Kath Noble

A view from somewhere near Kilinochchi

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 25, 2013

Reflections on the first election to the Northern Provincial Council

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACampaigning for the Northern Provincial Council was so miserable that I decided to spend election day as far away from politicians as possible.

Both the UPFA and the TNA disappointed. Two months ago, I wrote a piece saying how bright the future would be if the totally useless discourse of patriots versus traitors could be done away with, as seemed to be happening with the TNA having nominated Justice Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate and the UPFA talking of putting forward Daya Master. But within days of publication, the UPFA had done a u-turn and declared that no former members of the LTTE would be included in its list, leaving it free to equate the TNA with the LTTE and argue that a TNA victory was bound to lead to the establishment of a separate state.

The TNA behaved no better, doing its best to restore the links with the LTTE that it had so successfully severed during the nomination process, with Justice Wigneswaran going to the extent of calling Prabhakaran a hero – very heroic, wasn’t it, shooting people who weren’t willing to die shielding him from defeat?

As I watched television the night before the election, almost every other sentence referred to the LTTE.

Yet there is no such organisation in Sri Lanka today.

What can be found are Tamils, and they are worse off as a community than they were three decades ago. The LTTE failed them, whether they realise it or not, and it is up to those of us who care about the country to ensure that the TNA does not do the same.

I am hopeful, but the election campaign was a reminder of how dangerous politics can be.

With that in mind, I spent election day trying to understand what life is like for the people who suffered the most in the war.

Because it is this same group who will suffer if the TNA cannot sustain the peace.

A couple of around the same age as my parents welcomed me for the weekend in their home a few miles outside Kilinochchi.

They don’t yet have a house, but they have managed to put together a fairly decent makeshift structure from whatever they could find or were given. They have built dry walls from the bricks of their old home around a new wooden frame, and covered it with a roof of tin sheets, palm leaves and plastic. Inside there are three ‘areas’ – a space roughly four foot by ten foot for cooking on an open fire, around ten foot by ten foot arranged as a ‘living room’ and six foot by ten foot for sleeping. (During my stay, much to my embarrassment, they slept in the ‘kitchen’.)

In their four acre property they have a well, which needs to be repaired but is still offering up water, albeit not of a very enticing colour. Anyway, we drank from it. They don’t yet have a proper toilet either, so we also carried water from the well to another makeshift but quite reasonable arrangement some distance away in the bush.

They are still waiting for help with basic infrastructure, but their situation is not desperate.

Incongruously, they already have electricity, and a television and a fridge and various other ‘luxuries’ provided by their children, who have lived near Colombo for years.

This support from relatives is vital, since they have very little income. They make a ‘living’ by running a vegetable shop in the Kilinochchi market, but I saw for myself that there is not enough custom to sustain all of the traders. How they are going to continue even this poor existence as they age further and are unable to cycle the quite considerable distance into town on a daily basis, I don’t know. They hope to clear their land and start cultivation when the rains come next month, but that too is no life for the elderly, and all of the youth of the area are busy looking for opportunities to get out.

Starting to build their lives again at 70 years of age is a pretty appalling prospect.

In terms of basic infrastructure, many of their neighbours are better off, with numerous newly constructed houses to be seen in the surrounding area.

Almost everybody seems to have received bicycles and household items from NGOs.

Some have also been given farming equipment and animals.

It is interesting to note that while the husband believes that the reason they have not yet received many of these things is that allocations are being made according to the number of members in the family, the wife feels that they are being discriminated against by their local government official, curiously enough for not having given their children to the LTTE.

They voted for EPDP.

A friend of mine living abroad wanted me to ask them why they support a party that according to allegations made to the American Embassy ran or runs prostitution rings for the Army. I told him that these people have never heard of Wikileaks – the source of the story. They don’t know English and they had never used the internet before I helped them to have a chat with one of their sons over Skype.

For me, such questions are tantamount to harassment.

Neither he nor I paid more than a brief visit to the Vanni when it was under the control of the LTTE. We did not experience the fighting up close. And we did not live in Manik Farm.

These people went through all of that.

Anyway, in those days, the TNA was supporting the LTTE, which is proven to have done much worse.

The suggestion seemed rather intolerant, and indicative of the politics of people like us who are generally quite ungrounded in the various realities of Sri Lanka.

It was a real pleasure to see the old couple go out to vote on Saturday, and to talk to many others who found time in their days to do the same. The mood in Kilinochchi seemed upbeat, as indeed it had on Friday and did again on Sunday. People went about their business as usual after voting.

The Government must be congratulated for accepting the inevitability of a TNA victory and ensuring that election day passed more or less without incident. In Kilinochchi, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections reported that thugs attacked one of its monitors who objected to food being given to voters by EPDP, but otherwise there was very little to complain about. Of course something like 90% of the posters on view in Kilinochchi were for the SLFP, plus another 5% for EPDP and only 1% for the TNA. But that just goes to show how useless it is to ruin the environment and spend money that generally has to be earned via untoward activities trying to win over the public with posters. The result in Kilinochchi was almost the exact opposite – the TNA received 82% of the vote and got three councillors elected, while the UPFA received 17% of the vote and got one councillor elected.

There were more serious incidents elsewhere in the Northern Province, but even they compared favourably with the norm in Sri Lanka and with the experience in the other two provinces that went to the polls on Saturday.

The result itself, combined with the high turnout – 73% in Kilinochchi – did more to demonstrate the return to normalcy than any of the Government’s rather silly propaganda.

Indeed, I was very happy to note on my way from Colombo that no member of the Security Forces attempted to find out where I was going or what I was doing – as they should have understood long ago, this only reinforces the feeling that they have something to hide.

The Omantai checkpoint was a symbol of the disunity of the country.

The major problem in Kilinochchi would seem to be the shortage of business, largely due to the fact that the entire population was displaced and in the process lost everything they owned.

That is why land is so important – it is the only capital that people have, and very few of them are in a position to buy anything other than the ‘essentials’ that it produces. Acquisition by the Security Forces for their quite bewildering array of camps in the North is bound to be a major source of ongoing conflict so long as no reasonable alternatives are found by means of a genuinely consultative process. This should also include some effort to assess the environmental impact, since the camps must at the very least place an additional burden on water supplies in what is a relatively dry area. The impact on the livelihoods of the people affected by them must also be considered.

The TNA position on the military presence in the North is clearly ridiculous – they insist on a return to pre-1983 levels – but the Government should understand that it is in its best interests to settle the issue once and for all.

Even they can’t possibly believe that all of the land they are occupying is genuinely needed.

Not far from where I spent the weekend, the Security Forces have set up a training camp – an assault course is visible from the road. Obviously that need not be in the outskirts of Kilinochchi.

(Incidentally, the only minor road to be paved in the area leads right up to the gate.)

