Where from here Tamil unity on ‘Thileepan memorial’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

What they would not do themselves, their people have made the Northern Tamil polity to do it. By handing down what could be described as a ‘fractured verdict, though in a limited meaning of the term, the Tamil voters of Jaffna electoral district, so to say, have made their political leaders to come together in a jiffy.

The court-ordered bar on the Tamils to publicly observe the memorial of Thileepan, who was the LTTE’s first ‘hero/martyr’ has brought the Jaffna Tamil parties opposed to the Rajapaksa Government. The courts ordered the ban at the instance of the local police under their jurisdiction, but clearly there was a concerted and coordinated Government decision in the matter.

Yet, no purpose will be served by those leaders sending a joint missive to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to permit public memorial observances for their ‘martyrs’. It is clearly meant to impress the Tamil voters, especially the youth, who felt frustrated at their fratricidal political moves and paper-wars, yes – but the real issue has to be fought in the appellate courts, maybe after holding private discussions with Government leaders at appropriate levels.

Instead, their current move has received instant response from Government spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella. The Cabinet-rank Minister in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa team has responded/retorted that only a handful of Tamil politicians are talking about rights and such other things. The rest of them want development and more of the same. Rambukwella’s response came even before the end of the Tamil parties’ two-day deadline for the President to respond.

This does not mean that the Tamils do not have a case. As some Tamil media analyses and left-out politicians have mentioned through Press statements since, Thileepan did not die through any act of terrorism, for the police to claim that memorial observances in his name.

If anything, his was one of the rarest of rare LTTE ‘suicides’ that did not target the life of any other, nor was it a blotted plot that took others’ lives with his. More importantly, as Tamil media analyses have pointed out, his fast-unto-death happened after President J R Jayewardene had lifted the ‘terrorism’ ban on the LTTE, to which he belonged.

But then, this is a good case for the higher judiciary to decide upon, not for the political masters who had directed the police to move the lower courts and obtain jurisdiction-wise ban/bar orders. Yet, there is a marked change in the Government’s approach, too. Rather than leaving it to declare a ban and breaking any gathering at the appointed point on the appointed hour, they have taken the civil route of approaching the court themselves.

Outstanding or standing out?

According to media reports, representatives of individual parties forming the three-party TNA were among the signatories. That included mainstay ITAK president Maavai Senathiraja and vice-president C V K Sivagnanam, in whose Jaffna home the all-party meet of the Tamils was held. Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, who used to have ideological problems working with other Tamil parties was present in person.

What stood out as a sore thumb was the absence the ever active TNA parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran. It is anybody’s guess if he had any other pressing work on hand, but it also remains to be confirmed if he was invited at all. Some Tamil newspapers have already speculated that the Tamil political unity was the plank used to side-line Sumanthiran and possibly side-step TNA boss R Sampanthan in the internal affairs of the ITAK and the Alliance, too.

The mention of Sampanthan’s name brings to the fore, incidentally, though, the absence of Tamil party leaders from the East and even Colombo, in the Jaffna collective. It suits other participant-parties if the ITAK leaders and the TNA use them and Thileepan’s memory to fight their internal battles. It would only weaken the ITAK and TNA, to whatever limited extent, ahead of the much-awaited Provincial Council elections.

Honouring other martyrs

It is welcome that the Tamil parties, even if of the North and also of the anti-Rajapaksa brand, alone have come together, that too on a symbolic issue. What would happen if some of the one-time militant groups within this grouping want their ‘martyrs’, too, to be honoured likewise and if there is a ban? Will all the parties that met and shot off a missive to President Gotabaya come together on each of those occasions, even if for symbolic reasons, again?

The bigger question is will they come together as and when the Election Commission (EC) announce the Provincial Council elections? There are deserving chief ministerial candidates among the signatories, and even otherwise in the parties that they all represented. There are other permanent aspirants, and deserving. The last category could include those that could not make it to Parliament, and still could not do without an elected post to serve their people.

