By Kusal Perera –
During CHOGM, two important statements were made by two heads of States that TNA should be very concerned and vigilant about. They are both from countries that matter, where Tamil politics is concerned. The first came from British Prime Minister David Cameron and that was forewarned. Lobbied to boycott the CHOGM in Colombo, he insisted he would participate and raise human rights and accountability issues during the Colombo summit. He could not possibly boycott the event with a shipload of British businesses attending the Commonwealth Business Forum, a main sponsor of that event, Lycamobile said to be a big time sponsor of Cameron’s Conservative Party. Yet he did raise the issues for the benefit of Tamil people, after visiting Jaffna.
On the side lines of the CHOGM final day at the BMICH, Cameron spoke to the media, very much foreign than local, to say, “In coming to Colombo I pledged to shine the international spotlight on Sri Lanka and that is what I have done.” He then added, “The message I have is that this issue is not going to go away. This is an issue now of international concern and it’s an issue which won’t go away.” His ultimatum to Rajapaksa came thereafter. “Let me be very clear, if an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry.” Cameron was referring to all allegations on violations of international law and accountability especially in the last few months of the war and post war.
This is a serious statement coming from a head of State attending CHOGM 2013, who first met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi before landing in Colombo and came after Canadian PM declared he would not attend a CHOGM held in Colombo.
Then came South African President Jacob Zuma’s offer of helping out Colombo to hold its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), on the lines of South Africa. An offer President Rajapaksa is said to have shown a keen interest in. This offer to establish a TRC has an advantage for President Rajapaksa and his sibling in the ministry of defense and urban development. One, it could be projected as an alternate to Cameron’s demand of a “credible investigation” and two, TRC negates the issue of charges on crimes on humanity and war crimes. TRC is not about who committed crimes, but about settling the scores with social pardons.
The important question is, “where does the TNA stand on these two proposals ?” Will they back Cameron or will they go with Zuma ? There is for now, a deafening silence on both what Cameron said and on what Zuma offered. The TNA seems to be distancing itself from international pressure building up, post CHOGM. The CHOGM – 2013 dubbed a PR debacle by most foreign media, failed to provide President Rajapaksa with an international acceptance the regime thought they could gain. Absence of Indian head of State catapulted the Canadian boycott into an international “no show” that further pushed British PM to play strong. They were the most important key players, while the other, the Aussie PM Abbott played a disappointing role. The stage was thus set to weaken the Rajapaksa regime in the run up to UN Human Rights Council sessions in March 2014. There, Navi Pillai had already made certain, SL would be dealt with seriously. This was not so much what was expected out of CHOGM in the international arena, and its this loud call the TNA is distancing from.
They were any way distancing themselves from public agitations that came on the streets of Jaffna during CHOGM and during Cameron’s visit to Jaffna. After Cameron landed in Palali for his Jaffna tour, a tweet from one on the ground with agitating people said, “TNA leader Sampanthan fails his constituents. Runs away shamefully” followed by another tweet that said, “Sampanthan’s vehicle mobbed by the families of the disappeared. He makes a quick getaway.”
“Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Provincial Councillor, Mrs. Ananthi Sasitharan (whose husband had also disappeared after surrendering to the Army) was amongst those beaten. Amidst all the men who had been elected, Parliament and the Provincial Council, it seems only this one elected woman Councillor had the commitment and courage to stand with the people.” wrote Ruki from the scene of action, in his account to “GroundViews”.
“Police used force to stop people from reaching the entrance to the Library. But Mr. Cameron left without speaking to the families. Even the Chief Minister and leader of the TNA didn’t stop to talk to the people. One TNA MP came and stood amongst the people for few minutes and left soon afterwards. Ms. Sasitharan’s repeated calls to the Chief Minister, leader of the TNA and other TNA MPs went unanswered” wrote Ruki, further.
His account of the agitation there on the ground was captioned, ironically as “British Prime Minister and TNA leaders shun families of disappeared in Jaffna”. That crowns the story of TNA’s political role post NPC elections and during CHOGM, to be extended post CHOGM.
