The Sunday Leader

La Affaire Sampur

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

Eastern Province Chief Minister Nazeer Ahamed at Sampur Maha Vidyalaya

The ‘Sampur Maha Vidyalaya episode’ involving Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando, Chief Minister Nazeer Ahamed and an officer of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), should be the last of its kind, especially in the context of the Constituent Assembly working out a ‘political solution’ to the ‘ethnic issue.’ If interpreted wrongly, or misinterpreted otherwise, it could have consequences that could be worse than the problem – both that is on hand, and the larger issues of ‘power-devolution’.

First, it requires all concerned to keep the Navy, and by extension the armed forces, out of all political issues and ego hassles, whether genuine or not. By ticking off the faceless, nameless Navy officer, whom he assumed, thought and claimed had come in his way at a school function, CM Nazeer Ahamed has not covered himself with glory. He has also not done any service to the cause of the political class to which he belongs.

By citing the pressures of his office, including the multi-ethnic character of the Eastern Province and the successful ‘balancing act’ of his in managing the mutually-divided, multi-ethnic polity, Nazeer may have made out a case that is not worth pursuing. Eastern Province is a microcosm of the Sri Lankan nation as a whole, and drawing parallels of the kind could only complicate matters more than already – and more than what the nation can handle in the post-war ‘normalisation era’, if it’s any.

 

Isolation, alienation?

The Government and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did the best possible thing at the time by seeking to defuse the situation, especially the angle that involved the armed forces – the Navy in this case. Yet, it is anybody’s guess if the Government did the right thing by choosing the wrong timing for (what otherwise might have been a rightful) transfer of the Commander of the Eastern Navy.

Away in Japan for the G-7 Summit, President Maithripala Sirisena reiterated the Government’s resolve to return Tamil lands (in the North and the East) in the possession of the armed forces, to the rightful owners. Whether such a reiteration was at all required, that too overseas, only days after ‘la affaire Sampur’ should engage the Government’s thinking of the kind.

It’s one thing for the Government to do what it has promised on the post-war ethnic reconciliation, starting with the return of Tamil lands to the owners. For President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it’s also a matter of electoral faith after they had sided with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the issue ahead of the twin-polls of 2015 that put them up in the saddle.

But for the President to reiterate the same overseas when the armed forces had been snubbed nearer home, by an elected political administrator of their class, is another thing altogether.  That the armed forces should be seen as deciding on boycotting CM Nazeer and the latter criticising such a decision, if any, again has not covered anyone with any glory. Media reports have since said that the armed forces have ‘withdrawn’ the ‘boycott’ of the chief minister. Yet, it does not hide the anguish that the entire issue has generated in them. The Government now needs to examine if it was only an isolated episode in its entirety, or if it was a culmination and consequent expression of post-war, post-polls pent-up anguish and sense of alienation of years of sacrifice and decades of war.

Whatever may have been the Government’s initiative, or absence of it, on the ‘accountability issues’, its promises to the international community from time to time, too may have had consequences for the morale of the armed forces. It’s not about statements being made by the Tamil polity, or the so-called international community. They too have consequences of the kind.

The Government’s using of the armed forces like a ‘punch-bag’ to push ‘accountability’ announcements and decisions, in UNHRC and elsewhere, forwards, backwards and sideways cannot sustain for too long without consequences. The least that the Government can do is to come up with a clear-cut policy-position on ‘accountability issues,’ Tamil lands’ return – and be specific about pronouncements, and even about who should be making them, when, where and how. In context, the Government should have anticipated the likes of Nazeer’s outburst when it looked the other way when TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, the respected octogenarian in Sampanthan led his men into Army-controlled land in Killinochchi, not very long ago. It’s not about either Sampanthan or Nazeer or the issues that they had flagged. It’s more about what had not been seen, said and heard – or, so it seems.

 

Peep into complexities

That la affaire Sampur should have got enacted before American Ambassador Atul Keshap should also mean that the western world as a whole would have had a peep into the complexities of post-war equations, real, imaginary and otherwise, in the country as a whole. Nazeer is a Muslim by ethnicity and a Tamil by linguistic background. It’s thus saying a lot, things that a more complex that the international community has been willing to accept and acknowledge.