Not many of them may even remember that ahead of the post-war parliamentary polls of 2020, a similar effort was made to bring all Tamil parties together. The list then even included the EPDP, already in the Rajapaksa Government of the time. Frist, there were spoilers from within other Tamil parties. Then came the parliamentary poll notification, and each of them went their way.

Today, the very same thing may happen if thee are elections to the Northern Provincial Council. Worse still, some of the personal and personalised poll attacks against internal rivals could then go on to include more leaders, if only to denigrate them and deny them any chance in the post-poll scenario. There will also be those who would say that they would revive their unity, if not unification talks, based on what the Tamil voter had to tell them in the PC poll.

Last but not the least, given the split verdict in the parliamentary polls, the Tamil political unity should be based on larger issues of political solution and the like. They want the Government to invite them for talks, and they also now want India and the international community to intervene on their behalf all over again. What on what and how?

Traitors to the cause

The term ‘political solution’ has become so nebulous and it will be even more at the hands of multiple parties looking at it from their beholden beliefs and past positions. They need to present a unified face to the Government and the southern polity, but without making provocative speeches like Wigneswaran’s parliamentary speeches thus far.

The Tamil parties need to decide if they want a solution or confrontation with the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala South. Just as they claim to reflect the sentiments of the Tamil people, they also need to acknowledge that the ruling Rajapaksas or whoever from down South, also are under compulsion from their constituencies. To the latter, Tamil rights has come to mean LTTE terrorism and body-bags of their fallen soldiers.

The Tamil parties, the TNA included, need to decide if they want a political solution or ‘transitional justice’ and ‘war crimes probe’. The West is not telling them, but the ‘international community’ was/ is divided on the goal of seeking the same, moving for the same. Leave aside the common ‘China factor’, some of them wanted demand for ‘war crimes probe’ only as a tool to push the Sri Lankan Government to a political solution acceptable to the Tamils (read: TNA).

Today, the Tamil voter has shown that the TNA (alone) is not Tamil. The election of two EPDP parliamentarians and SLFP’s lone MP from across the country pocketing the highest number of preferential votes have shown that there is a constituency that is not impressed by the Thileepan kind of symbolisms.

Are they happy only with jobs and incomes and development, as Minister Rambukwella has hinted and much of the southern polity has come to believe, whatever be their public posturing? If that were true, is all the social media campaign against those voters, too, as ‘traitors to the cause’ (borrowing a typical LTTE terminology) going to work in the PC polls and the future?

The Tamil polity now has a choice. Accept incremental devolution of the 13-A kind, even if it now meant 13-minus, not 13-plus as the TNA was talking and talking over the post-war decade and achieving nothing still. Or, continue to talk among themselves and lose whatever support there is now for what they alone understand as the undefined ‘Tamil cause’, and hope there are not enough jobs and incomes for northern Tamils under the Gota regime and the first and second-time voters beat a hasty retreat.

Forget re-merger

The reality is hitting the Jaffna polity on its face. Already, thee are open talks of the SLMC, or most of its five MPs wanting to join the Government, as they say that is the best way to serve their people. The ACMC of former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, again with five MPs, too, is ready to join the Government with or without him, depending on the Government’s mood.

Some of the Upcountry Tamil parties that won against the Rajapaksas’ SLPP combine are also said to be talking to the Government leadership to this end. If it came to that, it all would mean that the SJB combine could be reduced to be a Sinhala-Only party and no alliance – with Sajith Premadasa’s leadership being forced to look inwards even more.

For the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties, the issue will be the PC polls – whether to contest on their own but from within the SLPP combine or under the latter’s banner, maybe with their respective symbols. The ‘Tamil polity’ will then be reduced to be a ‘Jaffna polity’, as they have now looked at it on the Thileepan memorial issue. With the SLMC on the other side, they can forget re-merger of the North and the East, for starters….

(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])

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