By holding free and fair elections in the Northern Province, Sri Lanka has taken the first tentative step towards reconciliation with its Tamil minority.
The move has opened up the space for political negotiations with representatives duly elected by the people, instead of an assortment of armed militant groups, as in the past. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Colombo and Jaffna.
Before Monday’s swearing-in of chief minister CV Wigneswaran, there was a minor hiccup. Keeping in mind the voters’ anathema to the army, the CM refused to be sworn in by the provincial governor, a retired army general.
Instead he sent out an invitation to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to visit Jaffna for the oath-taking ceremony.
Doing so would have given out the right signals to the Tamils, but the president was constrained perhaps by his hardline Sinhala Buddhist constituents from the deep south. Instead Wigneswaran took oath in Colombo, with Rajapaksa in attendance.
After the military campaign of 2009, which eliminated the entire LTTE leadership, many had hoped that the president would reach out to the long suffering Tamil population battered by years of ethnic conflict. The much-needed healing touch did not come. Instead of being a statesman, the president chose to revel in his role as a victorious Sinhala hero. He now has a chance to redeem himself. Will he take it?
Few believed that Colombo will keep its promise of holding provincial polls in the north. But for once, the Rajapaksa regime proved its critics wrong.
External pressure, including the fact that Sri Lanka is to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, was possibly a factor in ensuring that the international community does not boycott the summit.
The question is whether either side has learnt any lessons. Will Colombo allow the provincial council a modicum of autonomy by devolving power through the 13th amendment, within the framework of the island nation’s Constitution? Will Wigneswaran’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) try to work within the system and not be pressured by the very vocal Tamil diaspora to take a confrontationist line. Only time will tell how all this pans out.
The man of the moment, retired judge of the Supreme Court, Wigneswaran, is familiar with the Colombo establishment. He studied in the capital’s elite Royal College and is acceptable to the majority Sinhalese.
But he has a tough challenge ahead. He will have to keep up the pressure on devolution, which is central to a peaceful solution to the ethnic problem.
Since 1987, the debate on devolution has revolved around control of land and policing. Unless the provinces get the minimum which states in India enjoy, there can be little forward movement. This appears to be a major concession for Sinhala nationalists who believe that a tiny island nation cannot give away such powers to its units. This as well as control over police have always been the deal breakers in the past.
The TNA had campaigned for the ouster of the army from the Northern Province but that is unlikely to happen soon.
India’s external affairs minister Salman Khurshid during his visit to Sri Lanka has spoken of the 13th amendment and the need to devolve power to the states. But the rejoinder came swiftly from his Sri Lankan counterpart that a select committee of Parliament is looking into the issue.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s Parliament is packed with lawmakers completely opposed to devolution and the president does not seem to be in the mood to oblige. Unless good sense prevails all around, the ethnic divide cannot be bridged.
India too has to do a deft balancing act between its long-term strategic interests and the domestic compulsions of Tamil Nadu politics ahead of the 2014 elections.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist and foreign affairs commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal