Proposed federal solution cast aside in North
attacked in South
By Jehan Perera
Three and a half years into the Ceasefire Agreement, Jaffna continues to live
isolated from the political mainstream of the country's life. Switching on the television
does not help, neither does the radio. The TV and radio channels that are so
numerous in Colombo do not reach Jaffna. Many in Jaffna have purchased cable
connections that bring in the electronic media channels from India. Even where
newspapers are concerned, the ones published in Colombo come in a day late, and
cover the news from a southern perspective, which to those in Jaffna is often wrong.
As a result Jaffna has the only vibrant regional press in the country, having as many
as five daily newspapers.The lack of commitment of successive governments to make
Jaffna a part of the mainstream of development that has modernized other major
cities in the country, is also sadly evident in the absence of major infrastructure
development projects. From the people's perspective it does not matter that the
government has been unable to persuade the LTTE, or vice versa, to engage in the
necessary development projects.
What they do know is that their lives continue to be stagnant three and a half years
into the ceasefire, with the absence of a modern economy and the facilities it brings
with it. In addition, the town and countryside continues to be saddled with a massive
military presence, war-destroyed property, and inaccessible high security zones.
In the country at large, the great majority of people have no doubt that they will be
voting at the Presidential elections on November 17. But in Jaffna there is a debate
taking place as to whether the people should take part in the election. Jaffna is
without any signs of an election campaign. The cut-outs of the contesting candidates
and posters of them, so numerous elsewhere in the country are totally absent in
Neither of the two major presidential candidates has deemed it safe enough or
politically sagacious to come to Jaffna, meet with the people and solicit their votes.
The attitude of the LTTE to the poll is also an open question and weighs on the minds
of the people.
LTTE spokespersons have pointed out in the media and also in Kilinochchi that both
of the main contending political parties have let down the Tamil people. According to
them, the UNP government that signed the Ceasefire Agreement failed to deliver on
its promises made during the six rounds of peace talks. Now the SLFP's presidential
candidate has signed agreements with Sinhalese nationalist parties that, if put into
practice, would turn the clock back a decade or more.
So far it appears that the LTTE has publicly taken a detached attitude towards the
presidential elections. They have not directly instructed the people to take part in the
election or to vote for any particular candidate.
At present it appears that the LTTE has left the decision whether to vote, and to
whom to vote for, to the people. But the people are not sure. A statement issued by a
students' organization advocating a boycott of the elections was published in the
Jaffna newspapers. As many of these bodies are believed to have affiliation with the
LTTE, the people are not sure whether this is an indirect signal from the LTTE to stay
away from the polls. The LTTE spokesman Daya Master however has reportedly said
it was not the official view of the LTTE.
This past weekend there was a rare semi-public discussion of issues pertaining to the
Presidential election in Jaffna.
The occasion was an open seminar organized by the Open University of Sri Lanka
along with the Media Resources and Training Centre of the University of Jaffna. As
the National Peace Council was one of the co-organisers of the programme of the
seminar, at the invitation of Dr Mahim Mendis, the head of the department of mass
communications at the Open University, I too was able to take part in this seminar.
Prior to the seminar there was some concern that the double assassination of two of
the leading school principals in Jaffna would act as a deterrent to people wishing to
participate in the seminar. But our fears were unfounded. Although the organisers
had specified that no more than 40 persons should take part in the seminar, more
than 50 attended. Most of them were journalists and university students. Not even the
shooting incident in Puttur on the outskirts of Jaffna, where a civilian was killed by
army fire following a clash the day before the opening of the seminar kept the
The initial reaction of some of the participants at the seminar was an extremely
negative one. They suspected our intentions in organizing this seminar during the
election period and chided us for coming to Jaffna to talk about good governance and
peace. They criticized our effort in the same manner that Sinhalese nationalists often
do in the south, accusing us of doing our peace work for the sake of foreign money.
They asked us why we were not conducting the seminar in the south of the country
rather than in the north, as issues of governance and peace needed to be canvassed
there more than in the north. Ironically, these are the same accusations in reverse
that are leveled against us when we organize peace programmes in the south.
