18 May, 2024


19A & Post-Election Tamil Politics

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Some of the recent articles written from a Tamil perspective on the 19th Amendment blamed Colombo for not accommodating Tamil demands for devolution of power when enacting the Amendment. Arguments centered around the point that if the government was sincere in resolving the Tamil problem, it could have done so within the framework of the 19th Amendment because the government had more than enough majority in parliament to successfully adopt the new changes to the constitution. A striking feature of these analyses is that they failed to look internally at how the Tamil parties approached the issues of constitutional change that were made in April 2015.

TNA and the 19th Amendment

Pertinent questions here are, did the Tamil parties make any demands for their support of the 19th Amendment? Why should Colombo concede when the Tamil parties were not asking for anything in terms of devolution of power?

Maithri WigneswaranTamils who expected the government to voluntarily devolve powers, one can safely argue, have not learnt anything from the more than half a century of conflict. It is clear from the past that the government will not treat the devolution issue like a charity. The Tamils need to work, in fact work hard if they want political powers devolved. This should be done within accepted democratic principles taking advantage of political tools, not through violence. The use of violence for political purposes almost completely destroyed Tamil society and the country as a whole.

According to one source, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) requested the government to include provisions in the amendments to address Tamil issues. This should be considered as token because the party did not pursue this goal openly or earnestly. However, the EPDP is a minor party in terms of its vote bank and parliamentary representation. What about the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest and leading party that represents the Tamil community in parliament and outside? The TNA did not link the 19th Amendment to the question of devolution of power in any way. In fact, there was tacit approval for the Amendment sans any new arrangements to address the ethnic conflict.

The original proposal for the 19th Amendment was presented without provisions to either implement the 13th Amendment fully or improve upon it. It is this draft that was taken to the Supreme Court. M. A. Sumanthiran, now a leading figure within the TNA, defended vehemently the draft presented in the Supreme Court. His speech on the 19th Amendment in parliament did not include the words “Tamil” or “devolution of power.” Obviously, the party voted for the Amendment. Therefore, the party approved and lobbied for the Amendment in its original form. Hence, it is not reasonable to blame the government when the Tamil parties were not demanding anything to resolve their issues and unconditionally extending support.

Should they have raised the devolution issue? Some of the Tamil commentators believe that the ethnic conflict resolution issues should have been linked to the question of constitutional reform. On the other hand, a moderate section maintains that it should not have been linked to the voting. The consensus is that while voting in favor of the Amendment, Sumanthiran, in his speech, should have insisted on the need to address devolution issues. This was an important opportunity to highlight Tamil issues.
There are at least two reasons why the Tamil parties represented in parliament should have raised this issue. One, the 19th Amendment was not only dealing with presidential powers. It tried to resolve some of the major problems facing the country. Resolving the political issues of the Tamils is also important. Second, although the possibility for incorporating devolution issues in the 19th Amendment was nil, it provided an opportunity to highlight minority grievances. The opportunity should have been exploited strategically. Through its attitude towards the 19th Amendment, the TNA has now contributed to the view that ethnic issues are not significant anymore. This would certainly upset the Tamil nationalists.

Post-Election Politics

In fact, President Sirisena’s election provided a new opportunity to engage the government constructively because the Tamils played an important part in his electoral victory. That opportunity was also not used wisely by the Tamil parties.

When the war ended, the victorious government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa had two major means to achieve a desirable state of national integration and perhaps ethnic reconciliation: (1) through a political process where Tamil grievances are addressed within a reasonable framework, and (2) through military means where attention is paid only to national security at the expense of the rights of people who live in the North and East. The former government chose the second path. Military control over Tamils was tightened and the governor, a former army commander, ran a military type administration. This was one reason why the Tamils constantly insisted on a civilian governor.

