By N Sathiya Moorthy
In the war-ravaged Tamil North over three days, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken bold to call up on all ‘communities to forget the past history and move ahead’. At Kilinochchi, the one-time capital of all-but-forgotten LTTE monolith, he said: “We all must admit that mistakes were made, apologise to each other and moved forward to achieve reconciliation.”
Welcome thought even at this hour, but sadly the thought did not seem to have occured to Wickremesinghe while being sworn in Prime Minister after a war-time gap, in January 2015. Predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa had a greater chance and moment while declaring war-victory to Parliament, the nation and the world in May 2009.
The point is both leaders as also President Maithripala Sirisena failed their golden moments to rise from being an opportunistic politician to a grandstand statesman – and the nation is still living in the past that Wickremesinghe now wants all communities to forget. Any or all of them could have apologised to the nation for the war, or their political share of the war, just as the Tamil leadership and the LTTE owed theirs.
By allowing for time, and let the ‘war wounds’ to fester, the Sinhala leadership, which has also differentially represented the Sri Lankan State and the people to a greater extent than any other, have now done it once more time. The Tamils, likewise, had on several occasions in the past, lamented that they had golden opportunities towards reconciliation but they had messed it up, or ‘pizhai vittuttom’, one more time.
Whither truth, what reconciliation
The politicos would not want to acknowledge it, but then the moment the war ended, the community-centric reconciliation had begun its own act. A decade down the line, community exchanges are all there, across the country. It suits politicos, especially of the Tamil community, to keep talking about ‘political reconciliation’ – and political reconciliation is alone what they are talking about.
In this background, for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to want to open the Pandora’s Box by proposing the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (of the South African variety/variant) smacks not of statesmanship but of political opportunism, if he could fuel any. If Wickremesinghe and his ruling UNP were sincere and serious about it, he had full four years thus far in office, to have set up one – but did not.
Under the post-war Rajapaksa regime, Wickremesinghe had five years to propose one, in Parliament or outside. If anything, the Rajapaksa leadership had invited South African leaders, and also facilitated political parties, including the TNA, to send delegations to that nation, to study their ‘successful model’. As always, the Government then rejected it all, saying that the South African model was not suitable to Sri Lankan conditions – but, again, Wickremesinghe and the UNP did not open their mouths.
Today, the UNP leadership wants the ‘Tamil votes’ on his side, more so now than any time in the post-war past, but cannot afford to ‘antagonise’ (?) his UNP’s own share of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist naitonalist’ voters, either. Or, is it all a matter of perception, more now than at the height of LTTE’s terror-war, which rocked individual homes and hearth alike, all across the nation, not stopping with any individual community or people?
At the other side of the ‘communal spectrum’, the one-time ‘monolith leadership’ of the TNA seems getting divided into sixes and sevens all over again, this time over Wickremesinghe’s ‘forget and forgive’ call. That the TNA was never ever a monolith organisation was ingrained into its very composition, given that originally it comprised four Tamil parties, forced into cohabiting under the pressure of LTTE’s gun. Not any more.
Post-war, at least the EPRFLF component of the TNA walked out in distress, not knowing if the Tamil voters had any use for the party in particular. Outside of the TNA, there were other factions of the EPRLF that had wanted a foothold in the Alliance, but the existing leadership would ensure that there was no EPRLF before quitting the combine, almost without any mourners.
On Wickremesinghe’s call/proposal, TNA’s tall leader R Sampanthan lost no time that the Tamils needed ‘ more devolution’, or a ‘political solution’, ahead of economic development in their war-torn regions. The PM’s offer on the development front while traversing the Tamil North was an ‘electoral mirage’, the Tamil media reported him as declaring in native eastern Trincomallee.
However, his chosen deputy and possible heir-apparent M A Sumanthiran, parliamentarian and international spokesman of the TNA, had a different view. He took pains to divine that the Prime Minister had acknowledged ‘war crimes’. In the same vein, he reiterated the TNA’s post-war vague stand that ‘both sides’ committed ‘war crimes’.
The party has named the LTTE as much a ‘war criminal’ as the armed forces. This time however, Sumanthiran seemed to be taking the Wickremesinghe side, and not that of mentor Sumanthiran, declaring that they needed ‘development’ in the war-ravaged North.
Hound and hare
But the emerging differences within the Tamil political leadership is more palpable than anytime in the post-war past. Old-school Tamil moderate that he is, Sampanthan seems to be wanting to continue hunting with the hound and running with the hare, all at the same time. It’s thus that he has now talked ‘devolution before development’, after wasting the past four years in Wickremesinghe’s company, and continuing to under-write his Government’s parliamentary majority, even now.
As if to answering an awaiting question, Wickremesinghe also talked about devolution, possibly for the sake of devolution. In one of his speeches in the North, he asked to the effect, what use more devolution when people did not know how to use the alredy devolved powers (under 13-A?).
Two eye-sores stand out. One, Wickremesinghe did not deem necessary to invite Sampanthan to join him in his northern visit this time. The TNA leader had stopped doing the honours to both PM Wickremesinghe and the latter’s now-estranged President Sirisena, long ago, but did not talk against their leadership, until now – as if apprehending a ‘Rajapaksa return’, otherwise.
If anyone kept a count, it was again a mirage, all over again. The UNP does not seem hopeful of continued TNA support for their presidential candidate. They hope wanting to capitalise on the existing and emerging Tamil political differences, and approach the larger population, over the head of their own political leaderships from the past. Wickremesinghe’s ‘forget and forgive’ call fits into this context, though the results are anybody’s guess at the moment.
What is even more striking in Sampanthan’s reported public sparring with PM Wickremesinghe on the issue now is that he seems moving closer to the line on the subject, taken by TNA’s estranged former Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran. If that was the case even when Wigneswaran was making noises from within, and before walking out of the TNA to form a political grouping of his own, what other than personal egos stood in the way of they working together, towards a common goal – whatever it was.
Going by Tamil media reports, the silence of the non-ITAK parties to the PM’s proposal and the diverse Sampanthan/Sumanthiran reaction, is as much pregnant with meaning as any other. Barring individual comments that might reflect their party position in some cases, the two non ITAK constituents of the TNA, namely PLOTE and TELO seems to be keeping their counsels to the self, at least for the moment.
It does not automatically flow that either or both of them might cross over to the UNP’s side, or even to the Wigneswaran camp – or, even form an alliance of their own. They too are used to their own ways, especially post-war, having negotiated separately with the TNA (read: Sampanthan) for their pound of electoral flesh, made noises ahead of the polls – and got away with it. The Sampanthan-crafted modus suited them more than possibly the TNA and the TNA leadership in the past.
Today, the ITAK leadership of the TNA seems to be even more divided than any time in the post-war past. With the much-delayed elections to the long-dissolved Provincial Council threatening to come up ahead of the presidential polls in December and parliamentary polls that are months away, chief ministerial nominations is what the ITAK second-line may be haggling about. The non-ITAK polities in the TNA would still want to win a few PC seats, too, as they have done in Parliament, under ITAK’s unimpeachable ‘House’ symbol – which is also the symbol of the TNA!
So, forget PM Wickremesinghe’s ‘forget and forgive’ call. It’s as much political and electoral. The TNA, pushed to a corner by the ‘Wigneswaran rebellion’, among other pan-Tamil political issues in the country, has made it all as much ‘unforgivable’, given Wickreemsinghe’s very own time – having sat on it all for full four years, before wanting to be seen as if he was coming up with a new idea, and new paradigm-shit, which at least, it is not!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)