The A9 highway that bisects the Northern Province and leads to its capital of Jaffna would be the best advertisement for the government in its election campaign to win the provincial council elections scheduled to be held in September. The dramatic improvement in the highway and the network of roads that connect to it have enhanced the quality of life to all who make use of them, be they the businessman or landless labourer, northerner or southerner. But the A9 highway, which was once called the highway of death on account of the thousands of lives it consumed during the war, also shows why the government cannot win those forthcoming elections unless there is a change of course.
The huge military checkpoint at Omanthai, which was once the border between government and LTTE-controlled territories in the north, still stands like an ageing dinosaur. All vehicles traversing the road at this point have to stop to be checked. At the best it means getting out of one’s vehicle and giving one’s identity card and vehicle number to be written down in a register. But sometimes it can mean having one’s bags poked and opened for inspection. Passengers in private vehicles are usually spared the hassle of getting down to be checked, but those travelling by bus have to disembark and line up to be checked. This war-time practice serves as a reminder of the war and the division of the country.
A police officer who flagged down our vehicle and requested a short ride was present when this exercise took place. He explained that the roots, or is it seeds, of militancy still remained in the people of the North and needed to be guaded against. The visible surveillance serves as a reminder to them that the government is watching and it is better to keep out of trouble. Viewed from the other side the visible presence of the military in the North is a constant reminder to the people that they are mistrusted and being treated differently. It also sends a harsh message that the North is still not fully integrated with the rest of the country, remains a potential threat, and hence it is under a state of military occupation, even if largely benign.
The large military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces, even after the war, has been a source of grievance to the people living in those parts. The issue of the military presence has re-emerged in full force due to the government’s decision to acquire over 6000 acres of prime land in the Jaffna peninsula to set up a regional military headquarters. It is reported that as many as 25 Grama Niladari divisions (which means more than 25 villages) will be affected. Thousands of people will be affected, with an estimated 29,000 still in camps for the displaced. The military has said that this land is being acquired under relevant law, and this is done in other parts of the country also. But given the large territory and population that will be affected, and the lack of transparency in military affairs, it has also given rise to fears of army-sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the North.
It is noteworthy that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has recommended the de-militarisation of the north and the full restoration of civilian administration. The two resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and again in 2013 call upon the government to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC. The LLRC was very specific on this issue, especially in regard to land issues, which is at the heart of people’s sense of belonging and security. The LLRC said that many people who were displaced in the war had lost their title deeds and other documents proving their ownership or rights to use the land. It recommended an expert and civil administration to restore to the people what had been theirs. It also said that land policy should not be used to effect artificial changes in demography and the ethnic composition of the population.
The refusal of the military authorities to permit the Leader of the Opposition and a delegation of opposition parliamentarians from entering the area to see the situation for themselves is bound to send an adverse message to the Tamil people and to the international community about the ground realities in the north. It highlights the lack of transparency that accompanies military affairs, which is why the military is unsuited to engage in civilian affairs. Unfortunately the indications of a shift in government policy towards the demilitarization of the north are bleak at the present time. The government has recently added a second compulsory checkpoint in the North in addition to the one at Omanthai. This is one at Elephant Pass at the entry/exit point of the Jaffna peninsula. This latest checkpoint was announced a few days ago in the context of the sudden upsurge of politically motivated violence in the North which saw events organized by opposition parties broken up allegedly by security personnel in civilian attire.
The acts of violence that have started taking place against opposition activities in the North, as occurred with the Uthayan newspaper and TNA meetings, can be a harbinger of things to come. The government’s determination to win the Northern Provincial elections reflects the government’s concern that it will pave the way to political and international challenges with the establishment of an opposition Tamil-led administration with a democratic mandate. So far the government’s chief response to its local and international critics has been that it is the sole elected authority in the country entitled to speak on behalf of all the people. Every time it wins an election it reminds its detractors that whatever they may say, it has the democratic sanction of the people. An opposition and Tamil led provincial administration in the North would have a corresponding legitimacy to speak on behalf of the people who elected it.
Already two constituent parties of the government have expressed their opposition to these elections being held. The All Ceylon Muslim League headed by Minister Rishard Bathiuddin has objected to the elections being held until all war-displaced Muslims are resettled in the Northern Province. The National Freedom Front headed by Minister Wimal Weerawansa has stated that these elections can lead to an outcome that is detrimental to the country’s unity. He has also said that the system of provincial councils should be scrapped and replaced by district councils. Interestingly, President Rajapaksa himself articulated this vision of district-based devolution several years ago until local and international pressure caused him to withdraw from this position. It is possible that views such as these are being floated to justify a postponement of the elections.
However, too much is at stake for the government to now seek to either abolish the provincial council system or postpone the promised September elections. The President’s promise to hold the elections by September this year is noted in too many international documents, such as the joint communiqué signed by the Prime Minister of Japan and President Rajapaksa following his visit in March to Japan, and also in the UN Human Rights resolution on Sri Lanka which was also passed by a large majority of countries in March this year. With the provincial elections to be held in September, there is still time for the government to make the shift that would make it more attractive to the northern voters. De-militarisation of the North would come as the first priority accompanied by the resettlement of displaced people in their own lands.