Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council elections: reconciliation and reputation

The Northern Provincial Council elections slated for September 2013 hold critical relevance for a transition from post-war Sri Lanka to a post-conflict Sri Lanka. This is an important opportunity for the majoritarian Sinhala state to regain international credibility.

Shweta Singh
21 August 2013

The Northern Provincial Council elections to be held in September 2013 have assumed critical relevance for post-war Sri Lanka. As President Rajapaksa stated: “There were presidential and parliamentary elections but this is the first free election in 30 years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote". The Northern Provincial Council elections provide hope for a transition from post-war Sri Lanka to a post-conflict Sri Lanka, as free and fair electoral processes at provincial levels increasingly play a significant role in ushering in a process of democratic devolution, power sharing, minority rights and reconciliation.

However, both democracy and freedom have had varied meanings for the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil populations in Sri Lanka.  Yet, with the declaration of the provincial elections there are renewed hopes for democratic devolution. The elections come close behind the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to be held in November in Sri Lanka and will be closely watched at the local, regional and international level.  

The India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, which later became the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, created the council systems to devolve power at the level of provinces. All the provinces except the Northern Province had elected councils.  In 1988 President Jayewardene issued proclamations which enabled the Northern and Eastern provinces to be one administrative unit administered by one elected Council. The North-East Province was born. However, police and land powers were never devolved. The Eastern Province struggled without adequate financial powers. And then, with the Supreme Court ruling in 2007, there was a de-merger of the North and East.  It is after nearly three decades that Sri Lanka will now have elections for the Northern Provincial Council.

The Northern Province of Sri Lanka has a peculiar place in Sri Lanka’s history and politics. It has been geographically the area where the minority Tamils are concentrated. The conflict in Sri Lanka has roots in a discourse of competing Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms around traditional Sinhala and Tamil homelands which have been sustained through historical memories, writings and instrumentalist politics.  The minority Tamils argue that the North of Sri Lanka constitutes their traditional homeland.  The majority Sinhala group emphasize that the island nation is a sacred place for (Theravada) Buddhism and that the Sinhalese are the chosen people entrusted with the task of preserving the island that will sustain Buddhism in its pristine form.

In this sense, the majoritarian state has been skeptical of any sort of power-sharing arrangement with the minority Tamil community, given the fear of secessionism and the threat to the centralized, unitary and primarily Buddhist state. This has been justified through the discourse of conservative security dilemmas, parochial instrumentalist politics and the nature of the state itself.

The larger question, which still remains under the litmus test, is whether the Northern Provincial Council elections signify a break from this divided past and a move towards accommodation and power sharing with the minority Tamils. At this juncture it can only be stated that it is an optimistic first step in a post-conflict scenario for the island nation. Many hurdles on this path still remain.

The major challenges in the North centre on issues of land rights, rehabilitation, increased militarization, and the long-term process of reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s leading Tamil ethnic party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has picked up Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran to contest for chief minister in the Tamil-majority northern province.  While the speculations of a TNA win are rampant in political circles, the tasks ahead are many. The challenge for any incumbent government would be to address these local issues, within the limited mandate of provincial powers. And here the 13th Amendment, which in original form had devolved police and land powers at the provincial level, becomes significant.

Given the mainstream opposition to the nature of the 13th Amendment, it is unlikely that police and land powers would be granted at the provincial level in the North. In any case, these powers have not been provided to any other province, and the state would be all the more reluctant to do so for the Northern Province. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has been appointed to look at possible constitutional changes particularly on the 13th Amendment to the constitution.  However the credibility of the PSC is at stake, as the only majority Tamil ethnic party TNA has boycotted it. 

Secondly, given the ‘India’ factor in Sri Lanka’s politics, the Northern Provincial Council elections will have ramifications for the domestic contexts of both India and Sri Lanka, and could also consequently impinge on the trajectory of India–Sri Lanka relations. At the domestic level in Sri Lanka, the mainstream extremist Sinhala groups are antagonistic towards the holding of elections for the Provincial Councils in the North, and see it as a ploy of the Indian state to interfere in the internal affairs of the island nation. The JVP party’s Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath states: “The government has now managed to create new problems in the country with the Northern Provincial Council elections that have been called four years after the end of the war”.  This mainstream extremist Sinhala party is against any kind of power sharing arrangements with the minority Tamils.

For India, the Northern Provincial Council elections have a twin track utility. On one hand the Congress government at the Centre, given the Parliamentary elections in 2014, wants to placate the Tamil constituency in India. On the other hand, there is an attempt to push for a genuine process of democratic engagement in the North of Sri Lanka.  India has both in the present and past reiterated the significance of the 13th Amendment. However, given the regional dynamics, India is also aware of the increasing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka and in some ways wants to both pressure and placate the Rajapakse Government. It is a ‘wait and watch’ policy for India, given that it wants to test the motivations of the Rajapaksa Government to begin a process of dialogue, democratic engagement and reconciliation with the minority Tamils. The Northern Provincial Council elections would both procedurally and substantively indicate if at all Sri Lanka is now moving from a post war context to a post conflict context.

In the final analysis, the Northern Provincial Council elections could have ‘reputational costs’ internationally for the Rajapaksa regime.  The international community has constantly reiterated that Sri Lanka is being closely monitored on issues of human rights, reconciliation and the Northern Provincial Council elections. Jean Lambert, chair of the European parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka, expressed concern during a recent visit over the increasing militarization of the North for economic benefits. Given that the NPC elections come close behind the Commonwealth heads of Government meeting, this could well be an opportunity grabbed or an opportunity missed by the majoritarian Sinhala state to regain international credibility and prove to the world at large that it is serious to push the island nation from a state of negative peace to a just peace.

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