Also, election to the Northern provincial council was delayed. This election was eventually conducted under pressure from India. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was set up only as a delaying tactic. The TNA refused to participate in the PSC process. The party had a reason to refuse to engage because the Rajapaksa government did not give the impression that it was serious about finding a political solution. It was not sending conciliatory signals. Obviously, Rajapaksa was catering to his voter base.

The political environment changed with the election of the new president. Positive signals were sent constantly. For example, Major C. A. Chandrasiri was removed from the governor’s office. Ms. Vijayaletchumi, former Chief Secretary of the Northern Province, who was hostile to the TNA and obviously serving the interest of the Rajapaksa government, was also removed. Some of the disputed land that was under military control was returned to its original owners. Reports from the North also indicate that normalization is taking place in the region. Although they do not guarantee that a reasonable solution to the ethnic conflict will be found under President Maithripala Sirisena’s government, at least positive signals are being sent.

The TNA either remains ignorant or sends hostile signals. For example, the Northern provincial council adopted a resolution calling for an international investigation in March. To put it mildly, this was hostile and badly timed. Interestingly, Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran who hitherto resisted the resolution suddenly decided to bring it before the council as soon as Rajapaksa was gone. This was a poor strategy. It is imperative to note that the resolution was originally proposed by Sivajilingam last year. It is not clear why Wigneswaran thought that this March was the time to get it endorsed. Obviously, he was catering to his constituency.

The resolution and content of the discussions that Wigneswaran had with international leaders who visited him clearly demonstrate the belief that the international community, namely the United States and India, will find a solution for the Tamil problem. This is one reason why the TNA leaders are more interested in discussing their problems with international figures visiting Sri Lanka rather than constructively communicating with the new government.

From the inception, it was clear that the United States was promoting the resolution against Sri Lanka for strategic reasons, although humanitarian concerns also played a role. Some Tamils, including some of the leaders of the TNA believed that the US would punish Sri Lanka for human rights violations. This was a misplaced belief. Since the new government has demonstrated willingness to collaborate with India and the West, these two countries will now work very closely with the Sri Lankan government. The visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Secretary of State John Kerry to Sri Lanka were certainly a setback for the Tamils who believed that the international community would save and defend them. Therefore, it is high time that Tamil parties paid more attention to internal processes rather than international help.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Tamil politicians should adopt a cooperative approach rather than their historically reactionary and antagonistic approach to solve their problems. Since 1930s Sir Arunachalam’s aggressive approach, followed by GG Ponna, Chelva and Tamil political entities have made demands and threats without any due consideration of their impact on the other communities concerns or rights. A friendlier, fairer approach may have yielded better results for all citizens have elluded their minds. Is there a Tamil leader who can take their concerns directly to the Sri Lankan masses, galvanise popular support as did Gandhi and Dr King?

  • 4

    I think the TNA dealt with the 19th amendment sensibly considering the circumstances prevailing in parliament and the games that MR is playing. The opposition has managed to dent the 19th amendment, even if it failed to render it mute. Including Tamil/minority issues would have given them the tool to clobber it. The intent of the 19th amendment is to address national issues and the minority issues also come within that purview. The constitutional council should make a difference, despite the changes forced by the opposition, if the President insists on only accepting persons of quality from among the MPs.Further the three persons appointed from civic society should be outstanding and strong persons who are respected by all sections of society and communities. Ven.Maduluwe Sobitha Thera should be one among them.

    Further, you are right in acknowledging the the government has made many positive moves within the past few months, in the north and east. Sampur in particular is a highlight. The government has also made a commitment to implement the 13th amendment as it stands today and to promulgate a new constitution. if it is in power and has the numbers after the forthcoming general elections. There are many ifs, but there is also room for much hope.

    The NPC and the CM have been disappointing. Sivajilingam, Ananthi Sasitharan and Sivagnanam are setting the pace and the CM is playing catch-up. A disappointing situation! NPC is visibly not doing anything in areas such as education, agriculture and social issues of serious concern. It should also raise public awareness on issues that do not come within its purview, but are the concern of the central government. Rabble rousing is not its function.

