The Coalition Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe may soon be facing a political challenge from an unexpected quarter, namely the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA regarded as the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamil people is becoming increasingly frustrated at what it perceives as the slow pace and tardy progress of the Constitution-making process. Therefore the TNA is planning to launch a non-violent protest campaign against the UNP-SLFP coalition Government if it continues to procrastinate and dilly-dally on this issue. If and when matters do reach a point where a political confrontation becomes inevitable, the TNA proposes to embark on a huge non-violent protest campaign to pressure the Government to expedite the making of a new Constitution.
The TNA currently comprises the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Another constituent, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) has dropped out of the TNA because of alleged political differences. The TNA contested the August 2015 parliamentary polls under the house symbol of its chief constituent the ITAK (Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi) which is referred to in English as the FP (Federal Party). The TNA contesting as ITAK won sixteen seats consisting of fourteen elected and two national list MPs in the 2015 election. After the EPRLF pull-out the number has dropped to 15 from 16 MPs.
From the inception of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government in 2015, the TNA has pursued a non-confrontational, conciliatory approach towards the regime. In spite of TNA parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan becoming the leader of the opposition, the TNA has co-operated with the Government in many ways like voting for the Budget etc. The TNA even voted against the no-confidence motion brought by sections of the opposition against incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Despite much criticism from hawkish elements on either side of the ethnic divide, the TNA has adopted this collaborative relationship with the ruling regime for the primary purpose of enacting a new Constitution. The TNA has been hopeful that a new Constituted formulated through a consensual approach with the full participation of the Tamil MPs in the Constitution drafting process could help resolve the Tamil national question through an effective power-sharing arrangement providing maximum devolution possible to the pre-dominantly Tamil Northern Province and the Tamil majority Eastern Province.
In fairness to the Yahapalanaya/Nallaatchi/Good Governance Government it did proceed with sincerity to implement its pledged commitments towards Constitution-making. The Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe formulated a different approach towards Constitution-making as opposed to similar exercises in 1972 and 1978. Initially a framework resolution was passed on March 9, 2016, by which all 225 Members of Parliament converted themselves into a Constitutional Assembly. The Constitutional Assembly is chaired by the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. A constitutional assembly secretariat was also established.
On April 5, 2016 the Constitutional Assembly set up a 21-member Steering Committee comprising Parliamentarians of different hues. The composition of the steering committee reflected the configuration of different political parties as represented in Parliament. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Steering committee’s chairman. Other members of the Steering Committee are Lakshman Kiriella, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Rauff Hakeem, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, A.D. Susil Premajayantha, Rishad Bathiudeen, Patali Champika Ranawaka, D. M. Swaminathan, Mano Ganesan, Malik Samarawickrama, Rajavarothyam Sampanthan, Anura Dissanayake, Dilan Perera, Dinesh Gunawardena, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, M. A. Sumanthiran, Ms. Thusitha Wijemanne, Bimal Rathnayake, Prasanna Ranatunga and Douglas Devananda.
According to the envisaged Constitution drafting procedure the Steering Committee’s task was to prepare the Draft Constitutional Proposal for consideration of the Constitutional Assembly
The Steering Committee identified 12 main subject areas. It was decided by the Steering Committee that certain subjects would be dealt with directly by the Committee itself. Those were matters covered by Chapter 1 and 2 of the present Constitution, Nature of the State, Sovereignty, Religion, Form of Government, Electoral Reforms, Principles of Devolution and Land. The other six subjects were assigned to specially set up sub-committees.
