By Kalana Senaratne –
The TNA has swept the polls in the North. More importantly, the Tamil people have voted courageously, convincingly, and clearly. It was an expected outcome, but as President Rajapaksa took off to New York, he would have known that numbers and statistics on paper, more than just mind-made presumptions, can have a very coruscating impact, that the numbers in this case do not lie; not in the ‘South’, and never in the ‘North’.
The election to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) was not just a provincial election. It was that, and much more than that. It was almost like a referendum; not for a separate State, for the TNA Manifesto did not demand a separate Tamil Eelam State, in any explicit manner. But it was certainly a referendum of sorts, calling for the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people, for greater autonomy, for a re-structuring of the existing constitutional framework, and for accountability.
Lessons about the Conflict
The result in the North tells much about the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.
Firstly, it tells us that the problem here is not just a problem of discrimination, or about the need for a more Tamil-friendly government in the ‘South’, or the absence of economic development. It is also not so much about the need to devolve a few powers to the periphery so that the people in those areas could benefit from them; a theory which was in any case rubbished when a Colombo-based Mr. CV Wigneswaran was nominated as TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate. This is not a conflict that can be resolved only by enacting a new bill of rights, or by establishing more independent institutions.
Rather, the problem is more about nationalism and nationhood, about the Tamil people’s aspirations, about their need to be recognized as an equal nationality on the basis of equality and self-determination. It is a question that has to do with a deeply polarized polity, or deeply polarized polities. In broader terms, it is a question about how peoples with contrasting views about their nationhood, about their histories, can still co-exist peacefully.
Secondly, another related point that this election drives home, and one which should be openly acknowledged, is that whatever the historical facts one may adduce for or against the ‘traditional homeland’ argument of the Tamil people, the verdict of the Tamil people shows that for all practical purposes, the North, at least, is an entity which the Tamil people can consider to be their ‘traditional homeland’. There’s another phrase for that (which the TNA uses, as well as the Indo-Lanka Accord): ‘historical habitation’. Of course, these are vague and wooly, and contestable, terms; but not so for political purposes, not when one part of the country votes in a clearly recognizable and distinctive manner. Interestingly, with the holding of the NPC election, what the Sri Lankan government has ended up doing (unwittingly) is to further politically strengthen the Tamil nationalists’ claim for a ‘traditional homeland’. So you may spend your whole life seeking historical arguments to demolish such territorial claims, but the brutal and agonizing reality is that such claims get validated, strengthened, solidified in numerous different ways; especially with election-results like this. This then appears to be a clear win for the Tamil nationalists.
Thirdly, the Tamil people have also shown quite convincingly that infrastructure development and the construction of hotels are not enough, that the ‘Uthuru Vasanthaya’ kind of narrative means nothing much to them. And in Kayts, they have dealt an important and necessary blow to the EPDP which continues to carry out its armed activities. In a sense, the Tamil people have done their utmost to ensure that the government and its allies are not afforded too much legitimacy. That poses a significant challenge to the government, a challenge that no community in the ‘South’ has been able to pose.
But there is also a more serious dimension to note. A careful examination suggests that much of the above was precisely what the Sinhala nationalists feared might happen.
One: so for example, while the Sinhala nationalists often claim that the problem in Sri Lanka is not a problem of discrimination, they are not wholly incorrect in stating that the problem here is largely a problem of Tamil nationalism too (as often stated by the likes of Prof Nalin de Silva). This election strengthens the point, given the nationalist rhetoric of the TNA. Now that the Sri Lankan government has missed the plot, the Sinhala nationalists could begin to wonder whether President Rajapaksa has been too lenient, even careless, about holding the NPC election. And the Sinhala nationalists would well be thinking that they might have got their Rajapaksas mixed up.
Two: it will be seen from the above that it is not incorrect to argue, as Prof GH (‘Gerry’) Peiris pointed out more recently, that the Indo-Lanka Accord (and indeed the 13th Amendment) recognized the ‘traditional homeland’ claim of the Tamil nationalists. That the Indo-Lanka Accord goes some distance in acknowledging such a claim, has been pointed out by many analysts. And more importantly, for all practical purposes, this recognition comes about largely through elections, and once a people have voted in a clear and convincing manner in favour of a manifesto promoting the demand for self-determination and autonomy, especially at provincial/regional elections which are specifically focused on promoting self-government to that contested province.
