New turn in northern Tamil politics

By C.A.Chandraprema

(Courtesy for The Sunday Island)

Today the Tamil people of the north and east do not have even the development and material assistance that they got from the Rajapaksa government.

 

The 13 demands put forward by five Tamil political parties in the north want marks a watershed in northern Tamil politics. The five political parties involved in the process were the Ilangei Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) ), the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) faction led by Suresh Premachandran and the Thamil Makkal Koottani led by C.V.Vigneswaran. A sixth political party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam participated in the process but did not sign the final document. Nevertheless the political parties that released the 13 demands represents the majority of the Tamil voters of the north and east at this moment and this list of demands can be said to mark a turning point in the Tamil politics of the north.

The 13 demands translated into English by Tamilnet, are as follows:

1.   New constitutional processes that uphold unitary system of rule should be rejected. The Tamil national question of Ilangkai [Ceylon] must be resolved through a federal framework with the realisation that Tamils constitute a nation with distinct sovereignty and that nation is entitled to the Right of Self-Determination under International Law

2.  Comprehensive and independent investigations must be carried out through the International Criminal Court/ Criminal Tribunal on the allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the final war

3.  The Prevention of Terrorism Act must be repealed

4.   Unconditional release of all Tamil Political Prisoners

5.  Justice must be accorded through international mechanisms to those who have suffered due to enforced disappearances of their kith and kin

6.  The state forces stationed in the Northern and Eastern provinces must be evicted from the private and crown lands which were utilized by the Tamil people before the war; those areas must be released; and the resettlement process should be accelerated

7.  The ongoing state-sponsored ‘Sinhalisation’, ‘Buddhicisation’ and Sinhala colonisation in the Northern and Eastern provinces must be stopped forthwith

8.  The jurisdiction of Mahaweli Authority, which is functioning as an authority to create Sinhala only colonies in the Northern province under cover of diverting the Mahaweli river towards the North, must be abolished. Furthermore, all Sinhala colonization schemes being taken forward in the Eastern Province under the so-called Mahaweli Development Programme must be terminated

9.  All the recently introduced Sinhala colonization schemes under the Moragahakanda Irrigation Programme in Vanni must be stopped forthwith

10.  ncroachment of lands and places of worships through government departments including the Archaeology, Forest and Wildlife conservation departments must be immediately stopped. The lands, which were appropriated through Gazette notifications by the above-mentioned departments, must be de-gazetted

11. The legal impediments faced by the Ceylonese living abroad in making direct investments and obtaining lands to develop the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces and to provide job opportunities to the youth, must be removed

12.  Preference must be accorded to those who hail from the Northern and Eastern provinces in public and private sector employment in the North-East

13.  Declare North-East as War-Ravaged Region and create a Joint Mechanism, which should handle the development assistance and place it under the guidance and disposal of the elected representatives of the people in the North-East

Sheep’s clothing abandoned

Tamilnet had its own take on these 13 demands. According to them, the original document in Tamil had the further proviso that those among the above the demands, which must be immediately addressed, should be resolved within three months from the day the new president assumes office. One weakness in the 13 demands noted by Tamilnet was that it fails to specify the mid-term and long-term demands and that it was unclear which issues should be addressed first by the future SL President. Similarly, they said that the lack of clearly stated conditions creates the loophole for meaningless promises such as a presidential candidate coming up with the vague assurance of setting up a Presidential Commission to look into the demands within three months and the TNA could ask Tamils to vote for a particular candidate based on the meaningless promise of looking into the ‘consensus’ document of the Tamil parties.

However, Tamilnet stated that the process was a good starter and educative, especially to the new generation of Tamil students in the North and East. The process of formulating these 13 demands had been initiated by the university student community in the North and the East. The fact that the younger generation had a hand in getting the political parties together may have far reaching consequences for the future. We seem to have returned once again to the situation in the early 1970s, when young activists began driving the nothern political agenda and the Tamil politicians became mere passengers at first and later victims of the political trends they themselves had started. It is now 10 years since the war ended and even after a gargantuan tragedy of that magnitude, the Tamil politicians of the north were not able to change track.