The Steering Committee on April 28, 2016 resolved that a Management Committee should be appointed to make arrangements and facilitate the work of the Steering Committee, Sub-Committees, and all secretarial work including staff requirements. Accordingly, the following persons were appointed as members of the Management Committee: Jayampathy Wickramaratne, MP – Co-chairman, M.A. Sumanthiran, MP – Co-Chairman, Neil Iddawala, Chief of Staff, Deputy Secretary General of Parliament, and Secretary to the Steering Committee, Naufel Abdul-Rahman, Secretary to the Leader of the House of Parliament, Ms. Bimba Jayasinghe Tillekeratne PC, Additional Secretary (Legal Affairs) to the Hon. Prime Minister
The Constitutional Assembly at a sitting held on May 5th 2016, appointed six thematic Sub-Committees to assist the Steering Committee in drafting a constitutional proposal. The six sub-committees and their themes are Fundamental Rights, The Judiciary, Law and Order, Public Finance, Public Services and Centre-Periphery Relations. Each Sub-committee consists of 11 members, including the Chairman. The six Chairmen were appointed from among the members selected to the Sub-Committees based on considerations of seniority.
According to the envisaged Constitution drafting procedure the Steering Committee’s task was to prepare the Draft Constitutional Proposal for consideration of the Constitutional Assembly. Once the Constitutional draft proposals were accepted and approved by the Constitutional Assembly with a two-thirds majority, it would be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers. Thereafter the cabinet was expected to approve them -- with or without changes - and present the Constitutional provisions to Parliament as a bill to get passed by a two-thirds majority. Following which, the approval and sanction of the people would be obtained by way of an Island-wide referendum. With that Sri Lanka hopefully would once again be able to have a new Constitution.
The steering committee was required to present both an interim report and a final report. The Reports of the six Sub Committees and another report by an ad-hoc Committee appointed by the Steering Committee were tabled before the Constitutional Assembly on 19th November and 10th December 2016 respectively. The Interim Report of the Steering Committee dealt with the remaining subjects that were not assigned to any Sub-Committee and also contained principles and formulations that reflected the deliberations of the Steering Committee.
The Constitutional assembly Steering Committee met 73 times between April, 2016 and September, 2017. The Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee’s Interim Report was presented to Parliament in its Constitutional Assembly Avatar by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the committee Chairman.The committee had accomplished the first part of its mandate through the presentation of its interim report on September 21, 2017. The Parliamentary debate on the interim report was held for five days in the last week of October and first week of November 2017. There was no vote taken as the Steering committee comprising representatives of all political formations in Parliament had approved the interim report. The debate provided much time for all concerned to air their views publicly. It was expected that the Steering Committee final report would be compiled and completed by the end of the year and placed before the Constitutional Assembly/Parliament in January 2018.
What is required now is for the Govt to take certain policy decisions at one level and for the Steering Committee to meet and arrive at definite conclusions at another level
Unfortunately there was very little forward movement on the Constitutional front since then. The personality clash between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the simmering tensions between the UNP and SLFP elements within Govt folds, the Local authority poll electoral campaign, the Central Bank treasury bonds scam related matters, the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister etc., resulted in a standstill in constitution making matters.
This lack of progress on the Constitutional front has had a tremendous impact on the TNA in general and its leader Sampanthan in particular. Trincomalee district MP and leader of the opposition Rajavarothayam Sampanthan is the senior-most Tamil leader in Parliament today. Born in February 1933 the 85-year-old TNA leader has participated in almost every meaningful attempt to bring about a negotiated settlement to the Tamil national question over the past 40 years since 1977.
Currently Sampanthan and TNA lawyer - parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran have fully involved themselves with the Constitutional assembly tasked with the formulation of a new constitution. They have dedicated themselves to the task of achieving political equality for Tamils on the Island through this envisaged constitution. The overseas tigers are strongly opposed to the current constitution making exercise. That is why they and their acolytes in Sri Lanka display venomous hatred towards Sampanthan and Sumanthiran who are fully supportive of and are immersed in the Constitutional exercise.
Sampanthan has hitched the TNA wagon to the new Constitution star and would very much like to attain his political objectives in the near future. Being an octogenarian he knows that the sands of time are running out. Sampanthan realises and recognizes that the best possible chance to bring about a satisfactory resolution of the Tamil question through acceptable power sharing arrangements in a new Constitution is under this Govt. In meetings with International leaders, diplomats and senior officials ,the TNA leader has consistently and constantly requested that the Govt should be encouraged and supported to bring about a new Constitution ensuring equal rights and power sharing arrangements.
