By Laksiri Fernando –
Nominations for the premature presidential elections closed three days back and less than a month is left for the decisive decision on 8 January 2015. The competition is polarized between two candidates and the result will be crucial for the future of the country. This is perhaps the most significant election ever held in this island nation since the introduction of adult universal franchise in 1931.
To put it mildly, the result will decide whether the country would continue in the direction of ‘constitutional dictatorship’ or whether it would open up a ‘widow of opportunity’ to halt the democratic deterioration and reinstate democracy. No one can expect miracles and it is up to all actors in the political arena to utilize the available opportunities for the betterment of the country and the people. The reinstatement of democracy is important to all communities and individuals, irrespective of ethnicity, language, religion, gender or any other distinction.
The common opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, has put forward a promising platform for democratic rejuvenation in consultation with the UNP and many other political parties in the opposition, and the main policy formulations are reflected in the MOUs so far signed between them. This process itself is democratic and transparent (and there are no hidden agendas or conspiracies!).
TNA and JVP
There are however certain political parties/groups in the opposition who have not yet come into this process, at least directly, and two of the most important parties are the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the JVP.
In respect of the JVP, although their position is still ambiguous, they have not fielded their own candidate and stated that defeating the incumbent President is crucially important although they are reluctant to give ‘character certificates’ to anyone in the opposition given their past bitter experiences. The ‘character certificate matter’ is understandable from the point view of both the JVP and the TNA. The JVP leaders have come on common platforms, however, to call for the abolition of the executive presidential system while conducting their own propaganda campaigns on that and other issues. This is not the case of the TNA so far.
The active support of the TNA is decisive for the opposition candidate to win more than the JVP. The JVP’s national vote bank at present could be considered around 200,000 and in contrast, the TNA could motivate over 600,000 voters to cast their votes to whoever they decide to support, if ample lead time is allowed to canvass and explain that position to the voters. Any undue delay might hinder the process.
On the 2nd of December, although the TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran was supposed to speak at a common opposition rally at Hyde Park, he withdrew at the last moment, expressing that the TNA has not yet taken a decision on the presidential elections. His withdrawal also interpreted as a tactical gesture to avoid criticisms from the government circles that the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is in alliance with the LTTE proxies etc.
If this is the case, I have major reservations on the tactic or the strategy, as Sri Lanka cannot afford to have ‘hide and seek’ politics any longer and the people should not be deceived whatever the (minor) repercussions at the electoral front. There is no doubt that the main campaign plank of the government is about national security and against making any concessions to the Tamils and other minority communities.
This is the very reason why the opposition should have taken a clear principled position openly on the Tamil national question and tried its best to educate the majority community, of course in a cautious and a prudent manner. I would not consider this is such a difficult task given the fact that the war is over and any resurrection of separatist politics is unthinkable in the foreseeable future. All the present inhibitions or reservations on the matter are in the subjective or the metaphysical sphere. It is true that in politics, unscrupulous leaders try to thrive on misinformation and scaremongering. However, people’s common sense knowledge might be far better than the distorted perceptions of the ‘rulers’ or their henchmen.
The issue that I am raising in this article is already, but differently, raised by Dr S. I. Keethaponcalan in respect of the TNA in his “Presidential Election and the Tamil Dilemma,” among other matters. He has stated:
“In theory, the TNA can decide not to formally endorse Sirisena and as stated in the news report, agree to extend its support informally or indirectly. This could happen if the agreement between Sirisena and the JHU contains any real or perceived anti-minority or anti-devolution provisions. Such a situation could also be illustrated as a setback for Sirisena because given the possible Tamil apathy towards the election, getting Tamil people to go to the polling booth and vote might need some serious encouragement. The TNA will be able to do that.”
It should be noted that the first part of his article was to outline that Sirisena in contrast to Ranil Wickremasinghe is largely an unknown person among the Tamil community and his credentials on minority issues are also unknown. It is in that context that he stated “given the possible Tamil apathy towards the election, getting Tamil people to go to the polling booth and vote might need some serious encouragement.”
While the above comment was aiming at the TNA, he has also stated that “Sirisena cannot take Tamil votes for granted or assume that the Tamils will vote for him automatically.” It may appear that Keethaponcalan has written his article or stated his position only in respect of the elections or his apparent support for the common candidate. However, there is something more and that is my main point in this article. Let me raise it as a question or questions.