But land alone is not enough, and the TNA must immediately get going on its promised comprehensive plan for the development of the Northern economy. The UPFA did not get much beyond transportation, which is useful but certainly not sufficient – at the moment, it is mostly used to transport goods from the rest of the country into the North and people from the North out.

Fortunately, Justice Wigneswaran and his colleagues will soon realise that they have no future as politicians if they can’t persuade Tamils to continue living with them.

This article was not published by The Island.

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The way forward

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 24, 2013

On the potential of the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council

WigneswaramFor the first time in a long while, I feel hopeful about the future of Sri Lanka. Everybody accepts that the main challenge at this juncture is reconciliation – uniting the country in spirit now that it has finally been united in body. And despite the many appalling failures of the Government – together with the complete inability of the Opposition to make any impact whatsoever on even absolutely mundane issues – there is suddenly reason to feel positive.

The Northern Provincial Council election is going ahead.

It is of course a reflection of the dismal state of post-war Sri Lanka that this very basic democratic requirement should be considered an achievement. Still, after months of frenzied campaigning by Sinhalese extremists, the fact that candidates are being nominated and preparations made is a huge relief.

Denying residents of the North the right to elect their representatives as people living elsewhere in the country do as a matter of course would have given the Tamil separatist project a tremendous boost.

This is no doubt what parties like the JHU want, since there would be no point to their existence if Sri Lankans could get along. Udaya Gammanpila somehow managed to keep a straight face while announcing that the JHU is boycotting the Northern Provincial Council election, as if there were any practical difference between contesting and not contesting when nobody in the North is going to vote for them. If Sri Lanka were to become a genuinely inclusive society, there would have to be a lot more such theoretical boycotts by the JHU.

Even more important than the poll itself are the personalities emerging, in particular Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and Daya Master.

The Government is yet to declare its Chief Ministerial candidate, but the hype in recent weeks has all been about Daya Master rather than Douglas Devananda. If it were planning on fielding Douglas Devananda, the Government could and should have given him the key role in its Uthuru Wasanthaya development programme from the beginning – he might have had some kind of a chance that way. Instead, the President chose to forget EPDP’s contribution to the defeat of the LTTE and put his brother in charge. The future of the Rajapaksas – or more charitably that of the SLFP – was considered more important.

Although this would appear to be tough luck for Douglas Devananda, he really only has himself to blame. He should have distanced himself from the Government long ago, at least to the extent that the SLMC has done by contesting elections alone.

I think that it would be no bad thing for Daya Master to lead the UPFA campaign. Anyway, his participation on the Government side puts an end to the old divide of Sri Lanka’s ‘War on Terror’. This is different to the experience in the East with Pillayan and Karuna, since they broke away from the LTTE and helped the Government to finish the war. Daya Master, KP and Thamilini, who are all now said to back the UPFA, were part of the LTTE until the final showdown.

Given the destructive nature of the ‘patriots versus traitors’ discourse in Sri Lanka, having the LTTE’s senior leaders represent the Government is very healthy. Fingers crossed that when the UPFA declares its list of candidates this week these characters all figure prominently.

Last week’s announcement by the TNA of Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate was already great news.

Finally, the party has understood the need to make a break with the past, nominating somebody with no connections – or even a vague hint of sympathy – with the LTTE.

My fear with regard to the Northern Provincial Council election – other than the distinct possibility of it never taking place – was that the TNA would be pushed by the Government’s desire to make devolution as meaningless as possible to do exactly what people who oppose the 13th Amendment suspect is their real objective and use the platform to push for separation. The more difficult the Government makes it for elected representatives to implement their plans – by failing to sanction funds, blocking initiatives via the Governor and so on – the less involved they will be in governance and the less stake they will have in reconciliation and building a Sri Lankan identity.

Obviously the answer is for the Government to behave sensibly, but we know from experience that it usually doesn’t.

We also know that Tamils will regard interference with the functioning of the administration in Jaffna as discrimination, even if it is actually motivated by a general eagerness to centralise. In the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame them.

Justice C.V. Wigneswaran clearly can’t solve all of these problems by himself, but his nomination is an indication that the TNA wants to at least try to find a way to work with the Government.

I wrote a piece after last year’s election to the Eastern Provincial Council looking forward to the prospect of an administration run by the TNA in the North, on the basis that the Government has become far too comfortable in power. Thanks to the ongoing woes of the UNP – which is yet to grasp the very simple concept that image matters in politics – the Government doesn’t need to bother about what people think of its actions. It runs the country exactly as it pleases, controlling all of the elected bodies and enjoying a special majority in Parliament.

The SLMC’s decision to go into a coalition with the UPFA in the East enabled the Government to keep believing that it could rule unchallenged forever, although it may be rethinking that assumption now that its members are refusing to participate in sittings in protest at what they describe as the high-handedness of the Chief Minister and the Governor.

In the North, there will be absolutely no space for doubt.

That will also be very healthy – authoritarianism isn’t good for anybody.

It is much too soon to say whether these encouraging developments will translate into lasting change, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect otherwise. The impeachment of the Chief Justice demonstrated that anything can happen in post-war Sri Lanka – the Government is ready to go to any lengths to get its way and the Opposition won’t really bother to object. Still, given all the country has been through in recent months, I feel that even the slightest indication of progress must be welcomed enthusiastically.

This article was published in The Island on 24th July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The good news and the bad news

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 7, 2012

On the attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice and the calls for the repeal of the 13th Amendment

The good news is that there is nothing illegal about impeaching the Chief Justice. If one third of MPs sign a petition requesting it and one half approve the petition once it is presented in Parliament, the Constitution says that she has to go.

That’s reassuring isn’t it?

It is what the Government has been claiming, in any case.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that if Mahinda Rajapaksa can remove the Chief Justice for doing nothing more than failing to support him wholeheartedly, tomorrow it may actually be illegal to fail to support him wholeheartedly. For who is to stop him passing a bill to that effect? It won’t be MPs, that’s for sure. They are firmly stuck under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thumb. And the Chief Justice would by then know better than to rule the legislation in violation of the Constitution, since to do so would be to guarantee early retirement.

The matter of proving ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘incapacity’ is totally insignificant in the circumstances, as the administration has demonstrated that it has absolutely no shame.

International scrutiny is laughably ineffective – the Government was perfectly happy to announce the impeachment attempt as its representatives were preparing to defend its record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where it was bound to attract condemnation.

Indeed, it seemed determined to antagonise its critics, as just days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had once again raised the prospect of repealing the 13th Amendment.

Let this be a warning to those who look overseas for solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems.

The only opinions that matter are those of voters.

This is good news for the judiciary, since people can relatively easily be persuaded of the importance of the law and judges who apply it judiciously. The attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice has already drawn a forthright and near universal response in the media. Public opinion will eventually follow, and we will soon find out whether or not this will happen in time to save the current incumbent. Let us hope so, whatever we think of Shirani Bandaranayake.

