Would the government aid him by keeping its promises towards reconciliation?
Demonising other communities is a comfortable way to be popular for many politicians in the South as well as the North. Various issues related to the long-drawn ethnic problem crop up occasionally as if to help them carry on their confrontational politics. The issue pertaining to the detainees arrested under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) has now become the latest bone of contention for many politicians on either side of the ethnic divide.
Loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa have started a campaign against the government’s move to release the remaining detainees. Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksha told Parliament recently that those who had been arrested on serious charges would not be released.
The leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil coalition, is also facing similar criticism from within and outside of the coalition in respect of Tamil political prisoners. The critics seem to be hell bent on rousing ethnic feelings using the issue as adopted by the supporters of the former president.
TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan seemed to be keen to want to break away from that confrontational tradition either because he genuinely believed that a conciliatory approach would help persuade the government to agree on contentious matters including the prisoners’ problem and problems related to the devolution of power or because of his recent close relationship with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The TNA voting in favour of the 2016 budget at the end of its second reading has to be considered as a highly courageous move at a time when emotions were high in the North on the prisoners’ issue which had made a 17-year old student of the Kokkuvil Hindu College in Jaffna commit suicide by jumping in front of an express train from Colombo on November 26. It was also a total deviation from the traditional pessimistic politics of the North. However, with this decision the leader of the five- party Tamil amalgam has reopened up two opposition fronts- one at Parliament level and the other within its own rank and file.
This was the first time an opposition leader has voted in favour of an annual budget of any government in Sri Lanka and that has helped the Rajapaksa group to breathe new life into their claim for the Opposition Leader post. Soon after the TNA voted in favour of the 2016 Budget Rajapaksa loyalist vowed to re-launch their campaign for the post.
On the other hand, the decision seems to have reignited the power struggle within the Tamil coalition which had surfaced several times before. The two members of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) skipped the House when the voting on the second reading of the Budget was taken, claiming that the new government had done nothing for the Tamils, with special reference to the Tamil prisoners’ issue. And the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the TNA’s other coalition partner led by Selvam Adaikkalanathan who was also the deputy chairman of committees of Parliament has announced that its support at the end of the third reading or the committee stage of the Budget would be conditional. It appears that they too were going to tie up with the Tamil prisoners’ issue.
Probably both parties would abstain from voting at the end of the committee stage. However, it would not have a bearing on the passage of the Budget, given that the second reading of it was passed with a two thirds of majority.
It is well known that a cold war has been going on for some years between the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the largest party and other constituent parties of the TNA, mainly over the registration of the coalition with the Elections Department. It is ironic that the TNA has not been registered as a recognised political party with the Elections Commissioner, although thirteen years have passed since its formation. Hence the coalition has contested the past elections under the main party, the ITAK and its symbol ‘House’, giving an undue advantage to the ITAK over other parties. However, these smaller parties cannot leave the coalition lest they would vanish from the political limelight as it happened to the All Ceylon Tamil Congress of Gagendra Kumar Ponnambalam after the 2010 General Election.
The differences between the TNA leadership and Chief Minister for the Northern Province, C.V.Wigneswaran are another headache for Sambanthan. It came to a head when TNA parliamentarian M.A.Sumanthiran called for the expulsion of the chief minister citing the latter’s refusal to go to Canada for fund raising. Other parties in the coalition like the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) of V. Anandasangaree seem to be fishing in troubled waters. Recently Anandasangaree came to the rescue of Chief Minister Wigneswaran and issued an open invitation to him to take over his party, the TULF, which Wigneswaran neither accepted nor refused.
Last week, Suresh Pemachandran, the leader of another coalition partner, EPRLF criticised the TNA leadership for not supporting the ‘genocide resolution’ that was adopted by the Northern Provincial Council at the instance of Wigneswaran early this year and their call for an international investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by the armed forces.
However, justifying his relationship with the government, Sampanthan listed out a series of measures adopted by the new government in favour of the Tamil people at a meeting in Batticaloa last week. He said that there was no difference between him and President Sirisena on the prisoners’ issue while claiming that the president was on the right track in almost all matters. He pointed out the release of lands that had been occupied by the security forces for a long time in Sampur and Walikamam in the Jaffna District as an example.
He said that the atmosphere unfavourable to the Tamil people that prevailed during the Rajapaksa regime has gone adding that though his party had criticised the Budget the circumstances demanded them to vote for it. He was optimistic that a favourable political solution to the ethnic problem would be found through the new Constitution that is to be adopted next year. He also said that the Tamil people are not prepared now to act according to the doctrines of the LTTE.
However, at the same time, TNA leaders at times had given into the traditional anti-government sentiments of the North, apparently as a precautionary measure. Sampanthan at the above meeting had also said that he suspected whether the PM was ignoring the TNA in certain important issues. Meanwhile, Sumanthiran had lamented that the government gave them promises and expected them to relay them to the Tamil people but later dragged on without keeping its word.
It seemed that Sampanthan’s twin struggle for reconciliation- within the party as well as with the government-needed a lot of courage and patience. Its continuation would be disastrous to the TNA leadership and sometimes to the country in the long run, unless the government lends a helping hand to it by keeping its promises in respect of reconciliation.