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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2762

Quo Vadis, Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province?

By Rajmohan Gomez

A few more months will usher in the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. That agreement, akin to a shotgun marriage forced on Sri Lanka by India, and signed by President J.R. Jayewardene in his capacity as the Executive President of Sri Lanka, entailed the hasty amalgamation of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.

The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord is reminiscent of the equally famous, or as some may argue, the equally infamous, agreements of 1957 and 1965, between Premier S.WR.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam of the Federal Party, and Premier Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayakam, respectively. These agreements aimed at resolving the Federal Party’s demands on behalf of the Ceylon Tamils, who comprised approximately 12% of Sri Lanka’s population. Sri Lankans, in general, are keenly aware how the negation of these agreements fuelled the Ceylon Tamil community’s deep mistrust of the Sri Lankan political leadership representing the majority Sinhala community.

Politics appears to be the common culprit that led to dismal deaths of the two agreements. The United National Party (UNP) campaigned against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreement purely on political grounds and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) did dirty on the Dudley-Chelvanayakam agreement almost a decade later, for the same reason.

Whoever was responsible for destabilizing the political arrangements sought by two Sri Lankan administrations in the 50s and 60s, the Tamil community had to hold the baby and cry foul. When analyzing these two events, students of political history fail to realize, that in neither instance, did the administration of the time engage in popular consultation of the people. Had either administration engaged in a process of educating the people on the rationale behind those agreements, and secured their concurrence, the outcome would have been totally different. Power hungry politicians clamoring for a chance to grab power, would have then had little opportunity to mislead the people.

The wisdom of hindsight when analyzing the fate of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and the Provincial Council Act that followed shows that Sri Lanka has not learned from the bitter lessons of the past. It is ironical that India, despite its experience since independence, in managing myriad ethnic divergences, also believed that the Indo-Lanka Accord could be rammed down the throat of an unwilling Sri Lanka. J. R. Jayewardene, the executive president in 1987, who had once made a failed attempt to represent the case against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact by walking all the way to Kandy, thought that this time around he could ride rough shod over the people of Sri Lanka. His attitude probably stemmed from the illusion he harbored that, as executive president, he had ultimate power to do anything at his will, except transforming a man into a woman, or vice versa. Under this fantasy, President Jayewardene thought that he could sign and implement the Indo-Lanka Accord without consulting the people of the country. As history records, it took less than two weeks for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to remind the signatories to the Accord, President Jayewardene and Premier Rajiv Gandhi, that agreements of this nature cannot be forced upon people, or even armed groups such as the LTTE.

In the single-minded effort to execute the Accord, India and Sri Lanka appeared to have overlooked the deep cleavage that existed between the Jaffna Tamils and the Tamils in the east, whether Trincomalee Tamils or Batticaloa Tamils. While the northern Tamils appeared to treat their cousins in the East in a rather disparaging manner, the Tamils in the east looked upon northern Tamils as usurpers of their land and as a group trying to lord over them.

True, the northerners were hardworking and intellectually superior, and valued education as a means of social and economic progress, whereas the easterners were more easy going and laid back. These core differences became apparent when the LTTE repeatedly used the cadres from the east as cannon fodder in their battles against the Sri Lanka Army. When Karuna broke away from the LTTE in April 2004, he accused LTTE leader Prabhakaran, of trying to take advantage of eastern cadres. He also saw no rationale behind sacrificing the lives of eastern Tamils in the relatively peaceful environment of a ceasefire.

It is against this volatile backdrop that the Provincial Council elections were held in the Eastern Province on May 10, 2008, comprising three districts viz. Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. Despite UNP and SLMC accusations of election-related malpractices by the government, foreign observers, who supervised the election, pronounced the election was free and fair, conducted peacefully and in an orderly manner.

The election was significant for several reasons. First, it is noteworthy that it took the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, to decide that the amalgamation of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces was not legal, thereby providing for the demerger of the east from the north. Second, it took two decades for the people of the east to cast their vote to decide what kind of provincial administration they desired in their province. Third, this was the first time an election was held in the entire province without LTTE interference or influence. The fourth and most important point is that the Sri Lankan Tamil community, particularly in the north, and still under the jackboots of the LTTE, will be closely observing the outcome of the election. It is, therefore, important for the government, particularly to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to tread cautiously, and not only to do, but also to be seen as doing the right thing, by the Tamils.

The Indo Lanka Peace Accord aimed at providing for a merged northeast province while the LTTE’s dream was to establish an independent state comprising the two provinces with a majority community of Tamils. With the east is demerged from the north, and a separate election recently held in the east, it is bound to be the cynosure of all eyes. Not only the Tamils, but also the international community who were engaged in Sri Lanka’s peace process, would be closely monitoring the direction President Rajapaksa takes, having wrested the east from the claws of the Tigers.

