North and South: Elections and engagement

By Kanishka Ratnapriya
The North and South are divided in their voting. But they are very clear about who should represent them. Hence, even though the elections were divisive the franchise has become a powerful tool which shows that the political groups of the North and South must sit down and engage in serious discussions.

The 2010 Presidential elections, the 2010 General elections and the recently concluded local government elections all show that there is a clear polarisation of views between Northern and Southern Sri Lanka. This is a clear cut national truth which should not be distorted. It is a divide that must be addressed through a dialogue with each ‘other’. In the real politick or power politics of today’s electoral environment the TNA represents the Northern people and the UPFA represents the Southern people. It is time for them to start seriously talking to each other about what their respective constituencies want. This is a dialogue of necessitude in which the reasons are clear.

The UPFA juggernaut has rolled on in the South with 6 million (57%) votes in the Presidential Elections of 2010, 4.8 million (60%) in the General Elections of 2010 and control over a total of 250 local councils out of 299 local councils that elections were held in this year. But its victories have not been in the North of the country. It has not been able to get the support of the Sri Lankan Tamil people of the North during these local elections. This is despite the UPFA having Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders such as Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan heavily campaigning in the North. This is despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the powerful Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka Freedom Party stalwarts such as Prime Minister DM Jayaratne, Minister Susil Premajantha and Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi taking part in the Northern UPFA campaign.

And above all, this is despite a concerted government development effort called the Uthuru Vasanthaya or ‘Northern Spring’. With the government going into their development effort with all guns blazing, the North of the country must have had some strong reasons for not voting for the UPFA government. It must also have its reasons for supporting the TNA in paradox to the strong reasons for the South supporting the UPFA. We must confront these reasons directly and understand their implications before it’s too late, before the polarisation becomes so acute and irreversible that we eventually relapse back into war.

There is a harsh truth we must understand. It is now clear that the North and South of the country see the final phase of the last war from two different angles. Initially, the South experienced an implosion of triumph while the North heaved a sigh of relief that the war was finally over. But over the last two years, the image of Sri Lanka’s war has become increasingly distorted. Accusations of war crimes, international reports, videos of atrocities and word of mouth accounts of the final phase of the war have started to become saturated into the thoughts of the Tamil community.

Exchange views
Reality or not, the perception that the war ended in the violent deaths of civilians is very real to the Tamil community. And hence there is a sense of incompletion and grievance in the Tamil psyche. The Southern view on the final phase of is a little more complex and afflicted by multiple cleavages. A majority of people in the South say that the Government of Sri Lanka rescued the people of the North by defeating the LTTE. There is also a cross-section of people who say that the death and destruction caused during war was a price our country had to pay. But there are also those among the Sinhalese community who believe that the final phase of the war must be discussed in relative to the views of the Tamil community.

We must sit down together and exchange views now. The South must hear the views of the Northern people in relation to what they think happened during the war and the North must hear what the South has to say. We must not presume the view of the ‘other’. We must listen and understand it. Strangely, with the UPFA and the TNA’s electoral successes there is an ideal local climate for both parties to discuss this issue.
There is also an understanding that too much external pressure upon the UPFA is not as conducive for this type of engagement. It will only push the government into an uncomfortable position in which Sri Lanka will be caught in a stalemate of not being able to sincerely internally discuss the war due to external repercussions. However, the UPFA must be bold enough to take on the external environment by engaging in a discussion about the final phase of the war openly with the TNA. Our people have spoken. The people of the North and South have spoken. Both parties must achieve their internal and external goals by sitting down and talking now, before the balance of power changes again.

Post war development
Understanding the North’s perception of the UPFA’s post war economic development ideology is also critical. In the North and the South the UPFA engaged in an accelerated post war economic development programme. Mega development projects such as the KKS Harbour in the North and Hambanthota harbour in the South are indicative of this post war development approach. The government’s strategy seems have been successful in the South but not in the North. The North probably rejected the government’s development plan for two reasons.

Firstly, the people of the North have not been consulted and not been given ownership of their own development. Our development approach has been top to down with an emphasis on reintegrating the North and East with the national economy and global market. Election trends in the North now show that this approach has not been accepted by the Northern community. The second reason is more socio political. By not voting for the UPFA and voting for the TNA the people of the North have shown that trends such as an ethno political bond, psycho social reconciliation and the need to govern their own affairs are preferred over economic development. The method of thinking is not very different from the South. It is the ‘need’ of both communities that is different. These needs need to be discussed and then fulfilled.

Need for discussions
Hence, the elections indicate a need for discussions between the UPFA and the TNA for the benefit of all. An inclusive set of discussions incorporating opposition parties in the South, non TNA Tamil parties from the North and East, Muslim parties and Upcountry Tamil parties must be involved in the rebuilding of our country. But the lead must be taken by the UPFA and TNA. A majority of members in Northern Local Councils are TNA. If you hold a Northern provincial council election a majority of members in the Northern provincial council will be TNA. Although the number of seats for the North will be reduced due to a decreased population according to the Elections Department it will not mean that the North will not be Tamil. In the question of our identity and representation we should not play power political games. We should sit down and engage. Talk to each other now and implement the outcomes of your talks. You have no more excuses.