Looking beyond the current political gridlock

Dr. Sara Dissanayake

The landslide victory of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the recently concluded local government (LG) elections naturally attracted much attention to assessing the future trajectory of the domestic political landscape. The heavy focus on the political gridlock in the South has inevitably diverted our attention from the prevailing political trend in the North, which would potentially have a ripple effect to the dynamics of future Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. This piece intends to shed light on a different, yet a crucial dimension of the election outcomes.

The victory of the ‘lotus bud’ signifies many things, one of which could be the (mis) interpretation as a specious return of Sinhala ultra-nationalism. In a press conference held on 12 February, the SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa proudly pointed to the Sri Lankan map, expressing how the maroon colour spread across the country to the extent that even the territory of ‘Eelam’ had also been minimised. The Eelamists would quite naively interpret this in simplistic terms that the South voted for the SLPP in order to prevent the concession of power to the Tamils under the incumbent national unity government.

For the Eelam apologists, Rajapaksa’s re-emergence implies that the window of opportunity to pursue Tamil self-determination would be indefinitely shut. Such line of thought can further push them to pursue its separatist agenda. To this end, Colombo needs to anticipate and prepare against a force multiplication of the Tamil question in the immediate future, which is likely to come in two fronts: a) Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA)pivot to a hardline stance; and b) intensification of anti-Sri Lanka propaganda by the global pro-LTTE Diaspora entities.

At present, the TNA’s political survival is at stake. Although the TNA was overall numerically successful, it fell short of an absolute majority in all councils across the their stronghold, and especially in Jaffna- the heart of Tamil nationalism. The LG polls this time demonstrated an unprecedented level of support to anti-LTTE Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), capturing Kayts and Delft Pradeshya Sabha. Similarly, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam- led Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), a breakaway faction known for its less compromising commitment to the Tamil struggle, came second after TNA in Jaffna district.They captured in Point Pedro Urban Council and Chavakachcheri Pradeshya Sabha, as well as Poonakary Pradeshya Sabha in Kilinochchci district.

The support for TNA is gradually waning, as opposed to their confident prediction of bagging 46 councils in early February.Although EPDP has offered its support to provisionally back the TNA in forming administrations in the LG bodies in the North, the TNA’s overall electoral setback may push them to take a hardline stance on the Tamil nationalist issue, which can be attributed to both domestic and external factors: first, in a bid to outdo its local political rivals; and second, to garner further support from the larger Eelamist groups abroad. The increasing support for the EPDP and the TNPF is a testament to the rising frustration among the constituents against TNA’s failure to deliver results, despite enjoying its status as an opposition party of the incumbent regime.

TNA-Diaspora Nexus

For the TNA to assume leadership and build a bridge between the clash of ideologies among its political rivals would be a challenge, and not quite possibly their immediate goal. Instead, their focus is likely to retain their political survival by echoing a more forceful tone on the Tamil issue and actively reaching out to their counterparts in the foreign governments, in an attempt to appease the pro-LTTE rump abroad who is their largest benefactor. As a proxy of the Tiger terrorists during wartime, they managed to juggle between its two political masters in the post-war setting: that is, the pro-Tiger Diaspora outfits and the Sri Lankan state. Their malleable political positioning has enabled its survival thus far by strategically interchanging its Eelamist and Unitarist masks. While finding much comfort as an opposition party in the incumbent regime today, the TNA does not forget to pull political stunts at critical junctures to appease its sponsors abroad. This was once again evident in the run-up to the recent elections.

For instance, the TNA leader R. Sampanthan declared to boycott the 70th Independence Day celebrations, and at the same time, the Northern Provincial Council Chairman CVK Sivagnanam openly expressed that the ban on the LTTE should be lifted within Sri Lanka. Further, in the immediate aftermath of the incident involving the throat-slitting gesture of the Defense Attaché in London, Sampanthan was quick to make a calculated move of joining the Eelamist bandwagon in demanding the British government to declare the said individual as a persona non grata.

