What do the Tamils want?

By N Sathiya Moorthy


As with all post-war elections especially, the nation’s Tamil community remains confused – as much as what they want of the Sri Lankan State system as whom to vote for. Their political leadership(s) are divided and guilty, but neither seems to have touched them or the captive sections of their declining constituencies.

Topping the list of course is the TNA, whose parliamentarians met and repeated one more time their vague demands and vaguer posturing one more time. They want to negotiate with main presidential candidates, but are already resolved against Gota Rajapaksa. Yet, Mahinda R has named leftist leader Tissa Vitharana, the famous author of the infamous ‘APRC Report’ on power-devolution, to talk to the Tamils on his behalf. EPDP’s Douglas Devananda, after a meeting with Gota R, says he is the only candidate the Tamils should vote for if they want a political solution, and that the latter has promised something closer to the moon. Neither has said that where that moon is located, in the mind or in a more material way – not that either of them used the term in their conversation or public statements.

JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only one who has been consistently saying that the majority Sinhala community cannot ‘real freedom’ without resolving the ethnic issue – but the Tamils too do not take him and his party seriously. Nor that the JVP has any concrete proposals going beyond whatever has been made by others – or, purported to have been made. Anyway, in their deep hearts, the JVP used to be the Tamil community’s ‘enemy number one’ before the Sri Lankan State and armed forces first, and the Rajapaksas later on, replaced them.

After the JVP’s massive presidential poll rally at Colombo’s Galle Face Green, the speculation is about whose vote the party would split – that of the SLPP camp or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-UNF-DNF combine, which is still in the making. But no one is giving the JVP even the remotest chance to win the presidency. Yet, imagine the situation in which Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘insurgency-prone’ JVP has been mainstreamed and consumed too! In Tamil polity, the two travelled in parallel lines, and the twine has not met, despite the exit of the LTTE and the continued existence electoral elements and identities.

Ironies of ironies

The post-war Tamil ironies keep beating one to the other and one better or worse than the other. The TNA leadership which seemed to have had a season ticket of sorts to New Delhi, began forgetting India once the US offered a prop-up in the form of the UNHRC resolution on ‘war crimes probe’. Today, half the time they talk about ‘accountability issues’, and the other half they don’t talk at at all.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who would often rush to Delhi, reportedly/purportedly at the ‘invitation of Government of India’, stopped doing so once ahead of Elections-2015, he patched up with the Sajith and Karu factions within the UNP. That was when they were all in the Opposition. Today, as Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe should not be seen as doing so. Yet, whenever he keeps travelling to Delhi, he seems to be talking more about development funding and China, not the Tamils and the ethnic issue. Not that the TNA cares, either.

Less said about C V Wigneswaran, who retired honourably as a Judge of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court the better, He left without anyone shedding a drop of tear when he exited as the worst-performing chief minister of any Province in the country. He left in near-disgrace as the post-war Northern Province, which could have done with an effective and efficient chief minister, not a demagogue, which he ended up becoming.

Today, Wigneswaran wants India-facilitated 13-A, for starters. As chief minister, while visiting New Delhi on what was dubbed a ‘private visit’, he seemed to have thought that his Diaspora followers (or, mentors?) would not approve of it if he met with the Indian political/diplomatic leadership. Amen!

Then you have Ananthi Sasitharan, once a flavour of the season, a creation of the UNHRC politics. According to Tamil media reports – yes, hold your breath – she has joined hands with President Maitripala Sirisena’s SLFP, ahead of presidential polls. It has come in the midst of the SLFP continuing with unending talks with the breakaway SLPP on forming an alliance for the presidential polls. Mind you, the SLPP is owned by the Rajapaksas, against whom alone Ananthi commenced her politics in the post-war era, aided, abetted and assisted by the Diaspora and the ‘international community’ (read: West).

Constitutional cover-up

At recent meetings with visiting international players, TNA’s Sampanthan was reported to have repeated the old Tamil lines — that the community has been ‘once again cheated’ by the Sinhala-led Government in the country. He and the rest of the TNA leadership want the West to ensure that the Tamils are given their due.

In between, you had the game of ‘Constitution Assembly’, which at inception and even long earlier, the players knew would not take off after just doing that. The TNA knew it better than the rest, from the collective Tamil experience. They also knew that CA was not the way to political solution to the promises made to them.

Whether in negotiations with the post-war Rajapaksa regime or in the early days of the incumbent government, which everyone knew would split before you said ‘cheers’, the TNA allowed itself be distracted by the West’s talks of ‘accountability issues’. With the result, even the apolitical Sinhala street-mind became as defiant as it was at the height of LTTE terrorism. Today, after the Easter blasts, other than a few in urban Colombo, very few Sinhalas would even bother about the ‘long forgotten’ ethnic issue.

If the Constitution Assembly provided the cover-up for the Sinhala polity on the political solution, it became even less for the TNA leadership. They never ever bothered to talk to the Sinhala community, going over the head of their divided political leadership. They did unto the Sinhala polity what they wanted the rest of the world to do to them – treat them as the ‘sole representatives’ of the Tamil people.

The right had come the TNA’s way by default after the exit of the LTTE. A creation of the LTTE was the closest that the Tamil community could relate to. A creation of the LTTE was also the one that the Sri Lankan State structure refused to trust. The distrust and mistrust went beyond political leaders and leaderships – whether it was a Rajapaksa, a Sirisena or a Wickremesinghe, whoever was at the helm. It would refuse to go away if a Sajith Premadasa or a Karu Jayasuriya or a Champika Ranawakka were to take their place at the nation’s helm.

The problem for the pre-war Tamils was the Tamils themselves. The problem for the war-time Tamils was the LTTE. In the post-war era, the problem of the Tamils is the Tamil polity, starting with the TNA. The latter not only failed to give a unified leadership to the community now that the LTTE was no more there. Instead, it had its own standard for measuring ‘my anti-LTTE Tamil, and your anti-LTTE Tamil’….

Thus, one-time anti-LTTE Suresh Premachandran was fine, but not Douglas Devananda or other EPRLF factions. Now, they know where Suresh P is also – outside the TNA and against the TNA. If Suresh has not succeeded in bringing together Wigneswaran and Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, it’s also because their personal egos are bigger than his. The collective ego of the institutionalised TNA is even bigger.

Playing mind-game

The unfortunate irony of the Tamil politics is that leaders with come and leaders may go, but the problem would remain. The reference is not only to the Tamil leaders and leaderships, but also those of the mainline Sinhala polity and political leaderships. As the nation moves away from the era of LTTE, they would find new locus standi to sustain a new status quo. The past would be there for ready reference for ready reckoning at future Constitution Assemblies, future international interlocutors, and possibly a future Indian Government and leaderships! Nothing more, nothing less…

There is an unsaid message in all this from the Diaspora Tamil groups. They have a virtual government in the TGTE, they have a virtual presence in the form of a ‘TGTE government and parliament’, whose members are second only to UN member-nations, in terms of global spread, presence and participation. They are playing a mind-game for mind-space, which the present-day players in Sri Lanka and elsewhere just do not understand – nor have the time to comprehend, either. Where then is the question of their addressing future threats from a position of relative strength and better cooperation than in the LTTE past?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)