At long last, after an interminable wait, four years since the end of the war, the people of the North have been given the opportunity to exercise their right to elect their Provincial Council, their representatives. The gazette notification has given the Elections Commissioner the go ahead to make arrangements for the conduct of a free and fair election.
The process was moving at its usual pace. Much to the surprise of all, the Northern Provincial Council election has all too unexpectedly got ‘transposed’ into something more dynamic than a mere routine election. The tenor in the process received a lightening change with the nomination of Justice Wigneswaran as the chief ministerial candidate by the Tamil National Alliance. His appointment comes in the wake of a spate of “indecent and criminal behavior of some of the elected local government members”. The sheer weight in the numbers and frequency of such occurrences has come into the public domain and cannot be wished away; government has declared that investigation will be undertaken. Many of the errant members are known to be from the SLFP, causing further embarrassment to the administration. The damning observation is that the ‘accused’ persons did not take to criminal activities after election to office but that they had come with a history of anti- societal activities within the definition of criminality and that they were nevertheless selected to contest the elections. It is imperative for the healthy functioning of democratic process to adopt more stringent criteria for the selection of candidates for public office.
Positive features in Wigneswaran’s candidature.
What is striking about this candidature is that Wigneswaran brings with him a huge baggage of positive factors that portends well for the future wellbeing of the people in the North. If he is successful in working out the modalities he has suggested in the interviews he has given, the Northern Council can become a model for the rest of the provincial councils. His reputation for being outspoken, his fearlessness to speak his mind, his integrity during his tenure in judicial service and the quality of his judgments that marked him as an outstanding judge are some of the features that recommend his candidature.
Interest people oriented and not personal
When he was asked by a journalist to clarify his views on self- determination and the other larger issues that have pre occupied much of the dialogue now and in the past, Wigneswaran said, “Look these are for politicians. I am not a politician. I am interested in bringing some relief to people who are suffering.” The implication if this statement is that he is focusing on the immediate concerns of the people and the rest could be put on the back burner for the present. Having worked and lived in many parts of the country including the Northern, Eastern, North Central, Uva and Western Province he would have acquired the proficiency, the know-how to work within a diversity of circumstances with an acute consciousness of the multi ethnic composition of the country.
Trust as key to peace
Accommodation and openness to fresh approaches have been missing on both sides in the ethnic dialogue. Progress can be made only if confrontational positions can be avoided. Wigneswaran’s statement, “A solution based on trust would make it possible to make headway” (Daily Mirror July 17) is touching on the most sensitive issue today. Trust between the policy makers and the people of the North has been the deficit factor in the post conflict period as much as it was in earlier times. At present the bogey of the birth of another Prabhakaran is so huge that the whole governance process is inadvertently moving backwards to the years that helped in the creation of Prabhakaran, first as a leader, then as an icon for resistance to the state.
Building trust will help to reduce the animosities and confrontations between the majority and the minority. A failure to do so portends a dismal future, a future that may see the emergence of resistance to the establishment. The government and the people must take solace from Wigneswaran’s stance that “Co- existence based on understanding, eschewing violence as a method of resolving conflicts but at the same time giving whole hearted support to the Human rights of the discriminated sections of society, is the surest way of peace.” The phobia of security threat from a hapless population in the north or from a diaspora that can be defined and contained by the age old axiom that “empty vessels make the most noise” can be put to rest with leadership that is on offer from the TNA candidate.
Practical approach- cooperate with the system
Wigneswaran appears to have worked out a practical approach whereby he is willing to work within the system to secure relief for some outstanding issues. The lack of information on missing and detained persons has been a major concern during and after the end of the war. He is hoping for a window of opportunity that he can open if he is successful in becoming the Chief Minister. He thinks it may be possible for him to use his former position as a member of the judiciary to personally meet and discuss with the Attorney-General some of the cases of detainees and missing persons and that the Attorney General may be able to assist him. It appears to be his opinion that even if some information can be weaned in this way, it will be something to build on. To further facilitate this process he suggests the establishment of an organization that will collect data of cases on the missing or dead. For a start if information can be secured for even 50 or 100 cases it would a great service.
Absence of chauvinism
Peace times obviously should not envisage a huge military presence or military representation in civilian positions. Wigneswaran sees, as many as others have, a contradiction in having a large military presence even after the end of the war. He states that 10- 15 out of 20 battalions are stationed in the north. To have a governor drawn from the forces is antithetic to the creation of a peace platform. That he is not advocating the withdrawal of the military governor from a narrow chauvinistic attitude is evident by his suggestion that a person like Prof. Savitri Gunasekera, former law professor and Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, a recognized personality from civil society with a background in working on human rights issues be appointed as the Governor of the Northern Province. The mindset of the military is not tenable in peace times is his contention.
Building infrastructure for practical politics
That Wigneswaran is seeing the whole picture and not a narrow vision is seen in his request to the TNA nomination committee. He has advised that it should “get the right people who will be able to work with him as a team with good understanding. Apart from political issues, they should also possess the broader outlook with reference to educational activities and economic development. As the NP Council is going to be the democratically elected premier body in a province devastated by war, it should be effective in dealing with whatever issues it may come across” – a commendable approach for the selection of candidates for political office.
Equity for all
If the TNA wins he hopes to conduct the affairs of the council leaving no room for discrimination on the basis of race, religion or region, meting out equal treatment to all mindful of human rights. He clearly states that there will be no room for politicization of the administration. Hence appointments and job opportunities will be based on merit. These are clear prescriptions for the establishment of peace and harmony. There can be no contest on the direction of the administration if Wigneswaran is given the opportunity to serve as Chief Minister. It will be advisable for the government to support an enlightened approach that shows interest in working within the system and moving forward in conflict reduction on the ethnic front.
Many rejoiced in the certainty that peace can be secured; country will prosper; wise decisions will be taken to ensure that people live in peace and harmony, in trust and accommodation. The widespread belief was that politicians across the divide will make rational decisions to ensure freedom to all Lankans without prejudice or bias.
Just as there was war fatigue towards the end of the war, there is, today, general fatigue with constant harping on ethnicity, on the provincial councils with or without land and police powers and with the stage managed actors selected to introduce controversial subjects for debate that interested parties would like to keep alive although quick resolution of these is the need of the hour.
No candidate will be perfect but the choice of Wigneswaran will drive home the fact that candidates apart from their grass roots links must also have other credentials to make their candidature attractive to the voter and to make certain that when elected they have the necessary mind set to fulfill their roles in the Council to meet the needs of the people.
What made the change is the past record of the individual as a man of integrity, an upright judge, with proven record of rational studied judgements without fear or favour.
It is essential to have people with education, who work out rationally policies and strategies that will help in developing better prospects for society. Their responsibility will be by their calculated moves shape public opinion which in turn will influence the actions of the ‘power holders’. In today’s context when information, knowledge is specialized it does require a degree of ‘intellectualism’ to be able to understand and work systems. If this quality is available the quality of debate will be incredibly superior to what we have around. Men and women without educational qualifications have done well in exceptional circumstances but they have been persons who have diligently applied themselves to the task under study or issues that have to be investigated.