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Democracy and the Northeast

Amid efforts to promote peace in Sri Lanka, an oft repeated assertion is that the Northeast needs to be ‘democratised.’ This claim, put forward amid the Liberation Tigers’ dominance over the Tamil areas is leveled by those committed in principle to democracy, but also, more often than not, by self-interested opponents of the LTTE. The argument goes thus: the LTTE is a military organization that suppresses democracy in the Northeast primarily to safeguard its claim to be sole representative of the Tamil people. By extension, without an electoral mandate, the LTTE is not entitled to the claim as there are Tamils opposed to the movement and its political project and only by allowing these sentiments through can a genuine solution be arrived at.



The cause of democratizing the North-East which will doubtless have the support of the residents of the North-East when it is situated in the wider context of restructuring and reforming the Sri Lankan state in its entirety, say towards a strong federal model of power-sharing. But in the immediate future, Tamil focus is on establishing a secure and autonomous region within which they may manage their own affairs. The LTTE is the most viable vehicle for this. And despite the invectives of many of its critics, most Tamils – including many who are critical of the movement – accept that the LTTE grew out of a need to halt a multifaceted state-run campaign of discrimination and violence, sometimes characterized as a ‘slow genocide.’



The LTTE is thus primarily a military organization geared to defeat the state’s coercive apparatus. But as the territory under its control expanded, the LTTE recognized the need for governmental structures to provide security, law and order, contract enforcement, medical services and education. Criticism of the LTTE’s leadership structure as undemocratic therefore misses the point: the movement evolved out of a security need that has not been filled by the peace process. Moreover, its leadership progression is understood as meritocratic while the organization as a whole is renowned for its lack of corruption and the discipline of its cadres.



Democratisation of the Northeast, meanwhile, is deeply implicated in the Sri Lankan state’s efforts to promoting other, more acquiescent Tamil groups as ‘alternatives’ to the LTTE as leaders of the Tamils. Perhaps unsurprisingly the state and its allied Tamil groups have therefore been amongst the LTTE’s most vocal critics. The central charge has been that the LTTE is a fascist, uncompromising organization pursuing hardline policies to perpetuate the conflict for its own self-aggrandizing interests. Conversely, the other Tamil groups are projected as beleaguered ‘moderate’ actors braving a hostile rival.



As the conflict shifted from an insurgency to a fully fledged conventional war, these characterizations were dissonant with manifest ground realities. There is now a shift: the LTTE is suggested as dominant with a limited measure of political support in the Northeast and the other Tamil groups portrayed as political rivals braving its dangerous hegemony.



There are multiple objectives behind the campaign to reject the LTTE’s sole representative claim and the attendant call for democratization of the Northeast. The first is to introduce Tamil organizations loyal to the state into the negotiation process, thereby widening it from a bilateral to a multilateral one - and thus to dilute the autonomy challenge. A secondary goal is to shift the focus away from the substantial alterations of Sri Lanka’s own constitution that are necessary to address Tamil demands.



Whilst there is common acceptance that Sri Lanka’s constitution needs to be changed as part of a solution, the most obvious of amendments is not being discussed even now: the repeal of the 6th amendment. This clause rules any advocacy of separation or independence illegal in principle. Even an unarmed LTTE therefore cannot be a legitimate political entity in Sri Lanka. It is well-known that the 1977 Parliamentary elections were a de-facto referendum on independence with the Tamils endorsing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and its call for Eelam. After the 6th amendment came into being, there has simply been no way of testing Tamil sentiment on independence.



It is in this context that the ‘lack of democracy’ claim fits into Colombo’s strategy of subverting a negotiated solution. An unusual mix of paramilitary groups and marginalised politicians who at various stages have supported the state, militarily or politically, are being put forward as the actors through which the project of democratizing the Northeast ought to proceed. These include the paramilitary Eelam People’s Democractic Party (EPDP), the ousted former leader of the TULF, V. Anandasangeree, and even the renegade LTTE commander Karuna.



Many of these actors enjoy visibly limited legitimacy in the Northeast. Apart from being perceived as having militarily and politically implicated with a Sinhala-dominated state and its repression, they have also been associated with paramilitary violence, corruption, racketeering and in some cases, rights abuses. However, Colombo has sought to bolster these actors through military force and state-funded patron-client networks. The latter has been most vividly illustrated by World Bank investigations of Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation ministry whilst the EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda, was in charge: despite having over 1300 employees, the World Bank team said they couldn’t find a single person who had been helped by the ministry.



Moreover, the paramilitary organizations, working closely with Sri Lanka’s military, are also engaged in a shadow war with the LTTE. Although Colombo has consistently denied it, their complicity in the murderous violence in the Northeast has, amid a rising bodycount, compelled even the Co-Chairs of Sri Lanka’s donors to demand they be disarmed to protect the peace process. The Tamil groups, for their part, seek to project their casualties in this covert conflict as further evidence of the LTTE’s anti-democratic nature. The killings are however integral to the cycle of violence between their Army-backed gunmen and the LTTE’s intelligence wing.



