29 January, 2020

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Déjà vu: Sampanthan & Amirthalingam

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

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.

Sampanthan

Sampanthan

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.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    I do agree with what Sambandan and Sumanthran did and support it but I also support the right of dissenting parties to protest. Burning of effigies is not a new thing to Sri Lanka so why make a mountain of mole hill.

    • 5
      3

      Well said Prof. Hoole! TNA because of its rabid Tamil nationalist fringe missed a golden opportunity to work from the Center for the Rights of Tamils..
      Sumanthiran should have accepted the post of Minister of National Languages, integration and reconciliation to work for ALL the minorities in Sri Lanka.
      TNA needs to have a LARGER NATIONAL VISION and Jaffna University a LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION CURRICULUM.
      Tamil youth have been corrupted and DESTROYED by virulent Tamil nationalist politicians for too long!

  • 1
    7

    Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

    “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.”

    Battle of the Tamils with Common sense and those Tamil Mootals முட்டால்.

    Until 2015, the Tamil Mootals முட்டால் prevailed.,

    In 2015 the Tamils with Common sense prevailed. Still many Tamil Mootals முட்டால் left.

    Is is Evolution?

  • 12
    3

    I agree with Professor Hoole’s article. The time is right for us Tamils to be part of this government and solve our problems from within.
    We have stayed outside for too long and have achieved nothing.

    Thamilan.

    • 3
      3

      Thamilan

      Tamil with Common Sense.

      [Edited out]

  • 2
    6

    What Sambanthan and Sumanthiran did without consulting the party was wrong. It is not an individual concern. If Sambanthan , as a leader of the TNA decided on his own to attend the Independent celebrations, it was wrong. A party is not necessary and a leader is not necessary. As a leader he has to follow the party rules. He could have persuaded the party, if there were any objections, and then attended the celebrations after explaining the pros and cons of attending the celebrations.

    • 6
      0

      There is no necessity for well meaning leaders to run and consult the minions in the party each and every time about any igood decision they have to take in the lager interests of the constituency they represent.
      Then there is no point for a party to have leaders.
      To accuse Sambandan &Sumanthiran for attending the Independent Day Celebration smacks of pettifogging and very cheap at that.
      It reminds me of the Tamil saying ” Kulathodai kovichu k….i kaluvathatu pola” which means ‘Like one going to the toilet to ease bowels by the pond and not bothering to wash using the water In it’.
      Those Jaffna University JUTA worthies who took part in the burning of the effigy of we’re doing just that in my opinion.
      I fully endorse what Prof.Hoole has said in his article, but wouldn’t at this stage say that Sambandan and Sumanthiran should join the cabinet.

  • 7
    2

    Tamils need to trust the political wisdom of Mr Sampanthan, he is one of a kind and his integrity is unmatched in Sri Lanka today. However, I disagree that the TNA should join the government. The TNA can support the new government from outside ensuring the corrupt and racist Rajapaksa regime does not return to power while taking a position independent of the new government. There are those who believe in majoritarianism in the new government too and but by staying independent, the TNA’s block of votes in the Parliament can be used to support policies that are not detrimental to the Tamil people.

    • 1
      1

      Yes the Tamils trusted in Sampanthan and that is why he was elected as president of the party. But there are party rules which everyone has to abide by, even the president or anyone in the party. The Tamil leaders did not attend the Independent celebrations since 1972. WHY? Because the Tamils have not got independence yet. Why now? The Tamils are subjugated even today by the majority Sinhalese. This will go on for ever. Sampanthan should have discussed the matter with the party. Once Sampanthan raised the Lion flag along with Ranil against the wishes of the Tamils. The Sinhalese will come to North for votes. They have already grabbed private lands for Sinhala settlements chasing away the owners. Did Sirisena ever acknowledge in public that his win as president was due to the Tamil votes. No. Because he felt that he doesn’t need to acknowledge anything. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe knows very well that he is prime Mininster because Sirisena was elected as president. Did he acknowledge it. No. But he rebuked Chief Minister Wigneshwaran by saying that Wigneshwaran had received a slap on his face by the UNHCR. What Sampanthan and Sumanthiran did was wrong and have to be punished.

  • 11
    0

    A well reasoned article. We, the Tamils should realise that under no circumstances we should pave the way for the return of Mahinda Rajapakse. We are still in a weak position. We should give a fair chance to the new government to perform. If MaRa returns without doubt he will seal the future of Tamils in the country for ever. Let us think and act wisely.