Although the Government hasn’t deigned to explain what she has done to attract its ire, we can assume that it has to do with the Divi Neguma Bill, which I discussed in these columns some months ago.

Curiously enough, the same dispute has also been used to justify the repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The Chief Justice delayed the Divi Neguma Bill by insisting that it first be approved by the provincial councils, since its subject falls in the concurrent list. Hence both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice must go? It is ridiculous. Even supporters of the Divi Neguma Bill must admit that it is not more important than the Constitution.

The bad news for minorities is that it is very difficult to persuade the majority in Sri Lanka of the importance of devolution.

This is ironic, since both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice are means of distributing power away from the President. Everybody accepts that it is dangerous to make one person all powerful. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the now often quoted saying goes. Thus a little power is entrusted to the Chief Justice, and much less is given to the provincial councils. I stress, we are not talking about a lot of power. That still remains with the President.

But the 13th Amendment was a response to war, and people struggle to separate it from the suffering Sri Lanka has undergone in the last three decades.

I have argued for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment on too many occasions already, and I struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to do so again, since the level of debate is frankly pathetic. The argument that India foisted it on Sri Lanka so it must be rejected is totally unconvincing. That was then and this is now. Sri Lanka can very well judge the 13th Amendment on its own merits. Just as it can very well re-demarcate its provinces if it wants, rather than complaining that the ones that it has were defined by the British. This is simply a distraction.

The same goes for the alleged waste of money. I am quite sure that everybody reading this article can write a list of at least ten things that cost the Government more than the provincial councils that are definitely more wasteful. Let them first save that money before they start getting rid of institutions that minorities want.

This is what matters. As Mano Ganesan reminded us the other day, all Tamil parties want the 13th Amendment, whether they are in the Government or with the Opposition. The only group that didn’t want it was the undemocratic one that perished with Prabhakaran in Nanthi Kadal. And why did the LTTE not want it? Because Prabhakaran realised that it wasn’t going to bring him a separate state, now or later, and that’s what he was committed to achieving, extremist that he was. The most vociferous in calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, ignoring the views of minorities, used to argue that Prabhakaran did not represent them and that people should pay attention to those who were willing to use the ballot box rather than bullets and bombs. It seems that they prefer terrorists after all.

I do not say that the 13th Amendment is the best solution to any problem, just that it must not be abandoned unless the minorities can be persuaded that something else would be an improvement.

But unusually for a post-conflict nation, Sri Lanka has not a reconciliation policy but a policy of antagonism.

The only people with whom the Government is keen on reconciling are those who can help it to remain in power.

Hence the ‘release’ of KP. It is of course highly unusual that official spokesmen cannot agree on whether or not the man the Government abducted from Malaysia is still in custody or not. But the fact is that he is definitely not in jail, as are hundreds of people who participated in a much smaller way in the LTTE’s terror campaign. He is back in Kilinochchi, running an NGO.

Justice does not require his prosecution, but surely it demands an even-handed approach?

(The Government is now promising to bring cases against members of the Security Forces accused of excesses. Why on earth should they suffer more than KP?)

Perhaps this is Plan B.

If Plan A of repealing the 13th Amendment cannot for some reason be implemented, the Government will want to do everything possible to keep control of the provincial councils. It has managed to delay elections in the North for a very impressive three years already, but it may eventually have to call them. It is currently talking about September 2013. Plan B may be to use KP to collect votes for the Government, to supplement the support enjoyed by Douglas Devananda.

This may not be illegal either. But it is probably more bad news than good.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 7th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A one-man show with a one-man agenda

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 25, 2012

Why the search for another non-party ‘common candidate’ is doomed to failure

When launching an initiative in Sri Lanka, it is well known that one should be careful to call it the opposite of what it really is. Worried about infighting? Then be sure to include the word ‘united’ in the title. Concerned that the dubious public image of the leaders may dissuade people from joining up? Then it is inspirational concepts like ‘freedom’ that one needs to reference.

And so it is with the National Movement for Social Justice, whose inaugural rally was held in Colombo last week.

Sarath Fonseka’s latest attempt to resurrect his political career was a flop. Several hundred people came to listen to him speak. But he could not get the support of any established political parties, which is after all what is needed when it comes to winning elections. The organisers didn’t bother to invite the TNA, the JVP was united in ignoring the event, and even the UNP reformists weren’t keen on attending – Sajith Premadasa was convinced from the off that it wasn’t worth the struggle with Ranil Wickremasinghe, while Karu Jayasuriya left it to the last minute to decide to drop out. Even the remnants of the DNA, which Sarath Fonseka himself established, didn’t all show up.

He was left with the United Bhikkhu Front and a few individuals like Sarath N Silva, former Chief Justice, about whom the less said the better, plus assorted NGOs.

As such, Sarath Fonseka proved once and for all that his role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was a one-off. It was an extraordinary contest at an extraordinary moment in the country’s history. Just a few months after the end of the generation-long war, the Army Commander took on his Commander-in-Chief. He will not get another chance.

I am relieved, I must say.

Few people believed Sarath Fonseka’s pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency when he made it the first time around. Indeed, even he didn’t seem totally convinced, so busy as he was making promises.

I certainly didn’t trust him to give up power. For why did he enter politics? Because he was upset at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to allow him to further increase his empire as Army Commander. His plan for the post-war expansion of the Army was rejected by the Government. Critical as I am of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I believe that this decision indicates that he is not as bad as Sarath Fonseka might have been.

While this may not be saying much, it is the choice that Sri Lanka was faced with.

Also, justified or otherwise, Sarath Fonseka was commonly regarded as a guy concerned more with ends than means. Even if this was necessary in the circumstances, which is debatable, surely we can all agree that it is not a desirable trait in a peacetime leader? In peacetime, there can be no discussion about the acceptability of exceptions to the rule of law, although, as we have seen in the last three years, they may still occur in abundance. (Mahinda Rajapaksa is working hard to develop a similar reputation for himself.) But although we do not know for sure who is responsible for many of the worst crimes committed during the war, such as the various attacks on journalists (now totally forgotten, unlike the attempted assassination of Sarath Fonseka, one of the perpetrators of which was sentenced to 35 years rigorous imprisonment this week), I don’t think that there is any chance that Sarath Fonseka is less guilty than Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sarath Fonseka may have changed since then, having lost first an election and then his liberty. But I still believe that there are many people more suited to running the country than him.

I also believe that symbolism is important. Sri Lanka’s president should not be a military man.

Of course there is nothing wrong with people from other fields going into politics after their retirement. Even there is nothing wrong with military men going into politics. But the presidency is different. The president represents the country, to its people and with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka should be giving the impression that it is moving away from the military, not drawing closer to it.

This is a sensitive time, and such matters should be handled sensitively.

