The first few days of Sri Lanka’s 8th Parliament has seen a series of significantly ‘less-probable’ events unfolding in Sri Lankan politics. They reached a climax with the election of Ilangai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) Leader R. Sampanthan, as the Opposition Leader. While some quarters were hailing the event from different political perspectives, it also appears to have sent shock-waves within a significant cross-section of Sri Lanka’s body politics.
The reason is very clear. They simply fear a possible repetition of the approach taken by the TULF in the aftermath of the 1977 Parliamentary Elections. At that election, which was the last to be held under the first-past-the-post (FPP) system, the UNP secured 140 out of a total of 168 seats in the Parliament, the TULF with 18 seats comfortably managed to become the main opposition party ahead of the SLFP which secured only eight seats.
"One can observe a mature pluralistic democratic tradition on the part of the people’s representatives in refraining from abusing the privileges of their public office to realize the political ideologies of their parties, in an unconstitutional, or undemocratic manner"
Obviously, the reason for concern is not the fact that a regional party representing one ethnic group, rather than a national political party, became the main opposition. Rather it was the extremist political ideology that was practically directed towards the creation of a `Separate Tamil State’.
In a democratic system of governance, the opposition party is expected to play the role of a shadow government, representing the alternative to the government in office. The opposition is expected to act with a national focus rather than with a regional, ethnic or any other sectarian focus.
Unfortunately, the TULF of 1977, having pledged its commitment to the infamous `Wadukkodai Resolution’ of 1976, which inter-alia resolved to create a separate state in the Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka condoning the `use of terrorism’ as a means of achieving it. The TULF was not at all inclined to position itself in the nationally responsible role.
In fact, it was during the same year, just months before the TULF sat as the main opposition party in the Parliament that a Tamil militant youth by the name of Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was to later become the world’s most ruthless terrorist leader, had personally executed the first political killing in the North by murdering Alfred Duraiappa.
"The right of all citizens of the country, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher, and others, to live in an area of their choice should be guaranteed unconditionally"
So the political interests of the TULF were hardly ‘national’ at the time and upon enforcement of the 6th Amendment to the Constitution which required the taking of an oath to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, the TULF literally chose to demonstrate their allegiance to the “Wadukkodai Resolution” rather than to the 6th Amendment and vacated the Parliament.
So, it is natural that some sections of society tend to associate the bad memories of that era with the current political set up, with the ITAK emerging as the main opposition party and its leader R. Sampanthan assuming office as Opposition Leader. However, before rushing to associate the two events as parallels in history, one should take cognizance of the vast differences in socio-political contexts between then and now.
Let us look at the composition of the 8th Parliament. Officially there are six political parties represented in Parliament -- the UNP which contested under the elephant symbol with all partners of the UNFGG included; the UPFA which contested under the betel leaf symbol with all alliance partners included; the ITAK which contested under the house symbol with all alliance partners of the TNA included and finally the JVP, EPDP and the CWC.
The UNP which ended up with the largest number of seats in Parliament succeeded in appointing its Leader as Prime Minister while the UPFA, which ended up as the party with the 2nd largest number of seats in Parliament, at no stage making any official intimation to be the main Opposition.
With both the ITAK and the JVP expressing their intention to be in the Opposition, the ITAK clearly stood as the party with a clear majority of opposition members. So, technically, ITAK was clearly qualified to claim the position of Opposition Leader.
While the constitutionality of Mr. Sampanthan’s election as the Opposition Leader is out of the question, the real question, however, is how is he going to manage his role as the Opposition Leader of the national legislature, with the traditionally sectarian political ideology and the political practice of his party, which is being openly manifested by some sections of the party.
In the national body politics of Sri Lanka, one can observe a mature pluralistic democratic tradition on the part of the people’s representatives in refraining from abusing the privileges of their public office to realize the political ideologies of their parties, in an unconstitutional, or undemocratic manner.
The JHU, for example, has never resorted to any unconstitutional approach to reach its political ideal of ‘Dharma Rajya’. Nor has the JVP ever attempted to use their parliamentary positions to promote the political ideal of establishing the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat through a Bolshevik revolution’ or an armed struggle. However, the recent calls by certain sections of the TNA, including TNA-controlled Northern Provincial Council, for defying the sixth amendment as well as for various external interventions to investigate the war against terrorism, by no means demonstrate their readiness to assume a greater role as a national political force, rather than acting unconstitutionally in pursuit of their invalid sectarian and communal interests.
In 1950s and 60s there was a similar extremist separatist movement in South India, known as Dravidar Kazhagam, which subsequently led to the formation of the DMK. As they gained substantial representation in legislature, the anti-separatist constitutional amendments brought about by the Nehru administration compelled the movement to shed not only their separatist ideology seeking the right to self-determination but also their violent approach to politics, bringing them to the democratic mainstream.
It is high time that ITAK reflects on the massive suffering and destruction that the separatist political ideology based on socio-politically unfeasible and historically unfounded concept of the ‘traditional Tamil homeland and the right to self-determination’ that was shared by the LTTE has brought to the whole country in general and to the Tamils in particular.
The Tamil population itself has shrunk from 18% to 15% since 1971 up to now. The percentage of Tamil professionals in such fields as engineering, medicine, etc., has drastically come down.
I have personally witnessed a situation where no single Tamil candidate passed a certain structured selection test that was held for recruitment of over hundred engineers to the CEB, which speaks volumes about the extent of deterioration in the standards of education during the past three decades.
The ITAK must take cognizance of the fast deteriorating landscape for communal politics in this country. The LTTE or its leadership is no more, and their followers who contested the parliamentary elections in Jaffna have managed to secure a mere 15,000 votes.
On the other hand, other Tamil political leaders have been showing an increasingly progressive positive trend of moving away from communal politics. A good example is the speech made by Mr. Mano Ganeshan, on the day the UNFGG released its election manifesto before last month’s elections, where he publicly denounced the politics of separatism while pledging his commitment to the unitary state.
The UNP, which is clearly committed to preserve the Unitary State, has gained parliament representation in the whole country including North and the East. The masses of this country, who have made great sacrifices for protecting its unitary status, the territorial integrity and the sovereignty, do not at all deserve any more sufferings resulting from communal and regional politics.
The right of all citizens of the country, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher, and others, to live in an area of their choice should be guaranteed unconditionally. Resettlement of all the war displaced people -- including the Sinhala families, who were forced out of the North, as part of the LTTE’s approach to ethnic cleansing -- should continue to be a national priority.
It is our fervent hope that Mr. Sampanthan and his party hierarchy will fast adapt themselves to the new national role that he and his party is now called upon to play a pivotal role in the Opposition of the national legislature while leaving no room for any section of his political party and the alliance to act irresponsibly and in an unconstitutional manner, based on the socio-politically invalid and historically unfounded ideologies that seek to divide the Sri Lankan nation along ethnic or regional fault lines, depriving the golden opportunity for the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and all others to emerge together as a developed nation in this 21st century that belongs to Asia.