By Ana Pararajasingham –
“Politics is about power. Power is about people” ~ James Margach, The Anatomy of Power (1979)
Although, it is just over eight years since the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was brought to an end, the root cause that gave rise to the brutal war remains unresolved. Nor has been there any progress in addressing the consequences of the armed conflict. Significant parts of the Tamil homeland are under army occupation; an investigation to identify the perpetrators of war crimes is yet to commence and Tamil political prisoners continue to languish in jails where torture is routine. Meanwhile, the spectre of ‘disappearances’ haunt the Tamil people as former LTTE fighters and those suspected to have had links to the organisation are systemically hunted down.
Not surprisingly, the demise of the LTTE resulted in Tamil leadership coming to reside with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which, since its inception in 2001, had worked in tandem with the LTTE. In the wake of the LTTE’s defeat, the TNA adopted what has been described as a ‘pragmatic approach’ to deal with the Sri Lankan Government by basing its demand on the premise that the Government is likely to concede ‘little’ rather than more. The party therefore sought to frame its demand within the concept of shared sovereignty coupled with a gradualist approach to improve on its initital demands. These demands were based on the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution introduced under the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987. As this amendment included a clause that called for certain powers to be devolved to a single entity dominated by Tamil speakers, it required the merger of the Tamil dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces into a single unit-the Northeast Province. However, in 2006, this particular clause was deemed ultra vires by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court which ordered that the Northeast Province be demerged into a Northern and Eastern Province.
More to the point, the 13th amendment is inherently incapable of devolving any real power to the Provincial Council because it contains a provision that ensures ultimate political power resides not with the Chief Minister or the Provincial Councillors but with the Governor of the Province-an appointee of the President. The role of the Chief Minister is limited ‘to ‘aid and advice’ the Provincial Governor in the exercise of his functions. Hence, the characterisation of the 13th amendment as ‘a constitutional sleight of hand.’ Other inadequacies of the 13th amendment stem from several subjects being kept out of even the Provincial Governor’s powers, let alone the Provincial Council.
Well aware of the limitations of the 13th amendment, the TNA sought to rely on the goodwill of the Sri Lankan state, India and the US-led-West to realise its goals by improving on the 13th amendment. Presumably, these included addressing the matter of political power being exercised by Colombo via the Governor and expanding the subjects coming under the purview of the Provincial Council.
In early 2010, some members of the TNA broke away from the party arguing that the party was not being true to its ideals and had forfeited its principles. The breakaway group called itself the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and rejected the 13th amendment as a starting point for any negotiations. The terminology used by the TNA and TNPF were similar, they both emphasised self-determination. However, the TNPF did not compromise on earlier positions taken by Tamil political parties within the confines of the sixth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution precluding Tamil independence. TNPF’s demand therefore was for a new constitution on the basis that Sri Lanka comprises two nations. More importantly, TNPF subscribed to the view that since the Tamil people’s struggle for self-determination had been exploited by the international actors (the US-led West, India and China) to further their own interests, Sri Lanka’s Tamils should take advantage of this to secure a truly federalist constitution. In an interview, the leader of the TNPF, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, went on to expand on this theme by suggesting that the Tamil people need to formulate a foreign policy of their own to deal with the international actors.
Not surprisingly, the international actors (India and the West) found TNA’s stand helpful because it made it easier for them to manage Colombo, their primary objective. Although TNPF’s grasp of the international dimensions underpinning the conflict was accurate, the party was ineffective in communicating its policies.
TNA was helped by the widely held notion that it was an LTTE proxy. Then there were those who found TNA’s pragmatic approach to their liking and that of the TNPF too theoretical and too confronting. The TNA also had the advantage in building its profile among the people because Uthayan, the most popular daily in the North was owned and managed by one of its own parliamentarians. Many believed that by breaking away from the TNA, the TNPF had weakened the Tamil polity.
Consequently, it was the TNA that emerged as the main political party of Sri Lanka’s Tamils.