If the agenda before 2009 was Eelam through war, the agenda after 2009 became Eelam through politics. It is remarkable how quickly the Tamil National Alliance moved into the new phase. The war ended in May 2009 and by the end of that year, the TNA had embarked on its new project in collaboration with other political parties. The strategy of winning Eelam through politics was to help a southern political party to capture power and through that southern political party to usher in a new constitution which divides the country in the manner required by the TNA. Of course in a situation where this will have to be done with the cooperation of the southern political parties, the ultimate aim will have to be appropriately disguised to make it palatable to the other parties in the endeavor. This was why the TNA pretended to give up their call to do away with the unitary state. This was why they suddenly began to show an interest in constitutional issues such as the abolition of the executive presidency that evoke interest in the south.

Just last month, M.A.Sumanthiran was tweeting in favour of abolishing the executive presidency. The only hope the TNA had of making the southern political parties and constituents swallow their federal constitutional proposals was if they were adequately sugar-coated in long standing constitutional demands among the southern constituency such as the abolition of the executive presidency and electoral reform. Less than four weeks ago, the TNA was still wearing this constitutional sheepskin of not being opposed to the unitary state and being interested in abolishing the executive presidency until they suddenly discarded it for the usual stripes last Monday with the publishing of these 13 demands. It may be the case that events in the north and east have started moving with a momentum not of the TNA’s making.

The TNA’s claim to be unopposed to the unitary state was always a canard. What they were trying to pull off was to leave the label of unitary intact while having a federal state in substance. The constitutional proposals that were tabled in Parliament by the Prime Minister in January this year were in actual fact drafted by the TNA. What this draft constitution would have created would have been nine semi-independent states. The President in Colombo regardless of whether he was the executive president or a nominal president, would have been irrelevant to the TNA because they would be having a virtually independent state in the north and east. The draft constitution even had a provision to merge the north and east which meant that at the end of the constitutional reform process, the Tamils of the north and east would have a unitary state while the Sinhalese would have a federal state!

Eelam through a pliable Sinhala puppet

The demand to create a federal state through reform of the constitution, was just a feint to create a separate Tamil state in the north and east. Earlier, the demand for a separate state was direct and violent. After 2009 it became non-violent and gradual. But the ultimate objective was always the same. No one can blame the TNA for not being consistent. The TNA’s strategy of helping a southern political party to capture power and then obtaining their constitutional demands as a quid pro quo began working only in 2015, but it worked only up to a point. A tame government was brought into power and a federal constitution was drafted and even tabled in Parliament. But nothing happened after that. After five years, the TNA has nothing to show for their pains. Today the Tamil people of the north and east do not have even the development and material assistance that they got from the Rajapaksa government.

As a consequence, between the Parliamentary election of 2015 and the local government election of 2018, the TNA has suffered huge reversals electorally. As we pointed out last week, at the 2015 Parliamentary election, the TNA got 207,577 votes in the Jaffna electoral district on a 61% total voter turnout and 127,185 votes in the Batticaloa district on a 69% voter turnout. But at the 2018 local government election, the TNA’s vote in the Jaffna electoral district had gone down to 136,152 and to 80,622 in the Batticaloa district in a situation where the voter turnout had increased to 70% in the Jaffna electoral district and 76% in the Batticaloa district. In other words, more people had turned up at the polling booth, but less were voting for the TNA.

This was why the TNA was waffling at this presidential election without declaring their support for any candidate before getting a written pledge that their demands would be met. They would not be able to justify asking the Tamil people to vote for another presidential candidate without guarantees that their demands would be met. It was then that the northern Tamil students came up with with this joint declaration which the main constituent party of the TNA, the ITAK has also signed. The 13 demands are such that no southern political party can accede to them. The TNA’s policy up to now was to keep their ulterior motives hidden and to try and achieve their objectives through stealth and strategy. As it turns out, the TNA was free to drive policy in the north and east for a period of less than a decade. Before 2009, they were being instructed on what to do by Tamilselvam. Now they are being instructed on what to do by nameless, faceless students.

One cannot blame the Tamil students either. On the one hand organizations like the TNA hold out certain hopes to the Tamil people and then prove themselves to be completely inept at achieving those aims. The TNA brought President Sirisena into power and drafted a new constitution. But when the Prime Minister presented the draft of this constitution to Parliament, he promptly disowned it saying that it was not his draft but one prepared by a panel of experts. When this draft was taken up for debate in Parliament this July, there was scant interest in it on both sides of the political divide. The TNA parliamentaians ended up talking more to themselves than to anyone else. The federal constitution making process was a complete fiasco.

