De-merger, district devolution and dislodging the lodgers

By Rajan Philips

It is difficult to think of a worse state action than the senseless and insensitive eviction of 376 subaltern Tamils from their wretched lodges in Colombo. But it should not be difficult to see that the eviction episode has exposed the utter inability of the present government to do anything right. Everything that was started after the 2005 election has misfired, a steady progression from one blunder to another, leaving the Rajpakse presidency – for all intents and purposes, moral as well as material – a lame duck regime.

Mahinda Rajapakse may well serve out a full first term and may go on to win another if, but based on what has transpired so far it is impossible to expect anything worthwhile being done for the country by this administration. The question is how much harm to the country would have been done by the time the sun sets on this regime.

The eviction operation was neither a police blunder without higher authorization nor an isolated misadventure. While the Prime Minister has apologised on behalf of the government, the Chief Government Whip has cracked the whip at his PM for sending a demoralizing message to the security forces. This, according to S.B. Dissanayake, the former SLFP Minister now ministering the UNP, is a clear instance of the government talking through both sides of the mouth on the orders of the President.

The fiasco was foursquare within the military and political obstinacy of the present government to weaken the LTTE and deal with the political solution later on its own terms. The eviction was a logical extension of the cordon and search operations that were set in motion in Colombo soon after the 2005 election, by a retired Police DIG who had joined the politically unenlightened JHU. The ex-DIG thought he had found the foolproof method to eradicate Colombo of LTTE agents. Incidentally, the JHU is the only political party in Colombo that has not protested against the eviction.

Even the nearly 500 kidnappings including some killings reported in Colombo have been defended by some commentators as a necessary evil to deter the LTTE from attacking Colombo. The evidence of any such deterrence on the LTTE is hard to see, but the end result of the searches, kidnappings and eviction of Tamils is to further alienate them from the State and force them on to the LTTE. Most Tamils are not enthusiastic supporters of the LTTE, but the government is making sure that more Tamils will gravitate, however grudgingly, to the camp of the LTTE.

Overseas observers cannot comprehend why a land full of nice people with a happy disposition to life and immense potential should be held hostage to a meaningless war waged by the incorrigible LTTE and an un-reformative State. A few days before the Colombo evictions, the London Economist carried an unusually long piece on Sri Lanka and its war “as strange as fiction”, lampooning the four Rajapakse brothers and their manners of minding the state’s business. The international fallout after the eviction has been more ridicule and condemnation of the government.

In the eye of the storm

Some credit is due to the Supreme Court for halting the eviction at once. Without it the country’s image would have been damaged irreparably. Much greater credit belongs to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and the Centre for Policy Alternatives for their principled courage in bringing the matter before the Court, even though the Centre has not always been a welcome intervener at Hulftsdorf.

The Supreme Court has been at the eye of the ethnic storm for some time now. In the dark days of July 1983, the undemocratic Sixth Amendment banning even the idea of separation was granted swift passage by the Court unchallenged and unopposed. Five years later, the affirmative Thirteenth Amendment intended to keep the country together was given a rough ride at both the bar and the bench and narrowly escaped the need for a referendum.

Last year, the echoes from that debate reverberated in the Court when it ruled that there was no legislative basis to the Executive action merging the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Rather than legalizing the merger through an Act of Parliament – for which there was sufficient support, the present government demerged the two Provinces by Executive action.

Just last month, the SLFP – the principal party of the government, reversed thirteen years of progressive thinking and reverted back to its old stand on the Thirteenth Amendment, proposing that the District and not the Province be the unit of devolution. So from demerger and district devolution it was not a difficult step for the government to dislodge 376 Tamils out of their Colombo lodges.

Rajapakse’s military and political approach is based on the twin strategy of war and development: fighting terrorism without relenting while pushing ahead with economic development. This is a rejection of the Wickremasinghe model of peace and development, the so called peace dividend: diverting resources to economic activities by taking advantage of the ceasefire. There is a third strategy involved in this government’s approach, and that is a position of stinginess in regard to the political solution.

The government could conceivably defend a tough military line against the LTTE if the approach is otherwise fair, inclusive and, most important, accompanied by a generous political solution to the Tamil question. Patently, the current military approach is neither fair nor inclusive for the army is entirely Sinhalese, it has been so exclusively since the days of N.Q. Dias in the 1960s, and there is no humanitarian consideration for the effects of the war on civilians.

The responsibility for humanitarian consideration has been abdicated to international agencies without any appreciation whatsoever of their role in preventing what would otherwise be a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Sudan’s Darfur. And loose-lipped government spokesmen attack these agencies claiming that they have been brainwashed by the Tigers.

The real purpose of military action

What is worse, the real purpose of the military approach is to get the LTTE out of the way and force an ungenerous political solution. The political agenda of demerging, district devolution and sticking to the unitary constitution is also the purpose of the military approach. The SLFP’s revisionist position on devolution has rolled back years of consensus building and old arguments are crawling like termites out of the political woodwork.

A renowned Sinhalese legal luminary with not so luminous political insights has recently reproduced his old arguments against devolution at the provincial level. He and others have even questioned whether there indeed are specifically Tamil grievances, and argued that the grievances of all Sri Lankans could and should be addressed under the existing state structure rather than territorially privileging ‘perceived’ Tamil grievances only. By way of rejoinder, a former Tamil parliamentarian, of more recent and less illustrious vintage, has weighed in providing a long chronicle of Tamil grievances. Why scratch on old wounds?

The country has been through this before, dragged through the communal muck for over seventy five years of universal franchise. If Sri Lanka is to emerge from the hellhole that it is now in – admitted, the Northeast is more hellish than the rest – the State of Sri Lanka has to emerge as the State of all Sri Lankans. It is now primarily the State of some Sri Lankans, none of whom are Tamils. And the Government of Sri Lanka must begin to represent the interests of all communities and not just the majority community. There is no use berating the LTTE for claiming to be the sole representatives of the Tamils when there are no representatives of the Tamils in the Government and other branches of the State, particularly the Police and the Armed Forces.

The constitutional changes recommended by the Majority Report of the Experts Panel and based on the Province as unit of devolution offers a way for the Sri Lankan State to liberate itself from being a State of the majority community to being the State of all communities. But by driving in the wedge of SLFP proposals into the APRC, President Rajapakse has effectively orphaned the Majority Report. And the detractors of the Majority Report are like crows pecking at the orphan to ensure its death.

Their new argument is that LTTE terrorism is the be all and end all of the Tamil ethnic problem, and once the LTTE is rid of there would be no ethnic problem and hence no need for devolution. Additionally, it has been suggested that until the LTTE outlines its own proposal for a final solution, there is no point in the government making commitments or undertaking political initiatives on its own.

A wiser approach would be for the government to commit itself to a generous system of devolution and then canvass support among the Tamils and in the international community to exert pressure on the LTTE, first to negotiate and reach agreement on the system of devolution and then to work out the modalities of implementing it along with a time table for demilitarization, following the example of Northern Ireland. But wisdom is not among the attributes of this government and going by its record last week, last month and last year, it is unlikely to be one in the future.

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