In the recently held Provincial Council elections, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 out of 38 seats (that included two bonus seats) and formed the government in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. As announced during the campaign, its chief ministerial candidate CV Wigneswaran, a retired Sri Lankan Supreme Court judge, took over as the Chief Minister. Interestingly, the United People’s Freedom alliance (UPFA) that won the other two Provinces (North Western and Central) got seven seats and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) got one seat. This means that despite overwhelming support for the TNA that swept all the five districts in the Province, 22 per cent of voters preferred other parties. This point cannot be missed by the TNA.
The fact that the TNA participated in the provincial polls is itself a positive development because it boycotted the Eastern provincial council elections in 2008, stating, “Unified Northeast as a single administrative unit is a cornerstone principle” and, therefore, “contesting in the scheduled Eastern Provincial council election would be an act of giving up our legitimate rights.” It should be realised that to get the TNA around is important for both reconciliation and the long-term political settlement of the ethnic issue. How the TNA is dealt with and given enough political space in the island’s politics, especially the governance of the Tamil-dominated areas, will be keenly watched by other Tamil political entities and the international community, especially India. As the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is around the corner, Sri Lanka and its ethnic issue is likely to receive much attention. However, playing to the external audience is not going to pay any dividend in the long-term interest of the country. Internal motivation is what is required. This is an opportunity. Now, there is someone for the Government of Sri Lanka to talk to on the ethnic issue on behalf of the Tamil community. The fact that the TNA made sure that its chief ministerial candidate took oath in the presence of President Rajapakse at his office in Colombo shows that it is ready for an inclusive arrangement.
In its manifesto, the TNA talked of ‘self-government’ but within the Constitution of Sri Lanka. This is a significant climb down from their demand for ‘self-determination’ in the past. The TNA has dubbed the results as ‘an overwhelming vote for self-rule for Tamils’. It has demanded the withdrawal of the military from the Tamil-dominated North, saying “that (Army presence) is the primary problem the Tamils of the Northern Province are having today” and “they must be put in barracks somewhere else.” It may be argued that while it is practically difficult for the Sri Lankan government to shift the entire Army elsewhere, what is possible is reducing military presence. However, Colombo would turn around and argue that this is the moment to step up military presence in the North because of TNA’s victory and the consequent ‘security concerns’. The suggestion here is that the Rajapaksa regime, instead of falling into a ‘security trap’, could engage in a dialogue with the provincial government on how to go about it. Mutual trust and confidence is the best way forward at the moment. If Colombo is serious about reconciliation, scaling down the conspicuous military presence is the first step to take. The government’s security concerns are understandable, but for that there is no need for overt presence of men in uniform.
The way forward is very important. Irrespective of who reigns, the Provincial councils should be allowed to function with full autonomy. There are issues in devolution of powers like police, land and finance that should be sorted out at the earliest. The President instead of pandering to the Sinhala nationalist lobby could try and strengthen the Provincial Councils. The election of the Northern Provincial Council should translate into civilian rule in the province. The pace of development work that has picked up briskly close to elections should not lax or completely go out of the picture after the elections.