As the term of office of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) concludes this month, Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran, elected from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), actually from the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)—the TNA not being a recognised political party or alliance—finally and formally broke with the TNA and announced his plans to form a new party, the Tamil Peoples Alliance, perhaps as the successor of the Tamil Peoples Forum which he oversaw and patronised for the past several years.
As Justice Wigneswaran prepares to form his new political party and take on the traditional ruling elites of the Tamil people gathered under the banner of the ITAK-led TNA, it would be useful to examine the track record of the man who would seek to unseat or replace one of the current pillars of Sri Lankan politics, the veteran Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, as the leader of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Despite the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 and the existence of provincial councils in the rest of the country, the Rajapaksa administration’s policy of seeking to govern in peacetime as in the time of war meant that it was disinclined to fulfill its constitutional obligation to constitute the Northern Provincial Council. It took increasing international isolation and lack of sympathy for the hardline Rajapaksa administration internationally to coax it to hold the first ever post-war provincial elections in the North as a concession and constitute the NPC.
Despite the stellar efforts and the example of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC), which initiated the first step in the defeat of the Rajapaksa administration by refusing to give accent to the ‘Divi Neguma Bill’ and initiating the successful Supreme Court challenge to the same, which consequently saw Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike impeached by an over-confident Rajapaksa administration, thereby commencing the slippage of its Sinhala support, who still hold the judiciary in high esteem. The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) under Chief Minister Wigneswaran became a strange creature. It neither had the political imagination nor the courage to take on Rajapaksa at the center as the EPC democratically and judicially did, nor did it go about the urgent task of providing relief and bettering the lot of the people of the Northern Province, all of whom had been at the center of a war for close upon three decades.
In fact, in the first year of the NPC’s administration it actually returned unspent money to the treasury in Colombo, for projects that had been approved and funded but not implemented. In the second year, the chief minister engaged in a financial sleight of hand to prevent returning the money and donated all remaining funds to provincial public libraries in the North, in a process which barely passed muster with the relevant Financial Regulations (FRs).
Instead, the chief minister busied himself with a rather impractical and unproductive agenda of passing an endless array of resolutions in the NPC, which dealt with various issues, mostly in the area of accountability during the war years, but this too selectively and with no mention of LTTE culpability or responsibility for its international crimes of child conscription and assassination of democratic (unarmed) political opponents and dissidents. He was also unwilling to support the resolution which called for the return of and restitution to the Muslims who had been evicted (ethnically cleansed) from Jaffna by the LTTE during the war.
With the change of government in 2015, there was a significant change of policy by the government towards the Northern Province. For the first time since 1999 and only second time ever since 1982, the Northern Province voted for the winner of the presidential election in Maithripala Sirisena, and that by a huge margin of nearly 75 percent; President Sirisena was duly grateful to his constituency. An obstructionist and retired military General Chandrasiri was replaced as governor by SGMS Palihakkara, who went with clear instructions to bring relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction to the North.
This writer, as the then chairman of the Resettlement Authority, had a ring side seat to painfully watch the chief minister use the power of his office to obstruct all efforts to use the provincial administration to serve the people, including delaying World Bank funded projects. He spent a couple of years fighting fruitlessly with the UNDP to get an Australian national and diaspora activist appointed as his advisor/consultant and used the UNDP’s needs assessment process as his weapon of choice against itself.
In hindsight, it might not be unfair, having watched for five years, to conclude that CV Wigneswaran, in full agreement with his hardline political backers in the diaspora and particularly the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) of Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, was determined to prove that the provincial council was useless, even as an institution of limited devolved executive authority. As much as Velupillai Prabhakaran believed that using poor Tamil children as cannon fodder was acceptable in the greater goal of Tamil Eelam, Wigneswaran clearly believed that using the most vulnerable Tamil war widows, orphans, the homeless and the maimed as continuous “beggar’s wounds” was fair game or collateral damage in his quest to prove to the Tamil people and the world that the provincial council is useless. Rather like Mahinda Rajapaksa before him, he has used ethnic nationalism to disguise poor governance as well as poor service delivery in the Northern Province. Sadly, another wasted opportunity for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.
It has been, however, in his public political challenge to the moderation and engagement strategy of the TNA and its leader R Sampanthan that Wigneswaran has done the most damage to the cause of post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka in general, and the Tamil people in particular. Following the end of the war in 2009, the Tamil people were close to the brink of destruction as a people group. Their middle class was decimated, their brightest and best had been forced to flee abroad and worse probably for reconciliation and integration, completely alienated from the Sri Lankan State.
It was into this political post-war vacuum that the ITAK-led TNA, headed by Sampanthan, stepped in and adroitly marshalled the Tamil people to use their electoral muscle to politically engage the Sinhala southern polity and seek to pursue reforms of the Sri Lankan State. Reforms which may not have progressed much, but Rome was not built in a day and the alternate of war did not achieve anything for the Tamil people either.
Wigneswaran clearly differed with the engagement strategy. He would solely articulate the grievance but never provide a solution. He should then have either followed the motto of his alma mater, ‘disce aut discede’ and resigned as the TNA’s CM or engaged with Sampanthan on the policy in private or in intra-party conclaves behind closed doors, not grandstand and seek to pressure in public and thereby politically weaken Sambanthan and the TNA. The peddling of despair by the chief minister, who was elected to bring help and hope to the Tamil people, was perhaps the saddest aspect of the many missed opportunities of the now unlamented end of the Wigneswaran administration in the Northern Province.