Should Tamils hear out the Rajapaksas?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Reports that war-time Defence Secretary and a prospective presidential aspirant/hopeful from the SLPP-JO met with Tamil journalists in Colombo recently should be a welcome opening for a two-way conversation. Leave aside their later-day or last-minute decisions on whom to vote, the rest of the Tamil community too should be open to hear what the Rajapaksas have to say, as much about the future as about the past.

It is in the interest of the nation that the Tamils, Muslims and the Rajapaksas open up a dialogue. It seems to have begun happening in the case of the Muslims, however limited it be. By participating in the evening Ifthar ceremony in the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, the Rajapaksas have send out signals to the community. It is for the larger community and political leaders of Islam for to take it forward.

To start with neither community has the leg to stand on, in boycotting the Rajapaksas, wholesale. Two, the Rajapaksas have time and again proved that they are still the single largest political force in the ‘Sinhala South’. Given the three-way contest that is not unlikely for the next presidential polls, where the present-day ruling front partners in the UNP and the SLFP may contest on their own, the Rajapaksas cannot be written off.

It is easy at this stage for hard-line Tamil parties and their Diaspora backers to hope that the Rajapaksas won back power so that they could reopen the LTTE’s failed strategy for a ‘separate homeland’. It did not happen that way for the LTTE after Elections-2005. It will not happen that way for ‘lesser Tamils’ after Elections-2019/20.

Tasted both sides

If nothing else, the Rajapaksas have tasted both sides of victory and defeat – military victory and electoral victory. They can be more circumspect than the LTTE granted them to be, or Tamil hard-liners now want them to be. The question is if a majority of the Tamils, now mainstreaming themselves and also picking up their broken lives in bits and pieces, want to go back to where from they have begun afresh?

This does not mean that the Tamils have to vote in the Rajapaksas, or yield to their own perceptions of the Rajapaksa military-might from the past. The international community has no LTTE around to let any Sri Lankan Government to proceed the way it did through ‘Eelam War IV’. The international community also does not have any hopes any more that a non-Rajapaksa ‘Sinhala leadership’ alone would be delivering a political package to the Tamils.

The Rajapaksas lost a chance, the Tamils lost a chance. The international community too lost a huge chance, to facilitate reconciliation in Sri Lanka, post-war. All of them approached the process with mutual suspicions. They also had inherent doubts if the process would at all succeed. It was not the way to begin it all.

If there was anyone who could convince the real Sinhala nationalist hard-liners at the time, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President. After defeating the LTTE squarely, and standing up to international pressure throughout the last stages of the war, especially after it entered and exited Killinochchi, they were ready to trust their nation with him – not anyone else. That some or many in the Rajapaksa camp also ended up thinking the same way, and did not view it in the way they should have is what did them in.

Singling out…

The irony of the Tamil claims that the Rajapaksas (alone) were ‘war-criminals’, if at all, was unsustainable. Worse still, in the same vein, they also absolved the war-time army commander, present-day Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. It’s doubtful if any Sri Lankan court, free and fair as it still can be, would have upheld such a construct – then or, since.

For the Tamils since the exit of Rajapaksas to convince themselves that the incumbent Government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeasinghe would deliver ‘justice’ on accountability and war-crime issues were/are ab initio misplaced, and misconceived. It’s one more instance of self-styled ‘intelligent and intellectual community’ spitting on the ceiling and convincing itself that it won’t fall back on you, when you are already lying on your back.

Now that it has come this far, the Tamils should ask themselves if Fonseka would still have given them a honourable political solution if he had won the post-war presidential polls of 2010. They should also think back if they were fair to themselves in assuming that the exit of Rajapaksa would automatically confer on them all the political powers of the greater devolution kind.

If their honest answers to these two questions are ‘yes’, then they can afford to boycott the Rajapaksas even as social beings. If not, why not, hear them out? The fact is that unlike in the case of anti-Rajapaksa camps of 2010 and 2015, there was no ‘social contract’ of any kind between the larger Tamil community and the Rajapksa Government.

They left it to their political leadership(s), this time that of the trusted TNA. It did not take them anywhere. It was not the TNA’s mistake either. Having given them the ‘moral mandate’ – the electoral mandate would come later – to direct their future without the LTTE and without Prabhakaran, they continued to pressure the TNA from Jaffna and Mannar, Europe and Canada, not even knowing how these negotiations are handled.

In the end, the TNA wilted under pressure, not of the Government or that of the Rajapaksas, but to that of the hard-liners from among them, who seemed to have sworn not to let a settlement happen. It meant that the international community and the Diaspora Tamils had their UNHRC – and the TNA and the Tamil community had nothing. You could blame the Rajapaksas for it, yes, but you cannot absolve their ‘promising successors’, either.

Better or worse still, the Diaspora and the international community should not be absolved, either. The former can wait and they also want to wait until the ethnic boat is rocked enough all over again, for them to go back to their ‘separatist demand’ – but with the hope and confidence of carrying with them, not guns but the international community.

Better or worse still, again, the international community would be divided in all directions, some of them not knowing how to re-wind enough and wash their hands of Sri Lanka. By then, Syria too would have begun an event and episode in the past, overtaken as it would have been by other trouble-spots of more contemporary relevance to their own domestic constituencies.

For their part, the Rajapaksas, if at all they return to power without the Tamils’ backing, would be even more obliged to their ‘Sinhala hard-liner constituency’. That will not be good news as far as a political solution to the ethnic issue goes. If the Tamils now vote against the Rajapaksa, it should not be out of blind-folded decisions taken by others for them, but should flow out of balanced reasoning, which could convince their political adversaries as much – again something that the non-players of the non-TNA kind from within the Tamil polity would not understand.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: