Thoppigala was the big news last week with the government now preparing to rush legislation to call for fresh nominations for elections to nine local bodies in the Eastern Province including the Batticaloa Municipal Council. These elections have been pending for over one and a half years but the security situation in the province did not make them possible. We have the word of the highest in the land that the East is now under government control enabling elections in the area and the government is ready to go ahead with those elections. If this is the case, why cannot the referendum promised under the Indo - Lanka Agreement of 1987 giving the people of the Eastern Province the opportunity to decide whether they are to be merged with the North for purposes of regional autonomy now be held?
This has been dragging on for far too long. When the Northern and Eastern Provinces were temporarily merged, mark that pregnant word ``temporarily,`` the people of the East were promised a referendum within a year to decide whether they wished this arrangement to continue. Then President J.R. Jayewardene went on public record that he would campaign for the de-merger. Jayewardene and his government were clearly unhappy that a province, populated in roughly equal numbers by Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, will be subject to the writ of Tamil-dominated Jaffna by a merger of the North and East. But with an Indian gun held at his head, all that Jayewardene could do was wrest the concession - that was what it was - for a temporary merger of the two provinces to be later tested by a referendum. The wisdom ex post facto is that those who went through the motions of conceding it, did so with the knowledge that what had been given cannot be taken back.
This seems to have been the case judging by the monotonous annual ritual of postponing the promised referendum that has been going on for nearly two decades. The North - East merger is the major sticking point to a political solution of the National Question. It is not only the LTTE and its proxies in the Tamil National Alliance who wish the merger to continue. Even the widely admired Mr. Anandasangaree is thinking in terms of a federal solution with a merged northeast. If Mr. Douglas Devananda`s views are sought, he too may be found to be tilting in that direction. The fact of the matter is that what counts is not the view of this or that party or interest group. It is the people of the East who must decide what they want and a referendum provided for in the constitution is the best way of determining their wishes. Giving them this opportunity will be a major step towards winning their hearts and minds which is the biggest battle of all.
All these years we have been told that the security situation in the East did not make a referendum possible. If conditions are conducive to hold local elections across the province, is a referendum not possible now? This is a far higher priority than local elections that can follow. Indubitably the exercise is not going to be easy and no soothsayer is needed to predict that the LTTE will do everything it can to wreck the attempt. But this is a matter on which international support can be sought. What more democratic than direct consultation of the concerned people on what they want? If the people of the East want a merger with the North, so be it. If not, their wishes must be respected and a solution for the problem that has cost this country so much blood and treasure in nearly three decades of a virtual civil war must be found within those parameters.
Let our warring political parties put aside their petty squabbles about whether Thoppigala was a pyrrhic victory or not and take a serious decision on something that is truly worthwhile. For our part we do not see the major political parties comprising the SLFP, UNP, JVP and even the JHU opposing a referendum in the East. Many of them will support such a measure most enthusiastically as would the old left parties that are now only a shadow of what they once were. The TNA is not likely to stand up and cheer. They have no line independent of the LTTE. The exercise that we propose is not going to be easy. The late Major General Lakshman Algama who cleared the East during the D.B. Wijetunga presidency has on many occasions publicly asserted that politicians in the East were frightened to submit their nomination papers when elections were called in those areas. Understandably, they preferred to be alive than elected.
The LTTE can be counted on to try to stop people from voting at a referendum because a very low vote would rob it of credibility. They will also try to intimidate election officials even with death threats. Those are all problems that must and can be overcome. If the Tigers try third degree, it will be obvious to the whole world that they perceive that the majority do not favour a merger. But if the majority of the people of the East are willing to go along with what the Tigers want, even because they feel that is a price worth paying to end this useless war, the South must respect their wishes and work out the long overdue solution to the National Question on that basis. To sum up, let us once more say what we said at the beginning: if elections can be held in the East a referendum is also possible. That is a top priority, so let us go ahead and let the people of the East decide what is best for them.