Following a disastrous civil war, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is slowly trying to reintegrate into the political process, after a strong showing in local elections in the island’s restive north last month.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), once a political proxy of the vanquished armed Tamil rebels (LTTE), scored a landslide victory in provincial elections on September 21 – winning 30 out of 38 seats in the northern Provincial Council, a body with little power but lots of hope riding on it.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, managed to win only seven seats with 18 percent of the vote, while one seat went to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party.
It was the first election following the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war in 2009, in a region where a sense of alienation runs deep among ethnic Tamils, who have complained of discrimination by the Sinhalese-led government.
“The TNA victory is undoubtedly a big boost to democracy, but it remains a symbolic success,” Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow at the Chatham House’s Asia Programme, told Al Jazeera in an email interview.
Four years after government forces defeated the LTTE fighters, a heavy army presence remains in the region, private land has been appropriated for military purposes and reports of human rights violations are rife.
“How the elections change things on the ground will depend on whether the government will withdraw the army and return the land to the people,” Suresh Premachandran, a senior TNA leader and member of parliament, told Al Jazeera. “About 150,000 army personnel out of the total 200,000 are in [the] Northern Province with a population of nearly 1 million,” he said. “We will take all actions, including mobilising international support, for the withdrawal of the army.”
Thousands remain displaced
The government has been criticised for not doing enough to rehabilitate people, as thousands remain in camps with little access to basic amenities. The issue of the thousands of people who disappeared at the end of the war has also remained unresolved.
Mahinda Rajapaksa talks to Al Jazeera
“We are ready to work for reconciliation, but we have to know the truth about the war. Several thousand people are missing and there is no government mechanism to investigate it,” Premachandran said.
As many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final month of the separatist war, according to the UN, which has been pressuring Sri Lanka for a credible investigation.
The election is a hopeful sign for the Tamils, who make up nearly 15 percent of the country’s 20 million people, and of whom thousands remain displaced.
About 70 percent of the more than 700,000 eligible voters – most of them Tamils – exercised their franchise in the hope of a better future amid reports of intimidation by the army, a charge the army denied.
“The problem is mostly with the land, which has been occupied by the military in the north. Thousands of Tamils are still living in camps because their lands have been taken away by the military and declared high security zone,” Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai, a senior journalist who has covered the war, told Al Jazeera.
“What people want is free access to their land. To be able to travel without being intimidated,” she said.
The TNA, a loose coalition of five parties, raised the issues of militarisation, land seizures, the missing people and the final political status of the Tamil region in its manifesto.
The Commonwealth Observer Mission
South Asian monitoring team
But with little legislative and financial powers vested in the provincial government, it will be nearly impossible to get things done without the cooperation of the Sri Lankan central government.
“Power is still entrenched in the hands of the Sri Lankan military and there are few signs to indicate that the Rajapaksa administration will actually devolve power in the Northern Province,” Hogg said.
The regional government will have to tackle the issue of daily livelihood such as farming and fishing – one of the mainstays of income – which has been curbed by the military.
“They would like … [the] ability to return to their land and opportunity to farm their land,” said Vino Kanapathipillai, the former editor of pro-Tamil newspaper Tamil Guardian. “I don’t think it is in the hands of the provincial government to deliver that.”
The Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa has refused to give more powers to the provincial government. TNA leader Premachandran said his party was ready to accept the Northern Province being run under a federal constitution, with the central government retaining control of defence and foreign affairs.
“The Canadian model can be one of the best examples to emulate,” he said. “There should be proper devolution of powers vis-a-vis taxation and policing, and we should also be allowed to get loans and grants from international institutions for development.”
Hogg from Chatham House said: “The current administration is unlikely to devolve powers relating to land administration, taxation and policing to the provincial councils; the military will maintain its intrusive presence in the north of the country.”
The central government has claimed that it has developed infrastructure in the region and built roads, but people still await rehabilitation.
“If you take north, where the war was going on, we have managed to build all the infrastructure, we have spent about $3bn to do that,” the Sri Lankan president told Al Jazeera.
But Pillai says: “As long as the government doesn’t address the human rights-related issue such as disappearances, surrender, land grab and so on, people will not accept only the infrastructure.”
“Of course, roads are much better, now you can travel from Colombo to Jaffna in couple of hours, but that doesn’t mean people are happy.”
International community, particularly the UN, has been pressurising the Sri Lankan government to work for reconciliation and normalisation after the bloody end to the civil war.
Right to self-determination
Merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces
Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty
Meaningful de-militarisation of the region
Resettlement of displaced people
International probe into human rights violations
But Rajapaksa, who is hugely popular among the majority Sinhala community and has won 19 elections in the last five years, has done little to improve the human rights situation and rehabilitation of the displaced people.
“Despite credible allegations by both the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts and the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of numerous wartime abuses by both sides, the government has undertaken no serious investigations or prosecutions,” Hogg says.
“The main challenge for the TNA government will be to tread a fine line with the central government in negotiating some level of elementary control over state administration, while maintaining the support they enjoy from ordinary Tamils who have voted them in position,” she said.
The TNA leadership has so far been cautious in its approach.
“We are for an undivided Sri Lanka, where there is a certain amount of self-ruling under the federal constitution,” the Chief Minister candidate, CV Wigneswaran, a retired Supreme Court judge, Reuters news agency.
“I think TNA is constraint by the fact that they are on the ground in Sri Lanka and therefore, cannot espouse anything more than within the united Sri Lanka,” Kanapathipillai said.
But for the thousands of people going through suffering on daily basis in the hope of getting some information regarding the fate of their relatives, larger political questions might sound more like rhetoric at this stage.
“When it comes to people, I think it is too early to talk about self-determination. A lot of people are still looking for their disappeared loved ones. They need to know the fate of their near and dear ones. Whether they are alive or dead,” Dushiyanthini Pillai said.
“They want to know what happened to those who surrendered during the last phase of war in 2009.”
Minorities under attack
Rajapaksa has come under serious international criticism, particularly by UN Human Rights Council chief Navi Pillay, over issues of human rights abuses and militarisation.
Listening Post: Media battle heats up in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan president has criticised Pillay for being biased.
“We allowed her to go anywhere, allowed her to meet anybody she wants …. This is propaganda against Sri Lanka, so please compare with other countries, don’t isolate a small country like Sri Lanka and try to bully Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka has seen many reports of attacks on journalists and other religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, in recent months.
At least 23 journalists have fled the country in the last five years, one of the highest in the world, according to Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The government has become increasingly authoritarian, attacking the independence of the judiciary and severely limiting the space for public criticism by the media and human rights groups,” Hogg said.
Kanapathipillai says that elections are not going to change anything on the ground as the army remains in command of the region.
“The police power remains with the central government, people will still be killed and these elections have no impact on those facts,” she told Al Jazeera from London.