By N Sathiya Moorthy
In a recent online event, one-time Norwegian peace-facilitator, Eriic Solheim is seen extolling the nation’s Tamils (Sri Lankan Tamils, SLT) to fight against the (Rajapaksas) government. He has said no-no to the LTTE kind of violence, saying the world does not have stomach for the same, but will happily endorse and back them for a federal or confederate kind of a solution to the vexatious ethnic issue.
Translated, Solheim’s prescription for Tamils would push them back to the old ways of LTTE violence, where they would offer no surprises to a war-veteran of a State, independent of who is in power at the moment. For any government in the shoes of present-day Rajapkasa dispensation, greater disturbances in any part of the country will be unwelcome from an economic stand-point, but welcome from a political angle, in select situations and circumstances.
In the seventies, when the Tamil youth crossed path with their elders with their moderate political ways, and made forays into violent ways to secure their rights, they did not even dream of a long drawn-out war, violence and terrorism of a global order. It did not stop with the LTTE, and did not exclude other Tamil groups, all of which either perished at the LTTE’s hands or mainstreamed themselves in some form and name. It was the same way, the JVP did in the Sinhala South.
‘Vanishing’ tribe, but where to?
Not that Solheim does not know, but the kind of peaceful protests of the kind do not stop with that. First, the government of the day is not going to indulge in the protestors, to whichever Tamil political identity they belong. At least, not for long, whatever be their initial reaction to let the Tamil voice boom within democratic limitations. There are enough men and women (they were youth in the LTTE’s times) who are equally short-sighted even now, to create trouble even in peaceful protests, leading to police action on the ground and combing operations by the security forces for men whom they may really be looking for, or those that they could be purportedly looking for.
Tamils in their fifties and above will recall what it all meant for the rest of their lives, when combing operations came their way in the seventies and eighties. Their brothers and sisters either vanished into Boosa kind of army camps, for purported interrogation. Soon, others vanished into the Vanni jungles, if only to escape the security forces (whether or not they were in the wanted-list), many of them never to return.
They neither had their lives, nor livelihoods (which was the mainstay of the Tamil community, and for which alone they were fighting for). And after three decades and more, the community is where it began, minus a decent and dignified living, minus the political strength and mental stamina to fight the Sri Lankan State.
Maybe, more of them would want their children to escape to Solheim’s Norway or to the UK, if not the US, he says, would stand by them this time round. Or, one more time to neighbouring India, where they may not be unwelcome as refugees, but not as prospective fighters, trained and armed on Indian soil. Nor would India want its new-found western neighbours to meddle either in its ‘traditional sphere of influence’, nor use its own soil and waters to train and arm the twenty-first century Tamil youth, which is what it would all become after a time.
Tall order and worse
Even without it, Solheims’ advise for the Tamils to go to India is wrought with impracticalities. No new government in Colombo, this one or any other, is going to involve India in any former role in political negotiations in the country, whoever be the other stake-holder. Nor are they going to sign another Indo-Lanka Accord with New Delhi, promising the justified rights of the Tamil community or any other.
India’s limited role, if any, is as a signatory to the 1987 Accord, which led to an independent 13-A and the Provincial Council Act (PCA). To the limited extent, India can influence Sri Lanka, again the Rajapaksas or any other in power, if at all, it could be confined only to the 13-A powers or parts thereof, as the domestic stake-holders start off from the scratch. Nor is the Sri Lankan State, either this one or any other, going to accept the Tamil demand for a re-merger of the North and the East.
India’s inherent interest, if residues remain, post-war, it is confined to these two aspects. But even for re-starting the negotiations, the Tamils want more. The TNA, considered the ‘good Tamil boy’ of the Sri Lankan State by rival Tamil political groups, missed the bus when it claimed parenthood for the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution in 2012, but still believe the shoe was on the other foot – that of the then government of post-war presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister.
The other recommendation of Solheim for the SLT leadership is to work with the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, to form a stronger force, to pressure the Rajapaksa leadership the most, and the Sri Lankan State, if they can and if they want to (?) Solheim himself would know that it is not on, just a non-starter of a proposal, with no easy way of succeeding at least until the present generation of political and community leaderships quit the scene in either side.
The wearer knows where all the shoe pinches. Thare enough factions, groups and parties in both communities, for them to find time for those outside, especially in the other ethnic community. It goes beyond a Tamil MP extending his sympathy and support for the Muslim community over the patently controversial government decision to cremate and not religiously bury their Covid dead.
After the Easter blasts, other sections of the nation’s polity mixing with the Muslim brethren is a strict no-no, for two reasons. One, even the Muslim community and political leaders do not know what exactly is going on inside and what the real mood and methods of their youth. Two, be it the SLT polity or the Upcountry cousins, neither want to give an extra political handle for the Rajapaksa leadership, and the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners, both within the government and outside, to beat them with.
It is in this background that the TNA’s initiative to create a political consensus at least among the three SLT parties with parliamentary representation to form a consensus approach to addressing their shared UNHRC concern, in what promises to be a decisive session in March, with an even more binding resolution – or, that is their hope. Their expectations have swelled after a rights-conscious Democrat in Joe Biden becoming the US President, come 20 January, and the history of the Barack Obama administration in which he was Vice-President, being handled dismissively by the Rajapaksas, ahead of the war’s end.