    Sengodan. M

  • 9
    0

    The lack of a common language has hampered authentic communication between the Tamil and Sinhala moderates, who are collectively the majority in each group, in my opinion.

    One solution I had suggested before is for the 2nd generation diaspora young people to spend their summer vacations in the North to teach English to those who don’t speak it. Such a project would give an opportunity for these youngsters to reconnect with their heritage, and give them a better appreciation for their lives in their country of residence.

  • 9
    0

    I want to touch on the English proficiency of the young Tamils in Jaffana
    “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.”

    i know that every school in the NE has a old boy/girls associations formed by former students living all over the world.
    They collect substantial funds during annual dinner and other events. My experience is that these funds are not invested in an efficient manner. Improving sports grounds and canteen and toilet facilities are commendable.

    more funds should be invested in improving the standard of English by hiring English tutors from overseas on short term assignments

    • 1
      1

      what Hoole has forgotten is the whole problem was started and promoted by people who were well versed in English. So not knowing English is not the issue here, its much deeper than what Hoole has understood. Hoole needs to come to terms with contemporary realities. Sumanthiran poor man from Colombo he does not understand the root cause of the Tamil problem.

    • 1
      0

      The young Tamil graduates in Jaffna cannot even write proper Tamil let alone English.

  • 5
    0

    .
    There are times Leaders have to make tough decisions.
    Even S & S may not like what they did, but this is the right thing to do at this time.
    Just because children like sweets, parents cannot keep on giving them sweets.

    Now it’s the time for the government to reward them for taking that decision.

    :-)

  • 5
    1

    It has been said that the leaders of the northern ethnic Tamils over the last 3 decades have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And, sadly, that seems to be the same foolish path that Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran is committed to following. However, it appears that the scales may be now falling from the eyes of some of the Northern Tamilian leaders such as Sampanthan and Sumanthiran with the realisation that politics is the art of the possible, as the author states, not the art of provocation and confrontation.

    It would be an enormous advance for the people of the north if members of the TNA were to enter the present government coalition and take part in running of the entire country, not just the north.

  • 7
    1

    In the context of presidential election which changed the presidency from then incumbent M. Rajapaksha to current President M. Sirisena it is justified that this 2 Leaders from North attending the Independence day celebrations in South.

    The change in political power is defining moment for the whole country. Voters in North and East were instrumental in ensuring that change. Not attending the celebration would have been a boycott, which is not in line with the voter sentiment though the party has taken a different view.
    In a way the 2 politicians who attended have signaled the importance of the common victory gained through a nation wide collective effort.

    One could argue the voters voted for the next best option available. But if you think of it the options available to minorities is going to be always from the majority, unless and until minorities engage in the politic at national level rather than provincial level.

    I the past we had laxman kadirgamar who was widely accepted as a person who could one day lead the country. There were even talk of CM vigneshwaran emerging as the Presidential Candidate.

    The mind set of the people has to be changed, this victory was a result of that change but there is still a sizable chunk who are sticking with a different view. It is the duty of all politicians to think broadly out of ethnicity based politics. Unless and otherwise politicians from minorities engage with the government wider political aspirations of the minorities cannot be achieved.

    Politicians from all parties should leave aside petty politics and join in the nation building and ride the tide of change. The danger of not doing that is going back to old regime. It is paramount that the current government bring to book those responsible for large scale corruption and those who committed murder using state power. It is reported investigations are going on to arrest some in the military who kidnapped more than 15 Tamil businessmen for ransom and killed them after taking the ransom.

    Change is happening but all parties must engage constructively towards building future where equality is guaranteed for all citizens.

  • 2
    1

    Well said Prof. Hoole!

    Constructive engagement is the need of the hour and there is a small window of opportunity to do precisely this.

    It’s also important to note that any engagement should not be confined to just addressing past/current grievances, i.e. should also entail pursuing aspirational goals to build a new Sri Lanka.

    The country needs people with your integrity and I sure hope your expertise and perspective will be leveraged to build a new Sri Lanka.

  • 3
    1

    As usual Jeevan’s viewpoints are commendable and forthright.There is no point in
    repeatedly blaming the Sinhalese politicians for dishonoring the past pacts with the Tamils. Since 1987 it is we the Tamils(LTTE!) who sabotaged the agreements starting with the Indo -Lanka pact ( 13th amendment) It is high time to be pragmatic and go forward with courage. well done Sampanthan and Sumanthiran.

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