The Politics of Persuasion
The primary approach of the TNA was informed by the twin assumptions that it was necessary to allay Sinhala fears of Tamil separatism and Tamils had little countervailing power to bargain with the Sinhala leadership. Then there was the belief that Washington with its ‘Liberal Peace Agenda’ and New Delhi with whom TNA’s leader Rajavaraothayam Sampanthan enjoyed a ‘special relationship’ would help persuade Colombo agree to a meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the Tamil people. Driven by this belief, the TNA threw its support behind the New Delhi and Washington orchestrated ‘regime change’ to dislodge Rajapaksa. Once the new regime came into existence, the TNA in pursuit of its cooperative approach participated in Sri Lanka’s independence celebrations on 4 February 2015. It was the first time since 1972 that a party representing the Tamil people of the Northeast had participated in such an event. Party leader Sampanthan explained the reason for the participation as one designed to
‘send a signal to the Sri Lankan people and the country to seek their constructive support to resolve the problems of the Tamil people and their participation was an indication of their reposing of trust in the leaders of the new government of a commitment to address the problems of the Tamil people in the right spirit.’
TNA’s next step was to ask the Tamil people permit TNA handle negotiations with the Government and not rock the boat. This particular request did not go down well with the ordinary people who demanded that the party spell out its position openly. Then there was the need to counter the TNPF, whose demands were in line with the aspirations of the common people. To make matters even more difficult, the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, a TNA appointee, Wigneswaran, appeared to support the views of the TNPF while distancing himself from any direct dealings with the TNPF. Faced with the general elections in August 2015, TNA upped the ante.
On 15 May 2015, during a televised debate with the TNPF’s Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, TNA’s Mathiyaparanam Sumanthiran, revealed that the TNA had an ‘understanding’ with the Sri Lankan President to provide the Tamils with a measure of autonomy ‘outside the unitary constitution amounting to federalism in substance’. In July 2015, TNA announced that a new constitution was needed to address the ‘Tamil question’. TNA’s election manifesto emphasised self-determination, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces and power sharing arrangements based on a federal structure. Addressing the media in Jaffna, Sumanthiran articulated that the TNA’s manifesto had gone beyond the Thimpu principles to accommodate the Oslo Declaration (a joint declaration by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government in December 2002 agreeing to explore a solution on the principle of internal self-determination within a united Sri Lanka). TNA’s election campaign was well received because by reiterating its commitment to ‘Thimpu Principles’ and its readiness to embrace the ‘Oslo Declarations’, it left no doubts about its commitment to a truly federal resolution to the conflict. There was more than a hint during TNA’s campaign that a new constitution was indeed in the offing. Unsurprisingly, in the pre-dominantly Tamil Northeast, the TNA swept the polls with 16 seats. Its election strategy was, no doubt, a resounding success.
TNA’s hope for a new constitution addressing Tamil concerns appeared to be on track when the Sri Lankan Parliament, on 9 March 2016, agreed to transform Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly with the power to draft a new Constitution. But by end of 2016, it was clear that Colombo’s political establishment had lost its enthusiasm for a new constitution. In November 2016, TNA’s Sumanthiran, frustrated by these developments and the government’s reluctance to move beyond the 13th amendment, announced that the TNA’s conciliatory approach should not be taken as ‘a sign of weaknesses. This was ironical because TNA’s entire approach from the very beginning was based on a perception of weakness – a party devoid of any countervailing power. It is argued that it was this perception of weakness that prevented TNA from factoring into its approach strategies to counter the all too common practice of the ruling Sinhala party blaming Sinhala opposition to back down on its promises to the Tamil people. Instead, TNA relied on a conciliatory approach and the belief that the international community would intervene to persuade Colombo resolve its longstanding conflict with the Tamil people.