    The TNA should play a role to ensure that the north and east recover fast from the depredation of the long civic unrest and wars, while also seeking long term solutions to the problems of the minorities, both in distinct areas and dispersed in the country. It should seek solutions out of the box in pursuit of solutions. It should also nominate the best candidate possible to contest the forthcoming Pradeshya Sabbha elections and the general elections-persons who can win and also perform effectively and honestly.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 2

    Since President Maithripala Sirisena, unlike any other politician in the past, has proved beyond any doubt that he has the support of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. With Mahinda Rajapakse still trying to stir the pot, President Maithripala should resign from the post of President and contest as the Prime Ministerial Candidate from SLFP. There is no way, based on the present constitution Mahinda can become a President again. After the Parliamentary election there can be another Presidential election. Under such an environment the new government can move all the amendments necessary and create a better environment for all.

  • 3

    Dear Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan,

    The 19A was not about devolution of power but about good governance.

    I find it surprising to see an educated Tamil making such politically naive comments as you have done here about mixing the two issues.

    What took precedence and center stage for us Sri Lankans (Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers etc) who live here and are not insulated from the Law and Order situation that existed here, under the previous regime, was re establishment of Good governance and Law and Order.

    To those of you who pontificate from outside Lanka while insulated from what we suffered under bad governance and absence of law and order, Political Power would have been more important.

    It is no different to using the Tamils who lived here to fight an unwinnable war and die, to obtain the Political Power you desire but was not willing to physically fight for.

    Here is a reminder of the Situation under the PREVIOUS government that the Tamil political establishment suffered in he North. It is the reason why Good Governance and Law and Order was of PRIME importance to the TNA led by Vigneswaran.

    Under the new govt they are breathing today, previously they were getting asphyxiated.

    Watch the three videos of the District Development Council meeting of the Northern Province where NP Chief Minister, Vigneswaran, was reduced to a mere spectator.


    Kind Regards,

  • 1


    I do agree Consensual Politics is the need of the hour;Not confrontational politics.

    However,it is only a Liberal Sinhala Leader who could or should take Tamil concerns directly to the Srilankan [Sinhala] masses to galvanise POPULAR support.

    It would be easier for a Tamil Leader to win the Wimbledon Championship rather than garner support!

    • 0


      According to your logic, then a Tamil should garner support for concerns of Sinhala masses! Tamils have taken the lead in this regard with demands, threats, bombings and armed thuggery and Got Nowhere. Is it that hard for Tamils to articulate their concerns in a civilised and friendly manner? Its never being tried. By all means get Sambadan, Sumanthiran or Usha to have a go at the Wimbledon (and win it) and prove your point.

      • 0

        ” Is it that hard for Tamils to articulate their concerns in a civilised and friendly manner? Its never being tried.”

        Which planet are you living in? For decades stating from the 1950s, Tamils attempted to put their concerns peacefully but were rebutted, often violently by the Sri Lankan state resulting in the anti-Tamil pogroms and other forms of state terror.

        • 0

          Tamils (political leaders) never put their case peacefully. They protested with burning of effigies of national leaders, unjust demands, violence against Sinhalese residents in the north (living in their ancestral homeland). They never showed any inclination to join hands with Sinhalese to road map a common destiny for the nation. Did any Tamil leader take their cause to the masses as did Martin Luther King to form a brotherly allance with the Sinhalese? The antagonist, racist and narcisstic attitudes of Tamil political leaders towars the Sinhalese have only brought about misery to the nation. About time you got off your planet and learn history, or wish the planet you live in lands safely on a land across the northern side of Palk Straits.

          • 0

            No dude! You learn your history! It IS the violent nature of Sinhala majoritarianism that started with the 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom and continued with the state violence and terror in the 1960s and 1970s (long before the LTTE came into exisitence)is the underlying cause of the misery and conflict in Sri Lanka. Your attempt to re-write history with a racist twist is pure fiction.

