12 June, 2024


May Day Rhetoric Reflects Multiple Divisions

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

May Day last year was memorable for an unusual convergence that saw the leader of the main Tamil political formation, the TNA, and the leader of the main Opposition UNP hoisting the national flag together in Jaffna, cheered by a massive crowd. Rajavarothayam Sampanthan’s gesture was generally seen in the South as a sign of readiness to move away from communal politics and join the national mainstream. But that symbolism of unity was short lived.

As Workers’ Day came around this year, the political landscape seemed to be marked by an opposite tendency, with tensions and divisions becoming apparent within the various political groupings, including the ruling coalition.The government’s constituent parties held separate rallies and they didn’t exactly speak with one voice. With the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election now very much on the cards, the fault lines are becoming apparent. The controversy would seem to extend beyond the NPC election to the Provincial Council system itself and the 13th amendment that brought it into being.

National Freedom Frontleader Wimal Weerawansa has reportedly threatened to leave the Government if the NPC election is held without constitutional amendments that would do away with land and police powers for the provinces. The TNA with whom the Government’s talks have stalled for over a year now has been demanding the devolution of precisely these powers. Jathika Hela Urumaya’s Champika Ranawaka has opposed the holding of the election altogether, citing fears that the TNA would use it as a stepping stone to secession. Implicit in the highly charged rhetoric is the assumption that the TNA will most likely win the election.

Meanwhile, the Government’s partners in the Socialist Alliance comprising the Democratic Left Front, Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party at their joint May Day rally have criticised the Government’s neo liberal economic policies.

The NFF and the JHU represent extreme nationalist elements and cannot be taken to reflect the views of the Government as a whole. Yet their rumblings come at a time when the Muslim parties that form a sizeable bloc within the ruling coalition, have reason to be disillusioned over the Government’s seeming indifference towards a vicious hate campaign directed against their community. Disparate though they may be, the issues that divide the coalition partners of the Government are of a kind that would resonate with the various constituencies they represent.

According to ‘Online Uthayan,’ some MPs of the TNA at their rally in Kilinochchi called for a re-merged North and East. These remarks,assuming they have been accurately reported in translation, would not be well received by many in the Southern polity.Are they helpful at a time when national reconciliation is the foremost priority? The constitutionality of the temporarily merged North-East Province formed in 1988 was challenged in court, the provinces were de-merged following a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 and it is unlikely the issue will be revisited any time soon.

Yet it would be probably be a mistake to assume that these comments convey the official line of the TNA.It is known that there are tensions within the alliance. The media have reported on disagreements that have surfaced relating to the registration of the TNA’s five constituent Tamil parties as a single politicalparty ahead of the election.

These reports lead to speculation that the superficial differences may be manifestations of deeper tensions at a strategic and/or ideological level.Up until now the TNA constituents contested elections under the banner of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK).ITAKMPs R Sampanthan and M A Sumanthiran, considered to be moderates within the group, have reportedly expressed reluctance to register the alliance with three former militant groups – the EPRLF, the TELO and the PLOTE — on board.

Sampanthan’s introductory remarks at the S.J.V. Chelvanayakam memorial lecture last month may seem reminiscent of the conciliatoryattitude he conveyed in his gesture of hoisting the national flag on May Day last year. He is reported to have said:

“The TNA is prepared to genuinely contribute towards the evolution of a reasonable workable and durable political solution within the framework of a united, undivided Sri Lanka which will enable reconciliation between the different peoples who inhabit the country.”

However, many people would tend to view the TNA’s semantics with caution. They would recall that barely four weeks after the joint May Day celebration with the UNP in Jaffna last year, Sampanthan in his speech at the 14th ITAK Convention in Batticaloa in so many words seemed to renew the call for secession.

A surprise appearance this year at an event that has now come to be associated with May Day, was that of Dayan Jayatilleka who shared a platform with UNP’s former deputy leader Sajith Premadasa at the commemoration of the 20th death anniversaryof his father. Former President R. Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE at a May Day rally in 1993.The fact that the former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, an academic and arguably the most trenchant analyst of Sri Lankan politics around today, chose to throw his weight behind the main contender for the UNP’s leadership, speaks volumes in itself.

Addressing the crowd Jayatilleka said the late president Premadasa never spoke of going beyond the 13th Amendment. A crisis arose as a result of the North-East Provincial Council exceeding its mandate and seeking to form a separate state. Regardless of pressures from external peace keeping forces in the country at the time, he made the necessary moves to dissolve the Council. That was all. He did not try to dissolve the Provincial Council system, he said.

Jayatilleka has consistently warned against jettisoning the Provincial Council system, referring to the unraveling of Yugoslavia which he says “commenced with a single act: the unilateral abrogation of the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo by Serb nationalists” who thought that Tito had favoured the minorities.

The 13th Amendment represents an agreement below which no Tamil party is willing to go, Jayatilleka argues. Here’s the ‘hard sell’ on the 13th Amendment as he articulates it in his book ‘Long War, Cold Peace – Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka’(p.268):

“.. it is already in place and does not have to be (re) negotiated. It has only to be implemented and Sri Lanka’s military triumph would be politically reinforced instantly. Tamil nationalism would be split between the hyper-nationalists who reject it and the moderates who accept and participate, the Diaspora would be divided, the North-South gap would have a bridge, a renewed cycle of conflict would be much less likely or possible, the impressive weight of India in the world system would be solidly with us, the international pressure on us would greatly lift, our allies and friends in the international system would be relieved and vindicated, the anti-Sri Lanka global campaign would be severely weakened and the attempt to encircle Sir Lanka would be defeated.”

Courtesy Sunday Times

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