One question of course is why the LTTE failed to support the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment. That was perhaps a case of the LTTE being too impatient, lacking in political imagination, and unable to make crafty use of the language of the Indo-Lanka Accord (or the 13th Amendment framework). In other words, it is not that the Indo-Lanka Accord does not recognize a Tamil homeland; rather, it is just that the LTTE could not read the Accord in a way that promoted their project.
And here’s the danger. The TNA is now in a position to go in any direction it wants to go: it can take a very ‘separatist’ path (and read all these documents in a way promoting separatism), or a path promoting greater unity. The danger is that the moment they adopt the former path, the prognostications of the Sinhala nationalists come true. In short, the current situation calls for a lot of patience, for just a slight slip on the part of the Tamil nationalists would validate the entire narrative of the Sinhala nationalists (that is if, according to some, this hasn’t happened already).
Three: and finally, it is also not incorrect to argue (as Mr. SL Gunasekera did) that the 13th Amendment was not about devolving powers to the people of the North (given Mr. Wigneswaran’s nomination). Rather, for certain sections within the TNA, it was about having a person who is more comfortable with the language of international diplomacy, someone who could be a voice that the ‘international community’ couldn’t ignore. And the moment Mr. Wigneswaran trips and adopts a discourse which he perceives would please the external forces, the Sinhala nationalists would be proven correct.
Viewed from this angle, then, what emerges now is a highly tensed situation. And what the above reflect is very simply this: that every victory for the Tamil nationalists seems to validate the perennial fears of the Sinhala nationalists, while every victory for the Sinhala nationalists in turn validates the fears of the Tamil nationalists. If then, both communities need to rethink what May 2009 and September 2013 mean to them respectively; for all victories mean a defeat to someone else, all defeats a victory to another.
What can be done?
With great victories come great responsibilities too. On the one hand, it would be well if the Tamil nationalists, while continuing to make their political claim for self-determination (with the intention of exercising it within a united Sri Lanka), also promote a discourse which places equal importance on the greater democratization of the rest of the country. That is essential. And the Tamil people will not lose anything by attempting to convince the Sinhala people that they (the Tamil people) are for a united Sri Lanka.
Of course, this cannot be done by simply walking together or holding hands with the Opposition parties; it is also not easy with political manifestos which sound more like written submissions prepared for a case before the International Court of Justice! Rather, the TNA and other Tamil parties would need to articulate more fully and comprehensively, even carefully, their political, cultural and also economic aspirations and plans and how these could also benefit the construction of a united Sri Lanka. It is also necessary for them to construct a more distinct Tamil-Hindu Sri Lankan identity that is vibrant and strong enough to withstand unnecessary intrusions from Tamil Nadu and the West.
On the other hand, however, it is necessary for the Sinhala community to take a serious and cold look at the election results, at the polarization that has taken place, and question whether more LTTE-bashing takes them anywhere. They will need to understand that the Tamil people are not terrorists, and that attaching the ‘terrorist’ label on the TNA is similar to attaching such a label on the Tamil people too. And to be sure, it is also necessary to shed this idea that somehow the Tamil politicians have misled the Tamil people. Nothing of that sort has happened unless one imagines the Tamil people to be a fools; and the politician-people dichotomy is largely a myth.
But doing all this doesn’t mean that the problem confronting us will be resolved. That too is a fat illusion. Yet, some progress can be made in moving towards a place that is far better than the present.