  • 0


    The Jan:8th election was not held to address the Ethnic issue.

    The 19th Amendment that flowed from it was to clip the wings of the Executive Presidency. Therefore, the TNA could not have at that stage negotiate Devolution of Power.Perhaps,the TNA did not want to place themselves like a Bull in a Chinashop!

  • 0

    Everything seems to move well for the Tamils, although at snail pace
    and TNA seems somewhat satisfied with the slow progress made so far and they are in regular contact with Mrs. CBK, who is assigned to look into Tamil grievances but in the event a situation arise,like in India,
    where BJP depended solely on TN Jaya’s support, in the event they were short of majority but situation changed and BJP got a thumping majority
    and dropped TN Jaya, like a ton of bricks.If the same situation arise
    in Sri Lanka, what would be the plight of the Tamils as its easy to turn tables against the Tamils and they go back to same old situation.

    Is it not advisable for TNA to solve the major problems confronting the
    Tamils before the elections, such as restoring confiscated lands and
    properties to the rightful owners, get the strength of military in N/E reduced to required size, find avenues for the jobless to get employed.
    Get the govt. to agree in principles to combine N/E with a referendum, so that the administration in both areas made easier as the language spoken and written is the same by Tamils and the Muslims and there is
    not much of a culture variations among them.
    Although there is a plan to form a national govt. for the first two years, this can be turned it down by a govt. holding a majority. TNA
    should have a plan B as Tamils cannot be left in the lurch by saying that govt. betrayed us as people know very well, many pacts signed
    between the Tamils and the govts. in power abrogated with the flimsiest
    excuses in the past and they do not want to hear that again.

    happens here

  • 0

    Dr Keethaponkalan,
    I think your analysis do not reflect the reality. We have to think about the circumstances. 19A & Devolution are different. 19A is about good governance. President Maithiri did not talk about devolution when he contested against Mahinda. If you combined both 19A & devolution together he would have lost both. Devolution need to be handle carefully and the government should have sufficient support for devolution. Until now I don’t think Maithiri have got full strength to do that now.
    EPDP was powerful when they were together with Mahinda but they were silent during that period. EPDP request may be due to the influence of Mahinda. Tamils understand why TNA did not put pressure on this government at this stage. It can be done only step by step.At least Maithiri has some soft corner on Tamil issue but if we allow Mahinda to come back, the situation may become worse than now. The popularity of Mahinda is on decline and once the rule of law expose Mahinda’s true objectives and how he manipulated racism card to manipulate Sinhala votes, people will understand Tamils are not enemies and the devolution of power can be achieved with the support of Sinhalese. Hope for the future!

  • 1

    He is not a good scholar at all. Col uni chased him…

  • 0


    Your logic is drowned in Racism.It does not merit a response.

  • 0

    That the leadership of the TNA might be making strategic mistakes is a major concern for Tamils. You do not have to be a trained political analyst to know that the west’s and India’s interest in Sri Lanka is driven by the need to have a friendly regime in place in Sri Lanka rather than the concerns and welfare of Tamils. The TNA leadership need to accept that fact and have a strategy in place to work towards maximum devolution for Tamils.

  • 0

    You have responded; with a typical ignorant manner with accusations of racism. Where is the racism in my comment? If you are offended by my comment that Tamil political leadership have not gone about advancing their so called cause in manner that was sensible then it says all – a leadership devoid of brains and abundant with racism and narcissm. As for your comment of “drowned in Racism”, it was Tamil Political Leadership’s tactics and their racism that lead to Drowning of many Tamils exactly 6 years ago. Wimbledon is coming soon! Sambadan vs Federer at the Centre Court (opener) and Sambadan is tipped to win! Cheers!

  • 0


    If he does not win,then,only a Sinhala Liberal Leader should fill the slot.

    Logic mate!

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