It is for the same reason that the proposal being advanced by various people in the last month or so for the Ven Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, to put himself forward as a ‘common candidate’ is also undesirable.

Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of those who took up arms against the State, there is no getting away from the fact that one of their arguments was that the State is irretrievably Sinhala Buddhist in nature. And there is no need to give them another reason to think so.

Also, if the Ven Sobitha Thero were to pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, many people would trust him.

I dare not suggest that they would be anything but wise to do so, which is why I believe that the clergy should keep out of politics altogether.

The clergy are given special treatment in view of their office, and rightly so. Religion is important to the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, and the leaders of the various faiths play an important role in their lives. They should maintain their honoured position. But when the clergy become politicians this is impossible. Either respect for them diminishes or the democratic functioning of society is undermined. There cannot be any hesitation about criticising elected representatives.

In any case, it is not the Executive President who can abolish the Executive Presidency. That is the task of Parliament.

The real question for those who advocate a ‘common candidate’ is whether or not they can trust the UNP.

I think that last week’s rally gave us a good indication of the future, and it is a future without the National Movement for Social Justice.

The UNP may be divided, but its various factions are clearly agreed on one point – it will be putting up its own candidate for the next presidential election. Ranil Wickremasinghe will of course try to make sure that it is him. After all, he will only have been party leader for a mere 20 years by then! But he won’t have an easy time. Sajith Premadasa is perhaps starting to think that he might make it, while Karu Jayasuriya undoubtedly hasn’t given up hope either.

Sarath Fonseka’s role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was only possible because the UNP was sure that it could not win, the vote taking place so soon after the war victory.

And such circumstances are unlikely to be repeated.

Rather than ignoring this reality, people interested in anything more important than Sarath Fonseka’s political career had better shift their focus away from distractions like the National Movement for Social Justice and back to where it is needed.

The established political parties need serious attention. Each one of them is in chaos, with no clearly defined programme and leaders who should have relinquished their positions long ago. They have split or they are in the process of splitting. And with each split they get weaker, leaving Sri Lankan democracy worse off. They should be looking inward, working out how to get themselves and the country out of the mess they are in, not waiting for outsiders to act.

They all have good names. They just need to remember what they mean.

This article was published in The Island on 25th October 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The deafening silence on electoral reforms

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 17, 2012

Why Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to get rid of Proportional Representation and why Ranil Wickremasinghe is ready to help him

The Local Government Elections Act was amended last week, with no debate either inside or outside Parliament. But was the change genuinely uncontroversial? I don’t think so.

Given that the process was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 18th Amendment, we should have been more suspicious. The 18th Amendment was part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war strategy to tighten his grip on power. He was thinking about how to make use of a moment at which he enjoyed unprecedented popularity to achieve what is best for him. Are we really to believe that reforms to the voting system announced just a few weeks later were about what is best for the country?

People have a general sense that Proportional Representation is problematic, which leads them to assume that a mixture of Proportional Representation and First Past the Post – the new legislation calls for 30% of seats to be decided using Proportional Representation and 70% using First Past the Post – would be better.

The argument goes as follows. The country is unstable with Proportional Representation, since it is difficult for any one party to achieve a majority. Proportional Representation also leads to violence during elections, as candidates fight each other for preference votes. They have to spend more since constituencies are larger and they have to cover a larger area, leading to more corruption. And it is more difficult for voters to hold their elected representatives to account. First Past the Post disadvantages minority parties, but what is being proposed is a compromise.

Will the reforms actually solve any of these problems? Are they even the problems that need solving?

When it comes to accountability, it seems to me that voters will have even less chance of controlling politicians under the new legislation. At the moment, people can choose between candidates while maintaining their allegiance to a party. This is important. They need not vote for a party whose policies they don’t agree with simply because they don’t like the individual the party has nominated in their area. I bet plenty of UNP supporters stayed at home or even backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election rather than cast their vote for Sarath Fonseka. That is what happens when choices are limited.

Electoral reform as a means of reducing corruption is even more of a stretch of the imagination. Are politicians compelled to steal in order to pay for election posters? Or is it rather that they pay for election posters in order to be in a position to continue stealing?

Meanwhile, violence may or may not be reduced. Intra-party violence should be wiped out with the abolition of preference votes. But this is not the only sort of violence. Inter-party violence is already a problem, as we saw last month in the Eastern Province – one of the most serious incidents reported was a knife attack on SLMC candidate Azath Salley by supporters of Ameer Ali of the UPFA. That had nothing to do with preference votes. With competition from within the ranks of their own party eliminated, politicians could focus all of their attention on their opponents.

The only real solution is the empowerment of the Police.

Parties themselves can have an impact. They don’t have to tolerate intra-party violence, as the JVP has demonstrated. They don’t have to nominate thugs.

These days, much more of a problem than violence is the abuse of state resources.

Parties must commit themselves to a no-tolerance policy on all electoral abuses. They would be substantially reduced almost immediately, without the need for any change in the voting system. But the Government isn’t interested, since it knows that without electoral abuses its performance would suffer.

The only completely logical part of the argument is the bit about stability, but this is a reason to oppose the reforms not to support them. Under First Past the Post, a party can win representation far in excess of its vote share. It tends to guarantee one party a majority, reducing the need for potentially destabilising coalition building. But surely nobody in Sri Lanka believes that the country is currently short of stability, electorally speaking? Mahinda Rajapaksa isn’t under any pressure from the members of his coalition – on the contrary, he could easily do without them. Does he need a guarantee? Even under Proportional Representation he has managed to secure enough seats in Parliament to change the Constitution, which was supposed to be impossible.

First Past the Post is even more problematic than Proportional Representation.

What kind of a compromise is that?

The new legislation ignores genuinely popular and important electoral reforms, such as a compulsory quota for women candidates. Women make up only 2% of elected representatives at the local level. And according to a 2010 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the vast majority of people from all communities, including over 90% of Sinhalese, support quotas. They were even promised in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s now forgotten Chintana.

If the voting system is to be changed, the introduction of a compulsory quota for women candidates should be the top priority.

I hope that there would be at least some debate on the matter before the Government gets around to extending the new system to the provincial and national levels, as it announced following the passage of the amendment to the Local Government Elections Act last week. The implications are bad enough at the local level. But at the provincial and national levels, the reforms have even greater potential for causing trouble. Minority parties, and in particular the JVP whose supporters are spread relatively thinly across the country, will be badly affected. Of course, this is hardly a coincidence, since it is the JVP’s seats Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to take over, in case the UNP gets rid of Ranil Wickremasinghe and starts to challenge him. Changing the voting system is just another way of shoring up his position.

Given that Mahinda Rajapaksa already holds the over-powerful Executive Presidency, shoring up his position is not something we should encourage.

That the task of defining constituencies in the new system is entrusted to the responsible minister with little in the way of oversight is even more reason to be suspicious of the move.