The TNA-Tamil Diaspora nexus has always been asymmetric in nature, where the former is very much dependent on the latter, both financially and politically. The TNA needs the Diaspora for its survival, not the other way round. Sampanthan and his cohorts are also pawns of factional rivalry among the pro-LTTE Diaspora parties, and are repeatedly put in its place whenever their agenda seems to derail from its foreign masters’ predilections. 2017 witnessed failed assassination attempts of M.A. Sumanthiran carried out by ex-LTTE cadres, under the directive of the radical Nediyawan faction in Norway. In a recent report, the US based Diaspora group ‘Tamils for Trump’ called for a probe on the TNA for its inaction in pursuing the Tamil Homeland issue by failing to engage with the West and India, and instead getting into bed with the Sinhalese.

Amidst its waning support both domestically and externally, TNA’s immediate priority would be to get back into the good books of its Western benefactors by echoing a tougher stance regarding the Tamil question, and to demonstrate its apparent commitment to the cause. To this end, we can anticipate a more proactive and outspoken TNA in the forthcoming weeks, with a shift in its narratives that would be more in line with the Eelamist rhetoric.

Diaspora Furore

Especially under the auspices of the current regime, the pro-Tiger font organisations have increased their leverage with their political activism. Following a meeting in June 2015 with then Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera, TNA’s Sumanthiran and representatives from the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in London, the government later in November de-listed 8 prominent LTTE front groups and 269 individuals who were thought to have been working for the LTTE. Consequently, the de-listing allowed the GTF to publically collaborate with the Sri Lankan state on the Tamil issue. It is pertinent to note that the so-called ‘good will gesture’ of the government- in the name of expediting reconciliation- has not been reciprocated by its counterparts. To date, none of the de-listed groups have publically condemned its members for brandishing the LTTE flag and honouring Prabhakaran as its leader in public protests and gatherings.

Against this backdrop, the ‘return of the former war-time President’ rhetoric is a golden platform for the pro-Tiger communities to prompt the fear factor, which is an effective mobilisation tool for any mass movement. This would enable them to further justify their cause and leverage international actors to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government. In a knee-jerk response to the supposed return of Sinhala ultra-nationalism, the LTTE rump will most likely intensify its anti-Sri Lanka propaganda in the immediate future.

The recent incident in London unfortunately laid a fertile ground for the Eelamists to strengthen their cause, and to add salt to injury,the sweeping victory of the SLPP just days subsequent to the incident further catalysed their raison d’etre. The pro-separatists will be sure to capitalise on the prevailing circumstances to amplify their activities by conveniently twisting the political narrative to their favour.This may inevitably have a synergysing effect, as it can potentially further pressurise the TNAto take a rigid stance on Sri Lanka’s fault line of the Tamil question.

Way Forward

With the present political gridlock and the waning recognition both locally and externally, the TNA is in limbo. With the TNA losing prominence in its current form and with the rise of SLPP and other Tamil parties, there is a reasonable possibility that a non-violent but a more radical streak of Tamil nationalist elements will be at play within the democratic framework.Against this backdrop, a dynamic interplay of Tamil nationalist politics may likely come to the fore. Regardless of the ongoing political stalemate, it would be wise for the government to anticipate and devise a strategy in terms of managing the emerging trends of the Tamil politics at the domestic level, so as not to significantly undermine national stability.

As for mitigating the increasing pro-LTTE activism abroad, the Sri Lankan state can no longer resort to its usual reactive, whack-a-mole diplomacy. It is high time to acknowledge that the Eelamist activism abroad is facilitated to a certain extent due to Colombo’s laid back approach in mitigating their narratives. Gearing up just before the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva is not enough. Without getting bogged down in internal politics, as a sovereign nation the Ministry of External Affairs needs to clearly identify its mandate and promulgate an independent, comprehensive and a solid diplomatic strategy in order to secure Sri Lanka’s national interests under a unitary state. Career diplomat or political appointee aside, it is equally imperative to maintain a qualified and well-trained Sri Lankan diplomatic corps that would adhere to utmost professionalism. Denying the Eelamists of any opportunities to exploit in furthering their cause is one of many steps in protecting the country.Let us not be blinded entirely by the current political gridlock, as Sri Lanka faces greater challenges ahead.

The author is a Research Fellow at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka.