For Whom All Does The Bell Tolls, When, Why And For How Long?

N. Sathiya Moorthy

The Holiday Season sets the mood for rejoicing and relaxing, but anyone in his senses and decision-making positions in this country cannot be doing that. But even during the long years and decades of ethnic war(s), Sri Lanka was not known to have taken a holiday from those holidays, just as the South did not skip the annual ‘college-level’ cricket tourneys, even once during the period.

So much so, merriment and family reunions could well still mark the days and weeks of Christmas-New Year celebrations for the nation as a whole. For the Tamils of the North, East and the Upcountry, the celebrations would go on until the annual ‘Thai Pongal’ harvest-cum-religious festivities in mid-January.

Fair enough, it’s not the kind of crisis that wars and terrorism used to threaten the nation and the population, as in the forgettable yet recent past. Yet, the political crises of every nature that the Nation has wantonly, if not voluntarily put off until it became unavoidable, is hitting Sri Lanka on the face. But no one wants to acknowledge it, nor act on it, before it became too grave for redemption.

Purchased time

Truth be told, the nation is facing multiple attacks, unlike in the past when the source of trouble was well known and fairly calibrated in the last years, and the challenge squarely taken upon. The LTTE left nothing to chance, but having got used to its own methods, left nothing new for imagination. The predictability of the continuing autocratic leadership of the organisation meant that a psy-war did as much prepare for the Government’s victory as it had contributed to the LTTE’s series of battle wins and political successes in the early rounds and earlier years.

Having purchased time, through a series of tactic, both intended and otherwise, the nation is now at the first post-war cross-roads. It’s more crucial than the twin polls of 2015. It involved political parties and personalities, their victories and defeats. It was extendable at best to issues of governance, performance, both leading up to corruption or lack of it.

The Government, then under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, nor the one now under successor Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, sought to address the more real issues in more real terms. Or, so it would seem, and is argued. If anything, the governance issues have ended up being used as the proverbial wool to pull over the voter’s eyes by one side.

The other side, the Rajapaksa camp, too did not bother to prove or disprove those governance-related charges against them, as it had helped them to retain the larger Sinhala-majority votes with them, as in the previous two presidential polls. If in the end, Candidate Maithri won, it owed to the ‘ethnic votes’ of the Tamil and Muslim minorities, not on ‘governance votes’, where most of it was theirs, already.  

Refusing to play

Yet, on resolving the all-critical ethnic issue, the Maithri-Ranil dual leadership continues to shy away from taking the bull by the horns. Whether giving the Tamils more, or less, or maintaining just the status quo, in the form of unenforced 13-A, or even implementing this power-devolution package in toto, the two leaders and the political parties that they head, both within and outside Parliament, have not sat down across the table with their aides and associates to discuss and decide upon.

Instead, they seem hoping against hope – and saying their prayers, but silently – that the rival Rajapaksa camp would scuttle it all, and also take the blame for the same in the eyes of the international community. Mahinda R. seemed wanting to delay the game until it became unavoidable, and here is the hour. Or, so it seems, reading the 10-point political statement that the ex-President has now made on the new Constitution.

The battle lines are getting drawn, and the Rajapaksas too do not want to be left out, or sulking under the legal and investigation wounds that their unquestioned years in office have inflicted upon each one of them. Rather, they do not want to delay or lose the initiative on the Sinhala political front.

If not the Rajapaksas, their adversaries at least seem to believe that Mahinda is still holding all the cards and is refusing to play. Or, is it that they have tied down the Rajapaksas’ hands through legal procedures and criminal investigations pertaining to issues of corruption and nepotism while in office, that they are now breaking the political shackle before it became too late for their own comfort and comfort-zone?

Within the Government too, there can be serious differences over power-devolution and other political issues pertaining to the new Constitution. Rather, at various times, various leaders have aired their views, but without addressing the ‘concerns’, thrown at them by their own power-partners, but from the other end of the Sinhala political spectrum.

