The decision to host provincial elections in the heartland of the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka is one that the government of President Rajapakse may well regret. The polls, the first since the Tamil Tigers were crushed by the army in 2009, resulted in the Tamil National Alliance, a party favoured by most northern Tamils, taking 30 of the 36 seats. Rajapakse’s ruling party was trounced.
The victory is significant. The TNA’s campaign voiced the Tamil communities’ demands for greater political autonomy and an end to the military’s occupation of land in north. The TNA will now form a government in the Northern Province and have to work out a compromise with Rajapakse’s national government. For years, the Tamils have demanded control over state police, land and administration. But the central government opposes any devolution of power.
The elections were clearly a result of the pressure the government felt from its bigger neighbour India on the eve of a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November. Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record since 2009 has continued to spark international interest and domestic tensions. In August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, criticised the government’s turn towards authoritarianism. Human rights organizations have highlighted its attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the absence of accountability despite credible allegations presented by both the UN and the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission of wartime abuses by both sides. With the TNA in the driving seat, Sri Lanka’s Tamils may have inched closer to seeking justice but it rests on bodies like the Commonwealth to ensure that it is delivered.