By Malinda Seneviratne -
It is natural for members of the Parliamentary Opposition to oppose whatever the ruling party proposes. Voting in Parliament is therefore predictable, whether it is for an Act of Parliament, Annual Budget or anything else. There was a time of dissenting voices voting against party position but that was effectively quashed by a Supreme Court determination regarding the fate of Members who considered crossing over. What we have got used to seeing is all members of the Opposition using allocated time to object, with the main opposition being the most vocal and other making cursory dissenting noises.
Seldom do were here impassioned, well-argued presentations by members of parties with lesser representative power on major issues, the exception being Sarath Muttetuwegama who was a veritable one-man opposition (and an effective one at that) in the eighties. This is particularly true of identity-based parties. They tend to speak up only when constituency demands they do and do so vociferously. At least in post-1977 Sri Lanka.
It is in this context that TNA MP, M.A. Sumanthiran’s intervention in the debate on the impeachment of the (now ex) Chief Justice should be assessed. The TNA as well as other avatars of parties consciously focused on Tamil issues have rarely taken on national issues that were ‘ethnicity-free’ as seriously as Mr. Sumanthiran did in this instance. One can agree or disagree with him, take issue with his assumptions and interpretations, but there is no question that he was representating a point of view that cut across identity divide. His efforts are all the more praiseworthy because they have no impact whatsoever on the party’s electoral fortunes.
There are of course many issues which feed into communal segregation and mutual suspicion. Among the reasons why non Tamils view Tamil politicians with suspicion even when the latter talk of a ‘United Sri Lanka’ (‘United’ of course being a problematic term in the unitary-federal debate since neither formation forbids it and therefore warranting the query ‘sleight of hand?’) is the fact that they have never taken up ‘common issues’ with any degree of passion or sobriety. When Mr. Sumanthiran spoke, however, he was speaking for Sinhalese, Muslims, Burghers and Malays as well as Tamils, for Buddhists as well as Christians and Hindus. Not all, because not everyone would agree with him, obviously, but still he stepped out, one can argue, from a communal and communalist (some would say) shell.
There is a huge difference between a Tamil politician from a major party speaking on a national issue and one from a Tamil party doing the same. If Sinhalese were reluctant to listen to the TNA except to know what their views are about Sinhala-Tamil relations, Tamil grievances and aspirations, and so on, these kinds of interventions would make them listen without thinking ‘enemy’.
The Sinhalese must, for their part, appreciate that the TNA, being a ‘Tamil party,’ is obliged to articulate the problems of the Tamil people and moreover to put aside past apprehensions to treat such representations seriously because ethnic identity notwithstanding Tamils are fellow-citizens. However, whether or not anyone else is listening it is still incumbent on all Parliamentarians to be cognizant of all grievances and their Parliamentary responsibility to be the voice of all citizens. The President, for example, is not the Head of State of those who voted for him, but every single Sri Lankan, including those whose first choice he was not.
Three years after the end of the three decade armed conflict everyone agrees it is time to move on. The President has called for the forging of a national identity, a Sri Lanka where Sri Lankanness overrides all other identities. Mr. Sumanthiran’s effort, even his detractors must recognize, is an articulation of that same sentiment. He has shown that the TNA, if not in name then in action, can become a ‘national’ political entity. A concretization would be to re-think party position on the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee to hammer out a lasting solution to grievances of a communal kind. Indeed, they could turn that exercise into one which designs a new constitution, more inclusive, more democratic and better safeguards against abuse, not to mention one where the principle of power separation is less vague and less open to multiple (and wild) interpretation.