The constructive support extended by the TNA to the Sirisena - Wickremesinghe Govt has had a negative fallout too. The recent local authority election results indicated that the TNA had lost considerable support in the Tamil areas of the North and East. The TNA came first in 41 Pradeshiya sabhas/sabhais and the councils it contested in the North-east but obtained outright majorities in only four. More importantly the total number of votes polled in the 2018 local polls dropped by 34% when compared to the 2015 Parliamentary elections. One of the chief reasons - if not the sole reason -- for such a decline is attributed by some analysts to the TNA’s association with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime.
The TNA cannot show the fruits of cooperation by way of jobs,schemes or projects because it does not have ministerial portfolios. It has only sought to redress Tamil grievances and accommodate legitimate Tamil aspirations
Unlike other political parties representing the Muslim and Up Country Tamil communities the TNA did not seek ministerial office in this Government. The TNA cannot show the fruits of cooperation by way of jobs,schemes or projects because it does not have ministerial portfolios. The TNA has only sought to redress Tamil grievances and accommodate legitimate Tamil aspirations through cooperation with the Government. Although there has been some progress in issues like return of military held lands back to civilian owners and release of Tamil detainees etc there is little progress in the prized objective of the TNA namely Constitutional reform or a new Constitution. To the TNA in general and Sampanthan in particular it was a single item political agenda -a new Constitution.
However as stated earlier the progress on the Constitution front has been slow and not up to the mark. Moreover there was no progress at all after the Steering Committee Interim Report was presented and debated upon last year. There was a general impression that the Constitutional process was paralysed after the interim report was presented. This affected the TNA badly in the polls. It was unable to effectively present strong proof that its cooperation with the Govt was indeed paying dividends. The TNA was depicted by its hardline opponents as either a diabolical or naive entity. At worst the TNA had sold out like a charlatan and at best the party had been taken for a ride like a fool.This impacted to a great extent in the local poll results.
Thus the TNA faced the prospect of further political decline within its constituency if it continued to cooperate with the Government without gaining anything on the Constitutional front. The TNA is in a dilemma. Either it gets the Government to deliver on the new constitution or it has to exit from its current stance of lending constructive support.
It is against this backdrop that TNA leader Sampanthan had separate meetings with President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe last month. Sampanthan urged both to revive and renew the Constitution making process. Both assured the opposition leader that the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee would be convened after the re-allocation of portfolios to cabinet ministers,state ministers and deputy -ministers. Now that the “scientific re-shuffle” is over the TNA expects the President and Prime Minister to demonstrate their bona fides by delivering on the new Constitution.
It is learnt reliably that despite the “lull” in the convening of the Constitutional Assembly steering committee, considerable progress has been made in drafting by the management committee co-chaired by Jayampathy Wickramaratne and MA Sumanthiran. What is required now is for the Govt to take certain policy decisions at one level and for the Steering Committee to meet and arrive at definite conclusions at another level. If political agreement is reached at multiple levels and the green light is given the final report of Constitutional proposals by the Steering committee or the draft constitution proposals would be ready for presentation to the Constitutional Assembly within two weeks. For all this to happen the political will, courage and strength must be there for the Government.
This lack of progress on the Constitutional front has had a tremendous impact on the TNA in general and its leader Sampanthan in particular
Bitter experience of defaulting Governments over the years and current political realities have naturally made the TNA wary. It is no longer willing to trust the Government fully on this count and provide carte blanche. If the Govt is found to be dilly-dallying or procrastinating without convening the Steering Committe, the TNA will for the first time since January 2015 confront the Govt politically.
The ITAK and TNA spokesman, MA Sumanthiran in an interview given to a Tamil TV on April 21st 2018 made an announcement to this effect. Sumanthiran said that if the Government does not deliver within a reasonable period of time the TNA would launch a totally non - violent protest campaign to demonstrate to the world at large that the Govt is not fulfilling its promises about formulating a new Constitution.
