By Aboobacker Rameez –
The country marks another historical milestone with the selection of Mr R. Sampanthan, a Tamil MP by ethnicity, as the opposition leader of the Parliament. It was Mr Amirthaligam MP who occupied the post of opposition leader of the Parliament in 1977. Scholars posit that this new turn of event symbolizes a healthy dimension of democracy and is a sign of peace and reconciliation restoring in the country, following the silent revolution that took place in January 8, 2015.
Debates on the opposition leader
This selection stirred a stiff resistance among the hardcore Sinhalese in and out of the Parliament saying that this could lead to a division of the country and the Tamils would take an upper hand in all the affairs. However, this superficial argument can be debunked under several dimensions:
1) Mr Sampanthan, by being the opposition leader, cannot do anything silly to compromise the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, given that the national government(some people dub it as a coalition government) has been formed,
2) it is naïve to argue that Sampanthan should not have been selected as the opposition leader, thanks to his ascribed ethnicity; it is indeed notable that this is not the first time that a Tamil MP has been selected as the opposition leader,
3) all those who excoriate and vent their anger and frustration on the selection of Sampanthan turned a blind eye when the powerful Eastern LTTE Leader, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, popularly known as Karuna, was made as the Vice President of SLFP, a MP and subsequently as the powerful minister in the Mahinda government, and
4) while Karuna engaged in a fierce battle, for the sole purpose of attaining the Tamil Ealam, with the government forces before being drawn in with Mahinda government, Sampanthan entered into the democratic realm of the Parliament and fought for the legitimate concerns of Tamil speaking people over the years.
All these reasons negate the thesis advanced by certain elements with vested interests that the selection of Sampanthan as the opposition leader is inimical to the country. However, there is a great deal of responsibility upon the shoulder of Mr Sampanthan, who undertakes the task of the opposition leader in the Parliament. He should do justice to the position he holds; he should reflect, not only the legitimate concerns of the Tamil speaking community in the Parliament, but all the citizens, regardless of the ethnic and religious differences, of the country. It is intriguing that the maiden speech delivered by Mr Sampanthan, as the opposition leader, highlighted the fact that he would represent all the communities in the Parliament, particularly the concerns of the Sinhala community, and thus, he registered his strong reservation over the jumbo-cabinet numbering to almost 100 to be formed under the national government.
As Jayadeva Uyangoda aptly noted in one of his recent articles, the new government would undertake three gigantic, but achievable tasks: 1) expedite the appointments of members to the constitutional councils formulated under the 19th amendment to the constitution, 2) engage in the process of electoral reforms, and 3) endeavor to provide regional autonomy to the minorities (Uyangoda, 2015). It is significant to note that the role of politicians representing the minority communities- Tamils and Muslims, is paramount in the context of the new government engaging in the tasks outlined above.
Unity between Tamil and Muslim Politicians
As noted above, there is a greater role for the minority party politicians to play, especially in the process of electoral reforms and regional autonomy. It is heartening that both Muslims and Tamils have more than 20 members in the present Parliament, with a few of them occupying the post as cabinet, state and deputy ministers. However, such a scenario would be changed if the electoral reforms were to be implemented. Although the possibility of Tamil representation in the proposed 20th amendment on electoral reforms being diluted is very marginal, Muslims are at the receiving end. The Muslim politicians representing various political parties should bury their differences under the carpet in order to ensure their representation in the Parliament is safeguarded. They, if united, can exert a great deal of pressure, with an alliance of Tamil politicians, to the government headed by the UNP for a fair share in the electoral reforms and ensure that Single as well as Multi-Member Constituencies for minorities across the country is enacted in the proposed 20th amendment. It would be a historical blunder, if the Muslim politicians failed to forge alliance and exerted their pressure upon the major political parties at this juncture.
Autonomy within autonomy
The current trajectory of the national government underlines that it could endeavor to find a long lasting solution to the protracted ethnic issue; it would be in a process of providing regional autonomy to the Tamil speaking people. The question, here, arises whether the Tamil polity would recognize the Muslims as a nation or ethnic group to share the autonomy with them. In fact, it would be inevitable for the Tamil polity to recognize Muslim community, particularly those living in the North and East and share the autonomy within autonomy, to bridge the gap between the communities and for the durable relationship in the region. The history has shown that the moderates in both camps – Tamils and Muslims, have indicated rooms for rapprochement. They would, I am optimistic, find ways and means to iron out their differences and go for a solution acceptable to the both communities, if they were to be given autonomy by the government.
*Dr. Aboobacker Rameez is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at South Eastern University of Sri Lanka(SEUSL), and he could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.