An elderly Tamil gentleman, who in his retired secluded life in a rural village seems eager for company, surprised me with his perfect Sinhala. Curious about his background, I asked how he learned Sinhala so well. He said he had worked in a private company as an area sales supervisor. Spanning a period of 40 years, he had lived in Kurunegala, Kalutara South, Galle and finally in Colombo. I asked his opinion on the January 8 change. This was what he had to say on the re-establishment of democratic life: “Sir, It is the same old merry-go-round. Only ticket sellers and drivers have changed. They painted it like it was something new. Now we go around faster. Do you think we don’t feel that change? Everything else is the same. We are taken round and round the same old track. “
hat summed up everything I had heard from people during my two recent visits to the North-East. They dealt with the contradictions left to fester as simmering dissatisfactions, disgust and anger in war-affected Tamil society (Colombo Tamils perceive these contradictions differently). They revolve around the TNA leadership, the two Provincial Councils and the past and present Colombo government creating a triangle of contradictions.
Their story begins with the defeat of the armed “liberation” struggle for a separate Tamil State. The 30-year separatist LTTE intervention proved this an unattainable project, despite its ruthless monopoly over Tamil nationalism. The conclusion of the war left a bloody tragedy in the North-East. The survivors were thrown back 30 years into the pre-Thimpu era as a defeated, wounded and disintegrated population. They were left with no political leadership to talk of a “Tamil homeland”, a Tamil nation or to demand even a “Federal State”.
This once again led the Tamil people to vote in deciding the Colombo regime. As the TNA and Indian engagements with Rajapaksa proved meaningless, they were compelled in January 2015 to decide on a “regime change” in Colombo to renegotiate their political future.
This anti-Rajapaksa Tamil mindset was cemented by the Rajapaksas themselves. They offered no decent answers to the socio-political and economic grievances of the people in the North and East. Instead, Rajapaksa played with Sinhala supremacist jargon by way of offering answers.
Yet, the LLRC established by him six years ago in 2010 with his own choice of Commissioners, accepted that the North and East had issues that required addressing and that reconciliations were needed to heal wounded Sri Lanka.
It accepted that demilitarisation, the vacating of all private and public land occupied by the security forces, the solving of land ownership disputes through special land commissions, the establishment of a politically independent civil administration and the long-standing Tamil grievances had to be provided with a political solution in terms of strengthening democratic governance within devolved power.
Despite its limitations in addressing accountability, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the LLRC recommendations if implemented, would have created space for a collective socio-political life with regained respect and dignity in the North-East.
Therefore, despite local agitations and international pressure, the Rajapaksa presidency shelved its own LLRC recommendations with continued military dominance in the North-East. The Southern urban Sinhala middle class would not have enjoyed the luxury of defeating Rajapaksa with their belated calls against mega corruption unless the Tamil and Muslim N-E population had not decided to rid themselves of Rajapaksa by then.
What the North-East wanted was not merely the social space that the Colombo middle class was happy with.
They wanted answers to their pressing concerns. Even the LLRC knew these grievances should be effectively answered. However, no serious attention has been given to these questions by the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government. All Tamil issues have been bundled into one single resolution, co-sponsored at the last UNHRC Sessions in Geneva. The manner in which the government went about honouring this OISL Resolution has not won the confidence of the North-East nor the trust necessary to effectively implement the four mechanisms promised to ensure the much- promised reconciliation.
Though the Sinhala activists of the Colombo middle class who led anti-corruption campaigns promised a return to democracy, what they didn’t understand was that a trust deficit had begun to grow within the North-East Tamil polity not soon after Rajapaksa was voted out.
The fear in the Sinhala anti-Rajapaksa camp in taking up the North-East issues while thinking it would rob them of required Sinhala votes was a reason for this mistrust and lack of confidence. Thus, it established that the Yahapalanaya government was for the Sinhala urban middle class. It wouldn’t even address the rural Sinhala voters, who were left with nothing but poverty and alienation from the Colombo-centred economic development that the urban middle class was so ready to settle into.
