By Dayan Jayatilleka –
While it is by no means the place of a uniformed officer, however highly placed, decorated or both, to comment on the peaceful political conduct of members of parliament and/or of academics, the story told by the new Chief of Defence Staff, to the effect that Mr Sampanthan and Mr Sumanthiran attended an event of or sponsored by the so-called Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) is – if true—deeply distressing in several respects and warrants condemnation. If it is a mischievous untruth, a denial must promptly be issued by the TNA and a protest lodged from the floor of the House. If there is some truth to a story which has been maliciously spun out of recognition, a clarification must be issued by these gentlemen. If for instance they had made dissenting speeches at such an event, the text or transcript of these must be made public.
The TGTE is an enemy of Sri Lanka. The TGTE stands – and campaigns – openly for a separate state of Tamil Eelam to be carved out of the territory of Sri Lanka. This is not a call for a radically reformed Sri Lankan state along the lines of Canadian federalism! The TGTE stands outside and against the boundaries of the Sri Lankan political community. The TNA does not. Interaction with the Tamil Diaspora is one thing; association with those organised segments of the Tamil Diaspora or Tamil Nadu politics which are explicitly organized for the purpose of separatism and its promotion, is quite another.
The TNA must decide whether it is in or out. Does it operate within and as a part of a single united Sri Lankan polity while fighting for structural reform of that polity, or does it have one foot in and another out. Furthermore, does it have one foot in one political project and the other foot in quite another? Is one political project regarded by the TNA as a stepping stone to the other, as many Sinhalese fear? To view it less uncharitably, does the TNA feel that it owes an explanation to explicitly separatist networks of the Tamil Diaspora? To view it in the most charitable light possible, does the TNA consider itself as the potential leader of the Tamil Diaspora including its separatist tendency? If so what are the concessions that the TNA is likely to make these Diaspora radicals and what effect would the separatism of the latter have upon the trajectory of the former?
The TNA must regard its Sri Lankan Tamil voters as its constituency to which it is responsible, and Colombo as its main interlocutor. This being the real world, and the 13th amendment being by product of the Indo-Lanka Accord, one cannot prevent or view as illegitimate, the TNA’s political interaction with New Delhi—though one hopes that would be the unavoidable last resort and not the first. Outside the parameters of legitimacy and perhaps legality would be interaction with frankly separatist elements in Tamil Nadu or the Tamil Diaspora.
If the TNA leaders have indeed had such an interface with the TGTE in this, the sensitive run-up to the Northern provincial council election, it would be revelatory of the TNA’s mindset. It would also be evidence that the TNA veers outside of the managerial parameters of New Delhi, let alone Colombo. It may be so doing because it feels that Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora give it that degree of autonomy from both Colombo and Delhi, or because in the TNA’s calculations, the Diaspora and/or Tamil Nadu outweigh Delhi.
If so, the prospect of the Northern Provincial Council becomes fraught. If the TNA did attend that TGTE event, it may have just ‘spooned’ the catch that the security apparatus and its managers were waiting for. If the story has veracity, by consorting with the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, the TNA may be risking an abortion of the Northern Council and perhaps of the election itself. At no time in history would any state anywhere in the world, view with equanimity or casual disregard, the prospect of an elected quasi-autonomous territorial unit on a sensitive border zone of her soil, and which has contacts with its declared enemies across the water or further overseas.
A separatist Diaspora linked Northern Council and an ethnocentric, majoritarian State which is suspicious of devolution itself, is the scenario of an irresistible (centrifugal or irredentist) force meeting an immovable (hyper-centralist) subject. This is the recipe for collision and explosion.
So much for North-South dynamics. What of South-South ones? The UNP led a protest on a worthy cause yesterday at the Fort Railway station. Going by TV footage, still photographs or freeze frames (which make a rough headcount possible) and objective reportage, it seems to have been a little underwhelming. An Associated Press (AP) report by Bharatha Mallawarachchi in the Windsor Star said “among one thousand people…demonstrated”. Another report on Colombo Telegraph, hardy a pro-government website, said: “…According to eyewitness accounts, the Opposition rally managed to garner a crowd of between 800-1000 protestors.” Even if one doubled the higher figure, one would have to conclude that the rally billed ‘Enough is Enough’, doesn’t seem to have gathered enough people. It couldn’t get anywhere close to the lowest five digit figure. The JVP or FSP supported by the university students and workers would have mobilised a far higher number, but it is significant that the organizers did not or could not secure their participation as shareholders of this rally. It would seem that the JVP (and even the FSP) just could not bring themselves to be seen as participants under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP’s Muslims were not present in large numbers to protest Grandpass. One recalls the UNP Satyagraha campaigns of the 1970s against a tough Sirima Bandaranaike regime, which violently attacked the demonstrators on several occasions. One also recalls the protests after the shooting of student Weerasooriya in November 1976. Perhaps even more relevant are the UNP rallies and May Day meetings, say in 1976. Today, the UNP cannot mobilize more than a few thousand – if that—for a demonstration on a highly emotive issue on the UNP’s home turf, Colombo. The moral (no pun intended) of the story is that relatively few are willing to rally around, mobilise under, or vote for, the UNP, so long as Ranil Wickremesinghe is leading it—and those numbers are dwindling. The people outraged, tuned in to Weliweriya, but tuned out rather than turned out for Mr Wickremesinghe’s protest.