Changing the game

Northern  ProvinceIf the TNA can keep ploughing the politically mature path, push the Rajapaksa Administration to reciprocate and ensure they exercise their writ over the Northern Province with responsibility and accountability, the party could reinvent the image and effectiveness of a white elephant provincial council system and lend credence to its own calls for greater self-rule in the north and east

The seventh month in the Tamil solar calendar that commences on 15 October is an important one for Hindu devotees. Aipassi or the month between 15 October and 14 November heralds the season of Kulir or cold and for the southern subcontinent means the onset of the monsoon rains and the many religious celebrations including Deepavali or the festival of light.

For Sri Lanka’s formerly embattled Northern Province, this year Aipassi will hold special significance. The Tamil National Alliance which secured an overwhelming mandate in last month’s election has decided to hold the inaugural session of the country’s first Northern Provincial Council a few days into the new month. For the first time in 25 years the Tamil people of the north will experience provincial government over a few selected areas of their lives and the TNA will have its first real opportunity to display its prowess at governance.

The weight of the monumental task that lies before what is now the ruling party in the north is not lost on the more moderate sections of the TNA that believe the time for exultation and triumphalism is past and the work of governance must be got on with in order to manage the expectations of the Tamil people.Already the symbolism of certain events is threatening confrontation between the central Government and the newly-elected council now officially in the hands of Chief Minister and former Supreme Court Judge, Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran. In the 25 years that the north east and then Northern Provincial Council was defunct, traditions came into being in other provinces in which voters regularly elected councils. Chief ministers are traditionally sworn in before governors of the provinces – Presidential representatives who maintain the centre’s hold on the devolved provincial units.

 Militarisation

In this respect, the newly-elected TNA-majority Northern Council has a problem. The issue of militarisation is a very real one in many parts of the north. From the Wanni until the A9 reaches Jaffna, the stamp of the military is still glaringly obvious. Army run welfare camps, agriculture outlets and large monuments of war are scattered throughout the highway. Off the main road in the more interior regions of the Wanni, Tamil villages and military camps have existed side by side for so many years after the end of the war, civilians and soldiers now know each other by name. For many people living in the north, the constant military surveillance remains a critical issue that slows the region’s return to normalcy, four years after the guns fell silent.

The TNA made militarisation a central theme of its polls campaign and repeatedly called for the removal of the Northern Governor who is also an ex-Major General, G.A. Chandrasiri. The party accused him more than once of being actively engaged in the Government’s election campaign in the region, a charge heartily accepted by the Governor. Given the ubiquitous influence of the security forces on every aspect of Tamil civilian life and the direct intervention of the Army in the electoral process as corroborated by all international polls monitors on the ground in the north, there is little doubt that the overwhelming support for the TNA was also in some measure a protest against what is seen by the Tamil people as ongoing military rule in the province.

 ‘No’ to the Governor

Naturally, therefore, when it is faced with the prospect of having Chief Minister-elect Wigneswaran sworn in before the Province’s military Governor, the TNA is saying a resounding ‘no’. But in the spirit of fostering ties with the Rajapaksa Administration that lost badly in the 21 September provincial poll in the north, the Tamil party has extended an olive branch to Colombo. The TNA is willing, its Leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan says, to have its Chief Minister sworn in before President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the party wants the oath-taking ceremony to take place in the northern capital of Jaffna.

The master move by the TNA, said to have been suggested by a senior Tamil lawyer and advisor to the party, puts the Government in a supremely awkward position. On the one hand, the request openly but tactfully implies that the Northern Chief Minister will not take oaths before the military Governor of the province, a position that will undoubtedly irk many powerful personalities in the regime. On the other, taking oaths before President Rajapaksa cements the central Government’s authority over the Northern Provincial Council, the only one of nine in which the ruling UPFA coalition does not hold a majority, something that will be infinitely palatable to the regime in Colombo. It is also the TNA’s way of reinforcing its consistent position that it is pushing for greater devolution and self-rule in the north and east within a united Sri Lanka despite the ongoing controversies over its election manifesto.

For the President, going to Jaffna to administer the oath to Justice Wigneswaran would inspire hope that a spirit of compromise instead of confrontation could in fact colour the relations between the NPC and the Government if all sides retain a degree of political maturity and statesmanship. It will also reinforce a position the President is so fond of repeating, that his Government is a government of all Sri Lanka’s peoples. The TNA’s proposal is not garnering much enthusiasm among its own constituent parties but the opportunity for a grand gesture of reconciliation between north and south does not come by often, and the party’s moderates are unwilling to let it pass.

‘Oath-taking’

But Presidential aides responded the next day, claiming President Rajapaksa would be willing to attend, but Wigneswaran would still have to take oaths before the Governor “under the Constitution”. In fact the Constitution makes no reference to who must swear provincial chief ministers in, either in Article 154 which lays out provisions for the setting up of provincial councils or in the Provincial Councils Act No. 42, senior lawyers point out. On the contrary, when it comes to the oath of office for Supreme Court Judges, Appeals Court Judges or a Chief Justice, as set out in Article 107 (4), the Constitution is explicit in that the oath of office must be taken before the President.

With regard to the swearing-in of a chief minister for the north east furthermore, a precedent already exists. North East Chief Minister-elect Vartharajah Perumal gave oaths before President J.R. Jayewardene at President’s House in Colombo 25 years ago, while his provincial ministers were sworn in before the Governor of the Province, at that time too an ex-military man. Despite the rhetoric, therefore, Colombo is realising the truth of the matter with regard to the Chief Minister’s oath and is likely to give way on the issue, sources say.

