by Harim Peiris
The recent verbal fracas involving the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and a Navy officer, a Captain who is the commander of the Vidura Naval Training camp, has resulted in unfortunate tensions, where non needed to have occurred and created a situation where saner counsel needs to prevail and the wider national interest in post war reconciliation needs to be preserved.
The incident itself was a very local affair and that it caught national attention shows the power of social media and the growing influence of social media as an agent of disintermediation between traditional elites and the public. But for social media, the genial and savvy Governor of the Eastern Province, would have been able to smooth over a small incident at a local function in Trincomalee. However, the amateur recording went viral on social media and we have a national incident.
The event itself, a ceremony at the Sampoor Maha Vidyalaya, a provincial school was organised to handover new computers to the school which had been organised by the Navy through a corporate donor and school bags and other educational materials to the student. The school which was occupied and used by the Navy during the war years had only two weeks earlier been handed back to the provincial authorities due to the untiring efforts of the Governor. The Navy had a laudable objective, to hand the school back to civilian authorities better than they took it over, complete with computers and equipment for the students. Hence as the donor coordinator, they played the central role in organising the equipment handover ceremony.
The verbal fracas itself has been referred by both the Chief Minister and the Navy to the President and Prime Minister, as the political leaders of the country and the former also being the commander in chief of the Sri Lankan Armed forces. However, the incident demonstrates how fragile Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation is in the former conflict areas, the ease with which tensions can arise between ethno religious minority political leaders in the North and East and Sri Lanka’s largely mono ethnic military deployed there and the issue of civilian space which has been inadequately addressed, in the case of the East, a decade after hostilities ended there in 2007 at Thoppigala.
The Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka are our only provinces, where ethnic and religious minorities comprise a majority of the population of the two provinces and it has been the site of our bitter, polarising and decades long civil conflict. Accordingly, the challenge of healing the hearts and minds, of Sri Lanka being inclusive and tolerant begins in the North and East. It is this factor that President Sirisena refers to very often at appropriate forums, where he stresses the need for “sanhidiyawa” or reconciliation. The provincial council system, is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s efforts to devolve power to the majority of the ethnic minorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and to be inclusive in governance. To correct what LTTE suicide victim Dr. Neelan Tiruchelveam so eloquently defined as the “anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. Accordingly, it is in Sri Lanka’s national interest of post war reconciliation and the Sirisena Administration’s objective of “sanhidiyawa” that the provincial administration be strengthened and the civilian space in the North and East be expanded.
Clearly the Eastern Province’s Chief Minister felt that his provincial administration had been ignored in a school function organised by the Navy, in a school which came under the Provincial Council’s purview and that he personally and his Education Minister from the TNA had been insulted at the event. It is clear in retrospect, that that had clearly not been the intention of the Navy in general and not even of the officer concerned. However, it is also clear, that in organising the function, the Chief Minister, the Provincial Education Minister and the provincial administration had not been given what they believed was their due place.
The situation with regards the provincial politics of the Eastern province is a very delicate but promising one. The Eastern Provincial Administration is the grandest of grand provincial coalition administrations, bringing together the SLMC, the TNA, the UNP and the SLFP into the Administration, in perhaps what may be a model and a possibility nationally at a future date. The inclusion of the TNA in the Administration, being the significant addition from the National Government at the Centre. Supporting and managing this delicate situation in the Eastern Province, is the astute Governor Austin Fernando, himself a former Defence Secretary, besides many other senior roles and a trusted confidante of the President.
The TNA only barely lost the last Eastern Provincial Council, at the last provincial elections, the entire province by just 6,200 votes and that too in Ampara, where it also previously managed to elect a Sinhala MP on its ticket to the last Parliament. Elections to the Eastern Provincial Council are due next year in 2017 and the TNA finds itself in good stead to capture power in the Eastern Provincial Council, requiring only a small increase in the Muslim support it garners. The resolute and principled position adopted by TNA leader R. Sambanthan in the face of Mosque attacks during the days of the Rajapakse regime, has held the TNA in good stead in the East.
It is important that sane counsel prevails and a small incident be not blown out of proportion, in a manner detrimental to the national interest of post war reconciliation.