By S Sathananthan –
The Tamil National Alliance has boomed Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate. There is no gainsaying his impressive legal career and that he is an upright individual akin to the metaphorical Palmyrah tree. The Alliance is promoting him as an able interlocutor who may, as northern Chief Minister (CM), command respect in Colombo, New Delhi, London and Washington. He is expected to tackle onerous tasks, including re-building bridges between Tamils and Muslims and striving for a ‘Marshal Plan, Reparations and an Economic Programme’ for the Northern Province.
Heady stuff by any measure if sullied by the deafening silence on pursuing accountability for crimes against humanity committed in the build up to Mullivaaikkal and post-Mullivaaikkal.
The all-important political track record, however, is conspicuously lacking. Justice Wigneswaran’s formative experience in statecraft is as a government servant schooled in the benign tradition of dissenting, politely of course, within State-sanctioned parameters. He is a political novice with no appreciable history of defending Tamils’ national rights either with the pen or on the streets. In his speech accepting the post of Supreme Court Judge (2001), Justice Wigneswaran had comforted Sinhalese nationalists Tamils don’t threaten their power: ‘The vast majority of the denizens [sic] of the north and east seek the restoration of their rights and not devolution of power’; that, while the LTTE was simultaneously leading the armed resistance. Evidently he naively believes rights could be won and defended without power, unaware of the time-tested truth: those without power cannot defend freedom.
Why, then, has TNA leader R Sampanthan, sporting more than four decades of political experience, nominated Wigneswaran for CM and trotted out his laudable non-political attributes as ludicrous strengths essential to head the Northern Provincial Council (NPC)?
Sampanthan’s monstrously incompetent leadership of the Alliance is under intense criticism in Tamil society and especially among the more radical, younger Tamil politicians grouped within the dissenting Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF), who demand a larger devolution of power not provided for in the decentralisation under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A). They may well marginalise the Alliance in the forthcoming NPC elections since the TNA, after extended sabre rattling against the Amendment, is edging towards caving in to Sinhalese nationalists. But the Alliance risks political suicide by jettisoning devolution, to which they long paid lip service (satyagrahas, etc), especially when Tamil areas are under the jack-boot and Palestine-style changes to ‘facts on the ground’ are being rammed through.
What the TNA sorely needed is a new face that does not carry any nationalist baggage and could bury the Tamil struggle by inveigling Tamils’ consent to 13A, to be ruled sans accountability or justice. Sampanthan has also to prevent real power slipping from his grip and so prefers a CM who has no political base among Tamils and, therefore, cannot challenge Sampanthan for TNA’s leadership, which the old war horse Mavai Senathirajah could, and probably will, if appointed CM. So Sampanthan dredged up the politically inept Wigneswaran who is a safer bet for him.
If Wigneswaran turns up trumps, the TNA hopes to take full credit and pick over the bones of Tamil nationalism. If the strategy comes down in flames, as it most likely would, Sampanthan will swiftly distance himself and feed Wigneswaran to the Lions.
Whether or not Wigneswaran would mature into an effective power broker, capable of mass mobilisation to defend national rights, will become evident if elections are held to the NPC and if he takes over as CM. But the omen is not propitious: he has already signalled his subservience to Colombo and New Delhi by unleashing a broadside against Tamil Nadu and its people.
What we find fascinating, and is the focus of this writing, is the euphoria among large sections of Sinhalese nationalists – hardliners and triumphalists – over Wigneswaran’s candidature couched in the code “reconciliation”. [Translation: defeated Tamils must knuckle under victorious Sinhalese domination.]
A triumphalist gushed over the chief ministerial candidate in the north and confidently anticipated Wigneswaran ‘will cement the Tamil party’s credibility as being truly invested in the cause of national reconciliation.’ [Translation: Wigneswaran would help TNA jettison Tamil nationalism]. Another triumphalist suavely brushed aside international investigations into crimes against humanity and asked rhetorically: ‘What then?…will it…affect the policies of the government of Sri Lanka–this one or a future one?…a newly energized Sinhala community’, s/he gently warned, ‘will become more unforgiving and determined to continue their policies.’ A remarkable confirmation indeed of the abysmal moral decline in the south. What justice, if any, can this lot dispense to anyone? The staggering contempt for law and due process is nothing new; for more six decades Sinhalese politicians from K.M.P.Rajaratne through J.R.Jayawardene and onwards had entrenched blatant impunity by rejecting legal remedies Tamils demanded for violence suffered during pogroms. Not a single Sinhalese has been convicted in any court of law during those bloody decades for the unbridled violence against Tamils while thousands of Tamils are incarcerated for supposed ‘terrorist’ offences.
A hardliner salivated at ‘Sampanthan’s master-stroke’ and bubbled: Wigneswaran ‘is, in sum, the TNA’s Lakshman Kadirgamar.’ But not long ago (2008) he bayed for Tamil blood brandishing the ‘crucible of the sword’, a phrase borrowed from arch imperialist Barak Obama whose armies have been pillaging their way through Iraq and Afghanistan and whose mercenaries are laying waste Libya and Syria. On the eve of LTTE’s defeat, he had spelt out his triumphalist delusion: ‘Tamils must sell something Sinhalese will be willing to buy at affordable price’; in other words he peremptorily demanded the consent of Tamils to Sinhalese rule.
What if the Tamil people don’t ‘sell’? As it turned out Tamils haven’t, post-LTTE.
So the hardliner played the goni billa card, a high water mark in his dialectics. The ‘broadest global consensus’, he threatened, is for 13A not federalism. In other words, Tamils have no one to turn to and must submit. But no ‘consensus’ is cast in stone for all time. Tamils may, of course, ‘sell’ but at their price.