For the moment, however, there is only a question: why then do we need to welcome this result, this victory of the Tamil people? It is because that despite all the dangers and uncertainties that hover over us, the Tamil people of Sri Lanka have given a clear verdict. It is because the Tamil people, after long years of suffering, have stood resolutely, together, in exercising their franchise. It is a result to be welcomed for all those reasons, but also for showing those of the younger generation the sheer complexity of the problem at hand. It is a result to be welcomed precisely because it wakes us from our slumber, because it tells us that not everything is well, up there in the North. It is to be welcomed because it reminds us of what true reconciliation ought to be, that it is not about giving a hand to those who come crawling towards you, but about unconditionally accepting the other as your equal: one might be inclined to praise Prabhakaran, and yet, we are equals for we too have had that mad rage within us; one might talk incessantly about a homeland, but in denying it we too had believed in our own version of a homeland – so here’s a hand. And this verdict is to be welcomed because at a time when most political movements are turning into political dinosaurs, the Tamil people might just have taught them a few lessons on struggle, courage and resilience. For some Sinhalese like us to whom the Tamils are our equals, this is our victory too; a victory of, and ultimately for, the commons. There is much work to be done now, together.
Jim softy / September 22, 2013
Let the problem move towards Tamilnadu too.
Native Vedda / September 22, 2013
“Let the problem move towards Tamilnadu too.”
It did move to Tamilnadu and returned back this island with a vengeance. Rest is history.
Do you want history to repeat?
The Southern problem too moved to Tamilnadu between 1988 and 1991 seeking refuge. The Southern problem was looked after very well by their Tamilnadu brethren.
Jim softy / September 23, 2013
Don’t jump up and down because of this.
For People it is some thing they liked after forty years. they celebrated their new found freedom.
Just wait until they find what they have done.
Tell me which society enjoyed their politicians ?
Don’t believe ASTROLTTE’s gibberish.
Native Vedda / September 23, 2013
“Don’t jump up and down because of this.”
Because of what?
It is my right to jump up and down. Would you like to restrict it too?
“For People it is some thing they liked after forty years. they celebrated their new found freedom.”
Tamils in the North I am told need to get prior permission from Hathrusinge or Chandrasiri to go to wee wee.
Freedom? Under heavy militarisation?
“Tell me which society enjoyed their politicians ?”
And why do you defend your Sinhala/Buddhist corrupt brutal politicians tooth and nail?
Jim softy / September 23, 2013
It is my right to jump up and down. Would you like to restrict it too?
So, Native Vedda is a Tamil.
Anpu / September 24, 2013
Native Vedda is a human being. He could be a Sinhalese Or Tamil or ..
punchinilame / September 22, 2013
Do we now have a Douglas resignation, if he is true tamil? Not as long
as he is wanted in TN on Murder charges.
Native Vedda / September 23, 2013
“Do we now have a Douglas resignation, if he is true tamil?”
Do you want him to sign a suicide note just because he failed in recent polls?
When did a politician commit harakiri for his/her failure to honour pledges/promises?
Wyatt K / September 22, 2013
Great article. I think the TNA is changing direction. Leaders like M.A. Sumanthiran coming forward are going to change the whole dynamic and be unifier, but only under freedom, equality and democracy. It is ironic that the most powerful advocate for those things today is a Tamil.
Sulaiman / September 23, 2013
Thought provoking, Kalana, but I think you should also explore the counter arguments to the three points you make justifying (albeit not wholeheartedly) the Sinhala Nationalist fears.
1. Not discrimination but nationalism – You point to the nationalistic election rhetoric in support. But that rhetoric was fueled by discrimination. It was fueled by having an occupying army that numbers one in five adults in the Province, that takes large swathes of land and takes employment opportunities from people – not to mention intimidation and other harassment.
2. Traditional homeland theory validated. My response to this is “so what?” The rejection of the traditional homeland or historical habitation is relatively recent. If you look at the Arunachalam-Pieris agreement that was abrogated, you would note that the abrogation by the Sinhalese was on the basis of accepting the traditional homeland theory.
3. 13th Amendment no about devolving power to the North – S.L.Gunesekere’s argument is premised on the success of the devolution of power to a region being measured by whether the person elected by those people belongs to that region. This view is anathema to an idea of democracy and misses the point of devolution. The idea is that the local people have the right to select a person of their choice to govern on their behalf at a local level. The essence is that the People got to choose and that the mechanism of governance is closer to those people and not diluted by the preferences of people not from that region.