The LTTE, meanwhile, appears to be in tune with popular political sentiments amongst the Tamils, illustrated most vividly by the results of the April 2004 Parliamentary elections in which the LTTE-proxies, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), received a thumping endorsement. The TNA manifesto explicitly backed the LTTE’s sole representative claim and, moreover, the notion of a Tiger-controlled Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) for the Northeast. Indeed, the TNA explicitly urged voters to view the election as a referendum of their support for the LTTE’s contemporary political positions and won a record 22 seats.



These popular sentiments were also underlined by a survey conducted by the Colombo-based think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). The survey revealed that LTTE policies enjoy the overwhelming support of the Tamils. In excess of 90% of respondents expressed support for policies such as ISGA and the removal of the Sri Lankan military’s High Security Zones(HSZs) from Tamil areas (interestingly over 50% of the Northeast’s Muslim community also supported the ISGA). Significantly the survey was carried out anonymously and only in government controlled areas, discounting undue LTTE influence of the results.



The Sri Lankan state and its allied Tamil groups counter that the 2004 polls are an inaccurate reflection of support for the LTTE as its grip on the Northeast prevents residents from dissenting against its policies. However, these accusations are suspect given that Tamils crossed into government-controlled territory cast secret ballots and given the substantial effort the LTTE put into ensuring people in its controlled areas were transported to crossing points. Whilst there have been allegations of electoral malpractice in Jaffna in favour of the TNA, Sri Lanka’s electoral commission ruled that the outcome could not have been altered by tampering: the TNA was returned with landslides in almost all Tamil-dominated districts.



Meanwhile, an often ignored constituency in the ‘democratisation’ debate is the Tamil Diaspora. The substantial political, moral and financial support accruing to the LTTE from the Diaspora underlines the legitimacy the organization enjoys amongst Tamils clearly not subject to its direct control. Moreover, most of the Diaspora has family and community links to Tamils in the Northeast and the claim the former would contribute to the repression of the latter defies logic. Conversely, it is significant that none of the LTTE’s critics have been able to mobilize support of any standing amongst Diaspora Tamils in the West.



Sri Lanka has sought to redirect international support for better governance on the island toward the legitimization of paramilitary actors aligned with the state’s interests, hoping that the LTTE can be weakened as a Tamil representative and corralled into diluting its firm stance on self-rule. Introducing a multitude of anti-LTTE players to the negotiating process, the state hopes, would also blunt demands for the substantial constitutional reform that it might be compelled to effect. The unprincipled nature of these groups is exemplified by the EPDP this month campaigning vigorously for Mahinda Rajapakse, the only Presidential candidate who has explicitly rejected power-sharing with the Tamils or weakening the unitary state in any way.



There are, of course, aspects of the LTTE’s governance structure that fall short of liberal ideals. However, these criticisms must be evaluated in the context of the threats, including military incursion, faced by the embryonic administration that the organization has established. However, the LTTE has consistently demonstrated that its policies on the major issues affecting the residents of the North-East are in tune with popular opinion.



Moreover, a conviction the organization acts largely in the interests of the people it claims to represent has been substantially enhanced by its conduct since the February 2002 and especially in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. The LTTE is recognized as running an efficient, uncorrupt administration which has successfully mobilised the Diaspora to deliver benefits to the residents of its controlled areas. Its pro-active engagement with foreign Non-Govermental Organizations (NGOs) has circumvented the state’s unmistakably racist obstructions to ensure the efficient delivery of international assistance. The LTTE is the single largest employer in its controlled areas, though private business ventures both from the Diaspora and local Tamils are being encouraged and supported.



The point is that, despite its non-participation in electoral politics, the LTTE is attempting to govern efficiently and humanely. Whilst articulating a clear cut political stance – self-rule and autonomy for the Tamil people – the movement is also facilitating and promoting development activities that can make a concrete difference to the lives of ordinary people. None of its so called rivals or self-styled ‘moderates’ can compare in achieved results.



This is not to say there isn’t expectation of greater democratic freedom in the longer term; self rule is inextricably linked on a people’s ability to influence their governors. But this democratic freedom is acknowledged as conditional on the establishment of a stable, unassailable Tamil entity, federal state or otherwise. However, ‘democratisation’ in which parties serving the interests of parties external to the Tamil polity, most notably the other protagonist in the ethnic conflict, the Sri Lankan state, is not the same thing. Neither is the foisting on them of ‘alternative’ leaders whose alignment with the repressive Sinhala-dominated state is unabashedly displayed. As the ‘democratisation’ advocates argue, a failure to heed the sentiments of the Tamil people will prove a major obstacle to finding a long term solution to the ethnic-conflict. But the Tamils, both the Diaspora and residents of the Northeast have been repeatedly asserting their loyalties and preferences for several years now.



EPDP: examining an alternative [Oct 19, 2005]