Friendly terms

On Monday, when Chief Minister-designate Wigneswaran met Northern Governor Chandrasiri, the 45-minute meeting at the Governor’s Office was cordial. Justice Wigneswaran was accompanied by TNA National List Parliamentarian and lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran to the meeting at the Governor’s Secretariat in Chundikuli. It became clear during the meeting that Governor Chandrasiri was keen to stick to the protocol for the oath-taking ceremony and insisted that Wigneswaran’s letter of appointment would be handed over only after he was sworn in. The Governor was not being unnecessarily difficult but was attempting to adhere to the format agreed upon over the years for new provincial councils being set up. Sumanthiran was then compelled to show the Governor the specific provisions of the Constitution that lay out the process for chief ministerial appointments. The senior lawyer politely pointed out that the appointment by the Governor precedes the Chief Minister’s oath-taking prior to his assuming official duties at the Council. Promising to check with Colombo and revert, Chandrasiri ended the meeting. He was to inform the TNA later that the constitutional interpretation was accurate and request Justice Wigneswaran to pick up his letter of appointment at 10 a.m. the next day, which was Tuesday. The Governor also made certain remarks at the Tuesday ceremony that indicated he had resigned himself to the fact that he would not be administering the oath to Justice Wigneswaran, sources said.

That the Governor will remain a polarising figure in the north going forward though is clear. This week, Northern Province Chief Secretary R. Vijayalakshmi cancelled some 400 appointments made in the State sector by Governor Chandrasiri about six months before the northern provincial polls. Other reports from Jaffna also indicate that hundreds of municipal workers hired on a casual basis by the EPDP run Jaffna Municipal Council had been dismissed following the 21 September poll.

The presence of a military Governor also reflects badly on the Government internationally, with calls growing louder at the UN and around the world for de-militarisation in the north. Under the circumstances, speculation abounds that the Rajapaksa administration is in fact mulling the appointment of a civilian governor for the Northern Province, although the proposal is meeting with obvious resistance from the defence establishment.

Maturity vs. grandstanding

In the event the President declines to accept the TNA’s invitation to swear the Chief Minister in to office, it is likely the Justice will take oaths before his Party Leader, Sampanthan, who by virtue of being a Member of Parliament is also a Justice of the Peace. But party insiders say it is the preference of the TNA leadership that Wigneswaran’s swearing-in ceremony takes place with as few confrontational overtones as possible.

Hardline elements within the TNA are vehemently opposed to both the President and the Governor and would rather use the opportunity to flaunt the Tamil party’s victory in the regime’s face by setting themselves apart from the other provinces. But Sampanthan and the party’s more moderate voices believe grandstanding in the first flush of victory is less important than setting the stage for future compromise between the Government and the TNA-led NPC that will ensure the new Councillors will have the opportunity to deliver on its promises to the Tamil people.

On Tuesday, the Eastern Provincial Council became an unlikely but welcome ally for the TNA-led Northern Council when it passed a resolution pushing for greater powers under the 13th Amendment with an overwhelming majority. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which has been vocal in its opposition to Government attempts to dilute 13A, moved the resolution in the EPC, even though the Muslim party traditionally extends support to the 14 members of the UPFA, allowing the Government coalition a majority in the Council. With the SLMC shifting allegiances on the issue of the 13th Amendment, the TNA and the UNP from the Opposition were able to support the passage of the resolution.

Surprising allies

With its adoption, the Eastern Council became the only provincial assembly so far to oppose the Government’s proposals to revise the 13A and slash powers to the councils with a Constitutional amendment. Land acquisition and resettlement issues plague Muslim communities in the east as much as they impact Tamil communities in the north. If the two minority-led councils prove capable of cooperation in the future, the northern and eastern PCs could become powerful allies against attempts by the Rajapaksa Administration to deny minority rights in these Tamil-speaking areas.

The TNA’s ability to work with Muslim representatives and communities in the north will immensely impact its relations with the east. Realising it needs to put words to action in terms of making amends to the Muslims of the region who suffered greatly under the ethno-fascist rule of the LTTE perhaps prompted the TNA’s decision to hand over one of its two bonus seats to its defeated Muslim candidate from Mannar, Ayub Nasmeen.

Positions taken in the last few weeks by the TNA leadership, in spite of the compulsions of its more nationalistic elements, contrast sharply with the reaction to the party’s victory by hardline elements in the south, whose rhetoric is not only blatantly racist but deeply polarising. Despite the machinations of its proxies and coalition allies, the Government remains overtly conciliatory towards the newly-elected Council as reflected in the tone and conduct of Governor Chandrasiri this past week. It is possible that the TNA’s decision to employ political maturity in its dealings with Colombo, as it transforms from Opposition to provincial government, is pushing the Rajapaksa Administration to reciprocate.

The road is long and it is very early days yet, but if the TNA continues the current trend and the Government decides to match gesture to gesture, if it governs with accountability and transparency and adheres to the Constitution and the law of the land, the Northern Council may have a greater impact on the Sri Lankan political system than the councils of other provinces have managed to in the past quarter century.

By letting its moderate elements hold sway at crucial moments and reinventing itself to adapt in post-war Sri Lanka, the TNA is singlehandedly changing the game. But its early successes will be translated to long-term victories for reconciliation and minority rights if, and only if, it can keep doing that. (Daily FT)

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