Democracy makes radicalism and extremism bloom

Just as in Sinhalese-majority South Sri Lanka, where the political scenario is changing as compared to what it was at the time of the landmark Presidential election in January 2015, in the Tamil-majority Northern Province also, significant political changes are taking place.

And just as in the South, where the credibility of the “Unity Government” is wearing thin because of its inability to deliver on its promise to provide a people-oriented government, in the North too, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is losing its grip on the Tamil population having failed to fulfill its promises.

The TNA had promised to secure a federal constitution; unite the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single province; get back lands seized by the army; secure the release of former cadre of the LTTE held without trial; and trace missing Tamils. But these promises have not been fulfilled and hope of fulfillment is waning by the day given the political developments in the South and the TNA’s inability to stem adverse developments by forceful political action.

If in the Sinhalese South, there is talk of the return of former President and strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in the next elections, in the Tamil North, Tamil radicals, led by former associates of the LTTE, and supported by the moneyed pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora, are coming to the center of the political stage. Their new mascot is the once apolitical Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran.

Wigneswaran was an epitome of moderation when he was made Chief Minister in 2013. But he underwent a transformation soon enough, and is today the icon of a new movement to keep the Tamils’ core demands alive in the context of an alleged negligence on the part of the TNA’s top brass.

Despite being close to the largely Sinhalese Sri Lankan Establishment in Colombo, TNA honchos have failed to push the government to deliver on the assurances given to the Tamils to secure their overwhelming support in the January 8, 2015  Presidential election.

Rise of Radicalism

In the South as well as in the North, radicalism is raising its head. In the South, strong opposition has emerged among Buddhist monks to any bid by the government to give more autonomy to the Tamil North.

A federal constitution with a merged North and East is still anathema to the South. Buddhist monks’-centered Sinhalese nationalism, which had retreated after the change over in January 2015, is coming to the fore once again leading a movement against constitutional and political changes in favor of Tamils and  Muslims.

In the North, pro-LTTE elements funded by the pro-LTTE Tamil  Diaspora is reviving anti-government and anti-Indian sentiments. As in the past, the government in Colombo and New Delhi are equated and identified as the enemies of the Tamil people.

These sentiments, which were kept hidden during the harsh rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, are finding expressing now, thanks to the freedom given by the tolerant regime of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Democracy makes a hundred flowers bloom, and radicalism and extremism are also among them.

The Tamils people’s disillusionment with the dominant political organization, the  TNA, and the regime in Colombo is being exploited by remnants of the LTTE like the Crusaders of Democracy, and also outfits which support the Tigers’ line such as the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF).

The fact that none of the core demands of Tamil nationalism (other than the now abandoned idea of an independent Tamil Eelam) has been met by the regime in Colombo is grist to the radicals’ mill.

Revivalists’ Tactics

To prepare the ground for their return, the radical groups are reviving memories of the Tigers’ struggle against the Sri Lankan government and India, Colombo’s alleged ally, then and now. Landmark events and campaign styles used by the LTTE to garner popular support are now being used again.

It all began with the publicized commemoration of the massacre at Mulliwaikkal in the last few weeks of the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV. Political groups and individual leaders made it a point to pay homage at the site with the media in attendance.

Then there was the demand for the restoration of the LTTE’s graveyards, which under the militant outfits’ rule, had dotted the Northern Province making the masses focus on its sacrifices for the cause of a free Tamil Eelam and develop a sentimental attachment to it.

But since restoration of such sites is not possible with Colombo controlling the lands on which they existed, this demand was given up.

Significance of Thileepan’s Fast

However, other landmark events associated with the LTTE’s struggle are now being recalled and observed to keep the Tamil cause alive.

The latest is the Fast Unto Death undertaken by “Thyagi” Thileepan in September 1987 within two months of the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29.  Thileepan’s death on September 26 signaled the outbreak of hostilities between the LTTE and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on October 10.

The IPKF-LTTE war lasted till March 1990 when the IPKF withdrew at the insistence of the then Sri Lankan President R.Premadasa, who by then had become an ally of the LTTE against India.

Thileepan’s fast unto death became a watershed in the history of the LTTE’s struggle for Eelam. It was also a demonstration of the LTTE’s theory that peaceful “Gandhian” struggles will not deliver the goods and war is the only effective instrument. In this context, it is significant that LTTE leader Prabhakaran did not order Thileepan to give up his fast when he was struggling with no food or water for days.

However, in the current context, when an armed struggle is not on the cards, the fast of 1987 helps underscore the willingness of the Tamils to struggle without out let up and make the supreme sacrifice for their just cause, and that without shedding blood.

Similarity of Demands

Significantly, the demands put forth by Thileepan have resonance today. His demands were: withdrawal “Sinhalese” army camps from Tamil areas; suspend all rehabilitation work until the formation of an interim (Tamil) government for the Tamil homeland; stop the continuing Sinhala colonization in the Tamil homeland; halt the setting up of Sinhala-manned police stations in Tamil areas; and release  of all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Thirty years later in 2017, the Tamils of the North are demanding more or less the same  things. They want a political solution before economic development; a federal structure with a unified North-Eastern Province; withdrawal of the army and the return of lands occupied by the latter; release of former cadres of the LTTE, repeal of the Terrorism Act; and tracing of missing persons especially those who had allegedly surrendered to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The current relevance of Thileepan’s broad demands has enthused remnants of the LTTE in the population and their local political sympathizers and backers in the

Diaspora to make a pitch for a greater political role in the North and East.

The public response to the commemoration of Thileepan’s fast in town after town in the North and East this month, has been very encouraging for the organizers.

Sensing the public sentiment, the moderate Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), which is the mainspring of the TNA, has thought it fit to jump on to the Thileepan bandwagon. The ITAK  has also put up Thileepan memorial pandols in town after town ,stretching from Jaffna district to Amparai district in the deep South East.

ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah spoke in Jaffna about the ITAK’s commitment to the Tamil cause. R.Sampanthan, who spoke in Amparai, went a step further and played to the gallery by hailing Thileepan’s “struggle against Indian Imperialism”.

Given the emerging scenario, political observers in Jaffna feel that the radicalism espoused by Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran is gaining traction among the Tamils masses who are disappointed with the performance of the Unity Government and the ITAK-led TNA in Colombo.

There is disappointment with the performance of the Wigneswaran-led Northern Provincial Administration also. But the people do not blame it or Wigneswaran for the state of affairs. The accusing finger is pointed at the Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo and their alleged fellow travelers from the ITAK/TNA.

It is learnt that Wigneswaran is likely to contest the next provincial elections due in September 2018 .There is speculation that the ITAK leadership might sink its very considerable differences with Wigneswaran and put him up as its candidate for the post of Chief Minister. (

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