Challenges of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka

TNA DPF meetingThe difference between the political universe in the Sinhalese south, and the Tamil north cum Muslim-Tamil north-east, is that the former is a sharp and acid standoff, the latter is confusion.

Seven years have passed since the LTTE was wiped out but it has not been time enough for Tamils to find their feet. Thirty years of civil war cast a pall; the LTTE conjured up phantasmagorical images of a leader and an imagined Eelam divorced from all reality; war-crimes seared people’s lives. Among Sinhalese those who advocate reason and reconciliation are a minority. To most: “The LTTE has been vanquished, the Tamils ground down to their senses and everything is fine. Devolution to the Tamil areas after they lost the war! What planet do these liberals and leftists inhabit!”

In the context of defeat, Sinhala indifference and ineffective governance, it is understandable that the Tamil political universe is in turmoil. Hence it was unsurprising that when a Tamil diaspora group invited me to speak last week it formulated the topic as follows:

“What on earth is going on in Tamil politics at home; it seems to be a complete mess with everybody fighting everybody? Is the TNA telling the complete truth to the Tamils or is it hiding some things? What are Wigneswaran’s motives and strategies? Will anything come out of this hybrid mechanism? What is the government’s real game plan?”

Preparatory consultations alerted me to how complex the issue was and taught me to appreciate the difficulties Tamils face in coming to terms with their predicament. The right thing to do, for Tamils, is not cut-and-dry as it is in the south. Months ago the south and the Tamils saw that defeating Rajapaksa’s Mafia was crucial. The south still appreciates the importance of keeping a relapse at bay, something less clear to the Tamils because of their difficult predicament.

Are NPC and CM playing politics with the people?

The Northern Provincial Council’s (NPC) performance has been disappointing from the start. Chief Minister (CM) Justice Wigneswaran and his ministers did not organise the NPC to optimise its functions within available constitutional spaces. It could have been armed with subsidiary legislation under existing powers and done a lot. Instead it gave vent more to political opinions and less to delivery of services. A trenchant critique of the NPC and CM has come from Maylvaganam Soorisegaram who long ago was an active Trotskyist.

The two key points in his critique are; (a) the CM/NPC is obstructionist, did not implement measures for which the Central Government made resources available, was insensitive to the hardships of the people and more concerned with political mileage than practicalities; (b) CM/NPC and their Thamil Makkal Peravai (TMP) are an ideological throw back to LTT-era Eelamist views tahte can lead the Tamils into another tragedy and should be defeated. Sooriyasegaram says:  “Separatist ideology and an attempt to return to the barren politics of the LTTE can be seen in every one of their actions”. Others communicating with me added “CM and NPC have not spent allocated funds and that is their fault. Why is CM not spearheading a massive development plan? Why not demand more and lead the way saying ‘To hell with the military?’ Isn’t this what we want for the development of the North?”

Examples adduced in support of (a) are: The minuscule number of statutes enacted (trustworthy friends have told me how much they assisted CM/NPC with translation of statutes which then languished in a drawer); the Rs 25 billion offered by the Centre for a water supply scheme for Jaffna and Kilinochchi which allegedly was sabotaged by CM/NPC; obstruction of a scheme to sort out oil pollution in the vicinity of Chunnakam power station which was poisoning ground water, and much else. However these allegations were refuted by others. While Sooriyasegaram alleges the NPC refused to use available funds with the intention of obscuring links with and support from the south, others assure me that 80 to 90% of the funds have been expended. Another correspondent made the point “I find it difficult to believe the charges. It is not possible that the four ministers in charge plus the entire TNA-sourced members of the NPC are engaged in a conspiracy without the public being aware”.

A truer picture on alleged obstructionism will emerge in the disputes that are sure to explode in the coming weeks, but I wish to insert a reminder of what I said at the start. Confusion and disarray in Tamil society is not easy to overcome in the context of physical trauma spread over decades, the alleged limping impotence of the new regime on governance and foreboding that the promised new constitution will be a damp squib on Tamil devolution expectations. Racists in toe with the previous regime will stir up communal unrest if the new constitution expected later this year makes concessions to the Tamil-majority north and Muslim-Tamil majority east. Agent provocateurs are also certain to provoke unrest when the so-called “hybrid-mechanism”, agreed with the UNHRC in Geneva to investigate war-crimes by the state/military and the LTTE during the civil-war, gets into stride.

The TNA

The TNA (Tamil National Alliance) is a collection of parties, an electoral alliance. Before the end of the war it included the ITAK (Illangai Thamil Arasu Katchi), Tamil Congress (TC), LTTE supporters, and smaller TELO and EPLRF. The TC led by Gajendran Ponnambalam and the LTTE supporters quit to contest the 2009 elections separately and were trounced; EPLRF leader Suresh Premachandran lost in 2015. So now the TNA consists of the ITAK (the dominant partner), TELO and a small new member PLOTE. The TNA is not an integrated structured organism and has no forum to generate policy. Leader R. Sampanthan sets policy, M. A. Sumanthiran his loyal prodigy shares in decision making and engages with the international community, nominal ITAK leader Mavai Senadhiraja tags along. As there is no policy making forum in the TNA (oddly even the ITAK suffers from the same defect) amorphousness becomes breeding ground for intrigue and jealousy. Though Wigneswaran is the elected CM of the NPC he is excluded from formal decision making. This is one reason he is assembling a group to challenge the way the TNA functions; the other reason is that he is more of a Tamil nationalist.

