Sri Lanka’s senior-most Tamil leader has demanded that the country’s new President Maithripala Sirisena “seriously address” the community’s concerns and negotiate a resolution after riding Tamil support in his victory over the nation’s former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa this month.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a grouping of parliamentary Tamil parties that has emerged as the principal political voice of the community after the 2009 defeat of the LTTE, had asked its supporters in December to vote for Sirisena in the January 8 election.
The support of Tamil voters helped tilt the battle in Sirisena’s favour in an election in which the majority Sinhala vote was split between the then President, Rajapaksa, and his principal challenger – and now President – who both belong to the Sinhala community.
“Now, our concerns have got to be seriously addressed, and we will demand a solution from Mr Sirisena,” TNA president Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told The Telegraph in his first interview to an Indian newspaper after the elections that ended Rajapaksa’s 10-year-rule as President. “We are watching them (the new government) closely.”
Sirisena had asked the TNA to join his government after the elections, but the Tamil alliance has refused for now.
“We don’t want to join the Sirisena government before first seeing what they do on our concerns,” Sampanthan, an 81-year-old veteran MP from Trincomalee in the nation’s north-east, said, speaking at his red-brick apartment in the heart of Colombo.
Sampanthan’s demand points to the tenuous nature of the TNA’s support for Sirisena, rooted in the deep caution with which many in the Tamil community in this nation view the new President who, in the past, has rejected many of their key requests.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party of Buddhist monks with a stated aim to defend the purity of Sinhala culture that rejects most TNA demands but is also part of the Sirisena coalition, has already said that Muslims and Tamils ought not to be credited for Rajapaksa’s defeat.
And indeed, were it not for a significant chunk of Sinhala votes – fewer than Rajapaksa’s though – Sirisena could never have seriously challenged his predecessor in these elections, a break-up of polling figures shows.
But no community voted so completely for one candidate – Sirisena – as the Tamils. Over 85 per cent of their vote went to the eventual winner.
For the Indian government, an alliance – however unwieldy – between the TNA and any government in Colombo is critical to pursue diplomatic ties with Lanka without constantly firefighting domestically. That balance between different interests in the Sirisena government can be managed, Sampanthan suggested.
“Sinhala leaders like Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickramasinghe need to come out and openly explain to the Sinhala people that we don’t want to break Sri Lanka up,” Sampanthan said. “We want a workable, durable and doable solution that will give our people a reasonable amount of role in government, and address their political, social, economic and cultural aspirations within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.”
India, Sampanthan said, “needs to continue to play a role” in the resolution.
Before the presidential elections, Sampanthan said, the TNA – which last year came to power in the first ever legislative polls in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province – did not want to lay down any conditions for support.
“That would have communalised the atmosphere and helped in Sinhala consolidation behind Mr Rajapaksa,” Sampanthan said. “We didn’t want that. We thank our people for listening to us and voting for Mr Sirisena without any preconditions. But now, they have legitimate expectations.”
Those expectations, though, are tempered by caution for many Sri Lankan Tamils.
Though a poll-boycott call by members of the Tamil diaspora and smaller groups in the Northern Province did not have the kind of success such calls have had in the past, Jaffna district did register the lowest voting percentage in the country. Only 66 per cent of voters in Jaffna turned up at the hustings on January 8, compared with the national average of 81 per cent.
In New Delhi on Sunday, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her new Sri Lankan counterpart decided to reopen talks on repatriating Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India.
But in Jaffna, hotel owner Sivathanu Nadesan laughed when told about the discussions. “There are no jobs here in the north,” he said. “That happened because of the war, but that is why most people fled. Till they create more jobs for educated people, no one is coming back.”
On the Yal Devi Express, a train from Colombo that was extended to Jaffna only this past October but which stopped nearly 100km short during the 26-year-long civil war, couple Renuka and Muthu Sivadasan both smiled when asked about their expectations from Sirisena.
“It’s too early, we’ve seen too many politicians,” Renuka, a teacher in Jaffna, said. “There’s always hope.” (Telegraph India)