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Will Success in the East Pave the Way for Peace and Stability in Sri Lanka?

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 12, 2008

    Sri Lanka’s Eastern province is transitioning to a new era. First came Karuna’s exit and subsequent co-operation with the government in Colombo. This was followed by the expulsion of the Tigers soon thereafter. And the latest is the successful completion of Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) elections on May 10, 2008 and the coming into existence of a democratically elected government under Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan after two decades of civil conflict. This is indeed a cause for cheer among all communities in the province, who believe that democracy and genuine devolution of power are the solution to the long standing ethnic conflict. However, several key questions remain. Will the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, through Pillayan, sustain peace and stability in the East? Will it generate peace and harmony among the different ethnic groups in the province? Can it pave the way to construct a genuine power-sharing framework between different ethnic groups and the final resolution of the ethnic question?

    Since the Maavilaru military victory in July 2006, the Rajapaksa government has made remarkable advances in almost all aspects of establishing control over the Eastern province. It began to show its keenness to consolidate its hold in the East as soon as the capture of Thoppigala, the last pocket of LTTE resistance, on July 11, 2007, for various reasons including the harbour in Trincomalee. The establishment of a provincial government under Pillayan is the latest development in this regard. Almost all political parties contested in these elections, except for the TNA which boycotted it citing the security situation and the fact that participation will only validate the de-merger of the North and the East.

    The May 10 election was held for three constituent districts of the Eastern Province – Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara – for the first time in two decades. Some 646,456 voters out of 982,751 registered voters cast their votes to elect 37 council members belonging to some 18 political parties. The ruling coalition – the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which included the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikhal (TMVP), headed by Pillayan – won 20 of the seats, with an overall majority of 52 per cent of votes cast. The opposing alliance comprising the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won 15 seats with 42 per cent of the vote. The JVP (People's Liberation Front) and Tamizh Democratic National Alliance won one each of the remaining two seats.

    In spite of rumblings among the opposition and civil rights groups, international election monitors particularly from Asian countries have declared that the election was largely free and fair. Incidentally, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) had documented 64 incidents of poll irregularities or malpractices. The outcome of the election has, however, mixed implications for peace and harmony in this beleaguered nation.

    The provincial council election was a crucial test for President Rajapaksa, as the Eastern province not only played a key role in the conflict but has also been the stage for continued local level conflict due to its multiethnic nature. The demographic profile of the province makes it interesting, as it is critically balanced between Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. According to the 1981 census, Tamils constitute 36 per cent of the population, Sinhalese 33 per cent, and Muslims 29 per cent.

    Doubtless, the successful completion of the election in itself was a major boost for the Rajapaksa government in moving ahead with its ‘peace through war strategy.’ Significantly, the emergence of the UFPA as the clear favourite in the province is being considered as a mandate of the eastern people for dislodging the LTTE and a victory for democracy and peace. The election of the newly-established EPC is also being considered by the ruling elites as a validation of the de-merger of the North and the East, vide the October 26, 2006 Judgement of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. In this context, the very fact of an elected council coming into existence after two decades is being considered as a welcome opportunity to reactivate the conflict resolution process.

    But the government is now confronted with several challenges. Most importantly, assimilating the TMVP into the democratic mainstream and dismantling its armed wing will be a major challenge. The TMPV is known for its intimidation, abductions and killings and not for espousing a clear vision for the region aimed at fulfilling the people’s aspirations. For its part, the provincial government has initiate a reconciliation process that is based on the principles of good governance and human rights.

    Another challenge for the Rajapaksa government is delivering on its commitment to devolve power to the province. It is not very clear whether this will come about given the opposition of Sinhala hardliners to the government’s idea of giving land and police powers to the EPC because of the fear that the latter may resettle Sinhalese to other provinces. Indeed, the coming months will demonstrate the Rajapaksa government’s political will and commitment to empower the council as promised.

    Above all, the ultimate challenge for the Rajapaksa government lies in sustaining peace in the province. The insurmountable problem that both the union and provincial governments will face is that in the absence of a political solution to the ethnic question, the LTTE will be able to preserve its support base and might even succeed in capturing some pockets in the future. Given the demographic and ethnic underpinnings of the province, the possibility of the Tigers’ resurgence in the East will remain. Rajapaksa’s move to place his weight behind the TMVP to cater to a future LTTE resurgence has, however, reactivated underlying tensions between Tamils and Muslims in the province, which could pose a serious threat to reconciliation and harmony. Thus, providing security to the people and upholding political concord are the challenging tasks before the union and provincial governments.