At the beginning of the seminar, the participants said that they did not see the
forthcoming elections as being of relevance to them. Instead they made strong
criticisms of the Sinhalese nationalist politics of the south, and of the peace process
in general that had not yet obtained for them their rights. Listening to them it seemed
that the federal consensus so boldly arrived at in Oslo in December 2002 by the
government and LTTE peace negotiators had been cast aside in the north, just as
much as it is being sought to be reversed by the Sinhalese nationalist forces in the
Those who spoke up most vociferously said that there was no point in taking part in
the elections at all, because the Tamil people wanted to determine their own destiny
on their own, and separately, and with their own sovereignty etc.
However, there is another assessment that needs to be made. This concerns the
need for partnerships to rebuild the country and bring peace to it. No single
community can do this, and the south cannot solve the problem without the north. Just
as much as the government's efforts to ignore the LTTE and find a solution to the
ethnic conflict proved futile, so will any Tamil belief that they can stay aloof from the
imperatives of national politics. North and South are inextricably inter-connected, and
what happens in one part impacts upon the other. This is why partnerships, and not
boycotts or isolation, are necessary for peace building.
There are two examples from the past in which Tamil non-participation at national
elections proved detrimental to them and to the country as a whole. The first occasion
was in 1931 when the British colonial government held elections to the State Council,
the parliament of that time. The Jaffna Youth Congress boycotted those elections,
demanding immediate independence, with the result that the government that was
formed was bereft of Tamils. As a result the Sinhalese representatives in the State
Council became the voice of the entire country, and they negotiated with the British
regarding the country's future independence.
The second example of non-participation is the more recent general elections of
1994. At that time the LTTE ruled Jaffna, and so the elections could not be properly
conducted there. As a result those who finally came to represent the people were
politicians who won as little as nine votes in electorates with more than fifty thousand
voters. Those MPs then became the voice of the entire people of Jaffna, much to the
discomfiture of many if not most of them. What these two examples show is that not
taking part in elections paves the way for those who may have adverse political
interests to assume positions of power, and thereafter make decisions on behalf of all
the people, including the boycotters.
Hopefully in the next two weeks before the elections, the people of the north will make
up their minds to take part in the Presidential elections and elect the candidate who
will is most likely to take forward the peace process. There is a strong desire on the
part of the people of Jaffna to be constructive in their actions.
After the early outburst at our seminar on good governance and peace, the
participants settled down to make constructive suggestions regarding the revival of
the peace process. Some of their proposals echoed what the LTTE says. These
included the disarming of paramilitaries, making the ISGA proposals of the LTTE the
basis of future peace talks, not bringing in the Muslims as another party into the initial
phase of peace talks, vacating the Sri Lankan army from public places and resettling
the displaced persons.
On the other hand, the participants also came up with their own independent ideas.
These included giving the international monitors of the SLMM more powers, getting
the LTTE and government security forces to meet more often at the district level,
stopping unilateral actions by them with regard to the Ceasefire Agreement,
preventing killings and abductions, obtaining additional international pressure on the
two parties, persuading both parties to stop their campaigns of military strengthening,
bringing in other minority groups into the peace talks, and persuading the two parties
to cease campaigning against each other internationally. There were 23 different
suggestions that the group made, which reflected a diverse and plural society, but
one that was cognizant and realistic about the dominance of the LTTE and the failure
of the government in the north.
Perhaps the most heartwarming affirmation of faith in the future of a peaceful and
reconciled Sri Lanka came from the outskirts of Jaffna. After the seminar sessions, we
had gone to see the fields of the famed Jaffna farmer. A man with two young children
approached us, the elder being named Einstein. During the war years Eintein's father
had worked in the Middle East as a labourer. On his return he had been arrested in
Colombo on suspicion of being an LTTE member and detained for two months. But he
evidently did not hold this against us. He also said he would be voting at the
Presidential election for the candidate who would ensure that peace would be
safeguarded. This is the spirit that the political parties, LTTE and civic groups should
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]