But such a debate is unlikely to be initiated by the Opposition.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has already indicated his support for the new system. Naturally, since the amendment will result in an increase in the power of party leaders. And when it comes to power, he is as obsessed as Mahinda Rajapaksa – only less successful.

Party leaders don’t like Proportional Representation because it gives some of their power to voters. They make their nominations, but it is voters who choose which of the candidates get elected. With First Past the Post, party leaders can give the areas where the party has a strong base to their favourites and consign their bêtes noires to areas where they have absolutely no hope of winning.

It is obvious why that is appealing to Ranil Wickremasinghe.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 17th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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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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Apologising for saffron terror

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2012

On the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities

Rauff Hakeem is a generous man. A week or so ago, he issued what he referred to as an ‘unreserved apology’ to all Buddhists in Sri Lanka for a remark he made on the campaign trail that some people had interpreted as an insult to the Sangha.

Indeed, he didn’t just say sorry. The SLMC leader also praised the pluralism practised by Sinhalese Buddhists from as long ago as the time of King Senarath, who gave Muslims land in the Eastern Province when they were being persecuted by the Portuguese, and acknowledged the patronage and benevolence Muslims had always enjoyed under Sinhalese rule.

The media didn’t stint on its coverage of his statement, and the frenzied criticism that both preceded and followed it was also given plenty of attention – Faizer Mustapha, his colleague in the UPFA administration, accused Rauff Hakeem of trying to provoke race riots for political gain.

Race riots? He wants a repeat of 1915? Believe that and you’ll believe anything.

The funny thing is that there was no such widespread reporting of what the SLMC leader actually said in the first place.

The whole episode had very little to do with any offence caused and nothing at all to do with any potential danger to the country – very few people would have come to hear of Rauff Hakeem’s comment if not for the ruckus created by his critics. Instead, it had everything to do with the September 8th provincial council elections, in which the SLMC has decided to go it alone in the Eastern Province. Since Muslims are now a majority in the East, the SLMC is expected to do well, and no doubt it didn’t want to risk the fate of MLAM Hizbullah, who brought his faction to contest with the UPFA in 2008 on the understanding that the community with the most votes would be offered the chief ministerial position, only to see it handed to the TMVP – Tamils won only six seats compared to eight for Muslims.

It is actually Faizer Mustapha who should be apologising to Muslims for attempting to take political advantage by raising the awful prospect of race riots.

What made all this possible was the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’, which Rauff Hakeem urged must be tackled as was the LTTE.

It is not a very helpful phrase, certainly. Muslims don’t like it when people call Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, on the basis that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism – just because terrorists claim to be acting in the interests of a particular faith doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously. Predominantly Islamic countries never use the word Islamic in connection with Al Qaeda, in the same way as Anders Behring Breivik isn’t called a Christian terrorist in countries where the dominant religion is Christianity (he sometimes isn’t even referred to as a terrorist!) – indeed, this label is rarely applied elsewhere either, so dominant is the West in the formation of the global narrative.

Also, ‘saffron terror’ is the phrase in common use by Indians including the Congress and its now former Home Minister P Chidambaram to describe terrorism by rightwing extremist groups adhering to Hindu nationalist ideology.

This is obviously not comparable with anything that is happening in Sri Lanka.

Rightwing extremist groups in India have been linked to a series of blasts in the last half decade that together have killed hundreds of people. When a bomb explodes, as happened in Pune on August 1st, the first reaction of the Police is now to acknowledge that it is as likely to be the work of Hindu extremists as it is of Muslim extremists.

Even generally speaking, the relationship between communities in the two countries cannot be compared. Race riots are a current reality in India – since July 20th, violence in the Northeastern state of Assam between Muslims and indigenous tribes has claimed more than 75 lives and resulted in 300,000 people fleeing their homes, while there has also been a mass exodus of Northeastern migrants from Southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai due to fears of a backlash.

Sri Lanka is much better off.

However, this is not guaranteed to remain the case. Given the history, which includes several events like those of 1915, and the fact that the country is just emerging from a generation long war fought by a group claiming to represent one particular community in the face of discrimination and oppression by a chauvinist state, it might be wise to err on the side of caution.

More important than how Rauff Hakeem expressed himself is the point he was trying to make. The phrase ‘saffron terror’ as employed by him was meant to refer to the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities.

The Dambulla incident in April this year made the headlines around the world thanks to the availability of rather compelling visuals of monks leading a mob in storming and vandalising a mosque they claimed was built illegally within the declared sacred area of the Golden Temple. Anybody who still hasn’t watched the footage should immediately search for it on the internet (‘Bigoted monks and militant mobs: is this Buddhism in Sri Lanka today?’, Groundviews, April 23rd), since it is bound to change your perspective on the seriousness of the problem. The sight of a monk disrobing and jumping up and down exposing himself outside the mosque while other monks break down the door cannot be forgotten, nor can the explanation given by the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero that the act of destroying the mosque is actually a shramadanaya in which all Buddhists should participate.

Three issues merit repetition. First, the monks used their status to achieve their objectives – the Police were present in numbers, but they did not prevent the monks from breaking the law, although they did restrain lay people.

Secondly, their concerns could have been resolved with very little difficulty if they had chosen a different path. The mosque is not like Ayodhya or the Temple Mount. It grew up to serve the Muslims of the area, but there is no desperate attachment to that particular location – it is not the Prophet’s birth or deathplace. Also, the structure itself is more or less makeshift. Putting up a new one in another place wouldn’t have been an unthinkable task before the mob attack inflamed passions. The Government could have negotiated for suitable land outside the declared sacred area.

Thirdly and most importantly, Muslim leaders responded very sensibly, moving to reduce rather than increase tensions, ensuring that protests were non-violent.

It is a shame that the Government has not apologised to Muslims for its failure to protect their religious freedom on that occasion. In particular, if saying sorry for statements that some people find upsetting is in order, Prime Minister DM Jayaratne should have done so for responding to the mob attack with an announcement that as Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs he was ordering the immediate removal of the mosque – this was hardly the responsible course of action, if there was even the smallest chance of race riots.

Meanwhile, the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero is clearly not going to issue an ‘unreserved apology’, since he apparently believes that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of getting what you want (‘A monk on the rampage’, interview by Niranjala Ariyawansha of the Sunday Leader, May 6th).

The Dambulla incident happened months ago, and it may be argued that the damage done by the Buddhist priests was minimal – the mosque is back in operation and the people of the area have resumed their normal practice of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Indeed, it is true. Sri Lanka must certainly not be castigated as an intolerant society, since to do so would be to ignore the common behaviour of the vast majority of its people and even the general attitude of its leaders. However, there would have been no damage at all if not for the Buddhist priests – they guided their followers in what was very definitely the wrong direction.

Also, Buddhist priests continue to be involved in such incidents, while nothing is being done about what looks like becoming a trend in the post-war environment.

