A wrong message at a right time?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Chennai 22 May 2022

At a time when the anti-Gota protests is acquiring the characteristics of a Greek tragedy, for the Canadian Parliament to remind this nation of alleged ‘war crimes’ has gone mostly unnoticed. While sections of the Tamil Diaspora is as euphoric as ever, the Foreign Ministry, by issuing a strongly-worded rebuttal instantaneously, has called the shots – indicating as to whose views between those of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, prevail in matters non-economic.

Nothing explains the way in which the political class has made the ‘GotaGoGama’ (G-3) protests laughable than the way SJB-rebel ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakara claiming that they would push for President Gota to step down while working in the Cabinet and Government of which he is the constitutional Head. This is one step more than what PM Ranil told Parliament about voting for a future ‘censure motion’ against the President – possibly for past commissions and omissions, until before the day he was sworn into office – while serving under him, likewise.

The fact that the Canadian House of Commons’ motion coincided with the 13th anniversary of the bloody end to the ethnic war in May 2009 should show that there is more to it than meets the eye. Like many European nations, Canada is inherently touchy about the 20th century version of human rights and its adoption to the 21st century. It is different from the nation’s guilt and standing viz the massacre of natives by European migrants, centuries ago – about which Sri Lankans, if not Sri Lanka – could begin talking, and inside Canada, too, before long.

Who is playing whom

Maybe, it is time Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ilk weighted future possibilities before extending unsolicited advice to third-nations and express concern for the plight of their people. With eyebrows still raised about the scale and precision of the ‘retaliatory violence’, the likes of him should be wary of political realignment in Sri Lanka, which their unthinking, constituency-centric utterings can fast-track and precipitate.

Who is playing whom against whom, how and why? The Diaspora thinks they are playing around with gullible members of the ‘international community’, to embarrass and harass the ‘Sinhala Government’ in Colombo. Their brethren back home, in the nation’s North and East, celebrate whenever an European politician or Parliament, or those in Canada, Australia or the US – not necessary in that order – say such things that actually target only the Diaspora Tamil voters in their midst.

As long as the Diaspora Tamils keep the flame burning overseas, Tamil politicians on the island are happy for it. Ask the Diaspora leaders or their western go-to politicians, and you will discover that nothing much has moved on the ground in Sri Lanka, other than those voluminous resolutions and hours of speech-making, especially at the UNHRC.

Definitely, the Tamils back home have not got their ‘occupied land’ and political prisoners, freed. Nor has the community got the much-hyped ‘political solution’ even a decade after the West stepped on the human rights accelerator.  At the current phase and purpose of the initiators, both Diaspora and their hosts – it is not going to happen any soon. It is a case of the old lawyer/doctor who reprimanded his son/daughter for solving a pending case of decades, as it was his family’s mainstay all along.

Two-phase expansion, but…

Nearer home, the fact that the two-phase expansion of the Ranil team has not included any minister from the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim or Upcountry Tamil communities has not gone unnoticed. So has the non-inclusion of a woman, especially after the Prime Minister had unilaterally proposed the unanimous choice of a woman deputy speaker, and yet the ruling party defeated the Opposition SJB’s candidate.

Including the Prime Minister there are only 15 in the Ranil team at present. There are indications that he would recruit at least another five or six, even if to keep it compact and less-expensive on the dried-up Treasury. Or, is he going to revive the forgotten concept of ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) from his previous term (2015-19) under President Maithripala Sirisena, to provide for a mammoth ministry.

Sooner than later, Ranil will also have to decide if he is going to retain the Finance portfolio as predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa had done for a time, both as Prime Minister and also President (2005-15). Or, if he has someone in particular from the ‘other side’ to be handed over the fiscal mantle, if available once the dust has settled down on the current political crisis – with only the economy remaining to mended over the next several months and several years more, in stages, phases and paces.

According to reports, Ranil has since approached the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), who left the Gota regime some time ago, but has since offered support under the new Prime Minister. As is known, other Upcountry Tamil parties that had identified with the Opposition SJB combine for some years now have decided to stay away from the new government even while supporting it from outside – at least on matters, economic.

The same goes for the Sri Lankan Tamils, where all three traditionally anti-Establishment parties, starting with the 10-MP Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have decided not to join the Government. That still leaves the traditional Government-ally in the EPDP and Douglas Devananda, the minister of choice for successive governments. There is also the lone SLFP parliamentarian in Angajan Ramanathan, also from the SLT community.

Another government ally is Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, who was state minister for a while. According to some news reports, he has left the country, and there is no knowing if he attended last week’s Parliament session.

Less said about Muslim representation in the Government, the better. Yes, almost all Muslim parties are now in the Opposition. That includes the four or five who ‘defected’ after winning the 2020 parliamentary elections. At last head-count, they had returned to their parent organisations. Who is to blame for this ‘isolation’ of the Muslims, which is not a good thing, either for the nation or for the community, in the long shadow of the ’Easter serial blasts’ in 2019?

Ethnic reluctance

Call it a honeymoon, nightmare or whatever, there is an overhanging disquiet still about the change of prime ministerial guard. Political parties, like the public at large, are yet learning to come to terms with the new reality – that their protests have not worked and that they too may have to learn to work with and within the system.

It is not unlikely that the unprecedented and yet-to-be explained arsonist attack on 78 ruling party politicians’ homes and other properties, may have advised caution for the faceless promoters of what started off as the peaceful people’s movement on the Colombo beach-front, or G-3. In comparison, the unprovoked attack on the protestors that triggered the nation-wide retaliatory violence spanning a few hours, was not wholly unanticipated.

The police failed to check both. That is a different and distinct saga requiring independent inquiry and inevitable punishment, which has been short in coming. The Prime Minister cannot escape moral responsibility on that even if the constitutional responsibility may lie elsewhere.

For all this, Prime Minister Ranil cannot let his ‘secularist image’ suffer for want of minority representation in his government. Maybe, he is looking around for choice / choices, but once the idea sinks in, and voice of protests come to be heard, then it would all become a question of ‘ethnic reluctance’ if not outright blockade.

That ‘like the Rajapaksas’, he too is a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist at heart, and was exploiting the current political tensions and economic crises to settle ethnic scores – on the sly! If he were to implement his well-thought-out tactic to induct the best of ministers with adequate minority/women representation, Ranil would have lost out his case. It would be dubbed as his being wiser after the event and was being ‘accommodative’ only because it could not be otherwise – and could not be seen as being otherwise, even more!

(The writer is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst & Commentator. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)