According to informed Tamil sources the TNA game-plan seems to be this. The TNA will be urging the Government to show progress on the Constitutional front by convening the Steering Committee and working on a Constitutional draft in May and early June. Meanwhile the chief constituent of the TNA the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) will hold its biennial party convention in late June. If the Govt does convene the Steering Committee and there is forward movement by that time the ITAK convention will approve and endorse the efforts through a resolution.If on the other hand the Govt does not move forward and defaults on its assurances before early June, the ITAK Convention would pass a different resolution calling for large -scale non-violent direct action protesting the Government’s inaction and drawing the attention of the world. Thereafter the TNA also would meet and ratify the ITAK resolution. This would be followed by the launch of a non - violent protest amounting to a civil disobedience campaign on Gandhian lines of “Ahimsa” and “Satyagraha”.
There is a historical precedent in Tamil politics for this. In 1961 the ITAK/FP launched a “Satyagraha” campaign that paralysed the work of Kachcheris in the Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. (There were no Mullaitheevu or Kilinochchi districts then). The campaign lasted for weeks and was finally crushed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Govt through the deployment of the armed services and the house arrest of prominent Tamil leaders. Prior to the commencement of the campaign the ITAK held its party convention and passed a unanimous resolution calling for a non - violent campaign.
Likewise the ITAK convention in 2014 during the Rajapaksa regime also passed a resolution calling for a massive non - violent protest campaign. The ITAK was planning to launch its campaign in January 2015 and began making preparations. Thousands of headgear known as “Gandhi caps”had been stitched. The Congress party in India launched many non - violent campaigns under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi against British rulers during the colonial period. All Congress volunteers participating in the non - violent campaigns wore the Gandhi caps. The ITAK which has a history of being inspired by Gandhian ideals and methods planned to stage a non - violent campaign with volunteers wearing Gandhi caps then. However the political situation changed in November with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa calling for an early election. The TNA backed the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena who defeated Rajapaksa on January 8th 2015.
History was made. Thereafter the TNA shelved the idea of a non - violent campaign as unnecessary and commenced its co-operative phase with the new President and Government.
Now due to the lack of progress on the Constitutional front the TNA may be compelled to launch a non - violent campaign again. According to TNA sources the campaign unlike in the past would not be confined to Tamils alone.It would seek to embrace all shades of opinion supportive of greater devolution in a new Constitution. By this the ITAK/TNA will seek to “De-ethnicise” the quest for a new Constitution and greater devolution.
Moreover the protest demonstrations would not only be held in Sri Lanka but held simultaneously in all international cities in the West with substantial Tamil Diaspora concentrations and in India ,Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore and Mauritius. The idea is to draw attention to the legitimate Tamil cause and enlist international support for a new Constitution.
Furthermore the Non - violent protest campaign and its resultant political fall-out will enable the TNA to make a break with this Govt. Although the TNA is not an intergral component of this Govt it is perceived as an “extension”of the regime in some matters. The TNA needs to break out of this image trap in order to face elections successfully. If there is progress on the Constitutional front the TNA can utilise it to political advantage.If there is no progress then the TNA needs to exit from this Collaborative relationship with the Govt. Hence the protest campaign can pave the way for the TNA to liberate itself from “Govt bondage”
This then is the prevailing political situation concerning the TNA. It appears that the Tamil alliance would have no option but to launch a non - violent campaign against the present Govt if there is no forward movement on the making of a new Constitution. This in turn could alter the political situation drastically. It is advisable that the TNA exercises restraint and patience as far as possible without rushing into direct action. After all the differences with the current Govt amount to friendly contradictions more than fundamental contradictions.
Even though the TNA is planning to commence a non - violent protest campaign on Gandhian lines it is to be hoped that the need to launch such a campaign does not arise. For that to happen President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe must patch up their differences, put their house in order and pursue a realistic policy of Constitutional reform with sincerity. For all that to happen there is an immense need for pragmatic common sense to prevail among all concerned.Sadly there is a serious shortage of pragmatism and common sense among Sri Lankan politicians right now.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com