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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And the beatings go on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2013

On the upcoming election in the Northern Province and the violence associated with it

Fire at Uthayan officeThe Government is getting really good at denying responsibility for attacks on the media. Within hours of the incident at the Uthayan office in Jaffna on Saturday, its spokesman had issued a several hundred word statement claiming that it was an ‘inside job’. How’s that for efficiency? If only it put a fraction of that energy into finding proof of its imaginative theories, we might actually be convinced.

Unfortunately, it has not been able to identify the culprits in even one previous case, although there have been many.

That is what I would describe as an ‘interesting phenomenon’.

The statement claims to have spotted a rather different ‘interesting phenomenon’. It says that Uthayan is the only newspaper to have faced harassment in the ‘recent past’, which it suggests is odd because Uthayan is owned by a TNA parliamentarian who is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’.

The first point to note is that unless one adopts a very narrow definition of the phrase ‘recent past’, this is simply not true. Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader was shot less than two months ago. Less than six months before that, the editor of the same newspaper, Frederica Jansz, left the country claiming that she was under threat, having had a run-in with the Defence Secretary. And before that, it was the turn of Lanka-e-News. Its office in Colombo was attacked by arsonists, and its news editor Bennet Rupasinghe and a journalist Shantha Wijesuriya were both jailed for a time. Its editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, also fled the country. Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance took place just three years ago. That all seems like ‘recent past’ to me.

But let’s concentrate on the last few weeks.

In that period, Uthayan has indeed suffered disproportionately – it has been attacked twice. On April 3rd, an armed gang trashed vehicles and computer equipment at its distribution centre in Kilinochchi, in the process injuring four members of staff. Then came the attack of April 13th at its Jaffna headquarters. This time the security guards fled and the armed gang set fire to the printing press and a stack of newspapers awaiting delivery.

That is certainly curious.

Even more peculiar is that it is not only the newspaper owned by a TNA parliamentarian that has suffered. The TNA itself has also come under attack. On March 30th, a mob of about 50 people threw stones at a public meeting organised by TNA MPs in Kilinochchi. Several participants were injured. However, they managed to capture one of the assailants and hand him over to the police, who were supposedly providing security for what was a pre-approved event. He was identified as a member of the CID. Photographs and even a video of the attack was made available to the authorities, but the man was released. No arrests have been made to date.

This was clearly no ‘inside job’.

In other words, while the TNA is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’, somebody has been attacking the TNA. That is the second point to note.

Point number three concerns another ‘interesting phenomenon’. Until the last few weeks, Uthayan had not come under attack since the first half of 2011. On March 16th of that year, a police constable entered its premises and threatened the staff, saying that he would set fire to the building. On April 7th, the Jaffna Mayor declared that the newspaper would not be allowed within the confines of the municipal council and issued instructions not to give any advertisements or news to Uthayan. On April 29th, a reporter was beaten up on assignment at Jaffna University. On May 28th, another reporter was attacked on his way to work near the Jaffna Hindu College playgrounds. On June 16th, a photographer was attacked at a TNA meeting. On July 5th, the TNA parliamentarian owner of Uthayan received a death threat over the phone. On July 29th, the news editor was seriously injured in an assault on his way home near the Navalar Road Army camp. However, from then until the end of 2012, Uthayan was challenged only in court, according to a list that the newspaper has circulated.

And the last elections in the Northern Province were in July 2011.

Given that there is supposed to be a poll in September this year, the attacks on Uthayan would seem to be part of a very established pattern of election violence.

If the Government expects us to believe that it is not responsible, it has only to arrest the culprits and ensure that no further incidents take place. With thousands of soldiers roaming around the Northern Province, this really shouldn’t be too difficult.

The credibility of the election depends on it.

Of course, for that to be a problem for the Government, the poll must actually happen.

In the last few weeks, key personalities have been suggesting that it would be better not to have a provincial council in the Northern Province. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that a hostile administration could be ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’, and a whole lot of his hangers-on have been agreeing, in quite exhausting detail.

Bizarrely, their argument rests on the assumption that power should only be devolved to one’s supporters.

This may be a reasonable way to run an army, but we are of course talking about a democratic country. Democracy means that elections must be held even when the Government isn’t going to win!

Really ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’ would be for the Government to cancel the September poll on the basis that the people of the Northern Province want the TNA to form an administration.

To do so would be to justify continued support for Eelam.

What is needed is the exact opposite. The Government must focus its attention on undermining separatism, which means that it must work to show that Tamils can live in Sri Lanka. Fear of a TNA administration is understandable, since the TNA has not done enough to distance itself from the struggle for Eelam. However, even if the TNA wanted a separate state, it could not achieve it alone. It would need the very serious backing of the international community, including India, and while distrust of those countries is natural given their records, we should not forget that they all helped to defeat the LTTE. They know that a return to violence would be devastating, so convincing them that it is not necessary should be pretty easy.

Eelam will be a distant memory if the 13th Amendment is made to work, and letting the TNA run the provincial council would be a very good first step.

Unfortunately, the Government may be more interested in consolidating its own power. Indeed, it might actually be quite happy to see the pro-Eelam struggle reignite, in much the same way as it has directly or indirectly encouraged the anti-Muslim campaign. Neither is good for the country, but they may both help the Government to project itself as a necessary evil – the only administration capable of responding to such threats.

If that is the case, the media had better brace itself for much worse times to come.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 17th April 2013. The internet version may 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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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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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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