- Sampanthan leading elite Jaffna politics with Mavai and Sumanthiran
- LLRC recommendations a platform for North-South dialogue
- UNP has remained a Sinhala Buddhist party dependent on Southern votes
Reading Northern Tamil politics from Colombo, the presidential election seems to have proved Tamil political leaderships of all colour are caught in a serious dilemma. Much fractured TNA had to eventually compromise to announce Tamil people should vote to the “lesser evil.” TPC led by former Supreme Court Judge and former Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran asked the people to “vote wisely.” Wanting to project a more “Thamilian” appearance, the TNPF led by Gajendra Kumar campaigned for a boycott of the presidential election. His argument was no different to that which denied voting for N-E people at the November 2005 presidential election. That boycott then brought Rajapaksa as Executive President for the first time.
This time around, the boycott call had absolutely no resonance with the North and East. They voted en bloc on November 16 against the second Rajapaksa contesting presidency. Voter turnout this time was far more formidable than their vote which ousted the first Rajapaksa in January 2015. Extremist elements in the Sinhala South immediately began comparing the old Eelam map with districts they lost. The implied message conveyed was that “Eelam separatists” voted Sajith. Why Eelam separatists would want to vote for a candidate who vowed to safeguard the Unitary State of the Sinhala Buddhists was left unexplained. A dangerous political game played out for the South with the next parliamentary elections a few months ahead. Yet another Tamil demon in front of the Sinhala Buddhist gate.
" Tamil political leadership needs to understand that this is neither Ceylon in 1956 nor Sri Lanka in 1977"
In present day electoral Tamil politics, “separatism” is a lost cause. During the past decade after the war was officially declared over, what they asked for is “devolved power within a Unitary State” spelled out as an “undivided, indivisible, united country.” But how the Northern democratic political leadership tries to achieve that is much flawed. Their focus and fixation to Jaffna and the North keeping a tight hold on electoral politics have left a widening gap with fast-changing ground realities.
From the formation of the first Tamil political party ACTC in 1944 and all through post-independent history, democratic Tamil politics was dominated by a strong Jaffna lobby that was always elite. G.G. Ponnambalam Snr., Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam and Ananda Sangaree were all of Jaffna Vellala stock. Although from Trincomalee, Sampanthan is now leading the same elite Jaffna politics with Mavai and Sumanthiran. Even in every armed Tamil group led by youth, Kuttimani, Sri Sabharatnam, Uma Maheswaran, Pathmanabha, Balakumar, Suresh Premachandran, Siddharthan to Douglas Devananda and all other armed group leaders were and are from the Jaffna peninsula. The top LTTE leadership with Prabhakaran was also from Jaffna and Vanni. In the LTTE, this Northern supremacy created plenty of friction with Eastern leaders like Karikalan and led to Karuna Amman’s defection.
East is often taken for granted by all Tamil leaders, past and present. One argument used to keep East within their politics is that East is part of Tamil homeland with a large historical presence of Sri Lankan Tamils. The other is about linguistic homogeneity. How the Muslim community that settled in the East over five to six centuries ago came to be Tamil-speaking is due to Tamil dominance in the East. Thus, East, even after Senanayake’s colonisation schemes, remains a Tamil-speaking province. As in South India, this linguistic factor is being argued for a merged North and East. While they remain theoretical and historical arguments, in practice, the lobby still remains a Jaffna Tamil lobby.
"Mahaveer Day has become a rallying point, especially in North, and the Vanni as an “anti-government protest” due to absence of answers to their post-war issues"
Continuing with the Jaffna lobby in post-war North and East has alienated the mainstream ITAK leadership from ground realities. ITAK leadership lost traction with people when it pinned total faith in the Wickremesinghe Government to create a new Constitution. Politically dumb, it simply did not understand the UNP and its Southern politics. Ever since its birth, UNP has been a Sinhala Buddhist party dependent on Southern votes. In fact, the track record of the UNP leadership is far more racist than even the SLFP with disenfranchising the upcountry Tamil people in 1948, colonising the East with Sinhala settlements, opposing the B-C Pact in 1957, attacks on Tamil people in 1977, riots and burning of Jaffna library in 1981, infamous 1983 Black July being part of their history. To have expected this UNP leadership to push for a new Constitution as ITAK wants was more tragic than wishful thinking.
