A Tamil For President, Now Or Never?

N Sathiya Moorthy,  24 September 2017

It may sound far-fetched just now, as it has been ever since Independence, but a Tamil as the elected President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka may be one commitment that the nation, nationals and nationalists could give themselves, maybe even without fixing the day and generation. Moving towards such a goal could well be a sign of the progress that the incumbent Government could set one of its so-called work-in-progress to achieve religious and linguistic integration.

A Tamil need not automatically mean only a ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’, as it has come to mean and be understood all along. It could be a Tamil-speaking Muslim or better still an Upcountry Tamil, though internal strife among them all and in layers would out-beat what has been happening in the majority Sinhala polity and society, in terms of the urban-rural divide, caste-divide and even locale-divide between the Upcountry Govigamas and the plains people.

That’s also the irony of it all in the caste overrun among the two broad linguistic groups. Among the Sinhala-Buddhists, the Upcountry people are one up on the rest. Among the Tamil-speaking sections of the population, the Upcountry people are the worst-hit in terms of social acceptance and constitutional recognition. If anything, post-Independence, they were rendered vote-less and State-less, and the SLT polity conspired with the Sinhala majority to make it constitutionally possible and socio-politically enforceable.

In political and constitutional terms, the SLT has come a very long way since those days, starting with the days of the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – but all in the negative. They want more of it, yet, they may not be willing even to consider the equally speculative possibility of handing over the elected Presidency to an Upcountry Tamil or a Muslim, just now.

No harm in such a course, either, if at least a substantial section of the Sinhala majority voters are ready to try out such a ‘symbolic’ actualisation of any constitutional promises that the new set of statute-makers are supposed to be putting together. The Upcountry Tamils and the Muslims can even wait their turn through the long course of the young nation-State’s future history. Rather, the presence of a Tamil moderate leader with maturity and sagacity could well be a starting-point.

Forgotten APRC

The closest that the nation came to such a possibility, if at all, was through the forgotten Tissa Vitharana Report. The All-Party Representative Committee (APRC), attaching to the All-Party Conference (APRC), in the months preceding the war’s conclusion, recommended the creation of two Vice-Presidents from ethnicities not that of the President (Sinhala-Buddhist?).

The Tamil-centric TNA and the main Opposition UNP, apart from the left-nationalist JVP all boycotted the APRC. Instead, the TNA stuck to the leaked ‘minority report’ of the experts panel reporting to the APRC, still from outside of the process. Worse still, the Rajapaksa leadership, as critics had predicted all along, gave a safe and unceremonious burial to the APRC Report possibly because it had also begun tasting victory on the war-front.

Today, any idea of a Tamil, or another minority community representative for the President would sound distant and hollow. Sure enough, the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners in the Rajapaksa-centric LSSP-JO camp would feel jittery and for ideological reasons that are far from the ground realities of the current times.  For one thing, the Tamil moderates are now more moderate than any time in the past. It is a bus that the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala majority polity and society too cannot afford to miss. Not that the Tamils, especially those that are based and settled in the country, can do so now again, and lament later that ‘meendum pizhai vittutum’, or ‘we have once again committed a mistake’.

From the Tamil side, the moderate TNA, which alone has parliamentary votes from among the SLT groups/factions, has walked that extra mile to declare that they have nothing against retaining the ‘unitary’ phrase in the Constitution, which they had senselessly opposed in the past. Nor are they demanding the inclusion of the ‘federal’ word, instead.

Armed with a unanimous Supreme Court verdict approving of their own position on the ‘unitary vs federal’ arguments of the past, and distinguishing their submissions by miles from all perceptions of ‘separatism’, whether in the Tamil mind-set or the Sinhala hard-liner thought-process, the TNA is now looking only at a political solution that addresses the unmet legitimate Tamil aspirations since Independence. The Sinhala and the Sri Lankan State cannot expect them to be more accommodative than this without causing a ripple-effect, as in the past, which could spoil the broth for the nation as a whole.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, and that of the Sri Lankan State, the current constitutional reforms are also aimed at withdrawing President’s super-powers, entrusted for the self by the late J R Jayewardene and retained shamelessly by every successor. With incumbent Maithiripala Sirisena not having gone back on his poll-eve commitment not to seek a second-term, clearly no Sinhala politician or party is going to be overly concerned about a ‘powerless post’, which would become more ceremonial than anything equivalent in other Third World democracies.