Your article would have been far more thought provoking if you had been a tad more critical, instead of merely being ambivalent.
Sulaiman / September 23, 2013
Not that what you say is incorrect – but there are valid arguments that you have not considered.
Karikalan / September 23, 2013
A SOBER ASSESSMENT BY MR. KALANA SENARATNE. I AM SCEPTIC WHETHER THE MEDIEVAL SINHALA LEADERSHIP IN COLOMBO WILL EVER MEND ITS WAYS -Karikalan
K. Ranawana / September 23, 2013
kail / September 23, 2013
Very thoughtful and brave. Watch your back son. Good luck
Ranjan / September 23, 2013
Well written. We should work for a better Nation for all people to live with dignity and true brotherhood and sisterhood.
sunila mendis / September 23, 2013
A very thought provoking article which should be read by Sinhala and Tamil speaking readership.The reason why Sinhala and Tamil speaking segments are illiterate in politics is they are not enlightened by articles of this nature.Therefore they fall prey to Sinhala and Tamil rhetoric of the cunning politician who wants to keep the massess assess.There are a few things that this victory of the TNA should undertake.Stop gloating over a Tamil victory .Instead be happy that inspite several odds the Government gave a space for the electoral process.As happened in the North other political parties too faced thuggary,bribing and misinformation and bogus propaganda in the electoral process in the NWP and CP which were won by crooked means by the Govt in power.Under these circumstances the TNA must work with their Sinhala counterparts to achieve an increasingly vanishing democratic space for both the Sinhala and Tamil polity. Do not talk of Tamil grievances but the grievances of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims.Thereby the TNA and Tamil politics will find legitimacy in the Sinhala psyche which is the crucial element to forge unity amidst diversity.
Suresh / September 23, 2013
The Tamils have given a crystal Clear verdict in a democratic manner. They are not for a separate country anymore but wants to live peacefully in their homeland with peace and dignity. The TNA says it is willing to work with the government.
The problem is, will the Rajapakshe brothers accept the verdict of the Tamils and work with the TNA or will they listen to the Racist Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalists and cause unnecessary problems and create a mess.
This is the best chance for the country to establish peace if the TNA and the government work together but it all depends on the Rajapakshe brothers (the most powerful among them is Gota).
The US, UN, India and the International community should monitor the situation and make sure that the Rajapakshe brothers (specially the most powerful Gota) will not cause anymore trouble and create another crisis.
Anpu / September 23, 2013
Excellent article and ends with excellent conclusion. Does MR family reads CT & GV?
hela / September 23, 2013
The democratic space in the North was opened by the resolute action of the present government. Tamils as a community did not fight for it. After the decimation of 1977 Tamil political leadership by the LTTE, the remainder in TNA simply accepted a violent dictatorship. Only very few like Douglas Devananda faced up to the violent dictatorship. To date Douglas is called a traitor for it.
The Northern population has not recognised that they have got a democratic choice because of the actions of GOSL.
TNA’s campaign starting from it’s manifesto, and the speeches by leaders, were all based on a separatist and mono ethnic idealogy. To them all non Tamils in the North (they can’t say that for East) are outsiders. They brought Prabaharan back to life during the campaign.
Therefore, as I mentioned somewhere else, though democracy won, the country lost judging by all indications.
I wish TNA and it’s CM candidate will prove me wrong, but I doubt it because they think that they have the backing of powerful international actors to take the next step towards Eelam.
One important point to note though is that the rest of the country is overwhelmingly behind a political formation that is resolute in it’s opposition to separatist idealogy. The collaborationist UNP is getting marginalised and war heroes who faught for preserving country’s territorial integrity are gaining ground.
While everybody are requesting the South to take note of the message comming out from the North, there is a message that is emanating from the South too (there are lot of Southerners who have sufferred terribly at the hands of Tamil separatists and there are lot of war widows as well).
The actions of victorious TNA and it’s CM candidate will determine the next phase.
