After the three-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) combine’s open talk in the matter, the Tamil Makkal Tesiya Kuttani (TMTK) under former Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, seems to have hinted at a willingness to talk to the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the parliamentary polls, on what they too describe as the ‘national problem’. It is a welcome sign, yes, but on details, the Tamils are not going to yield from their age-old position on a ‘political solution’, whether called by the term ‘federalism’ or not.
The TNA made its willingness to talk to the Rajapaksas-led Government at the all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Mahinda R on the Covid crisis. A team of Alliance leaders under R Sampanthan also called on the Prime Minister the same evening, and discussed what looked like the contours of a future discussion, to be taken up after the parliamentary polls. Media reports said that PM Rajapaksa asked the TNA delegation to take up the issues, starting with that of ‘Tamil political prisoners’ with President Rajapaksa, as well.
The TMTK (Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kootani) has since written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda R, on the very same issue of freedom for the 91 Tamil political prisoners. Following the TNA model, they too have listed out the number of under-trials, sentenced prisoners, those facing trial and those whose appeals were pending before superior courts.
The TMTK too wants President Gota Rajapaksa to use his powers, to granting pardon to ending all pending proceedings, so that the right climate would be set for addressing the ‘national problem’, their letter implies. The Tamil media reports has been more explicit, to indicate that the TMTK too wants to pursue the path of political discourse on the ‘national problem’.
The TMTK’s letter implies that they do not want to be left out of the post-poll discussions that the Government may initiate with the TNA. But there is another, possibly a smaller group – to be determined by parliamentary polls, again. The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), under All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) leader Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, has not indicated any desire to talk to the Government.
The ACTC-TNPF has eschewed such desire to talk to any (Sinhala-led) Government. Long ago. This has been so despite the fact that their position and posturing has not found much support among the Tamils, as reflected in the electoral pattern in the North, since the post-war era.
There is then the first alliance of them all, TULF, of V Anandasangaree. Despite Sangaree being the only man from the moderate Tamil side to refuse LTTE’s suzerainty, other moderates opposed to the LTTE kind of violence have no place for him in their minds and in their politics. Sangaree’s son Gary is a moderately successful Tamil politician, but in Canada – not Sri Lanka – indicating where future generations of SLT community is going to be born even more.
SLPP’s ‘Us and Them’
As coincidence would have it, the TMTK’s letter comes only days after ruling SLPP Chairman G L Peiris had said that the TNA would win the North while his party-led combine would sweep the rest of the country. It is unclear if Prof Peiris was speaking about the SLPP’s assessment of the electoral situation alone, or if he was also indicating the Tamil alliance with which (alone) the Government would hold talks on the ethnic issue, post-poll.
Call it Peiris missive or Peiris mischief, the SLPP assessment can cut both ways when it came to the electoral chances of the TNA in the five electoral districts in the North and the East, from where they have fielded candidates. After making the usual announcement about fielding candidates from Colombo district, they once again fell silent this time too.
The reasons are not far to seek. First and foremost, the TNA has kept itself away from the recent break-up in the UNP, unlike the Muslim and some Upcountry Tamil parties. For the TNA candidate to win in Colombo, they will have to choose an ally and may not be able to field 22 candidates to be able to win at least a respectable number from among the 19 seats from the district.
Today, with the UNP split, they may not want to venture out. Two, if the Upcountry Tamil parties were to support TNA in Colombo, the likes of Mano Ganesan would expect a quid pro quo in the North and the East. The TNA will not be able to accept it. Three and the most important, when the TNA partners are within the Alliance mainly because of the continuing attraction for the ITAK leader’s ‘House’ symbol, in Colombo, the TNA cannot do it if it were serious about winning seats.
So far, pre-poll internal squabbles within the ITAK-TNA used to be one for leadership supremacy. When in 2013 Northern PC polls, Sampanthan ‘imposed’ Wigneswaran as the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate against veteran Maavai Senathirajah and a host of others with an eye on the same, some of them foisted Ananthi Sasitharan on the combine.
Ananthi came a distant second after Wiggy in the preference votes, but behaved as if she was a better choice for chief minister. She had a yoyo kind of political relations with Wiggy. The TNA sacked her one day, Wiggy made her a minister, she formed a party of her own and is now back in the Wiggy camp, under the TMTK banner.
