Can Eastern Development be Made a Legitimate Affair?

September 30, 2007

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By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Even if one were to operate within the framework of conventional thinking and assume that the Government of Sri Lanka has the right of recapturing the territory previously held by the LTTE, which was not a legitimate power, she or he cannot miss the logic of Sambandan’s argument. Both at the parliamentary election held in April 2004 and the presidential election held in November 2005, a significant number of people, especially its Tamil population, voted against the parties that exercise governmental power in Colombo today. A military victory over its opponent, the LTTE, in itself does not make the incumbent government a legitimate power in the Eastern Province.

One may argue that the Government of Sri Lanka has launched its reconstruction and development programme in order to gain legitimacy by proving that it is genuinely interested in addressing the basic needs and issues of the people and redressing their
grievances, which they have been facing since the recommencement of the Trincomalee District MP R. Sambandan raised a valid point by questioning the legitimacy of the government in Colombo in initiating a plan of reconstruction and development in the Eastern Province. armed conflict in 1983. However, the legitimacy of the state depends on many things, among which the critical aspect is whether the state receives the consent of the governed and it represents their interests. As Seyla Benhabib writes, “the basis of legitimacy in democracy is to be traced back to the presumption that the institutions that claim obligatory power do so because their decisions represent standpoint equally in the interests of all.” Therefore, such decisions should be open to appropriate processes of public deliberation by free and equalcitizens. Sambandan has noted that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has opted out of this process. SLMC Leader, Minister Rauf Hakeem has also expressed his dissatisfaction about the ongoing process.


Reconstruction and development is not a political exercise. The political configuration matters very much in allocating limited resources. Secondly, development economics posits that the satisfaction of the principle of subsidiarity is a necessary condition in making development work more productive and effective. Development and reconstruction in war-torn areas have many facets. The process entails not only rebuilding of physical infrastructure and provision of welfare for the people who were affected by the war, but also reinvigorating necessary institutional structure, which also includes institutions of human rights and democracy.

In the words of Amartya Sen, the opportunities and capabilities can be enhanced by public policy, but the space should be created for people to influence public policies by effective use of their “participatory capabilities.” The making of decisions in Colombo by a regime that has not gained the consent of the governed in the Eastern Province may end up producing lopsided development, which would exacerbate the prevalent conflict situation there. Moreover, the apparatus of the centre has no credibility. The alleged corrupt practices in the Mavil Aru compensation case have made it amply clear that the benefits have not reached the affected people.

In such a context, international agencies and international and Colombo- based Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) would even destroy local capacities by usurping local resources, especially human and social capital. We have witnessed such processes operating in the past, especially in the post-tsunami period. How can eastern development be made a legitimate affair, an affair in which the interests of the governed in the Eastern Province are well and equally represented? Nothing can be substituted for the democratic institutions of the people. However, there are no operational democratic institutions and the prevailing institutions have been subordinated to the military command in order to ensure state security. In my opinion, the most pressing need is reactivation of civil and political mechanisms in the province. Hence I propose the following:

1. The setting up of an Interim Provincial Council for the Eastern Province (IPCEP). Here I do believe that the North East merger issue should be dealt with at a different level

2. The composition of the IPCEP should include all the MPs of the Eastern Province and the chairpersons of all the local government bodies of the Eastern Province

3. The election for the local government bodies that do not have elected representatives should be held immediately after the setting up of the IPCEP 4. All the powers given by the 13th Amendment, including police powers, should be devolved to the IPCEP

5. Steps should be taken to re-organise the police force of the Eastern Province in order to reflect its plurinational demographic character

6. An Eastern Province Reconstruction and Development Fund (EPRDF) should be set up and all the central government allocations and foreign grants should be transferred to that fund and the use of the fund should be decided by the IPCEP. IPCEP can operate for the first 180 days that the
government has named as the first phase of the accelerated programme. After this phase, steps should be taken to hold elections for the Eastern Provincial Council.

The writer teaches political economy at the university of Peradeniya

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