The North has lately turned out to be the political bastion of Tamil politics with the TNA voted as the leading force. At the last 2010 April elections Jaffna district voted 43.9 per cent TNA returning 05 MPs. Vanni voted 39.0 per cent electing 03 MPs. After many protests led by the TNA over people’s issues over the years, the TNA improved on their credibility and returned as the most acceptable Tamil representation in all Tamil politics. They turned out to be the unavoidable, impassable Tamil representation with ground support. All or any negotiations on Tamil issues from resettlement, rehabilitation, reconciliation to power sharing thus had to be with the TNA leadership. The first Northern PC elections with an extremely independent, highly reputed Supreme Court judge Wigneswaran accepting to run as its Chief Ministerial candidate, the TNA gained all round political acceptance, a recognition that even in the Sinhala constituency gave the TNA a new face lift. This was amply proved at the NPC elections with the TNA sweeping the board in an unprecedented victory. Tamil people in the five districts Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya voted 78.48 per cent electing 30 out of 38 Councillors.
For Tamil people that has 89,000 widows on declared statistical tables to date, which means 89,000 female headed households, the issue of involuntary disappearances is as big a stake in negotiating answers to their problems as that of displacement due to military occupation of land. Thus it is beyond belief why 29 of the 30 people elected as Councillors to the NPC were not their at the Jaffna protests by family members of the disappeared. It is utter callous disregard of the people who voted the TNA leadership to national and international respect and acceptance to run away from their people agitating on the streets to huddle in the Weerasingham hall with British PM Cameron. Well they could have done both and then made themselves transparent and accountable to their own people on discussions with Cameron, had they issued a statement thereafter, which they have not done so far.
Politically, the question is, why did the TNA leadership run away from their own people who lifted them so high ? Why could they not stand with the people as they did before CHOGM ? Why did they want to cover up this let down with a loud crying bluff of a protest on Saturday, joining protesting refugees at Kilivetty refugee camp, displaced from Sampur ? They did disappoint the people who expected them to give strength in lobbying for their rights. But again, why ?
I may not be wholly right. But this is how I see the latest TNA folly, for now. The three most conspicuous figures in the TNA now as leading the fight are, (i) veteran politician Sampanthan, who groomed himself in electoral politics and knows it better than agitations, (ii) respected legal architect Sumanthiran, a newcomer to politics whose political upbringing is in court rooms fighting for fundamental and human rights and (iii) the supreme court judge Wigneswaran, who can mostly be a consulting politician on constitutional matters, but not one deciding politics on the streets.
Such personal backgrounds makes them comfortable in negotiating and dealing with political actors whom they take as key decision makers in the Tamil conflict. Such negotiations and deals would also not allow them to push this Rajapaksa regime beyond a point they assume, may close all space for negotiations. The absence of Indian PM Singh who was willing to lend a hand in the war and Cameron in aggressive mood representing the British government that supplied weapons for the war despite their own policy that prohibits such sales, did ruffle feathers in the Rajapaksa regime. The TNA therefore did not want to be seen as discrediting the 2013 Colombo CHOGM. That was why they stopped at absenting themselves from and not boycotting official CHOGM festivities. They in fact thought they would be better off if they had both Cameron and Manmohan Singh in Jaffna with them, to tell their part of the sad story.
Yet the bottom line is, the TNA has dampened a people’s growing militancy despite military and intelligence presence. Where democratic space is being gradually stretched and widened on people’s strength. A mobilisation that now matters more in negotiating with this Rajapaksa regime when the regime gets pushed into questioning in international fora. They have played into wrong hands this time, the TNA leadership. They will still be voted at elections in the absence of an alternate, independent leadership, but that is not what finally decides Tamil aspirations. Tamil aspirations can only be decided on the strength of the Tamil people between elections, pushing the ruling party in Colombo to compromise and take decisions. This requires the TNA leadership to choose the right set menu for political consumption. Wish therefore, the TNA would not drag themselves into the same sad plight of the UNP in the South.