In the last fortnight alone, reports indicate that a mob led by a Buddhist priest took away a statue of a god from a Hindu kovil in Panama, Eastern Province, while in Deniyaya, Southern Province, another mob including Buddhist priests beat and threatened to kill a Christian pastor and his wife whom they accused of spreading Christianity in the area.

These are much worse insults to the Sangha than anything that was or ever could be said by Rauff Hakeem.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 22nd August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The trouble with Tamil Nadu

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 8, 2012

What to make of the upcoming conference of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation

The 65 million Tamils across the Palk Strait have played a huge role in the Sri Lankan conflict. They make Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority a minority both globally and in the immediate region, and they have become extremely hostile to the Government, which many of them regard as Sinhalese rather than Sri Lankan. They are commonly perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Indeed, there is no doubt that at least some of them have actively supported Sri Lankan militants – Tamil Nadu was once a safe haven for the LTTE, among others. Although many things changed over the course of the war, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, there was always a hardcore calling vociferously for Eelam. Three years after the last bomb exploded, the majority of Indian Tamil politicians continue to talk as though they are on the verge of launching an all-out assault on Colombo.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the resurrection of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, whose first conference in many years is to be held in Chennai this weekend, has been greeted with considerable concern in Sri Lanka.

However, simply being worried won’t do.

Karunanidhi’s initiative is motivated – as always – not by any great commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils but by a desire to boost his own position in Tamil Nadu. The DMK and AIADMK have alternated in power in the state since the 1980s, and it is currently Jayalalithaa’s turn in the Chief Minister’s seat. The DMK suffered a particularly crushing defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections, coming third behind Vijayakanth’s DMDK, and it will have to wait four more years for a chance to redeem itself. Meanwhile, its people are being pursued both in the state and by the central government for corruption – Karunanidhi’s daughter is one of several DMK politicians now being prosecuted for their roles in India’s biggest ever scam. His chances in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections look pretty bleak.

Reminding people of the ‘glory’ days of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, when he mobilised the masses to force Rajiv Gandhi to reverse the expulsion of Anton Balasingham following the collapse of the Thimpu talks, may help.

What is interesting about recent developments is not Karunanidhi’s motives but the issues on which he has chosen to focus.

First, he has announced that there will be no discussion or resolution on the establishment of a separate state. Either he genuinely believes that the situation in Sri Lanka is no longer that bad or the central government has been able to persuade him to drop or deprioritise the demand.

This is good news. Eelam is no solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka – it would cost a lot of blood to achieve and even more to sustain, and there has been more than enough bloodshed already.

Making Sinhalese believe that Tamil Nadu or anybody else is ready to intervene to make it happen is also not helpful. Yes, Sri Lanka needs to change and maybe it will not do so by itself. But it is even more likely that any change will be for the worse if people perceive such a threat. When India sent its troops to enforce an agreement a generation ago, the reaction was overwhelming. It would be still more so today, in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE. Karunanidhi is doing Sri Lankans of all ethnicities a favour by ruling out talk of a separate state at the conference – he should go further and rule it out altogether.

It is only natural that the demand for Eelam is losing strength in Tamil Nadu. Indian Tamils were never ready to do very much in support of the LTTE, but what they would do was inspired by the ‘romantic’ notion of freedom fighters roaming around the jungles of Sri Lanka in a ‘heroic’ battle against the odds to overthrow the oppressive state. They won’t summon up the same enthusiasm for the TNA, who are after all mere politicians.

If the Government were smart, it would capitalise on this decline in support for a separate state by doing a few simple things to demonstrate that it is willing to accommodate Tamils. For example, it could give up its farcical explanation of why elections to the Northern Provincial Council need to be delayed for another year to update voter lists when local, parliamentary and presidential elections have all been held since the end of the war. It could also forget its other delaying tactic in the form of a Parliamentary Select Committee and get back to negotiations with the TNA on a political solution.

A particularly smart move would be to do a deal with India on the 100,000 refugees living in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi is calling for them to be offered citizenship in India, which is only fair considering the length of time many of them have spent in the country – sometimes their whole lives – but the Government should work out a package that makes it genuinely attractive for them to come back to Sri Lanka instead, thereby making it clear to the world that Tamils are not just accepted but actually wanted.

Karunanidhi made this suggestion while noting that it would help to put a stop to human smuggling, which is rife in the camps. This shows that what really interests Tamil Nadu, and what will interest Indian Tamil politicians increasingly in the months and years to come, are problems that affect their own people.

The most urgent concerns India’s fishermen.

Karunanidhi says – as he puts it – the Sri Lankan Navy’s indiscriminate attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen will also be considered at the conference. This was a major issue in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, with extensive media coverage both locally and at the national level.

The problem is understood in totally different ways on either side of the Palk Strait. In Sri Lanka, it is believed that Indian fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters illegally because they have exhausted fish stocks on their side of the international boundary due to prolonged use of inappropriate technology, and they are periodically arrested by the Navy, after which they spend a few days in jail before being sent back home, as reportedly happened with 23 Indian Tamil fishermen only last week. Indians, on the other hand, think that fishermen of both countries come and go as they please – a fishing community leader was quoted in the Times of India a couple of days ago saying that Sri Lankans need the tuna in Indian waters as much as Indians need the prawns in Sri Lankan waters – and that the real cause for concern is the Navy, who beat them up and shoot at them, seize their catches and sink their boats.

Undoubtedly there are elements of truth in both versions. Indian journalists have interviewed numerous fishermen from Tamil Nadu who claim to have been attacked by the Navy – a 2011 article in Tehelka claimed that as many as 72 had been killed in the previous six months, with one witness describing how his brother was thrown overboard with a rope around his neck and dragged in circles until he drowned. These fishermen almost always admit that they were on the wrong side of the international boundary, and many are critical of their state government for encouraging unsustainable growth in the number of trawlers operating out of Tamil Nadu, but that is hardly the point.

Recent months have seen some efforts by the two countries to address this issue. However, there is clearly still a long way to go.

Perceptions matter. Consider the 23 Indian Tamil fishermen repatriated last week. They were arrested by the Navy on July 21st, and by July 22nd the entire fishing community of Rameswaram was on strike demanding their release. Due to the incident at the Mannar courthouse, this took longer than anticipated – precisely six days – and they were on their way back to India by July 28th, apparently without having incurred any penalty. Pressure was put on the Government and it delivered. However, it is not in a position to secure the same treatment for Sri Lankan fishermen. Only days after this incident, the Fisheries Ministry announced that it had paid Rs. 925,000 to secure the release of 11 Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian custody since May 15th – they were due to return to Sri Lanka on August 6th, having spent almost three months in prison somewhere in Andra Pradesh. They were accused of the same crime of crossing the international boundary. The difference is that there were no protests.

