far, since the Government doesn’t care what people who aren’t going to vote for it think.

This is presumably precisely why it is so determined to maintain the status quo, undemocratic as it most certainly is.

Sadly, the lunatic fringe has brought us to a situation in which it is necessary to add that this doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka is a dictatorship.

The Government may soon start to demand praise for that too. Mahinda Rajapaksa hasn’t yet appointed a Minister of Elections, but no doubt somebody could be persuaded to cross over and take up the position, after which it’s just a matter of counting up the number of times the country has been to the polls since he became President.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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