By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
A few weeks ago, the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) staged a protest campaign called the Eluga Thamil. The slogan Eluga Tamil roughly means Rise Up Tamil. In addition to Vigneswaran, Suresh Premachandran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and Gagendrakumar Ponnampalam of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) played a major role. The march and the meeting drew a considerable crowd. Hence, the organizers view it as a success. After viewing the videos of the speeches of major players, I believe that the campaign had dual objectives of raising the socio-political issues the Tamil people face in the Northern Province and kindling Tamil nationalism.
Right to Protest
In his speech, Wigneswaran emphasized the fact that the rally was not organized to oppose anybody, including the central government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). He highlighted the issues of, for example, the erecting of Buddha status in non-Buddhist areas by the military, continued incarceration of LTTE suspects, alleged colonization of Tamil area by outsiders, and many other issues.
In response to the Eluga Thamil rally, the South exploded with condemnation. Some called for Vigneswaran’s arrest and others argued that he should be removed from the Chief Minister’s office. Obviously, the South overreacted. The people in Sri Lanka, regardless of ethnicity and religion, have the right to protest peacefully. This applies to the Tamil people, as well as Vigneswaran. As long as these programs remain peaceful, they should be tolerated even if they do not conform to the predominant beliefs and ideologies. The inability to protest, peacefully and express their disappointments and frustration, would force the Tamils to believe that they are being subjugated by the government in Colombo.
Politics of Eluga Thamil
As indicated, the campaign was organized not only to protest the ongoing socio-political problems of the Tamil people, but also to kindle Tamil nationalism. This is exactly what the slogan of Eluga Thamil means. It asks the Tamil people to rise up. Speakers of the rally called for Tamil people to get on the streets and protest, because, according to them, sending representatives to legislative bodies has no meaning and it will not win Tamil rights. Wigneswaran also to a certain extent, reflected this sentiment.
Moreover, in regard to the meaning and outlook, Eluga Thamil is not that much different from Pongu Thamil, a nationalist event conducted and celebrated by the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Therefore, the direction of the Tamil politics under Wigneswaran is clear. It is taking a solid turn towards radical politics, which could, in the long run, turn to violent politics of the past. In the rally, Wigneswaran has been praised and hailed as the champion of Tamil nationalism. I believe that he was called by at least one speaker as the Tamil national leader.
Wigneswaran’s transformation as champion of Tamil rights is sudden and startling. First, during the war, when the Tamil youth were sacrificing their lives, Wigneswaran was nowhere to be seen near the Tamil nationalist politics. As far as I know, he does not have a history of doing anything to promote Tamil interests during the war. He probably did not even visit the war affected areas until the war was over in 2009. Second, in the first year of his tenure in office or to be precise, when Rajapaksa was in power, Vigneswaran was bending backwards to please and work with the government in Colombo. He did not protest until January 2015. Does this mean that the Rajapaksa government was more accommodative than the present government? Obviously not. Therefore, it is clear that the Eluga Thamil event, at least partially, was motivated by politics.
Divided Tamil Polity
The politics of the Eluga Thamil lies in the current power struggle within the TNA. The SS (Sambandan- Sumanthiran) faction and the Wigneswaran faction are at loggerheads. Supported by Sambandan and his loyalists, Sumanthiran has been vying for the leadership of the TNA in the post-Sambandan period. Meanwhile, it seems that Vigneswaran is currently aspiring to lead the Tamil people. Wigneswaran’s aspiration emanates from the fact that he is senior to Sumanthiran and he “seems” to have adequate support among the people in the North.
The problem is that many of Wigneswaran’s recent actions have contributed to serious dissatisfaction about his role within the traditional leadership of the TNA. Some of these actions include Wigneswaran’s disloyalty towards the party in the 2015 general election and the formation of the TPC. Hence, it is possible that the party will not nominate him as the chief ministerial candidate in the next provincial council election. My assumption is that the Eluga Thamil is a preemptive move, which aims to force the TNA to nominate him again. If the TNA decides not to nominate, Wigneswaran can mobilize the Tamil people under the umbrella of TPC and contest the provincial election. My assessment is that Eluga Thamil has effectively transferred the Tamil political leadership to Wigneswaran and it has dealt a blow to the ambitions of Sumanthiran.
Hence, from a strategic point of view, Eluga Thamil was not a bad idea. It would have sent sufficient messages and signals to TNA leadership. One has to wait and see if the TNA has the capacity to understand these signals and/or if it would succumb to the pressure created by Wigneswaran. Either way, it is possible that Wigneswaran will emerge as the winner.
Like in the South, Northern political leaders have also used ethnic politics for electoral purposes in the past. Racism was a sure fire vote catcher in the North as well as in the South. When the TULF leaders provoked the Tamil youth, they did not anticipate the possibility that they would lose control of the radical politics. The Tamil leaders were convinced that they could keep the “boys” under control and manipulate indefinitely. But, that was not to be the case. Eventually they became the early victims of the violent Tamil politics.
The recent turn towards radical politics also has the capacity to become violent and force history to repeat itself. Eluga Thamil type events, which are marked by nationalist fervor, could turn violent easily. They need only a minor incident, an ignition, executed by a Tamil nationalist sympathizer or a motivated opponent. If and when these events turn violent, Vigneswaran and his lieutenants can no longer control them. Eluga Thamil leaders urged the Tamil people to get on to the street and protest. The question is, whether the ones who could not stay in the sun for 20 minutes will join the people when they get on to the street.
The possibility of Eluga Thamil type events turning to violence is a long term problem. Two immediate concerns have been created by the rally. One, it could delay the devolution of power through constitutional reform. Two, it could influence the government to tighten restrictions on the North on the claims of threat to national security.
In relation to constitutional reform, I have already pointed out that the progress is painfully slow. Many political groups in the South resist further devolution of power. Ideally, what Tamils should be doing is strengthening the reasons for further devolution, and not undermine them. Now, with the Eluga Thamil protest, anti-devolution groups, especially the Joint Opposition have more excuses to protest concessions. Hence, I expect stronger resistance to a constitutional reform project that confers more powers to the North-Eastern Provinces. This, in turn, would provide the government a reason to delay constitutional reform and drastically water down any proposal to share power.
Moreover, this type of event would provide the armed forces in the North reasons to tighten the security restriction and the control on the people. Potentially, the shrinking of military presence and the releasing land owned by the people could be delayed. A significant danger in this regard could emerge if and when a new government comes to power in Colombo. An unsympathetic government could use the emerging trends in the North to implement repressive policies.
Finally, Eluga Thamil and similar actions by Wigneswaran symbolizes the simplicity of Tamil political thinking. Tamils know how to protest when there is a problem. What they don’t know is how to use their political capital to win aspirations of the Tamil people. Many contemporary Tamil leaders are either incapable or subservient. The Tamil people gave the TNA an overwhelming mandate and parliamentary seats to deal with their problems through political means. The TNA won overwhelming votes in the last two general elections. To date, the TNA could not demonstrate anything as an achievement. It could not have any impacts on even minor issues, like the release of the suspected LTTE cadres or relocating the disappeared.
To a certain extent, the ruling party was dependent on the Tamil support in Parliament and outside, to win both national elections in 2015. The TNA, instead of using their political capital to win concessions, extended unconditional support. As the main opposition party, it does not raise any Tamil issues, let alone national issues, in the national legislature. This ineffectiveness frustrates the Tamil people. The frustration could easily turn aggressive. Hence, more than anybody else, the TNA is responsible for the current trends in the North.
Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.