25 May, 2024


Don’t Play It Again, Sam

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Mr. R. Sampanthan has let himself, his cause and his people down. I have always regarded him as the last of the old-school parliamentarians whom I used to watch as a boy, from the press gallery in the old Parliament building near Galle Face, with the blue light atop the flagstaff switched on when the House was in session. His command of the English language, stentorian delivery, his persona of an irascible gentleman all combined to make him a figure of respect and admiration irrespective of one’s opinion of his politics. Most recently though, he has disappointed.

When Parliament reconvened after the Local Authorities’ election, Mr. Sampanthan made a fiery, if mercifully short, speech. That speech was directed entirely and vehemently against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seated next to him, separated by the aisle. Now, Mahinda Rajapaksa is fair game, but that is not my point. Mr. Sampanthan demonstrated falsity in argument and folly in politics in his speech, which is not what one would expect of a man of his stature, intelligence and maturity.

Mr. Sampanthan’s short speech was divisible into three parts each containing an argument. The first was a statistical observation of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent electoral performance and a political conclusion derived from it.

The second part was a comprehensive list of failed attempts to address if not solve the Tamil ethno-national question and Rajapaksa’s failure to implement the solutions that had emerged from even those initiatives he had commissioned, compounded by his retreat from the promises he made.

The third and final substantive point made by Mr. Sampathan was that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign this time around was suffused with Sinhala chauvinism and would therefore provide fertile soil for the revival of the Tamil Eelam project, and Mahinda would therefore be far more responsible, or responsible in a manner than Mr. Sampanthan and his party were not, for an Eelamist revival.

Now Mr. Sampanthan’s opening point is laughably hypocritical as I shall demonstrate presently. The second and third points are at best, half-truths which tell a larger lie. Those fallacies apart, Mr. Sampanthan’s speech demonstrated a bigger folly, as I shall point out later.

Mr. Sampanthan opened with what he thought was a knock-out punch. Namely, that for the third time running Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to leap the 50% mark. This was a rehash of Mangala Samaraweera’s strange arithmetic which has been dealt with by many, but none more brutally than his erstwhile quasi-ally Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the JVP, speaking in Parliament on the same occasion as Mr. Sampanthan. AKD bluntly said that the ‘Hansaya’ vote of January 8th 2015 could not be retrospectively reassembled because that coalition had broken. He urged the Yahapalana government’s leaders “not to dream”, and hammered home the point that “the forces that came together in January 2015 will never come together again! Never!” He, for one, should know.

Mr. Sampanthan’s point is false not only because his arithmetic is retrospective and prospective. It is false and hideously hypocritical because his argument, applied to his own performance, indicts him and his party far more than his argument does Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP-JO. Mr. Sampanthan’s argument, if I may reiterate and paraphrase, is that Mahinda’s ‘Pohottuwa’ hovers consistently in the mid 40 percent range, averaging 45%, and therefore, a greater percentage, more people of this country, have voted again Mahinda than for him. Mr. Sampanthan argued this with great emphasis and no little flourish, so it was his basic point.

Mr. Sampanthan’s point is that he/she who is not with you is against you. Those who did not vote for your party, voted against you and your party– and you should add them all together. That’s if you are Mr. Rajapaksa.

Let us see how Mr. Sampanthan likes a taste of his own medicine. One of the best, most significant political pieces I have read in quite a while is Ahilan Kadirgamar’s analysis of the local government election results as pertains to the North and East. I shall limit myself to his statistics rather than his conclusions, not because I disagree with them but because I would digress.

The Jaffna District where a majority of the population of the Northern Province resides, the TNA saw a considerable decline with only 35% of the vote share. On the other hand, the TNPF had made considerable gains capturing 21% of the votes. The EPDP with an oppressed caste base also made a good showing with 19% of the votes.” (‘Sri Lanka: Northern Elections and Tamil Politics’, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Red Notes, Daily Mirror Feb 19th 2018)

So, going by Mr. Sampanthan’s argument against Mahinda Rajapaksa, a majority of Tamil voters in the Jaffna District – no less than 65%–where a majority of Northern Province resides, voted against the TNA! Indeed a greater majority voted against the TNA than did the island’s people against Mahinda Rajapaksa, going by Mr. Sampanthan’s argument.

What of the other districts? The same point holds true: the TNA had more votes or a greater percentage of votes cast against it.

“In the predominantly Tamil districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu, the TNA got 47% and 42% respectively…Chandrakumar who had broken away from the EPDP a year ago, made an impressive showing leading independent groups, which as a whole got 30% of the votes in Killinochi.” (Ibid)

Therefore, in Kilinochchi, going by Mr. Sampanthan’s logic, 53% voted against the TNA which obtained 47% of the vote, while in Mullaitivu, 58% voted against the TNA which got only 42% of the vote. What then of Mannar and Vavuniya?

“The results in Mannar…and in Vavuniya…the TNA got 28% and 26% respectively. The national parties, including the UNP, SLFP and SLPP, made considerable gains in these districts with close to 50% of vote share. These national parties also polled about 10%, 15% and 30% of the votes in Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Mullaitivu respectively.” (Ibid)

Thus in Mannar, a whopping 72% did not vote for the TNA, i.e. voted against the TNA, going by the Sampanthan dictum. In Vavuniya, an even larger 74% voted “against” the TNA!