Sadly, ITAK leadership was not challenged by other opposing leaders and groups with pragmatism. Why war-affected people in N-E wanted the Rajapaksa regime ousted was to have their demands campaigned and agitated for with their political leaders not taking up immediate issues as priority. People were compelled to speak for themselves. They came out in large numbers during the “Yahapalana” Government without a political leadership and support. ITAK leadership, obsessed with its new Constitution, was not even happy about such protests and agitations. It did not guide the NPC to present a provincial socio-economic development programme that would address post-war issues; a programme that could have brought Northern and Eastern people together. They did not use such programme for Northern C, to lobby the Colombo Government for funds and facilities for its implementation. NPC leadership with Wigneswaran thus went on its own and made efforts to step in to shoes the ITAK was not prepared to wear.
Northern and Eastern people were left leaderless. They wanted the democratic space they used during the Yahapalana rule retained after presidential election too. They voted wisely as Wigneswaran told them; to ensure a democratic space the South was not interested in. That explains why 1.2 million in the North and East once again voted against Rajapaksa and how that became a gain for Premadasa. That space is fast becoming smaller and uncertain. Mahaveer Day celebrations saw Jaffna University students disregarding the ban enforced by the university administration on commemorating the event. Reports said there were few small commemorations held as private events. Mahaveer Day has become a rallying point, especially in North, and the Vanni as an “anti-government protest” due to absence of answers to their post-war issues.
North and East cannot go on this way. They cannot gain anything by restricting themselves to the North and East. But that is the responsibility of their political leadership first and their social activists including professional and academic community in North-East and especially in Colombo thereafter. They need a completely new approach in placing their demands on a national platform for democratic reforms. Tamil political leadership needs to understand that this is neither Ceylon in 1956 nor Sri Lanka in 1977. Forty plus years has changed everything from local socio-political issues to regional geo-politics.
“Hindutva” in Modi’s India, Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Myanmar Buddhist extremism that left Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi internationally shamed and Sinhala Buddhist extremism in the South here are political reflections of how the deprived majority are roped in to continue with the free market economy"
As often stressed in my columns before, 40 years of free market economy has not been about socio-economic development but about an economy for mega city consumerism and profits. All outside major cities, 70 per cent of the population in rural society and to an extent in urban and semi-urban areas have been left out of this market and have to struggle for a living. Filthy rich owners of the free market economy therefore have to use “majoritarian patriotism” to politically-control the “left out” poor in electoral democracies. “Hindutva” in Modi’s India, Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Myanmar Buddhist extremism that left Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi internationally shamed and Sinhala Buddhist extremism in the South here are political reflections of how the deprived majority are roped in to continue with the free market economy.
Politics in both the North and South therefore need a programme that can challenge this free market economy with a democratic, socio-economic development programme. It is within such a national programme that people’s issues of the North and East could be addressed. This is a long haul no doubt. Where even the South is not ready yet for such dialogue, Tamil politics to break out from its Jaffna lobby and reach out to the people with an alternate programme needs serious internal discussion within their political parties and groups.
But for the North and East people who for 10-long years have been struggling to find answers for their daily issues, for their dignity in life, there cannot be any more waiting. They need answers despite change of government they did not vote for. The new government, though with positions shifted between Rajapaksa brothers, is the Rajapaksa Government that appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to study and report on war-related issues and how such conflict could be avoided in the future. The commission’s recommendations remain shelved ever since they were presented in Parliament in December 2011 by then Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva who is the Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Legal Reforms in this new Rajapaksa Government. The commission’s recommendations include answers to many of the burning issues the Tamil people have been agitating for during the past decade. Demanding full implementation of LLRC recommendations therefore can be an immediate beginning for post-election Tamil politics. LLRC recommendations can also be a platform for a North-South dialogue with the Rajapaksa stamp on it.
This, with a new reach beyond Jaffna and a wholly new effort in projecting Tamil politics within a democratic national programme, would make the Sinhala South too take a new and different look at the North and East – a change Tamil politics needs and would not be able to