The UNHRC resolution is the Democrats’ baby from their days in the White House, last. Even when the successor Republican administration walked out of the UNHRC, as per incumbent President Donald Trump’s fancy, Washington still seems to stand by its cross-Atlantic European cousin in the UK, which stepped into the other’s shoes at Geneva, especially on la affaire Sri Lanka war crimes probe.
Now with the Rajapaksa regime forcing the US to withdraw the controversial MCC kind of investment proposals, the Tamils, who have the habit of adding all one’s and two’s and only in their favour, hope for more fireworks in the UNHRC this time round. Of course, Biden’s America will take time returning to the UNHRC, but hopes in Jaffna and among the Tamil Diaspora are that they have Uncle Sam already on their side – with those overseas having only to push back their phone-book a few pages, to make the missing links in the incoming American administration.
It is in this context that the TNA’s new initiative has become interesting for the outsider – and suspect in the eyes of fellow Tamil polity. In approaching the Tamil parties for working out a consensus, the TNA has been constrained by the reality that they are not the only upholders of ‘Tamil rights’ inside Parliament, for most parts of the last two decades since their own advent and arrival in 2001.
Their unchallenged representation of the Tamil cause in Parliament, enjoyed since post-war, for close to a decade, is now a thing of the past. Even if they were to regain the lost power, parliamentary polls are not due for another four to five years. Even then it would be tentative. More importantly, they may be led by new-generation leaders, whose experience may, or may not, match their deep sentiments and the demands that flow from their warped logic and justification, as with some others in the past and even at present.
It is in this context, the reported rejection of a TNA draft proposition on consensus-building, by the other two faction leaders in Parliament, namely, Justice C V Wigneswaran (TPNA) and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam (TNPA). According to reports in a section of the Tamil media, both leaders have rejected the purported TNA proposal, claiming that it would provde a way out for the Sri Lankan Government at the UNHRC’s March session. For the TPNA, former parliamentarian, M K Sivajilingam has since formally spoken after internal consultations that there was no way they could let Colombo off the hook in Geneva.
However, TNA parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran has been quoted by a section of the country’s Tamil media that the accusations of the other two were way off the mark. The initial document he had shared with them, for further consultations and discussions only referred to only to aspects, both inter-related. One, with the UNHRC resolutions not producing any benefit for the Tamils of the country, they should aim at a much stronger and equally binding resolution, as with Syria and Myanmar. Two, this very end, they should together bring greater pressure on the international community.
Clearly, Sumanthiran seems to have mentioned a new resolution only as a part of the penal provisions that the West may consider at the end of the two-year extension granted to the (previous) regime in Sri Lanka, and which may flow from the report of UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet at the March session. If the other two, namely, Wigneswaran and Gajan Ponnambalam had other ideas or inputs for the resolution that the West is expected to put up for vote, then they have neither shared with Sumanthiran, nor spelt them out.
TNA’s octogenarian leader R Sampanthan has since stated that all Tamils need to strategize together, to ensure that the Government did not get off the hook at Geneva. Clearly, the veteran, who is the only surviving signatory to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, seems too seems to be missing the woods for trees. With the Rajapaksa Government’s team set to complete the process of accepting proposals for a new Constitution by the year-end, further proceedings in the matter could be expected as the New Year progresses.
For now, President Gotabaya’s previous commitment of a new Constitution in a year’s time stands. It would mean that at the time of the UNHRC discussing the war crimes resolution and all, there will be some movement on the home front, per new Constitution. A hard or hardened Tamil stand elsewhere can only spoil their broth on power-devolution, too.
For implementation, a UNHRC resolution has to go to the UNSC, where the Government can count on the veto vote of China and possibly Russia, too. Or, it has to be passed by the General Assembly (UNGA), which is another ball-game. Clearly, the Rajapaksas batted on the American MCC, also with the intention of not getting out, hit-and-run, by the US imposing independent sanctions on the Government, and holding back MCC funding, too, halfway, and leaving behind a standing monument to allegations of war crimes inside the country.
The TNA is said to be working on the constitutional proposals to be submitt4ed to the Government panel, by the set year-end deadline. Gajan Ponnambalam’s TNPF is said to have presented its proposals already and Wigneswaran’s TPNA, too, is reportedly working on the same. The TNA can forget one-on-one solution, to be attested by Parliament, which they unfairly sought from the post-war Rajapaksa dispensation and got it too – but did not seek the facility when a government surviving on the oxygen and crutch it supplied, followed suit, 2015-19.
This time round, the ball is not in their court, but they all still need to play it – and at least draw the match, if not record an outlandish win. They can forget as much sympathy, even if only in misleading words – from the anti-Rajapaksa Sinhala Opposition, headed by a rock solid southerner like the rulers, in Sajith Premadasa. He is not someone to lose the majority community vote and miss out on the opportunity to build on it, for a Tamil vote (and that of Muslims and Upcountry Tamils) – which took him nowhere in the presidential polls of 2019 and the parliamentary elections, this past 5 August, 2020.
(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: firstname.lastname@example.org)