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    South Asia
     Jul 27, 2011

Setback for Rajapaksa's reconciliation
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Local election results in Sri Lanka indicate that while President Mahinda Rajapaksa can still count on solid support in the Sinhala south, his post-war development strategy to address Tamil alienation has failed to cut ice with Tamils in the north and east.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) exceeded expectations to take control of 18 of 26 local bodies in the north and east in the polls on Saturday. Another Tamil party, the Tamil United Liberation Front, took two local councils - both in Killinochchi district - where it was reportedly backed by the TNA.

The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) performed dismally in the war-ravaged regions, where a quarter of a century

of civil conflict ended in 2009. Despite pouring money and ministers into the election campaign and freely using the military to intimidate TNA candidates, it was able to win only two local councils in the north - in the islets of Delft and Velanai. Even these victories have been attributed to the Eelam People's Democratic Party, a Tamil constituent of the UPFA coalition, rather than to the UPFA itself.

The north's overwhelming rejection of Rajapaksa stands in stark contrast to the south's continuing support to him.

The UPFA swept the polls in the Sinhalese-dominated south, taking control of all the local bodies that went to the polls on Saturday. The opposition United National Party and the Janata Vimukti Peramuna were decimated.

"The Rajapaksa government has been saying that all the north wants is reconstruction and economic development. It has been proved wrong now," Soosaipillai Keethaponcalan, head of the department of political science at the University of Colombo told Asia Times Online. "Tamils know the TNA cannot provide them with economic benefits." Yet they voted for it and in doing so, "reiterated that political issues are still very important."

Local elections rarely capture international attention. However, Saturday's elections to 65 local bodies were keenly watched abroad. The contest in the north was seen as a test of Rajapaksa's popularity among Tamils. Would Tamils vote for the UPFA and thus endorse Rajapaksa's post-war development-centric approach to resolving ethnic conflict.

The decisive victory of the TNA and the rejection of the UPFA in the north and east indicate that they do not.

The Tamil-dominated Northern province was once the bastion of the LTTE. In December 1995, the LTTE lost control over the Jaffna Peninsula. The locus of their power shifted thereafter to Killinochchi, where its political headquarters was located. In May 2009, the LTTE was defeated comprehensively by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The entire top leadership of the LTTE, including its founder-chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, intelligence chief Pottu Amman and others were killed. Three months later, the LTTE's overseas presence suffered a grievous blow with the arrest of its new leader, Kumar Pathmanathan or "KP".

A conglomeration of Tamil political parties and former rebels, the TNA, which has been contesting elections over the past decade, was widely seen as a proxy of the LTTE. Although the LTTE itself never contested elections, it was very much an actor in the electoral arena, choosing the TNA's candidates and publicly endorsing them. In parliament, the TNA often functioned as a mouthpiece of the Tigers by pushing the LTTE line.

However, since the defeat of the LTTE, the TNA has moderated its position and moved away from the demand for an independent Tamil Eelam. Ahead of the parliamentary elections last year, it announced that it favored a federal structure in the north and east with power over land, finance, law and order.

The TNA's robust performance in polls when the LTTE was around was often attributed to the Tigers' backing, the argument being that the LTTE intimidated voters to support TNA candidates. However, even after the LTTE's defeat, the TNA has done well.

Although it lost the Jaffna urban council to the UPFA in 2009, it fought the odds to take control of the Vavuniya municipal council. In general elections last year, of the 15 members of parliament elected from the Northern province, eight belonged to the TNA. Of the 16 seats in the Eastern province, it secured five.

The TNA's resounding victory in Saturday's elections to local bodies was achieved against all odds. The ruling UPFA left no stone unturned to win. Members of the Rajapaksa family, including the president, and scores of UPFA ministers campaigned for days in the north.

Their campaign focused on the government's development work there - the buildings and highways that have been repaired since the end of the war. Their speeches were filled with pledges of more development in the north.

Rajapaksa, who is under pressure abroad on the issue of war crimes, was hoping for a victory in the north as he could have held that up as evidence that the Tamil people were with his government and that the reconciliation process in the island was on track.

The north's unambiguous rejection of the UPFA in the elections has blasted those plans.

The Rajapaksas are not amused. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who is the president's brother, has expressed displeasure over the results in the north. "The president has extended his hand for the development of North, but they refuse it," he complained.

"It is not that we are opposed to economic development of the north or even saying that development and reconstruction should wait until a political solution is found," a Jaffna university professor told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "What we are opposed to is the Rajapaksa government's attempt to substitute a political solution with buildings and bridges."

Stressing that "political issues underlying the conflict are more important for the Tamil people than construction of roads and ports", he pointed out that "a political solution is essential for lasting peace".

Clearly, the TNA read the Tamil mood better.

TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran said the TNA "campaigned for a dignified political settlement" and asked voters to give them a "mandate to fight for some sort of regional autonomy".

The TNA's focus on a fair political solution resonated with Tamils. They gave the party their votes.

N Shanmugaratnam, a professor of Sri Lankan Tamil origin at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in As, Norway, has argued that resettlement and rehabilitation or private investment and other similar activities "need to be framed and conducted in such ways that they are seen as steps towards linking development with a political solution rather than using it to sidestep the latter".

But Rajapaksa's development-centric post-war strategy seems aimed at avoiding a political solution. Since the end of the war, his government has been diluting promises made earlier to strengthen devolution of power to the north and east. Increasingly it appears to be the view that there is no need for devolution at all, that Tamil reconciliation can be bought with development projects.

A recent report on Sri Lanka by the International Crisis Group observes that two years after the end of the war, the country is further away from reconciliation than ever.

"Post-conflict efforts to bring societies together are always fraught with difficulties, particularly in cases of deep ethnic division. In Sri Lanka, the challenge is even greater," the report says, "because the government denies that ethnicity was the driving factor behind the civil war. Instead it appropriated the language of the 'war on terror', dehumanizing its enemies and dismissing the possibility that they, or those they claimed to represent, have legitimate grievances."

"If the ethnic polarization in the voting pattern between North and South is to end, it is necessary for the government to stop denying the existence of ethnic differences within the polity and instead deal differently with the problem," observed political commentator Jehan Perera in an opinion piece in The Island.

"Tamils have little interest in reconciliation without resolution of the political issues," said Keethaponcalan of the University of Colombo. "Proper reconciliation can come only after a political solution is found," he says.

With Rajapaksa refusing to acknowledge, let alone address the political issues that lie at the core of the conflict, the alienation of Tamils will remain high. In the circumstances, reconciliation remains a distant dream.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at sudha98@hotmail.com

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