This one may have nothing to do with what the ‘Northern Tamils’ have been highlighting as their aspirations, complaints and demands. Yet, the fact that there is a Muslim component to the ethnic issue has also got highlighted in the personality and identity of the Chief Minister. Rather, it takes you back to the days of his choice and selection for the post, under the then ruling UPFA leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa – and the issues and factors involved in it.

All of it could serve as an alibi for the present leadership for citing to the ‘international community’, why a political solution and power-devolution in the contemporary Sri Lankan context is easier said than done. It will also be an episode that the SLT as a community and the TNA as a party might seek to underline in the context of power-division between the Governor and the Chief Minister.

By extension, the issue would pertain to larger issues of power-devolution, and power-devolution from the Centre to the Provinces. As the officially-recognised Opposition party in Parliament, the TNA’s position, posturing and performance on this count would be watched with interest by some – and ‘concern’ by others, depending on how the issue plays out.

 

Reference, reverence

Nearly three decades after Province-centric power-devolution under the Thirteenth Amendment, the nation has not come to accept elected provincial administrations as ‘governments’ in their right. In every reference, by the political class, media columnists, and even the moderate Tamil polity, has used the term ‘government’ only in the context of the elected dispensation at the national-level. They too are content with the contextualisation of ‘provincial administration’ in reference, relevance – and reverence, too.

It’s also the kind of issue that Northern Province TNA Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran too has been agitating since almost his assumption of office. First, his problems were with the idea of a former army commander as Governor, and later on with the person and personality of the Governor concerned. Since the new government came to power, he has had two civilian Governors, including the incumbent in an acknowledged pro-Tamil in Regiland Cooray, to work with. He has had problems with both.

As in the case of the Eastern counterpart Nazeer, Wigneswaran’s problems too have more to do with protocol than performance. Some may interpret it as the elected political leadership wanting to establish its credentials with the voters, and try and reap the electoral benefits in the future. The ground realities would dictate that CM Nazeer faces a real problem on this score than his Northern counterpart. But politics would dictate that protocol is a lesser issue with the Eastern voters than their Northern counterparts.

 

Individuals and institutions

At the end of the day, CM Nazeer’s post facto explanations blame it all not on the Navy officer concerned but on Governor Austin Fernando. A veteran civil servant, the Governor was discharging the functions as has since been in practice, 13-A or not. The question why a Provincial Governor has to chair a school function or finalise the programme, even if involving a foreign diplomat of the American envoy’s status, is not for Nazeer or Fernando to decide.

Pending the outcomes from the Constituent Assembly, it has now become an imperative for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, both as constitutional authorities and political leaders answerable to poll-time ally in the TNA and the ‘government’-partner in Nazeer’s SLMC, to clarify the hierarchy and protocol involving the Governor and the Chief Minister. The larger issue would be the reopening of the ‘Government’ taking over some of the Provincial Administration’s functions through post-13-A institutions such as ‘national schools’, ‘national hospitals’ and ‘national highways’.

The question is about the ‘Government’ as is being understood now supplementing the efforts of elected provincial administrations – or, de-linking the same from it all, through the abolition of the ‘Concurrent List’ under the new constitution. A lot would still remain as to how far Parliament is willing to go on this score, and how much of its the Sri Lankan people are ready to digest in a ‘referendum’, if and where required – how it is interpreted by the Supreme Court.

The implementation and enforcement of any such powers conferred on elected provincial administrations/governments will remain a matter of concern, if one were to go by the 13-A example and precedent. The fact also remains that in all this, how the elected PCs in those outside of the North – and now, possibly, the East – react to the situation cannot be gainsaid, either.

Even with memories of the war fading away, and with that the need for the Nation presenting a unified political face against LTTE terrorism, none other than these two Provinces have talked about power-devolution and protocol of any kind. It is easy to argue that they are reflecting the mood and methods of their respective national political leaderships (that are now hand-in-hand, if not hand-in-glove is beside the point). But the question also arises if they are only reflecting the mood and aspirations (or lack of it) of their respective populations.

All of it has a bearing on the course that the Constituent Assembly would take, and would have to take in this and other matters concerning power-devolution between the ‘Government’ and the Provinces on the one hand, and the power-division between the Governor and the Chief Minister on the other.

In and through all this, however, there is now the additional and revisited need to keep the armed forces outside of all political controversies, especially those that have only to do with hurt egos of individuals, not even institutions.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

 

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