The Pulse

Democracy at Last for Sri Lanka’s Northern Province?

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The Pulse

Democracy at Last for Sri Lanka’s Northern Province?

The elections in Sri Lanka’s north suggest that democracy is slowly taking root on the island.

Not long ago the Northern Province of Sri Lanka was out of bounds for the rest of the country. It was entirely controlled by the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group which tolerates neither dissent nor democratic debate.

Four years after the fall of the LTTE, the Tamil-dominated province held its first regional elections this month – a feat that seemed impossible not long ago. The winner in the first democratic elections of the last 25 years is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a Tamil ethnic party that was once a political front of the underground LTTE. Out of 38 seats in the provincial council the party won an overwhelming majority of 30 seats, with the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the party of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, getting only seven seats.

Out of nine provinces in the island nation, the Northern Province is the only Tamil-dominated area not in the hands of the ruling party in Colombo. Around 12 percent of the Tamil population has been a challenge to a predominantly Sinhala-dominated nation. Failure to satisfy the regional and political aspirations of the minority has led to a vicious and violent conflict between the LTTE and the government that ended with a bloody defeat of the insurgent group in 2009 after three decades of war.

These four years are the longest period of peace that the country has witnessed in the last three decades. The election is the byproduct of this relative peace. But much more needs to be done to keep the ghost of the past away. Among the agendas of the campaign for the TNA were the issue of individual freedom in the northern area which is heavily militarized, more political autonomy for Tamils and the end of the displacement of the Tamils from their ancestral homes.

“If post-conflict reconciliation and a return to normalcy include demilitarization, then democratization is as important, especially since rule of the gun was what the province knew for several decades,” Melinda Seneviratne, an activist and editor-in-chief of The Nation, an English weekly, tells The Diplomat. Seneviratne adds that “the Government probably knew the outcome, but went ahead anyway. That is a good sign. It brought the voting population of Tamils back into the democratic process.”

Tamil politicians are also optimistic that the elections will help bring the majority and minority community together and address the issue of deep distrust between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

TNA leader and veteran Tamil parliamentarian Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told The Diplomat he hopes “the elections provide opportunities to act more responsibly in the future and work towards genuine reconciliation. But people don't want to be deceived the way they were in the past.”

Indeed, the past is a constant reference point for both Tamils and Sinhalese.

Sampanthan says, “Tamils want to live in a united and undivided Sri Lanka, but they also want to live with dignity. They want a substantial level of self-rule and hope to achieve that. We want equality and justice.”

This is a major difference between the past and present. The LTTE fought for a separate Tamil nation, but the TNA wants more political rights and autonomy within the framework of the Sri Lankan constitution.

Is the Sri Lankan government willing to give more autonomy to the predominantly Tamil province? The verdict is a clear indication that Tamils want a change in the status quo. Despite the provinces having an elected body the real power rests with the governor, who is appointed by the central government. No decision of the council is implemented unless it has been approved by the center’s representative.

The Hindu  writes that “the real test, though, begins now. The government must respect the TNA’s mandate. It should not resist the power-sharing with the Council that is provided under the 13th Amendment, and must begin to seriously consider progressive devolution on police and land. It would also do well to rethink its project on scrapping or diluting the constitutional provision for devolution.”

Seneviratne expresses doubts whether political stability is linked with devolution or not. However, he feels that despite the elections the TNA will have to “allay fears that Sinhalese may have about aggressive and even belligerent Tamil chauvinism. It will have to shelve it 'aspirations' for now if they want progress on reconciliation or resolution.”

It is this mistrust between the two communities that has to be addressed first before any political progress can be achieved in the Northern Province.

Jehan Perera, director of National Peace Council, Sri Lanka, tells The Diplomat, “Tamils will have to go slow in their demands. First you establish yourself in the new role, utilize the existing power and resources. Later, in collaboration with other provincial chief ministers, raise the voice for extra powers. If the Northern Province unilaterally demands police and land power it will raise hackles in Colombo.”

Perera adds that “The Sri Lankan government and the majority community will also have to show restraint. No attempt should be made to undermine the election or its mandate. This will bring good will. You cannot keep the whole community suppressed. Political initiatives are important.”

The international community and India played a great role in convincing the government in Colombo to hold democratic elections in the volatile North. They cannot lower their guard. Their benign presence will not only help ensure justice for the nation’s minority, it will also create an atmosphere of trust between the communities in the country.

The important thing is that both sides on the island seem to realize the importance of restraint and the need for trust building if they are to achieve a stable and united Sri Lanka.