The burning in Jaffna by a group including TNA representatives of an effigy of M.A. Sumanthiran, TNA MP, induces déjà vu in me. Mr. R. Sampanthan the TNA leader and Mr. Sumanthiran took a bold step in attending the recent Independence Day celebrations, the first time the Tamil leadership has done that after the 1972 constitution’s promulgation. Many Tamils feel that it has no legitimacy because Tamils did not vote for it and it removed their protection under article 29(2).
Count Otto von Bismarck enunciated the wisdom of Realpolitik: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Sampanthan is the bold Tamil leader who, exercising the wisdom of that adage, urged the Tamil people to vote for President Maitripala Sirisena on Jan. 8. Tamils followed him. And this has irked rabid nationalists within the TNA whose politics is fueled by hate. Mischievous headlines like in the Colombo Mirror declared that the TNA condemned Sampanthan whereas the statement was by a TNA MP who sees Sumanthiran as a rival for succession. There has been no TNA decision condemning Sampanthan.
What Sampanthan and Sumanthiran did is what leaders do – lead. They do not go back to the party to ask at every step whether they may do this or that. Explained Mr. Sampanthan to the BBC Tamil service: “The decision to attend the celebration was made after careful consideration.” Regime change, the Tamil people’s future, and faith in the new ruler were the key reasons, he is reported to have explained.
We Sri Lankans are politically at a critical juncture. Just as there are communal hawks in the TNA, there too are communalists in the government. That is how democracy works on both sides. The leaderships on both sides, however, are committed to peace, reconciliation and reconstruction. The government might be slow but it has a lot on its plate and its bona fides are seen at least in the release of lands occupied by the army.
The engagement of the TNA in government now is critical. To be crying that the Sinhalese always go back on their promises would be self-fulfilling and would make it very difficult for the government to deliver because a hawkish TNA would strengthen the hawks in government. I personally would like to see the TNA accepting cabinet portfolios to guide the government and counter the extremists in cabinet discussions.
My déjà vu is from the days of Amirthalingam. He engaged the government of the day. His period (counting from 1970 when SJV Chelvanayagam was frail and Amirthalingam was running the FP) saw university students being coached in the importance of constitutional government. We were given weekly lectures on issues at SJV Chevanayagam’s home down Alfred House Gardens. When H.L. de Silva defended the 1972 constitution before the youth at Methodist Church Mount Lavinia, I pointed out the lacunae in the new constitution; upon which he weakly ended the discussion saying he would have presented things differently if he had known the audience had read the constitution. Despite his commitment to the rule of law and leadership in building future leaders with that commitment, Amirthalingam was spurned by JR. In turn Amirthalingam was spurned by Tamil youth of my time who unfairly referred to him with disdain for drinking tea with JR. Extremism took over and many Sinhalese would later rue the day they did not settle with Amirthalingam.
Today we lack Tamils fluent in English who can read the many strands of thought available widely in English and engage the Sinhalese. The field is left open to extremists. University youth are cut off from the liberal ideals of previous generations because they can read only Tamil language websites. (The Sinhalese situation is not as parlous as judged by who passes SAT and GRE English tests to get university admissions in the US). As a result Tamil youth lack choice in getting leaders who can articulate themselves to outsiders.
This is the challenge before the universities serving the North and the East where those comfortable in English are few and confined to the staff. A petition dated 24 Feb. (today is 22 Feb.) to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association (JUTA) says, among other things,
“We understand that you recommended the postponement of the report, inter alia, with the hope that the new Government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena will initiate a credible domestic mechanism to investigate into the mass atrocities committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Given the current composition of the Government (which includes those who took an active part in the war) and prior history relating to domestic mechanisms having failed to deliver justice, we wish to make it very clear that we have no faith in any domestic mechanism that this Government may establish. Given our long experience with Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic institutions that dominate Sri Lanka’s politics we have no faith that members of the Sri Lankan armed forces will ever be prosecuted locally for any wrong doing. International supervision of any domestic mechanism will only serve to waste time.”
These fears reflect what many Tamil people think. This is why both Sampanthan and Sumanthiran were emphatic that the report should be released now. Although the UN has a point in saying that more evidence could be forthcoming if the government cooperates, that is no good reason to stop the interim report. But given the postponement, the issue has been hijacked by Tamil extremists to work against the two moderate leaders, untruthfully accusing Sumanthiran of secretly agreeing with the UNHRC to the postponement. Already some JUTA members are protesting that the decision as reported to the media is not what was actually passed and that the university community is being mobilized “on the basis of a resolution that has been falsely represented.” The JUTA statement goes on to contradict Sampanthan that the Tamil people voted in large numbers for President Sirisena as an anti-Rajapaksa vote and did not vote with the hope of any substantive change resulting from regime change.
This JUTA claim would seem incendiary to a government trying to introduce change for the better. As Mr. Sampanthan said in defending his decision to attend the Independence Day celebration, his participation will only send all people in this country a good message. Amen to that! I urge Mr. Sampanthan or Mr. Sumanthiran to join the cabinet and engage the state more so that delays are avoided and the cabinet gets a full perspective on Tamil worries and aspirations. I do not want them to leave the field open to extremists in the cabinet, and go the way of Mr. Amirthalingam. That would be sad for all Sri Lankans.