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Eastern Province can be Sri Lanka’s political laboratory or political minefield

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

The Eastern Province in a way is a microcosm of the Sri Lankan nation, given the confluence of all major communities, the Upcountry Tamils too not to be left out. Post-war, it can set a stellar example for the rest of the nation to learn from.

Mosque in Eravur, Batticaloa District-pic by Drs Sarajevo

It can become a laboratory test for the kind of politics and society that the Sri Lankan State and the nation’s united communities and their divided polity want to practise, across the nation. Or, it can end up as a minefield

The ‘Dambulla mosque issue’ could not have come at a worse time for the country, just as it was limping back from the not-so-unexpected shock administered by the UNHRC vote in Geneva. Opening a non-existent issue after a mosque had existed for 60 years in a locality earmarked as sacred for the Sinhala-buddhist majority has the potential to split the fractured Eastern community three-way, with consequences for their fractured polity and the nation as a whole.

It is unfortunate that Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne’s name got to be entangled with the Dambulla episode. It should still be said to the credit of the otherwise splintered Eastern Muslim polity, all participating in the coalition Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that they lost no time in calling on the community to maintain peace.

The last time they came together, it was after the ‘grease devil’ episodes last year. Whether rumours or true incidents, the ‘grease devils’ did not stop with Muslim localities. They did not leave out the Upcountry Tamil areas, where it caused the stationing of STF police, not called even at the height of the three decades of ethnic war and violence, though elsewhere in the country.

The ‘grease devils’ had started with the southern Sinhala areas and spilled over to the Northern Tamil localities, where it died a natural death.

Yet, it was in the Muslim localities that the severity of the ‘haunt’ was felt the most. The unity of purpose among the Muslim political leaderships in the East served to calm down fragile sentiments and frayed tempers.

As coincidences would have it, the ‘Dambulla incident’ has come at a time when news reports indicate that the Government was considering early elections to the Eastern Provincial Council, along with those for two others. Reports also indicate that President Rajapaksa would be talking to Eastern Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan also known as Pillaiyan in this regard as the Constitution enjoins that he be consulted in the matter.

Among the first to go to the polls at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’ after the armed forces had cleared the Province of the LTTE, the East had its first polls under the Provincial Council Act, 1987, in May 2008. The five-year term does not end before May 2013, hence the need for the President to talk to the Chief Minister in the matter, reports have further indicated.

It is in this context, a statement attributed to Arun Thambimuttu, the Batticaloa district organiser of the ruling SLFP needs to be considered

Son of the slain Tamil MP, Sam Tambimuttu, Arun has taken the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to task for reportedly reviving the demand for a South-eastern Provincial Council. The SLMC has not really contested the report. Taken to the logical end, the reported SLMC demand would revive a division of the North and the East between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Muslims, with the Sinhalamajority areas in the latter being merged with the adjacent Sinhala-majority Provinces, already in existence.

This could facilitate the merger of the North and the Tamil-majority areas of the East, as well, if one went by the forgotten ‘Chandrika package’, if only the rest of the nation’s polity would agree to the same.

The Provincial Council Act, 1987 provides for a referendum in the East if the Province were to be merged with the North. With a separate Province for the Muslims, it is not unlikely that their polity would collectively campaign for the merger, as envisaged by the Indo-sri Lanka Accord on the one hand and by the TNA, post-war. The Eastern PC polls in 2008 retur ned a majority of Muslim members cutting across party lines. If Chandrakanthan, a Tamil, still became Chief Minister, it was because all members belonging to the majority S L F P – PA w e n t by President Rajapaksa’s commitment to have a Tamil Chief Minister for the Province.

The SLFP -PA Muslims did so rather hesitatingly, and required to be convinced by the President himself. The TNA had boycotted the polls at the time, but the subsequent elections for the presidency (January 2010), Parliament (April 2010) and the local government councils (2010-11) proved that the Alliance had its say in the Eastern election scene, as well.

A new element could be added to the ‘ethnic polarisation’ of sorts in the East – and also the North – as and when the Census-2011 figures are out. The door-to-door collection of data occurred only on February 27-28 this year, and sketchy reports, attributed to official sources, put the nation’s population a little over 20 million. A clearer picture has the potential to revive fears of mutual mistrust rather than hopes of mutual dependence.

The Eastern Province in a way is a microcosm of the Sri Lankan nation, given the confluence of all major communities, the Upcountry Tamils too not to be left out. Post-war, it can set a stellar example for the rest of the nation to learn from.

It can become a laboratory test for the kind of politics and society that the Sri Lankan State and the nation’s united communities and their divided polity want to practice, across the nation. Or, it can end up as a minefield. The East has enough to offer, what the nation wants, it is for the latter to choose.

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