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By Jehan Perera- Sunday, October 20, 2013 As recently as the middle of this year, none of what is currently transpiring in the North would have seemed possible. At that time Nationalist Sinhalese groups aligned themselves with hardliners within the government to call for the abolishing of the Provincial Councils system. There were government efforts to introduce a 19th Amendment to
The holding of the elections to the Northern Provincial Council has been the most significant political development relating to the ethnic conflict since the end of the war
the Constitution, removing provincial land and police powers and also removing sections enabling a re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. At that time relations with India seemed to be deteriorating and India seemed to be at a loss to know what it could do. The Indian Prime Minister publicly expressed his dismay at the developments taking place within Sri Lanka. It can be surmised that the shift in the Sri Lankan government’s approach to the issue of Northern elections and the Provincial Council system came with the nearing of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled to be held in November 2013. The government’s decision to hold those elections and to establish the Northern Provincial Council can only be attributed to the strong international pressure that emanated, in part from India in the form of a warning that it might downgrade its presence at the Commonwealth Summit, and this might have a domino effect on other wavering countries. In addition the promises made by government leaders to leaders of other countries, such as Japan, could not be glossed over without the possibility of adverse repercussions. For the Sri Lankan government which is desperately seeking to redeem itself as a respected government in the eyes of the world, the hosting of the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka would be the pinnacle of its success in foreign relations. Since the war ended in 2009, the government has been on the back foot internationally on issues of governance and human rights. It is in this context that the government has been sparing no effort to put its best foot
forward for the occasion of the Commonwealth Summit. This is certainly evident in terms of physical evidence. Pavements in Colombo are being torn up to replace them with elegantly paved walkways and parking bays and roads are being re-tarred. Even schools are being closed to ensure that logistical arrangements for the visiting delegates are facilitated. The general public has found itself inconvenienced as a result of these measures to beautify the city of Colombo, and even wonder if the costs are justified. There are also doubts whether the renovations will be completed before the delegates from abroad come for the Commonwealth meeting. However, the biggest challenge for the government has not been the logistical ones, formidable though they are, but rather to ensure that all the countries of the Commonwealth send their heads of government to attend the meeting in Colombo. There is a powerful campaign against Sri Lanka being made the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting by various international human rights organizations and Diaspora groups which the government has been able to withstand so far. Concerns within some Commonwealth countries about human rights violations perpetrated by Sri Lankan government forces during the fighting prompted Commonwealth leaders in 2009 to defer a decision on Sri Lanka’s candidacy to host the summit. However, in 2011 Commonwealth leaders agreed to allow Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summit. But this decision has been challenged by human rights organizations. Since the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has been under pressure from international human rights groups and by the Tamil Diaspora on the issue of war crimes. But many Commonwealth countries have chosen to ignore the question, with only Canada announcing that its Prime Minister would not be attending. Many countries have said that they will attend the Commonwealth Summit despite the problems they see in Sri Lanka. They have said that engaging with the Sri Lankan government is the better way to influence it for the better. On the other hand, those countries that boycott the event are likely to evoke the extreme displeasure of the Sri Lankan government and lose whatever positive influence they might have had with it. Neighboring India is unlikely to get itself into that situation with Sri Lanka edging ever closer to China. The Indian government has not yet made any definitive statement on whether they will be attending or what the level of the Indian delegation will be. There are protests against India’s participation coming from Tamil Nadu which might weigh on the Indian government especially with elections around the corner. But the indications are that the Indian Prime Minister will finally decide to attend it. Whereas Canada’s focus was human rights and war crimes issues, India’s focus has been on the 13th Amendment and the maintenance of the Provincial Council system. Sri Lanka has delivered on its commitment to India, which will make it more likely that India’s Prime Minister will indeed come to Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Summit in November. It is noteworthy that the visit of the India External Affairs Minister came shortly after the election and setting up of the Northern Provincial Council. The Sri Lankan government did not do what India did not want it to do. It neither passed the 19th Amendment to reduce the powers of the Provincial Councils nor did it abolish the Provincial Council system as its nationalist allies urged it to do. Therefore, the Sri Lankan government has given India no reason to avoid attending the Commonwealth Summit or to downgrade their representation in the same way as Canada. The holding of the elections to the Northern Provincial Council has been the most significant
political development relating to the ethnic conflict since the end of the war. The establishment of a Provincial Council for the Northern Province is the best possible advance in the direction of a just political solution. It will give to the people of the North, the same devolved power that the people in the other eight provinces enjoy. Among the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the issue of discrimination meted out to the Tamil people took a primary place. To the extent that the people of the North will enjoy the same devolved power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy, there will be less discrimination. This will offer an opportunity for the Northern Province to join with the other eight provinces to increase the devolved powers and resources, which the other Provincial Councils also wish to have. Now that the Northern Provincial Council has been established the challenge will be to ensure that it is not undermined in its infancy. It is likely that the Indian government will announce its decision regarding its participation only at a later stage. This will give it more leverage for a longer period over the Sri Lankan government. The desire to make sure that the Indian Prime Minister comes to Sri Lanka may even induce the Sri Lankan government to go further along the path of devolution of power to the Northern Provincial Council in accordance with the 13th Amendment. Anything less could displease the Indian government and reduce its good neighbourly obligation to do everything to make Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Summit a great success.
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