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran / September 23, 2013
” For some Sinhalese like us to whom the Tamils are our equals, this is our victory too; a victory of, and ultimately for, the commons. There is much work to be done now, together.”
May your tribe increase!
Subramaniam Rhiagarajah / September 23, 2013
Bro.Senaratne.Thank you so much.When I say this sinhalese will you have sided the Tamils,You were bribed to write this,but I don’t care them.It was bare truth you wrote.Actualy I have lived with sinhalese for long period.They are like you,open,truthful,humourous and so on.One day a sinhalese friend asked me ” So Wellawatte is also part of Tamil Ealam”.Such nice people.When I think of you and them How happy I am.There are a good number of sinhalese like you but the don’t want to come out and speak like you due to fear of other sinhalese people.It was same among Tamils also,they were frightened to talk certain things when LTTE was there.I hope large majority of people Think deeply Of Lord Buddha’s Dharma and Non-violence and lead a happy life.Once Again Thank you so much Bro.Kalana Senaratne.
hannah.rajaratnam / September 23, 2013
Th Tamils have shown true colors of democracy and how it works.I see frantic articles coming out like mushrooms from writers whom we never heard of before.Some want the Tamils to work with them,both communities to be together,live together,for a better Sri Lanka.
Am I hearing this right?
It sound CREEPY,I sense danger and are you expecting me to do something for you?You chased me from the south and now what?
We just won a great victory in the north with calm and dignity.Don’t depend on us to fight your battle with the Rajapakse brothers.The Tamils have done their part for themselves without any help from the south.
They just sat and waited and watched us being hammered even during the election process.Suddenly the southerners are up holding flags for the Tamils.
were you waiting for us to win so you can put more obstacles in our way?
What did the Tamils ‘do’ to harm your life? Wake up and put on your thinking cap.
It will help the southerners to find whatever solution they want -on your own merit,fight and determination.Leave the Tamils out of your mess.
In that process you might be ‘bought over’ for sure.
hela / September 24, 2013
Already living in a Tamil utopia eh?
Native Vedda / September 25, 2013
“Already living in a Tamil utopia eh?”
Don’t you think it is better to live in utopia than in Mahawamsa world, where incest, parricide and bestiality are practiced?
Thanga / September 25, 2013
The Sinhala army stationed in the North played a key role in the humiliating defeat of the ruling UPFA. The occupation army treated the Thamil people like slaves. The election was pay back time for them. Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe spoke as though he is a little tin pot Hitler. He openly supported the ruling party and bragged that Thamil people loved the army and only the TNA politicians are indulging in false propaganda against the army. In proof he cited how the army top brasses are invited by the Thamils to attend their weddings, temple festivals, sports meets etc. What he did not disclose is that the people were forced to extend such invitations at the point of the gun. But the antics of the army boomeranged. A day before election, army goons in uniform raided the house of TNA candidate Ananthi Elilan. They wanted to kill her. ananthi is the wife of Elilan, political head of the Trincomalee district, who has since disappeared after surrendering to the army on May 18, 2009. He was taken away along with about 100 second rank l leaders of the LTTE in the presence of their spouses in army vehicles. Till today their fate is not known. In all reality they must have been assassinated by the army like the white flag surrendees. Gotabhaya says the LTTE cadres never surrendered despite the fact there were eye witnesses. One such witness is Ananthi. Fortunately, TNA volunteers present managed to take Ananthi and her 3 children to safety before the goons descended. The goons attacked the TNA volunteers present, damaged the vehicles parked at the premises and ransacked the house in search of Ananthi. The midnight raid ended in 11 TNA volunteers taken to the hospital with severe injuries by MPs Sumanthiran and Mavai Senathirajah at dead of night. The stupid soldiers or their bosses did not know the consequences of unleashing such thuggery, including attempted murder of Ananthi. Stung by the high handed tactics of the army, the people voted with both their hands to Ananthi. She secured 87,870 preferential votes coming second to the chief ministerial candidate. The moral: Thamils need not fight for separation. The government and its army are going to give them on their own volition on a silver platter.
Bensen Burner / September 26, 2013
A very realistic analysis. Excellent. Bensen