Even though the constitution making process had failed, the TNA continued to be supportive of the UNP because they did not want to see the Rajapaksas returning to power. If Ranil Wickremesinghe had been the candidate, the chances are that the TNA would have continued to back the UNP on the grounds that their 2015 experiment failed because Sirisena was the President and that if RW had been the President, they would have been more successful. However, when Sajith became the candidate, the TNA wanted a written guarantee that their demands would be met. Without such a written guarantee it would not have been possible to market Sajith in the north as the Sinhala politician who was going to meet Tamil aspirations.

By publicly announcing the fact that they want a written pledge from whoever they are going to back at this election, the TNA has made it virtually impossible for anybody to give that pledge. Electoral dynamics will ensure that the moment the TNA announces that they have entered into a written agreement with a candidate, that candidate is going to lose votes in the South.

It was in this situation of stalemate that the several constituent parties of the TNA and the Vigneswaran group joined up to issue the 13 demands at the behest of the students. The issuance of the 13 demands marks the unraveling of the dream of appointing a Sinhala puppet who will deliver Eelam to the Tamils. This is now a new situation. The only political parties in the north which will be able to openly back a Presidential candidate in the south will be the groups and political parties that have already announced their support for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP, because they have not subscribed to the 13 demands. The parties that have endorsed the 13 demands will have to ask the Tamil people of the north and east to vote according to their conscience. The TNA has already created anti-Rajapaksa feeling in the north and east. Besides, the swan symbol is familiar to the Tamil people as the symbol of the anti-Rajapaksa camp. It will be interesting to observe the dynamics of the northern and eastern Tamil vote in a situation where the TNA and its offshoots are not canvassing openly for the UNP candidate but the groups associated with the SLPP are openly backing Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Keeping the Rajapaksas out

Its not that the TNA will remain neutral at this election. The TNA’s aloofness at the presidential elections in 2019, is very similar to that of the JVP’s aloofness in 2015. They may refuse to openly endorse a candidate but they will support a candidate on the sly nevertheless. There is little doubt that at this election, the preferred candidate of the TNA and even its offshoot the Vigneswaran group, is Sajith Premadasa. Pictures have already emerged of TNA Parliamentarian S.Sritharan distributing leaflets promoting Sajith Premadasa. However, there is an issue that both the TNA and the Vigneswaran group will have to think over carefully. If the people of the north and east overwhelmingly vote for a southern presidential candidate and the latter gets elected on the basis of the Tamil voters of the north and east, how is that to be turned into the advantage of the TNA and the Vigneswaran group in a situation where neither group has endorsed the winning candidate?

The UNP candidate can always turn around and say that the Tamil people voted for him unconditionally because they had confidence in him and that he owes nothing to the Tamil political parties in the north. In fact such a vote will buttress claims that are already being made that while the Tamil politicians in the north demand Eelam and devolution, the Tamil people in the north do not desire any such thing. What they want is to lead normal lives like the other communities in the country. If the TNA and the Vigneswaran group abdicate their position as the self appointed leaders of the Tamil people and allow the people to do as they like, that will also undermine their already wobbly position further. If they fail to openly express support for a southern candidate and are therefore in no position to make demands on that candidate if he gets elected, the TNA’s power over the center would be seriously undermined. They will have to support the candidate of their choice at least on the sly as the JVP did, if they are to wield any kind on influence over the candidate who receives the majority of the northern Tamil vote.

If the TNA supports Sajith on the sly without getting any commitment from him or endorsing his candidacy publicly, and see that he is elected, Sajith will be President for five years and the TNA will for five years be able to savour the joy of keeping Gotabhaya Rajapaksa out, but will not be able to make any demands on Sajith and will be stuck in a permanent limbo. That is the conundrum that the TNA and its offshoots are faced with. The question here is: what is the TNA’s agenda? Is it keeping the Rajapaksas out or meeting the aspirations of the Tamil people? Even in a situation where the TNA openly canvassed for President Sirisena at the 2015 presidential elections and helped the UNP government to maintain a majority in Parliament, the TNA could not get Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to endorse their draft constitution.

How then are they to have any influence on Sajith or get him to even look at their draft constitution if they passively allow the Tamil people to vote for Sajith of their own accord and without any guidance from the TNA? In contrast to the TNA and its offshoots, the Tamil political parties of the north and east that are supporting Gota, do so openly and are canvassing for him and will be able to claim the reward they expect if he gets elected. If the TNA’s rivals are active while the TNA is paralyzed and unable to decide either way, it will confirm the accusation made by their rivals that the TNA had led the Tamil people into a cul de sac. So this election has made it imperative for the TNA and its offshoots to think hard and to ask themselves the existential question, – what are we, and what are we doing?

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