Meanwhile, this coalition government keeps promising immunity to the military on account of them being “war heroes”.
The government leaders-and President Sirisena in particular-promised to keep out foreign assistance from OMP investigations. The Northern Governor, a Sirisena appointee, justifies the establishment of new temples in the North and goes beyond his mandate in promoting investors to the North.
PM Wickremesinghe and his government work directly in the North-East and Chandrika Kumaratunge’s ONUR funded by foreign donors go about spending money on unsolicited livelihood projects, further centralising and controlling Northern life from Colombo, when more devolved power for the North-East is what has to be worked out.
For the N-E, the purpose of voting Rajapaksa out was thus completely lost. This brings into the spotlight the role of the TNA leadership, which is very much in question among the ordinary Tamil people.
The TNA leadership has been questioned on several occasions regarding their unreserved support of the government, not just in parliament but in the handling of ground issues. They are seen to be very much in complicity with the Wickramasinghe’s government’s projects that bypass the N&E provincial councils, no different to Basil Rajapaksa’s “Uthuru Vasanthaya” and “Negenahira Udhanaya”.
They have been questioned about the 2016 Budget that is in tatters for which they voted without even questioning the 306 billion rupee defence allocation.
The crucial question is what the TNA leadership can have in return for the Tamil people who voted Rajapaksa out by supporting this coalition government unreservedly. The 200 detainees who MP Sumanthiran told parliament the government should release are still in detention without any charges against them. The TNA leadership has failed to secure their release even after Sampanthan discussed the issue with both the President and PM in late October 2015. This was despite Sampanthan going on record during the August parliamentary elections and promising the Tamil people a political solution before the end of 2016.
One of two reasons for this is that most Tamil MPs now have access to State power and have learned to enjoy its comforts.
This is a privilege ITAK never had since its inception in 1950. It is this new adaptation of TNA parliamentarians that the Wickramasinghe government is happy to use to their advantage, even in centralising politics and bypassing provincial councils. Secondly, there is the blind faith the TNA leadership keeps in an unprincipled coalition government that continues to compromise on Sinhala votes.
This has led to a power-hungry UNP backed by big money in coalition with the Sirisena faction of the SLFP that can keep them in power for a further four years, without TNA support.
This begs the question why the TNA leadership has so much faith in this coalition government to find a “durable, workable and an acceptable” solution as Sampanthan asks. In plain language, the ITAK leadership that prevails over the TNA believes a political solution can be bargained for, if they don’t upset the Sinhala platform of this government by demanding answers to other issues on the ground. Issues they believe can be managed, if a political solution is worked out and brought into effect. While this allows the Southern Sinhala mainstream politics to ride further on Sinhala supremacy unchallenged, it also leaves the TNA absent on the ground. It keeps the TNA away from issues that burden the daily life of people who still cannot get on their feet independently with a guarantee of safety and freedom, seven years after the war. In short, the TNA leadership does not want to depend on the strength of its own voters.
Thus, the trust deficit that grows larger by the day between the N&E Tamil polity also reaches the TNA leadership that exists as an ally of the present government.
This leaves a political void that the provincial councils can step in to but will not be able to fill completely. The provincial councils can nevertheless without much difficulty, declare a five year Provincial Development Plan and publicly lobby the government into demanding necessary funds and allocations. Such public lobbying for a sustainable development plan can give the people of the N&E a platform to push their demands for redress on immediate issues such as the need for special support schemes for war widows and orphaned children. Such lobbying for allocations are necessary for provincial development through provincial councils and will also challenge the Colombo government’s intrusions into provincial politics through numerous unsolicited funded projects.
Their absence leaves space for the centralising of State functions on a growing Sinhala platform and has led to a triangle of contradictions in Tamil politics that leave the Tamil people with no other option than to grudgingly tag along with the TNA. Contradictions the TNA leadership is happy to exploit and this government is comfortable living with.
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