The run up to the Northern Provincial Council election is on and the latest personality to enter the fray is Minister Douglas Devananda who appears to be positioning himself as chief ministerial candidate of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
This week the Minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development declared that he believed it would be counterproductive to devolve controversial land and police powers to the NPC and hinted that he would entertain the idea of running for chief minister.
Devananda’s comments calling for land and police powers to be withheld from the provinces echo sentiments of hardliners in the majority community such as Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka. It will no doubt anger his fellow Tamil politicians but will come as no surprise to them.
That is because Devananda has always been a survivor: he survived ten serious attempts to assassinate him including a suicide bomb attack at his office and has demonstrated that he is adept at playing political games equally well.
Kathiravelu Devananda was born and raised in Jaffna but moved to Colombo in his teenage years. His initiation into the Tamil militant movement came through the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS) which he helped create, taking on the alias ‘Douglas’.
As armed Tamil groups mushroomed, Devananda found himself switching from one group to another: the Eelam People's Revolutionary Front (EPRLF), the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) and finally to the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) which he founded.
His activism as a militant revealed his tenacity and ruthlessness. Among the incidents he was implicated in were the Thirukkovil bank robbery, the kidnapping of two Americans in Jaffna, an attack on the Karainagar Naval Base and a clash in Chennai where he still stands accused in the murder of a lawyer.
Throughout the years of conflict however, Devananda has been consistent in one aspect: he had always opposed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had been a harsh critic of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Hence the LTTE”s repeated attempts to assassinate him, all of which failed.
The closest call among them was when the Tigers sent a female suicide bomber to his Ministry in Kollupitiya in July 2004. When she refused a body search, she was sent to the police station across the road, where she blew herself up killing four policemen. Devananda was unhurt.
His unbridled personal enmity with Prabhakaran meant that Devananda, though having a troubled past and a long litany of alleged criminal activities against his name, was a useful tool for the Sri Lankan government to challenge the LTTE leader with, both militarily and also in the propaganda war.
Devananda’s entry in to mainstream politics came in 1990 when he was compelled to return to Sri Lanka from India where he was a fugitive, being wanted for questioning over an alleged kidnapping of a ten-year-old boy.
The then government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa sought to accommodate him, as a means of countering the threats posed by the LTTE. It turned out to be a strategy that was to be followed by successive governments in Colombo, leading to Devananda’s mercurial rise as a politician.
Devananda and his EPDP cadres were provided assistance and allowed a free reign in the islands off the Jaffna peninsula which had been wrested from Tiger control. He used this as a base to secure nine seats in Parliament at the 1994 election-though polling only 10,000 votes in a low turnout election.
Since then, Devananda has been in Parliament as a minister except during the short lived United National Party led government in 2001. He has held many portfolios, many of them relating to development in the North.
Devananda lives in Colombo, in a residential street where his home is a virtual fortress. Theoretically at least, he is still ‘on the run’ in terms of India where the matter has been raised periodically. New Delhi has declared that he has diplomatic immunity because of his ministerial status in Sri Lanka.
Some observers-who maintain that the demand not to grant land and police powers is in fact the thinking of the government-will interpret Devananda’s latest pronouncement as doing the government’s bidding. His role as chief ministerial candidate though would be different.
Indications are that if polls are held in the North, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) would be the likely winner-and probably by a substantial margin too. In such a scenario, the government feels that its best bet would be to field a high profile candidate who has muscle as well as mass appeal.
For Devananda, there is nothing to lose. He would have to forego his ministerial portfolio if he were to contest-and the chances are that his most likely position in the NPC would be as its leader of the opposition.
These are minor considerations. There could always be an ‘arrangement’ where Devananda returns to Parliament and resumes his ministerial portfolio, thus restoring the status quo. The UPFA will certainly arrange for that if it can have a chief ministerial candidate refusing police and land powers.
The ruling party finds itself painted into a tight corner. It has given repeated assurances to India that land and police powers will be devolved-which is why India endorsed Colombo as the host for the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in November. Now, it is time to repay New Delhi.
Devananda’s rationale for refusing land and police powers-after indulging in decades of armed struggle demanding these powers-is not convincing. He merely says that this is because there is dissension in the South about the issue which must be addressed first.
The TNA would of course campaign on a platform of asking land and police powers-and even more autonomy-to be devolved to the provinces. They also have an established support base in most regions of the North despite the differences between the various factions that constitute the party.
Whatever the outcome of the NPC poll, and whatever the manner in which it will be conducted, there is one certainty: Douglas Devananda will survive this political challenge as well, even if he emerges on the losing side at the election.