The TNA pulled Tamil votes for President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the January presidential and August parliamentary, respectively elections and gave its people hope that the new government would deliver on their concerns. The diaspora Global Tamil Forum (GTF) also mobilised Tamil votes. Now some Tamils regret that the TNA, GTF, Sampanthan and Sumanthiran hitched their stars to this administration because if the regime fails in general, or if it is a flop on Tamil concerns, they will all, politically, face a firing squad. Opponents who lost elections have united in the hope of burying them. If there is failure in governance or economy, the administration will be powerless to combat chauvinism and deliver even crumbs to Tamils, even if it wants to, which some unfairly doubt.

If this government flops Lanka will be pushed back several years while the plight of the Tamils will be nasty. If it falls in the near future Lanka will face chaos and repression on many sides. A Tamil leftist and strong critic of the TNA says: “Despite contradictions we must recognise that for the first time since 1948 senior national leaders, President, PM, reconciliation chief Chandrika and Foreign Minister Mangala are calling in unison for a genuine political solution to the National Question. Significantly, they are in a position to mobilise two-thirds votes in Parliament, and a simple majority at a referendum. War defeated Tamils simply cannot afford to ignore this opportunity”.

The next phase

The TMP mushroomed in response to fear that the Sampanthan-Sumanthiran-Senathiraja leadership may be unable to deliver when a compromise is brokered in 2016, not forgetting US and Indian pressure. Successive betrayals by Sinhala governments (B-C Pact, Dudley-Chelva deal, emasculation of 13A) make this apprehension understandable and justifiable. I associate with numerous non-sectarian Tamil intellectuals and comrades who are keen on a sustainable political solution (not a fake like 13A minus) but for the aforesaid reasons are not prepared to condemn the TMP until the government shows its hand in draft constitutional proposals. (The TMP also calls itself the Tamil People’s Council in English).

For good reason the Tamil struggle needs an independent voice and since the TNA is close to the regime there is a constructive role for the TMP to play. Tamils need an independent force critical yet supportive of the strategy of negotiation; this is where Vigneswaran can be a positive force without becoming a spoiler. Tamil leaders need to be less hostile to each other, appreciate the uncertainties of the current conjuncture and evolve a strategy. There is no alternative to a negotiated settlement that’s the bottom line; they need reliable negotiators and they need monitors to keep an eye on the negotiators; this is a complementary not an antagonistic relationship. The nature of state being drafted into the constitution is a guarded secret. Very likely it will be one unit (I hope they avoid the regressive word unitary) but regional power sharing will be affirmed; the devil will be in the details.

Realists knew all along that Lanka would not be referred to the International Criminal Court once the Rajapaksas were defeated. For the first time a country accepted a UN spearheaded probe with unanimous international support. The hybrid concept is born of the perversity and duplicity of the previous regime. No one trusts Lanka’s judiciary which for a decade stooged the President. It was in this context that Britain and Canada insisted on Commonwealth judges which Ranil accepted – he knows our judiciary well enough from the time his uncle manipulated it! The US opposed Commonwealth judges in Geneva but David Cameron’s insistence got it through. I am not able to fathom the American game plan. A friend remarked “I am worried that the Wigneswaran drama may be a US hatched plot that I don’t yet understand”. I am not alleging a US plot to strip the hybrid process of Commonwealth judges or that the US is in cahoots with the TMP – that is unbelievable – but I won’t cease to be alert.

In private conversations democratic minded government leaders insist they will not allow the investigation to become a charade and will not let the process be stripped of Commonwealth judges. I am satisfied that if the PM could have his way without fear of a racist backlash he would be of like mind; but I am not satisfied the PM is free of this fear. Months ago I advocated that the chauvinists be provoked on to the streets and then soundly thrashed, not by the state, but by mobilisation of political activists and civil society. It can still be done and after his new alignment with the trade unions the PM can appeal to the working class as well. A dangerous recently emergent phenomenon is the rise of Sinha-Le (Sinhala blood) incitement, it is alleged by dark forces aligned to the dreaded former Defence Secretary – President Rajapaksa’s brother – Gotabhaya. A lion holding a sword with Le scrawled in bloody red is appearing on three-wheelers and graffiti both to incite Sinhala racism and frighten Muslims and Tamils.

If the government and people confront chauvinism early and defuse proto-fascism on the streets these dark forces can be beaten back. But confrontation is only a starting point, the long-term depends on an island wide education and consciousness building programme on pluralist democracy starting with schools and the military. Neither state nor civil society in Lanka are taking this, the real long-term solution seriously. (Southasia Analysis Group)

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