A few years ago Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Vigneswaran, better known as C. V. Vigneswaran was the darling of the government in Colombo which was keen to shake off its hard-line tag and install a ‘moderate’ as the first Chief Minister of the Northern Province.
Vigneswaran had all the right credentials. Born in Colombo to parents hailing from Jaffna and educated in Colombo, he had just ended a career as a distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court. Informed and erudite and apolitical at that time, he appealed to all factions: moderate Tamils as well the hawks who were still smarting from the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces.
Despite having no previous political experience, he was therefore handpicked by the hierarchy of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as its chief ministerial candidate for the first provincial polls in the North held in 2013. Needless to say, the TNA won a one horse race and Vigneswaran was appointed Chief Minister.
Since then, Vigneswaran has metamorphosed into a political monster of sorts. He has a running battle with his own party, the TNA, where he is frequently at odds with the positions articulated by the party leadership. Last week, Vigneswaran was quite openly advocating a re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces.
As far as the vast majority of Sri Lankans of all communities are concerned, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces was a political experiment that went horribly wrong and gave credence to the ‘separate state’ mentality that had to be quelled at the cost of thousands of lives.
This concept was foisted on former President J.R. Jayewardene by the then Indian government which was keen to see some kind of appeasement between Colombo and the LTTE. Jayewardene reluctantly agreed because he had no choice but managed to sneak in an escape clause: a referendum on the merger. This was never held.
One of the more laudable acts of Sarath N Silva when he was Chief Justice was to declare the merger itself invalid, hence negating the need for a referendum. And indeed, the North and East have functioned quite well by themselves since formal separation in 2007 and there appears to be no urgent need for a merger except in furthering the political ambitions of Vigneswaran and those of his ilk.
The argument against the merger is simple enough. The North is predominantly Tamil. The East by contrast is a more heterogeneous region. Tamils and Muslims are in roughly equal proportions in the East. Sinhalese too account for about a fourth of the population. Merging such a region with the North when the tinderbox of ethnic strife is still dry enough to catch fire is a recipe for disaster.
Indeed, since the end of the war in 2009 the North has thrived and so has the East, each in their distinct ways. The infrastructure in these regions, ravaged by thirty years of war, is slowly being rebuilt. There are no serious issues that hamper development activities which are progressing at a lively pace, while the broader question of ethnic reconciliation continues to be dealt within the corridors of power in Colombo. More often than not, peace has prevailed. So, why upset the applecart?
Having lived his life through the traumas of the Sinhala Only policy in 1956, the abrogated Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact, the riots of July 1983 and the rise and fall of Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE, surely Vigneswaran must be one of a diminishing generation old enough to realise the travails of seeking petty political advantage over statesmanship.
Unfortunately, the Chief Minister’s recent utterances betray a sense of hunger for power unbecoming of his stature as a retired Justice of the Supreme Court and a moderate politician of principles. History has shown us that a merger of the North and the East is a dangerous stepping stone into the abyss of separatism. Now that the war has ended and we as a nation have taken a step back from those depths, do we want history to repeat itself, Mr. Chief Minister?