The Government must obviously ensure that the Navy behaves itself and that accusations of wrongdoing are responded to with the seriousness that they deserve. Doing so is not just the proper course of action – it will also make the Government’s life easier, as it will reduce pressure from the likes of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation. Karunanidhi may not be very inclined to rebuild the relationship with Sri Lanka, but he has demonstrated that he is willing to be pushed in that direction. To do more, he needs the support of the Government.

Jayalalithaa is not so different.

Meanwhile, it might be wise to avoid sending any more ministers or members of the Security Forces to Tamil Nadu, since in the current climate this is only likely to result in embarrassing retreats, and these incidents only make things worse for everybody.

Tamil Nadu need not be a deadly foe for Sri Lanka. The two states have much in common. Indeed, being just a few kilometres away, Tamil Nadu had better be a friend or at the very least a state the Government can work with. Anything else is dangerous. With the power of regional parties growing in India, the attitudes of Indian Tamil politicians can only become more important as time passes – it would clearly be better for Sri Lankans if they were favourable. This is not just a matter of convenience, to make it easier for Sri Lankans to go on pilgrimmages, although that too would be nice. Sri Lanka’s relationship with its 1.2 billion strong neighbour will be a major determinant of its future, which we all hope will be both peaceful and prosperous.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 8th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Mumbo Jumbo

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 25, 2012

Why the UNP needs a new leader

Everybody knows about the crisis in the UNP. Of the many elections there have been in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, it has lost all but one. This includes four presidential elections and four out of five parliamentary elections. And it will have the opportunity to lose a few more in September, as the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces go to the polls.

In the last general election, it could secure only 29% of the popular vote, worse than either of the two major parties have fared in a very long time.

The main reason for its failure was identified last year in a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that less than 20% of Sinhalese support the UNP. And although the party does rather better than the SLFP with minorities, it has to compete with ITAK, which is backed by more than 50% of Tamils, the CWC with about 30% of Up Country Tamils and the SLMC and NUA, which together have the backing of some 35% of Muslims. Meanwhile, the SLFP is the preferred party of nearly 75% of Sinhalese – Sinhalese being nearly 75% of the population, this alone gives it a good shot at 55% of the popular vote.

To have any hope of ending its losing streak, the UNP needs to rebuild its base among Sinhalese.

Some analysts argue that the SLFP’s popularity is due to the war victory, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the number or scale of its electoral successes, which have given Mahinda Rajapaksa amongst other things a two thirds majority in Parliament – a feat that was supposedly impossible with proportional representation. That a more balanced distribution of power would be good for the country is widely accepted. They suggest that things will get back to ‘normal’ in a while, even if no action is taken. In other words, there is no cause for concern. However, such confidence in the automatic revival of the Opposition is misplaced. Voters are more discerning than they think. Having ended a war is no guarantee of support, as Winston Churchill found out within months of Hitler’s death – the British public acknowledged his brilliant wartime leadership and were grateful, but many of them preferred to have somebody else in charge of the recovery. Sri Lankans would have done the same if the UNP had presented them with an attractive alternative.

The fact that in the most recent local election – more than two and a half years after the end of the war – the UNP lost strongholds like Kandy that it had held for over five decades demonstrates that there is every reason to worry.

The problem, which I find it hard to believe anybody can fail to see, is Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Ranil really is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s best friend. He is irreversibly associated with two policies that much of the Sri Lankan public – certainly the vast majority of Sinhalese – regard as anathema. Also, Ranil doesn’t seem to have changed his mind about them. These are his enthusiasm for appeasement and his commitment to neo-liberal economics. And Ranil isn’t just keen on these policies. He is a radical adherent. His Regaining Sri Lanka programme envisaged a sharp reduction in the role of the state in pretty much every sector, no matter how cherished. And he wasn’t just willing to do whatever it took to do a deal with the LTTE, he went so far as to ridicule the Government’s military campaign almost until it reached the banks of Nanthikadal.

He has not admitted that he was wrong. Indeed, he often sounds as though he would do it all again if he had the chance.

In addition to being a liability with voters, Ranil is not even able to hang onto the few members his party does manage to get elected. Dozens of his MPs have crossed over to the Government, especially in the last seven years. Of course this is the result of the smart manoeuvring of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the Opposition too has to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with the Government making use of MPs’ interest in ministerial positions to boost its numbers – this is politics. (Of course it would be good to set a constitutional limit to the number of ministers an administration can appoint.) But Ranil should be able to take advantage too. He should be capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction within the SLFP at the dominance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and their plans for his succession.

I can’t think of many other democratic countries in which the same person has been in charge of a major party for as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe. In the UK, Tony Blair took over as party leader just a couple of months before Ranil became leader of the UNP. Even though he won three successive terms for the British Labour Party, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was still compelled to hand over power to a successor after ten years as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party changed its leader four times until it found David Cameron, who finally defeated Labour in 2010. Imagine their fate if they had stuck with John Major! It is standard practice to bring in new faces – and hopefully also new ideas and new energy – from time to time, even when things are going well. Ranil has been party leader for 18 years, almost all of which have been spent out of office, yet still nobody has been able to replace him.

In the circumstances, it is quite ridiculous for the UNP to accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of clinging onto power, when he has only been in charge for seven years. The worst dictatorship in Sri Lanka is to be found in the UNP.

This is exactly the argument made by those who have crossed over.

The struggle to eject Ranil has been going on for most of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in office. And it has occasionally looked pretty serious – recall the awful death of Rienzie Algama, who set himself on fire outside Sirikotha in July 2010.

Ranil’s eventual agreement to initiate an annual secret ballot to select the party’s key office-bearers seemed to offer some hope of change. However, the constituency was only the Working Committee, and Ranil easily won the first round in December 2011 – he beat Karu Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. (Polling all party members would obviously give a much better idea of the mood in the country than asking a group of people who are either directly appointed by Ranil or indirectly depend on him.) That there were many in the party who were desperately unhappy with the result was made clear by the violence that engulfed Sirikotha soon after it was declared.

Now this violence is being used as a pretext to undo even this very small reform, with the Working Committee announcing last week that the party leader will henceforth be chosen for terms of not one but six years. They say this is essential for party unity.

Frankly, why does the party need to be united in defeat?

In any case, party unity is overrated. Plenty of leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even leaders of the UNP in its more dynamic era, have won elections despite vicious infighting – it can even bring out the best in them.

Six year terms will enable Ranil to stay on until 2018. That is until after the next general election.

This must be music to the ears of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His strategy is clear – he intends to make the UNP face one election after another in the next few years, to keep its members obsessed with party unity. They will think twice about agitating against their leader if they are constantly in campaign mode. And they won’t have the spirit to resist Ranil when they are continually reminded of what bad shape the party is in, courtesy their regular election defeats. Because Mahinda Rajapaksa would love nothing better than to compete with Ranil for the presidency again – his unprecedented third term. He wants to ensure that the UNP never recovers from its crisis.

