Heroes, Traitors and Tamil Politics: Lessons (Un) Learnt

tna_election_manifesto_By Ambika Satkunanathan:

Following the deferral of the presentation of the report of the UN Human Rights Council mandated investigation on Sri Lanka (IOSL) conducted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a resolution on 10 February 2015 urging the UN to investigate the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka by successive governments.

The postponement of the presentation of the report of the OISL and the NPC resolution has resulted in much discussion on the issue in the Tamil media as well as websites. While most of these welcome and applaud the NPC resolution and praise Chief Minister Wigneswaran, they also label as traitors those who do not accept the resolution or critique it, and portray these persons as those who do not have the best interests of the Tamils at heart.

Betrayal is a common theme running through the history of Tamil politics and the community’s rights struggle, with those who appeal to the international community for justice showing complete disregard for internal democracy and respect for dissent within and by the community. From G.G. Ponnambalam’s comment in 1948 that those who dissented with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress’s decision to join the Senanayake government would ‘have their hands cut off’ if they raised them against the party’s decision, to the present when Tamil politicians go to the extent of saying those who do not vote for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and instead vote for other parties are betraying the Tamil people, the Tamil community has shown little tolerance of dissent.

A review of the history of Tamil politics will illustrate that at different stages those who did not agree with the views of those who spoke the loudest, and/or held power within the community, were labelled traitors. Chief Minister Wigneswaran, who is now hailed the hero of the Tamil rights struggle, was not too long ago criticised for not being genuinely committed to the struggle of the Tamils. In 2013, a Tamil diaspora activist writing in the Colombo Telegraph said of him ‘by deliberate act or omission he will be seen as being complicit in whitewashing of these crimes, and, his name will become synonymous with that name in Tamil which singularly describes the act of most heinous treachery –Ettappan!’

Those who are at the forefront of current protest campaigns against the postponement of the presentation of the investigation report, and are excoriating Sampanthan and Sumanthiran, were themselves once labelled traitors by the LTTE and the Tamil people for working with the Indian Peacekeeping Force and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. It was not uncommon for those labelled traitors to label others traitors at some other point. The concepts of traitor and hero are therefore fluid within the Tamil polity, and the inability to tolerate dissent is a sickness that ails not just Tamil politics but the Tamil community as well.

Labelling people traitors leads to questioning their Tamilness; i.e. are they real Tamils? By labelling someone a traitor, an environment is created within which violence against the said traitorous person is justified and the person’s life is devalued due to his alleged betrayal. Hence, even if the person is killed his/her life becomes unworthy of being mourned. During the 30 year armed conflict this strategy was effectively used both by successive Sri Lankan governments as well as the LTTE.

This strategy resulted in many, like Neelan Tiruchelvam, being labelled traitor and anti-national by both the Sinhala and Tamil communities; by the LTTE and certain sections of Tamils because he believed in and supported a negotiated rather than a military solution to the ethnic conflict, and perceived as pro-LTTE by certain sections of the Sinhala community because throughout his life he advocated for the rights of the Tamil community. This strategy continued to be used even after the end of the armed conflict. For instance, post-2009 the government, by refusing to allow families to hold memorials and mourn those who were killed during the last stages of the armed conflict, rendered them unworthy of being mourned. Further, the government subjected those who had been sent to rehabilitation centres after the end of the armed conflict, for either having been involved in, or suspected of being a part of the LTTE, to constant military surveillance and summoned them to army camps. This resulted in the Tamil community viewing these persons as informants for the military, and by extension traitors for betraying the community.

The discontent within the Tamil community cannot be denied, particularly amongst those in the conflict-affected North and East, who feel their lives have not substantively changed, and long-standing issues related to discrimination and rights have not been resolved. This discontent coupled with a feeling amongst people their political representatives do not understand or respond to their aspirations, needs, and concerns has led to frustration, hopelessness and even anger. The fact Tamil people vote overwhelmingly for the TNA seems to have instilled a sense of complacency within members of the Alliance who appear to take the votes of the Tamil people for granted.

In reality, the complaints of the Tamil people point to the tenuous relationship that exists between the Tamil community and those who claim to represent them. When these people are asked why they continue to vote for the TNA even though they are dissatisfied with them, their response is almost always that they do so because they feel the TNA is the only party that is not affiliated with the state and is somewhat independent. They vote for the TNA because they believe the political position of the Tamil community will be weakened if they vote for another political entity. It therefore seems they vote for the TNA because they feel they have no other viable option.

The argument that voting for the TNA would strengthen the bargaining power of the Tamil community cannot be the only rationale upon which the people should be called upon to vote for the TNA. Increasingly, this argument is becoming inadequate as evidenced by recent protests against the more moderate members of the TNA by various groups within the Tamil community, and from within the TNA itself. Youth in particular seem to be discontented and bemoan the lack of space or voice for them within the TNA. Further, women are marginalised within Tamil politics, ironically more so now than during the early days of the Tamil political struggle. All of which points to a serious disconnect between the people and TNA, particularly the moderate elements within the TNA; a disconnect that creates space for radical forces to garner the support of the people.

At the same time, it cannot be denied the moderate sections of the Tamil polity have also been weakened by the difficulties faced when engaging with successive governments which have reneged on undertakings given to moderate Tamil politicians, leading to what Ratnajeevan Hoole in the Appapillai Amirthalingam 80th birth anniversary lecture terms the Arafatization of the moderate Tamil politician, wherein they are ‘drained of the goodwill that the people have for them, despite the great sacrifices they made and continue to make in striving for a solution …’.

Despite the path littered with dead bodies we’ve treaded, it appears the lesson that it is not possible to further the struggle for the rights of the Tamil community by muzzling dissent and stifling diversity of opinions within the community, has not yet been learnt. At this crucial point in history it is important that the democratic elements within the Tamil polity fight against the creation of new traitors, which will only serve to deepen existing wounds and cleavages.(Ground Views)

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