Sep 24, 2013 | 14:42 GMT

3 mins read

In Sri Lanka, a Tamil Election Victory

In Sri Lanka, a Tamil Election Victory

Elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province are over, and the ethnic Tamil National Alliance has won 30 of 38 seats on the Provincial Council. The landslide victory raises the prospect of newly emboldened calls for Tamil autonomy in the north. With the Tamil National Alliance's win, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will need to balance the need to negotiate with the Tamil National Alliance with Colombo's imperative for security and territorial integrity. Rajapaska will also need to avoid granting too many concessions to promote Tamil autonomy, which would mobilize his Sinhalese base.

The Tamil National Alliance will take its position in the Provincial Council with the imperative to work within the framework of the Sri Lankan government. Without a foreign backer as an alternative to China's assistance through Colombo, the alliance cannot hope to reconstruct the sparsely populated, economically isolated north on its own. Sri Lanka's Tamils — a minority throughout the island but a majority in the north — historically have relied on support from the more prosperous Tamil community in India, which has the ability to influence New Delhi. But with the Indian Tamil parties currently playing a reduced role in the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi, and New Delhi concerned about further alienating Colombo and driving it closer to China, Indian support for the Tamil National Alliance will not be enough to challenge Colombo.

Ethnic Groups In Sri Lanka

Map - Ethnic Groups In Sri Lanka

Even as the Tamil National Alliance comes under pressure from Indian Tamil politicians and the remains of the Tamil Tigers abroad to negotiate for more autonomy, the alliance will be constrained in dealing with Colombo. The alliance will distance itself from the direct pressure from India's Tamil Nadu state politicians — a relief for India, which has long had to balance between Tamil interests and the Sri Lankan government.

Despite the Tamil National Alliance's victory, Colombo's centralized power was strengthened in recent elections in Sinhalese-dominated provinces. Rajapaska's United People's Freedom Alliance won 60.16 percent in the provincial council election in the Central Province and 66.43 percent in the election in the North Western Province. Rajapaska and his family continue to control the upper echelons of power in Colombo, including the defense and economic development ministries. The north is occupied by Colombo's military, and Colombo enjoys the backing of China while India wants to remain an important partner. With this strong hand, Colombo will be able to continue development projects in the north and undermine Tamil support, while possibly allowing the Tamils semi-autonomy. Colombo has delayed proceedings to strip the provincial councils of their power granted by the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution in order to maintain stronger relations with the Tamil National Alliance.

One position on which Colombo cannot compromise is the presence of troops in the north, though the removal of these forces is a key demand of the Tamil National Alliance and New Delhi. Colombo views these forces, which have been stationed in the north since the war, as a key bulwark against a return to insurgency and a check on the power of Tamil politicians. Colombo will continue to offer development projects to the north while maintaining a troop presence even as the Tamil National Alliance and their foreign backers make vocal demands for the forces' removal. Colombo does have leeway on this and can secure the north with a smaller footprint. As Colombo builds up permanent military bases and connectivity between the Sinhalese south and the Tamil north, it will be increasingly able to quickly project force into the region, resulting in the ability to consolidate positions there and maintain a smaller footprint. Ultimately, though, the military has its own imperatives for remaining in the north: its concerns about security and the need to uphold its victory over the Tamil insurgents as well as the agricultural enterprises it operates in the north, which provide it with budget support.

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