Within the TNA, the early exit of the EPRLF under Suresh Premachandran meant less trouble from ITAK’s partners in seat-sharing talks. The usual run-up-to the=polls noises from TEL:O and PLOTE partners were minimal this time, but when it came more recently to targeting TNA spokesperson M A Sumanthiran on the ‘LTTE support’ issue, they were vociferous in their public statements. So was the usually quiet Maavai Senathirajah, who is ITAK president for a few years now.
Clearly, it is a reflection on the ‘ideological differences’ within the TNA, between those with a militant past and those without one. Sampanthan, Wigneswaran and Sumanthiran belong here. Maavai, TELO’s Selvam Adaikalanathan and PLOTE’s Sithadthan, have had a militant past.
Today, when the intra-TNA seat-sharing war is all long over and nominations filed and only polling delayed owing to the pandemic, suddenly there are internal troubles, especially over the ITAK. Unlike in the past, it is not one more trick to obtain more seats for one’s faction within the leading party. Now, it looks like a ‘succession war’ viz the TNA leadership is already on, long before one became due.
It began with a section of the Tamil media in the North and the ex-militant leaders targeting Sumanthiran for his reiterated disavowal of the LTTE’s violent ways. More than his clarification, it was the other side taking the case to Sampanthan, which ended it all, though in classic disquiet.
Now comes Act I, Scene II. In the North, Maavai Senathirajah meets with some ‘rehabilitated’ LTTE cadres, and promise to facilitate their joining the moderate mainstream that the TNA is seen as. Separately, Sumanthiran claims that he was the first one to back such a proposal, and dates it back by a few years. Those like ITAK Colombo District Secretary K V Thavaraja contest the same, even as the Northern Tamil media joins the fray, all over again.
What is interesting to all such claims and counters is the fact that TNA leaders have acknowledged, possibly for the first time, that the post-war ‘rehabilitation programme’ of the post-war Rajapaksa regime for ex-LTTE cadres had worked, after all. Already some of them have been reportedly elected to some of the local government institutions in the North, and are said to be working well with their TNA counterparts.
It will be another matter, however, if an influx of relatively youthful ex-LTTE cadres will be welcome by the TNA, which is otherwise considered a ‘party of oldies’, even if they are all old war-horses, whether in the political arena or with a militant past. It is not quite unlikely that the two groups might begin fighting each other for leadership positions across the board, all the way up to the top, though not in the foreseeable future.
Otherwise, too, the TNA and all other Tamil combines are in for a bad time, given their own internecine battle for supremacy within their parties and alliances first, and in the larger Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community next. Unless they are all ready to resolve their ego clashes, with an ideological spin often given to it, the time may not be too far, for the Government of the day to let them settle the score and watch it from the side-lines – not having to bother about talking to one party or the other, or all of them together!
Between now and after the elections, not only the TNA but also parties like the TMTK, and the larger Tamil community has to honestly decide if they want to do business with the Government led by the Rajapaksas. Illogically voting against them, and making a socio-political virtue of the same, as their vote for war-time army commander Sarath Fonseka showed in post-war Elections of 2010, they quietly turn around to declare that the elected President is President for all Sri Lankans, and not only for those that voted for him.
Well said, and possibly well meant, too. But they need to ask their conscience for a conscientious answer to their choice between war-time President and war-time army chief in 2010. This act of theirs has made them look like objects of international manipulation, if not national ridicule.
They need to acknowledge that in President Gotabaya, they are dealing with a tougher, no-nonsense Rajapaksa than Prime Minister Mahinda, who as war-time President, re-elected in 2010 elections, was more approachable and more amenable. He offered them not only development of the war-ravaged areas that President Gota now reiterates, but also negotiations leading up to a political solution.
The truth is that the Government party and the TNA did make significant progress in their talks, which collapsed mainly because the former saw the latter as double-paddling by seeking and/or backing the US-led western initiative to haul up Sri Lanka before the UNHRC. Their names will be called for views not long after the parliamentary polls, during the run-up to the UNHRC session in September. They cannot continue to hunt with the hound, and the rest of Sri Lanka to believe that they are actually running with the hare!
It is more so with a President like Gotabaya, even if Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa were to return to the same office, post-poll. The TNA especially cannot also talk any more about the draft Constitution of the predecessor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, nor can even expect to go back to where they had left the talks with the Mahinda R dispensation. It will have to begin all over again – and they should be prepared to accept that ‘new normal’!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])