According to the Census Department, the predominant population in the East is Tamils, with Muslims and Sinhalese taking the second and third places. However, there are also the statistics compiled by M.I.M. Mohideen, President of the East Sri Lanka Moslem Front, that attempt to establish the composition of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese in the east, as 39%, 36% and 25%, respectively. The accurate figures of the ethnic ratios in the east and the north will be known only when the next census takes place in 2011. However, to observe a revival of the east in the current context, the dynamics of the east need to be examined, divorced of ethnicity, in the backdrop of where the Eastern Province was one year ago, with a vision of what the province should be in the future.

When viewed from this vantage point, two groups of people, the Tamils and Muslims, appear as protagonists, their past hostility toward each other stemming from the adversarial attitude of the LTTE toward the Muslims. With the expulsion of the LTTE from the east since July 2007, that irritant has been removed. Furthermore, the Muslim population, from the east or elsewhere, is well represented in the central government. The number of cabinet and non-cabinet ministers of the current administration bears testimony to that assertion. However, when one looks at the Sri Lankan Tamil community as a whole, or the Tamils of the Eastern Province, it is clear that there is hardly any representation of that group in the Central government.

However, one can argue that the election on May 10 was in respect of the Eastern Province, and the administration of that province, particularly the Chief Minister’s post should go to the party that obtained the most number of seats at that election. Admittedly, the Muslims did better than the TMVP represented by Pilliyan, if one were to go with the number of seats won. However, the fact that the TMVP participated as a single party in the election with the government, and that there was no such single party in respect of Muslims, should not be overlooked. The Muslims were represented by persons as an amalgam of parties, or as those who broke away from parties, such as M.L.A.M Hizbullah, an executive committee member of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), who recently crossed over to the government side.

On the other hand, one can ask whether it was the TMVP or the Muslim groups, which grossed the most number of votes at the election. In a country where proportional representation is recognized over the first-past-the-post criteria, the number of votes garnered by the TMVP or the Muslim groups cannot be overlooked.

It is a fact that the Muslims of the east have suffered veritable hell at the hands of the LTTE for many years. Naturally, they would do almost anything to put the past firmly behind them. One way to achieve that objective is to accept that the Eastern Province is truly a multi-ethnic mixing bowl and that the people of the east have to chart a course that will guarantee peace, security and prosperity for all. Peace will prove elusive if the easterners cling to ethnic politics.

This is the time for people in the east to make sacrifices not only for their future, but also for their children. The holy Quran is replete with advice for the followers, how and why they should make sacrifices, referred to in the Quran as 'giving,' be it tangible or otherwise, as reflected in, "You will not attain true goodness until you give of what you love." (Surah Al 'Imran: 92). The Muslims in the east should ask themselves whether they should heed this advice for the greater good of their community and the country as a whole.

The time is also come for President Rajapaksa to think out of the box. Sri Lanka’s post- independence history is full of lost opportunities in every decade, where minority issues could have been settled once and for all. The first such opportunity presented itself in 1957, and we botched it. The second opportunity came to us in 1965, and we managed to foul that up too. After those two events, came the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.

For reasons best known to the leadership at the time, the administration failed to implement the 13th amendment to the constitution fully and it took more than two decades, for the current administration to accept that the 13th amendment should be fully implemented, as a first step toward peace and reconciliation. In the late 90s, President Kumaratunga made a valiant effort to address the problem and went to the extent of drafting a new constitution, copies of which were burned in the parliament by opposition members representing the UNP. More than half a century later, in the first decade of the 21st century, Sri Lanka, once again, is harried by problems of addressing minority issues and devolving power to the people in the provinces. Sri Lanka clearly cannot postpone resolving the conflict to another decade of the 21st century.

President Rajapaksa admittedly does not come from the same mould as the previous leaders of the country. Since his early 20s, he has seen the havoc created by ill-advised policies of our leadership. He is an astute and a bold leader, who consistently refuses to be intimidated by the crouching Tiger. His fearlessness ensured success that eluded other presidents before him. In relentless pursuit of his goal, he liberated the East, acted on the demerger, and went to the extent of holding Provincial Council elections in a province, where Tigers roamed at will mauling the innocent civilians, less than a year ago. Now he needs to muster courage to demonstrate that reassuring the Tamil community is his number one priority.

This is the time to think out of the box, with a vision for the future. The Tamils in the East should not feel that they have been short-changed, and the Muslims in the province should be generous and be ready to sacrifice. There can be more than one formula to address the situation. One is to offer the Chief Minister’s post to the TMVP. The other is to consider sharing the post between the Tamils and the Muslims, so that both communities will feel a mutual desire to accommodate each other. Neither should Tamils and Muslims ignore the fact there is a sizable Sinhala community in the province. There may be other solutions as alternatives. However, one thing is clear. This time around, Sri Lanka should not make the mistake of waiting another decade for another solution. Now is the time to act. It is also important that TMVP cadres should not return to the jungle. The time they were part of the problem is over. Now, they need to be part of the solution.

- Asian Tribune -

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