Could there be a MOU between the common candidate and the TNA? How far such a MOU would harm or help the chances of the winning prospects of Maithripala Sirisena?
It is obvious that any reluctance to have a MOU or any other formal understanding with the TNA is based on the premise that the TNA or the main stream Tamil community is a pariah section of the Sri Lankan society that anyone should not touch them even with a barge pole. This perception or position is not only harmful for future reconciliation but also is one of the main reasons why the Tamil militants are driven, over and over again, for separatism or exclusionism on their part.
The Other Side
The perception or the situation is not one sided, but mutual from both sides. Take the example of what the EPRLF (Suresh wing) leader, Suresh Premachandran, repeatedly says about the forthcoming presidential elections and the two main candidates. As reported by the Daily Mirror few days back (8 December 2014) he has stated again:
“There is no solution offered to the problems of the Tamil people. There is no plan to resettle displaced Tamils. It seems that the common candidate is endorsing the views of Sinhala extremist forces backing him. Let alone a political solution, there is no approach even to address day to day problems.”
From a conflict resolution or reconciliation point of view, it is completely erroneous on the part of the TNA or the mainstream Tamil community to wait for solutions from the Sinhala community or their leaders, without cooperating and/or mutually working together. That attitude, clearly expressed by Premachandran, is akin to militant trade union bargaining and perhaps derives from that ideology. That attitude perpetuates an employer-employee or, in this case, a ‘ruler-subject’ relationship.
The Tamil community or their representatives should be an active participant of the national political process without completely confining themselves to their own sphere or the North East. One step forward might be to utilize the opportunity available at the forthcoming presidential elections. It might be important to quote Dr Rajasingham Narendran when he commented on the issue of voting at the presidential elections by the Tamil community relevant to the subject that we are discussing here in this article. As he has said,
“We, the Tamils living in Sri Lanka have to vote in the Presidential elections as Sri Lankans and parliamentary elections as Tamil Sri Lankans. We have to vote as Tamils in the provincial council elections. This has to be the formula for Tamil Sri Lankans in the current circumstances.”
When there is a Common Candidate it is normal for various political parties or interest groups to come to an understanding with such a candidate or his/her main political organization. Even the JHU has come to such an understanding today. On the other hand, it is incumbent upon and the duty of such a candidate or his/her political party/group to seek an understanding with such an important community like the Tamils in Sri Lanka and its main political representatives. It is in this context that a MOU between the Common Candidate and the TNA is important. There should be an effort to break the divide between the two communities or the respective political parties.
It is not only in terms of votes that such an understanding is important. The common candidate and his United Front has promised that a future government under their leadership would be a national government and/or an all- party government at least for two years. While that is an admirable object what might be necessary is to take a first step. Sirisena-JHU MOU, as far as I am concerned, has not placed any obstacles for a Sirisena-TNA MOU. On the contrary, the leader of the JHU, Champika Ranawaka has very clearly encouraged such a MOU or an understanding.
It is obvious that such a MOU could not cover all the issues that the Tamil community might be facing. However, it could at least address the first step/s in breaking the ice between the two communities and their respective parties and declare very openly that the two parties agree to work mutually in finding solutions to the issues that the country and various communities are facing in the present juncture of politics. The present leaders of the UPFA and the President by using the TNA, the Tamil community and the Tamil Diaspora as scapegoats have proved time and again that they are not for any reasonable solution or reconciliation in the country. They want to tread in the war path even after the end of the war.
The election is only an opportunity. The two communities and even the Muslim community should discover mutual grounds by relating to each other irrespective of their differences. The reinstatement of democracy, rule of law, independence of the judiciary and good governance by abolishing at least the draconian powers of the executive presidential system is one such a mutual ground at the national level.
There may be various issues that relevant parties on both sides would like to include in such a MOU. However on my part, I could see the possibility of agreeing on at least four matters that I consider important for the Tamil community. (1) Full implementation of the LLRC recommendations (2) Unhindered funding and functioning of the Northern and the Eastern Provincial Councils (3) Termination of any forced colonization (4) Phased out withdrawal of the military from the Northern Province without hindrance to the security and territorial integrity of the country. It is understood that the resettlement, rehabilitation and development should continue.
[Note that this article did not touch the issue of the SLMC and thus the Muslim community in respect of a possible MOU, since the SLMC is still a part of the UPFA government.]