If the real concern is about the President’s powers on legislative matters, as in other democracies like India, in Sri Lanka, the power of giving assent to parliamentary legislation rests in the office of the Speaker. If there are concerns about the President becoming a dictator through the use and/or abuse and misuse of the armed forces, of which he is traditionally the ‘Supreme Commander’, it is again a ceremonial aspect of the President’s office.

In Sri Lanka, as in most other parliamentary democracies especially – which is what the new Constitution is expected to achieve and usher in – political and constitutional decisions on war rests on the Cabinet, both before and after 19-A the President was/is only the first among equals. Incumbents, barring possibly this one, and the stop-gap Wijetunga in the early nineties, actually derived their constitutional clout from the political ability to win elections for the self and also for the party and individual MPs and Provincial Council leaderships, and not the other way round.

Independent of all this, throughout the war years, most major decisions on wars and ceasefires were taken by the National Security Council, chaired by the President, and not by the political leadership alone. Also the attribute motives to the armed forces, as through loose allegations of imminent coup when incumbent Mahinda R was losing the presidential polls in January 2015, is unbecoming of a nation and tantamount to undermining the legacy and professionalism of the Services.

From a Mahinda-centric JO political-construct, it is becoming abundantly clear that the new Constitution is not going to permit him to contest a third term in office. He too has resigned to the reality, and is talking only about the possibility of becoming Prime Minister in a future election. His equally ambitious and assertive brothers in Basil and Gota too cannot become President owing to citizenship issues, and realistic political assessment of the existing and emerging electoral situation.

In context, the Sinhala-majority polity can decide on a ‘minority’ President from one of the three identified ethnicities in Elections-2020, or either the UNP or the SLFP can back a ‘common minority candidate’ fielded by them all together. After all, they agree that in any direct election, they cannot win the presidency without near-majority minority voter-support (as happened in 2015). It is equally so even in a Parliamentary form of government, and even under the existing electoral scheme.

At one-level, Vitharana and other traditional Left comrades within the JO could try market their own forgotten idea to the Rajapaksas and the rest of the Sinhala-Buddhist polity, which their own predecessor in the fifties had helped poison through the ‘Sinhala Only’ law. On the other and independent of all these, the Constitution-makers should consider indirect elections of the Indian kind for the President lest any continuance of the present, nation-wide elections, which anyway even a more powerful Prime Minister’s choice would not entail, could create multiple power-centres.

No goal-post or what

At the UN General Assembly this year, President Sirisena has almost parroted the same old lines from the previous years, on the issue of post-war reconciliation and accountability. He has sought even more time from the ‘international community’ (read: West) than already.

In doing so, the President has ignored the previous week’s UNHRC chief Zied Ra’ad al-Hussain’s call for ‘universal jurisdiction’ on ‘war-crimes’ in the country, yet sought of promised continued compliance of Resolution 30/1.

Given that the war-time army commander in Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has publicly talked of alleged war-crimes by a senior field-level aide in Lt-Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, and all out of turn, the Government cannot escape by declaring that the former was on his own. Fonseka would be on his own only when he is not a member of the Cabinet. For lesser ‘crimes’ of his nature, other nations may have stripped someone his place of his military honours, too – which humiliation he underwent, and unjustifiably so, under the Rajapaksa regime.

From the perspective of the West, if Rajapaksa regime was seen as shifting the ‘goal-post’ for a negotiated solution of the ethnic issue constantly after war-victory, the present Government does not seem to have set any goal-post at all. They obliged the Maithiri-Ranil duo, not because they were seen as keeping their promises on this score but even more because they came to replace the Rajapaksas, which the West had concluded was overly and even more so overtly leaning more and more towards and on China.

Put together, the Government’s dilly-dallying on the constitutional solution to power-devolution, and their silent yielding on ‘war crimes’ probe could be a dangerous concoction getting ready for the nation as a whole to take sips after sips from.

The silent passage of Bills on missing persons and ‘enforced disappearances’ during war may sound much less than what ‘universal jurisdiction’ might entail but it is much more than what the nation could afford in real terms – especially when the chips are really down.

That is when Fonseka’s claims and charges against Jayasuriya and the rest, if any, may come to haunt the armed forces, the Government leadership and the Sri Lankan State – now or later. It won’t either be personal settling of old scores, or just a personal opinion of a Field Marshal-Minister, especially if the TGTE, which has readily welcomed the Fonseka statement, were to initiate individual proceedings under the ‘enforced disappearances’ legislation in third nations, whose laws would then take over. 


(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@gmail.com

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