Now what if we add up the TNA’s percentages in all those districts and view their performance in the Northern Province as a whole? It adds up to 35+%, which means, if we apply the Sampanthan Doctrine, 65% failed to vote for the TNA which in turn means 65% voted against Mr. Sampanthan and his TNA!

So a much smaller percentage –35%–voted for Mr. Sampanthan and his TNA in his ‘traditional homeland’ than the people of this island did for Mahinda Rajapaksa at this election as well as the earlier ones that Mr. Sampanthan pointedly referred to. And going by the Sampanthan Doctrine, a much greater percentage (65%) failed to vote for the TNA and therefore voted against the TNA, than voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa (55%)! If Mr. Sampanthan’s lecture to Mr. Rajapaksa isn’t the rankest hypocrisy, what is?

Ahilan Kadirgamar’s conclusion shows that Mr. Sampanthan should look to the beam in his own eye before he makes orations in Parliament about the mote in Mahinda’s.

“The outcome of the elections is such that in most Local Governments in the North, no party has an absolute majority and they are forced to form coalitions…The TNA is in decline; both in terms of its vote share and in terms of the enthusiasm for its election campaigns. It continues to be led by an older generation of Federal Party loyalists who lack vigour. The TNA’s confidence that the Tamils in the North will always vote for them by default has been shaken.” (Ibid)

So Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Pohottuwa have not only done far better than the new party, Gajan Ponnambalam’s TNPF, which has done well in Jaffna, but have performed far better than the TNA on its home turf. Far from lecturing Mahinda on the limits of his electoral achievement, Mr. Sampanthan would be lucky if he could ever hope to emulate it.

As for the other two points he made, Mr. Sampanthan is not on a firm footing there either. The many and several proposals to solve the Tamil Question that he lists in his speech were made during the war, in exchange for peace, and when they were on the table, the TNA engaged in nit-picking without backing them fully. I have a memory of how painful a disappointment it was for Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar when Mr. Sampanthan failed to back the August 2000 draft Constitution in Parliament though he had made a solemn promise to do so, to Mr. Kadirgamar. It is a-historical to assume that proposals which were on the table in wartime and spurned with an air of superiority, would be back on the table now, after the war was won at enormous cost by the State.

Mr. Sampanthan’s third point was that Mahinda Rajapaksa had engaged in or encouraged Sinhala chauvinism in the recent election campaign. Anyone who watched the campaign would have noticed that the Pohottuwa campaign was far more populist than Sinhala nationalist, let alone chauvinist. More to the point, Sinhala chauvinism has been mightily assisted by Tamil political behavior ranging from that of Chief Minister Wigneswaran to Tiger demonstrators outside the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, which have gone without denunciation by Mr. Sampanthan and the TNA. Furthermore, the TNA’s and the UNP government’s allies such as the Global Tamil Forum have further incensed Sinhala opinion by acts such as the insistence of the cancellation of the visas of the family of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando.

Something that disturbed me about Mr. Sampanthan’s recent parliamentary speech was that it was unintentionally ironic in the extreme. . Mr. Sampanthan does not occupy the moral high ground vis-a-vis Mahinda Rajapaksa. Not only has he no moral right –or empirical evidence– to occupy the post of the Leader of the Opposition he has not had the backbone to criticize the Tigers even though they are no longer a threat to him, for the crimes of murdering his own close colleagues and friends: Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam, Yogeswaran, Mrs. Yogeswaran, and Neelan Tiruchelvam, to name only a few. Yet it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who he denounces, who ended the killing of his colleagues.

Mr. Sampanthan’s folly is that he does not realize that the man he condemns, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only counterweight to Sinhala ultra-nationalism; the only one who can contain it; the only firewall. Sampanthan’s friends the UNP and the official SLFP are manifestly on the decline and before they depart the stage late next year, they, together with Mr. Sampanthan and Sumanthiran, would have provoked a powerful Sinhala backlash. As usual, Tamil nationalism here and overseas will comfort itself as it foolishly did in 2005, that a hardline Sinhala administration is but a stepping stone to Tamil Eelam with external intervention, but as was proved then, the old song from the musical Porgy & Bess, may once again prove itself right: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

The Sinhala voter is being provoked by a failing political neoliberalism into exercising late next year, what we may call in cinematic terms, the Dirty Harry, Death Wish or Punisher option. If Mr. Sampanthan wants a settlement of the Tamil question, the man he must talk to is the one who should be in the seat he occupies; the one with the largest chunk of political real estate—Mahinda Rajapaksa with his 45%, to which will almost certainly be added on, through defection or osmosis, most of the official SLFP’s 13%, next time around. Mahinda Rajapaksa may be the last leader of the Sinhalese that Mr. Sampanthan and the TNA can talk to. Mr. Sampanthan is not the last Tamil leader the Sinhalese can talk to: as Ahilan Kadirgamar reports, Douglas Devananda has made a significant comeback. But Mr. Sampanthan must talk to Mr. Rajapaksa, not lecture to him while sitting in the latter’s chair, albeit with a smaller percentage vote than the latter! If and when Mr. Sampanthan has the good sense to talk to Mr. Rajapaksa, he may wish to recall yet another line from the old movies: “When you say that—smile!”

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