Is this assumption by the TNA of the Tamils as a people completely devoid of countervailing power, accurate? In the wake of the LTTE’s crushing defeat, the victorious Rajapaksa Government was not one to seek political accommodation with the Tamil people. Instead, the approach was to further militarise the Tamil region. In 2013, $US 2.2 billion was allocated towards defence expenditure, a twenty-six per cent increase from 2012. The purpose was to saturate the Tamil Homeland with a large military presence and keep the population subjugated. As a consequence, the ratio of all military and paramilitary personnel to civilians rose to be close to the 1:5 ratio. Rajapaksa regime, particularly after its victory over the Tamil Tigers was marked by a complete absence of the rule of law. Arbitrary arrests and ‘disappearances’ were common, intimidation of political opponents was routine. The army was engaged in a well-orchestrated campaign to terrorise the Tamil population into submission. It was during this period that thousands of young Tamils fled the country seeking asylum in Europe, Australia and neighbouring India. In 2012, of the 17,000 people who arrived by boats seeking asylum in Australia, 6,500 were from Sri Lanka. Indeed, many of these young Tamils left the island from ports under the control of the Sri Lankan navy aided and abetted by the Sri Lankan authorities determined to ethnically cleanse the Tamil region. In this environment, TNA’s inclination to assume that the Tamil people had little voice and no countervailing power to bargain is understandable. It therefore relied on the US-led campaign to exploit war crimes committed during the latter stages of the war to exert pressure on Rajapaksa believing this might either cause Rajapaksa to seek accommodation with the Tamil people or bring about a regime change that would result in a government more likely to address the Tamil question. Washington’s primary motive to bring about a regime change was driven by Sri Lanka’s strategic drift towards China that held consequences for the U.S. Similarly, New Delhi was perturbed by Colombo’s clear preference for Beijing over New Delhi. Both New Delhi and Washington were dictated by self-interests in bringing about a regime change. Tamil support was crucial to bring about a new regime. TNA obliged, but did little to take advantage of the situation to extract promises from the global powers (Washington and New Delhi) to publicly commit their support for self-rule for the Tamil homeland. It is argued that such a step would have helped TNA build its countervailing power in the form of international recognition of Tamil right to self-determination, albeit ‘internal’. TNA clearly missed out on this opportunity.
The TNA also missed out on the opportunity to build its countervailing power immediately following the regime change in early 2015. On the immediate term, the change of government resulted in an easing of the oppressive conditions that had prevailed under the previous regime. TNA had the opportunity during this period to mobilise mass support around self-rule, return of lands occupied by the army and the disappearances of young Tamils suspected to have had links with the Tamil Tigers. History teaches us that mass mobilisation can cause governments, especially those who are under the close scrutiny of international bodies to heed their voices. Such a mobilisation might have even found support amongst the liberal Sinhalese, but more importantly it had the potential to cause neighbouring Tamil Nadu take a more proactive stance in taking up the issue.
It is argued that the TNA, dependent on New Delhi’s ‘good offices’, purposely refrained from mass mobilisation because it was not in New Delhi’s interest to have Tamil Nadu take up the issue. New Delhi is understandably averse to its domestic politics influencing its foreign policy. It explains the Northern Provincial Council’s Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s behaviour during the early days when he was very much part of the triumvirate comprising Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and himself. In September 2013, Wigneswaran, chided Tamil Nadu politicians for intervening in Sri Lanka’s ‘internal’ affairs which he compared to a home where the husband and wife are having a fight and went on to say: “We will fight, but sometimes we come together. The next door neighbour must not come and say ‘you must divorce, you must divorce’. That is not your business.” No doubt, at that point Wigneswaran shared the belief that relying on the good will of New Delhi was the way to obtain concessions from Colombo.
However, Wigneswaran’s actions since then have gone some way in building the countervailing power of the Tamil people through mass mobilisation. This has to date involved passing a resolution in the Northern Provincial Council identifying the Sri Lankan state as a perpetrator of genocide, initiating events like ‘Eluga Thamil’, joining in the commemoration of the Mulivaikal massacre and openly articulating the Tamil cause. Wigneswaran’s transformation is attributable to his move to the North as its Chief Minister and his exposure to ground realities. Wigneswaran’s actions since then can be understood as an attempt to tap into the strong sentiments of the people to build a countervailing force.
Unfortunately, TNA’s approach of relying on the good will of the Sri Lankan political establishment and the international actors alone while eschewing direct engagement with the Tamil people has not helped the party.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be argued that TNA has become a prisoner of its own approach proving the Tamil truism ‘Mudhal Konal, Mutrum Konal ‘(If crooked at first, it will be so throughout). However, such an argument would imply that the entire approach of the TNA was flawed. This is not the case. TNA’s attempt to allay Sinhala fears by not adopting a confrontationist position is a positive attribute in view of the party’s pursuit of a negotiated political resolution. TNA can become stronger by engaging strategically with the international actors and mobilising the people around its political agenda as spelt out in its 2015 election manifesto.