Many decades ago S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, without urinating on theory’s fence posts (Gramsci, Marx, etc), had wisely cautioned S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike that Sinhalese can rule Tamils only with the consent freely given by Tamils and that consent requires the rights of Tamils be honoured as a non-negotiable pre-condition. Reportedly, Bandaranaike let out his well-known cackle!
Those Sinhalese nationalists who believe today they have a solid grip on enlightened self-interest have two strings to their bow. The first one is to urge elections to the NPC to install TNA’s invertebrates and exclude TNPF radicals. This is standard in counter-insurgency (COIN): military operations to crush nationalist resistance in the short term followed by the long term political accommodation of ‘moderates’ [Translation: collaborators] through ‘managed’ elections to ‘representative’ institutions. We have seen this neo-colonial process unfolding before our eyes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US cannot consolidate its military successes and is facing defeat, argues Yury Fedorov, primarily because the political processes have unravelled. That is, the Anglo-American forces are incapable of stabilising the political rule by their puppets in Bagdad and Kabul.
The Anglo-American defeat is not surprising. COIN specialists Frank Kitson and William R Polk argued the overwhelmingly large part of the battle is political, not military. In fact Polk attributes at least 80% to the political. It is for this reason the Co-Chairs and New Delhi have repeatedly urged ‘elections’ in the north to reinforce the military gains of anti-Tamil counter-insurgency.
The Sinhalese UPFA regime is nowhere near achieving the 80% political component in the north and east. Failure or incapacity to succeed on the political front – losing ‘hearts and minds’, to borrow a hackneyed phrase – threatens to undo military successes. The Sinhalese nationalists are betting on the TNA and Wigneswaran to deliver the much sought after political Mullivaaikkal.
Given the backdrop of total war and the current virtual military rule over the north and east, elections to the NPC and earlier to the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) are political components of continuing counter-insurgency. The Sinhalese nationalists are pushing for NPC elections to move the process forward to install the pliant TNA, now that the LTTE is out of the way. They obviously anticipate the Sri Lankan army will be more successful in stabilising the Alliance rule than were the Anglo-American forces in legitimising their puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Sinhalese nationalists’ second string is Wigneswaran, in whom they see the two-in-one potential to be both a Tamil quisling in Colombo – hence the comparison with Kadirgamar – and Colombo’s satrap in Jaffna to outdo Alfred Duraiappa. They are relying on the TNA and Wigneswaran as CM together to extract the consent of the Tamils for 13A – a game of smoke-and-mirrors – and usher in a political Mullivaaikkal. The Sinhalese strategy hinges on Wigneswaran’s effectiveness, which in turn utterly depends on the NPC’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamils people.
Sampanthan is alive to the awful political damage Sinhalese nationalists’ undisguised backing for Wigneswaran is causing the TNA and will vitiate the NPC and its CM’s prospects. So, to conjure southern opposition, he reportedly spread the laughable canard in the north that President Rajapakse is ‘saddened’ by the decision to put Wigneswaran up for CM.
The obscurantist Sinhalese Nationalist Collective, wielding the PSC cleaver to eviscerate the PCs, is a spanner in the works; it’s capable of torpedoing the COIN strategy to foist ‘namby pamby’ (V Navaratnam’s words) effeminate Tamil politicians on the NPC. It will also erode the credibility of the Council and have a knock-on effect on the EPC.
The vociferous defence of 13A and PC elections by numerous Sinhalese nationalists ought be understood in this context. They are not protecting devolution or democracy, though they exploit the vicious criticisms from the Nationalist Collective and its ilk to preen themselves as progressives. That is pure illusion. Rather, they oppose the obscurantists in order that the regime’s COIN could successfully move onto the political realm of indirect rule over Tamils, since the current direct military rule is counter-productive and cannot be sustained in the long term.
Lastly, a word to my friends who wish to know: if not 13A, what else?
13A decentralised the unitary State’s functions (however duplicitously) to all provinces. For that reason, it’s irrelevant to the additional issue of Tamils’ national rights. 13A is an illusory path from post-war to post conflict – the mantra mouthed by spineless sycophants of the regime. ‘We have won a war’ cheered a policy alternatives apologist speaking on behalf of Sinhalese nationalists (enthusiastic applause); ‘but we are still stuck in a post-war situation. We need to move to a post-conflict situation.’
But are Tamils in a post-war situation? The current military rule over Tamils in the north and east by an army speaking a different tongue is an act of war. The on going mass, systematic rape of Tamil women, exhaustively documented by Human Rights Watch, are acts of war. Arbitrary expropriation of Tamils’ lands and deliberate denial of their livelihoods are acts of war. For Tamils, the hydra-headed war continues in these and other myriad manifestations. What, then, is the relevance of 13A?
For those who query what else if not 13A, the utterly desperate need today is to campaign and mobilise to halt the on going war against Tamils. But 13A has become TNA’s and, will very soon, Wigneswaran’s proverbial beggar’s wound. The supine Alliance politicians, incapable of mobilising to halt the on going war, are instead busying themselves over 13A. Worse still, to contest NPC and EPC elections while the war against Tamils is raging on many fronts is a terrible betrayal, though we appreciate the northern and eastern Councils are important employment exchanges for TNA politicians.
Perhaps TNA claims it must first capture the NPC and then confront the regime. But can its politicians escape the shackles of the decades-old, knee-jerk habit of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds?
* The author read for the Ph D degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and is an international award-winning filmmaker.