The UNP can’t play somebody else’s game. It must forget about the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, which are not very important in comparison with what is at stake in Colombo, and instead refocus its efforts on choosing the most suitable leader and working out a new and more appealing programme for the next general election.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 25th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 4, 2012

It is not foreign policy but domestic policy that has to change

The cancellation a month ago of another overseas speech by Mahinda Rajapaksa due to protests by the Tamil diaspora has intensified debate on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Does it need to change? Or is it just being poorly implemented by the country’s diplomats? The President’s spin doctors tried to present his UK visit as ‘extremely successful’ and ‘a substantial advance in bilateral relations’, but not even Lalith Weeratunga can really believe that – shaking hands with the Queen is only significant for people who have blown up her cousin, and David Cameron was so impressed by his meeting with the President that his office immediately felt the need to clarify that it was no more than a short discussion on the way to lunch, of which the main content was the usual reminder of the need to investigate war crimes allegations.

Now even the Government appears to think that something is amiss. It is reportedly organising a workshop for its heads of mission this coming weekend, to educate them on the direction it wishes to take henceforth.

The moment of realisation should have come with the lost vote at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which resulted in a critical statement being issued calling on the Government to do better in its efforts at reconciliation and even accept the help of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Navi Pillay, sometimes very undiplomatically referred to by ministers as a Tiger sympathiser. Given that the Government won in Geneva in 2009, not just fighting off censure but actually getting members to praise its military campaign, when memories of the bloody end to the war were still fresh, the 2012 defeat was pretty spectacular. The ‘score’ went from 29:12 in favour of the Government to 15:24 against.

This was followed by the very public dumping of the unfortunate Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, and the more or less simultaneous attempt by the Foreign Ministry to (once again!) get rid of Dayan Jayatilleka.

However, this time the Geneva vote had nothing to do with the capacities of the representative but everything to do with the behaviour of the administration being represented. It was the result of the Government’s apparently tireless efforts to alienate India, a country that had protected it from interference by the West throughout the final stages of the war, at quite some cost to the Congress domestically – while neither Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa nor her predecessor and main rival Karunanidhi are at all serious about their advocacy in support of Sri Lankan Tamils, they make a lot of noise, and Tamil Nadu is full of people with Vellupillai Prabhakaran bumper stickers (really!).

It seemed to me at the time that India might even have encouraged the United States to put up the resolution against Sri Lanka, to create an opportunity to demonstrate its displeasure. Too many of its ministers and officials had been made to look complete idiots. Throughout the final stages of the war, the Government had promised India that it would work out a political solution that went beyond the 13th Amendment. Yet three years on it has still not happened. Worse, it has now become commonplace for the Government to reiterate its commitment to ’13 Plus’ to each and every visitor from India and then deny it as soon as they are on the plane home. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna suffered this fate in January.

It is easy to imagine nuclear-armed India, on its way to getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thinking, ‘How dare they! That insufferable Mahinda Rajapaksa has less people in his whole country than we have in one of our cities! We probably lose more money in one of our scams than his economy even generates!’

Indeed, some weeks before the Geneva vote, I attended a seminar at a Ministry of Defence-funded think tank in Delhi at which participants said more or less exactly that, albeit rather more diplomatically. They were trying to understand how the Government had ‘managed’ India so effectively, and what India should do about it.

Amusingly or bemusingly, top of the list of explanations was ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning’. I must admit that I had expected a more practical evaluation. Still, the proposals for action were eminently practical, ranging from pulling out of reconstruction work in the North and East and forcibly repatriating all Sri Lankan refugees to pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Canal, demanding the return of Kachchativu Island and easing up on controls on radical elements in Tamil Nadu. Pumping in aid and investment to make Sri Lanka more economically dependent on India was also put forward as a long term strategy. Short term, there was of course a suggestion to withhold support in forums like the UN Human Rights Council.

Geneva 2012 could be just the beginning, in other words.

It would not be possible to revisit the arguments for and against ’13 Plus’ here, nor do I care to. What is more relevant is that ’13 Minus’ – which even the JHU accepts as an interim measure, making it an eminently practical way forward – has not been implemented and does not look like happening any time soon.

Indeed, arguments are now emerging to suggest that elections to the Northern Provincial Council had better be postponed indefinitely, since the West may try to use a TNA-led administration to break up the country (Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘Incremental Secessionism – Why Devolution Mustn’t Be Open-Ended’, Groundviews, June 25th). Suspicion of their intentions is quite natural and sensible – they do indeed employ such divide and rule tactics against states they perceive as ‘targets’, as Sri Lanka seems to be for them at the moment. However, they are not the only players in this game. There are other powers who don’t take kindly to regimes who refuse to fall in line as ‘client states’, and they too have a history of intervention.

At the risk of being called well-intentioned (or worse!), I must say I think there’s been more than enough delay already. As the Opposition said last week, let’s have polls in the North before anywhere else. Let’s also rebuild the relationship with India, I might add, since it is the one country that is definitely committed to a united Sri Lanka.

The alternatives that have been floated in the last few months since the Geneva vote are not very convincing. Some are keen on abandoning both India and the West, now seen as lost causes, and pushing forward in the relationship with China. These people are very happy with decisions to close Western embassies and particularly delighted when the Government unleashes its ministerial attack-dogs like Wimal Weerawansa for a bit of their trademark anti-West grandstanding – effigy burning is so much fun, it would seem. They say Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West, although of course the West has the capacity to totally destroy the economy, dependent as Sri Lanka is on Western markets for its exports – note how systematically the West is currently going about the much more difficult task of bringing down Iran by getting all other countries to stop buying its oil.

Sri Lanka doesn’t need India either, apparently, since it is China’s new best friend. Never mind how many other countries are competing for that title, or how only one of the pair is located a mere 30 kilometres away.

Others want Sri Lanka’s new best friend to be the West, to take advantage of their ever growing interest in Asia. There is much talk of the island’s strategic location, and enthusiasm for anything even vaguely resembling military cooperation – these people are perhaps dreaming of converting Sri Lanka into another Diego Garcia, in case Diego Garcia proves too small for the West’s ambitions.

Fortunately, the Government isn’t quite that stupid. Depending on any one power is a strategy that has been proven to be short-sighted – balancing several is vital.

The problem isn’t actually Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its implementation, although there are certainly many deficiencies in the details – why was Mahinda Rajapaksa even at the UK Jubilee celebrations? It is more of a challenge than that. Diplomacy can do many things, but it cannot change the facts on the ground. Indeed, diplomacy has to be based on them. David Cameron and other leaders may bow to pressure from the Tamil diaspora from time to time, but they will not be able to mobilise the world against Sri Lanka so long as it is clear that the Government is more in the right than in the wrong. This is what the President achieved during the war, and what he must do again if he wants to ensure that his difficulties don’t go beyond the occasional cancelled speech.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 4th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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