Worse still, there has not been any coherent and conclusive approach of either Sirisena’s SLFP or Ranil’s UNP coming out in the open, for intra-party debates and inter-party discourses. Even whatever has been presented to Parliament acting as the Constituent Assembly has not attracted their interests as much.

If the rulers seem to believe that the continuing drift of the kind could take the new Constitution, where they want the world to believe they want to take, it may not happen. Instead, it might end up taking the old and time-tested route, to nowhere, which is what they fear they too do not want to take – more, so seen as taking it and with their eyes wide open, but minds still closed.

Tamil dilemma

This Government has chartered itself with a new Constitution project, which is not exactly what the nation had needed, either during the war years or not. Power-devolution is contestable in parts, especially from among the Sinhalas. So do issues pertaining to the Executive Presidency, the character of the Sri Lankan State’s  ‘unitary’ or whatever – national flag, national anthem, religion and language.

In reality, power-devolution is not about character of the Sri Lankan State, Executive Presidency, or even Religion and Language. But the latter two may have some relevance to the continuing political discourse on ethnic reconciliation.

Whether yielding to the Tamil wishes – especially, if grudgingly – will resolve all or even any of the ethnic issues and concerns, is a big question which the Tamils themselves have not asked themselves. The Sinhalas too have only got emotional about it all, and the negotiations, if any, have remained deadlocked every time they were flagged.

As successive discourses between the Tamil political leadership, including the LTTE, which was more than political in its attitude and approach, and the Sri Lankan State/Sinhala polity has shown, throwing up an issue or two for the other to come up with an ‘all-acceptable solution’ is the sure way to distract and delay it all. For, within the Tamil community and political leadership, there has neither been a common approach, nor has there been a proposal acceptable to all of the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State.

Just as the Sinhala polity has never ever sat down and discussed the issues and possible solutions in detail, outside of any formal Government arrangement like the APRC, the Tamils too have not done so, other than with the LTTE’s guns pointing at them. Just now, TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran has called upon UNP’s ‘Tamil face’ in Minister D. M. Swaminathan to quit office if he could not deliver what the Tamils wanted – rather than the TNA engaging the latter in fruitful conversations. It’s as much about personalities as about politics and policy priorities.

Less said about the Muslim politics the better. Now that the fear of Sinhala hard-liners targeting the community and thus forcing them to stay together is behind them, even the monolith SLMC is showing up internal cracks all over again. As a party and community, they do not seem to have the time or inclination to initiate internal dialogues or intervene in the non-existing national discourse on power devolution and political solution, though they have as strong views on the subject as the Sri Lankan Tamils and the TNA. Because they have not allowed themselves to be heard, they are never heard when they begin to talk, haltingly but as uncompromising as the Sinhalas and SLT.

So much so, the larger community often sees their respective leaderships of multifarious political parties as self-serving subordinates of their masters. If in context, the Muslim youth too are frustrated and are looking for more forceful openings to express themselves, they should not be blamed for looking elsewhere for methods, though not necessarily for motives and motivation. If true, it could be even more dangerous than the other.

The pitiable fate continues to be that of the Upcountry Tamils. Their leadership(s) have lost credibility more than their counterparts in the other three major communities of the country. Whoever remains in the frontlines, owing mostly to their role as ministers in the incumbent Government, are busy either addressing their own personal concerns, as counterparts in the past, or seeking to adjudicate the larger ethnic issue, where no one hears them, leave alone wants to listen to them.

Symbolic step

Recently, PM Ranil took a further symbolic, yet welcome step by apologising to the Tamils for the Government of his UNP leadership allowing the burning down of the historic Jaffna Library, a cultural icon of the SLT community, decades ago. The Government could even consider doing what the Rajapaksa leadership forgot/refused to do at the height of war-victory. Apologise to the Tamil community for the possible loss of innocent Tamil lives at the height of the wars.

A leadership that would not acknowledge that innocent lives could still have been lost even if inadvertently could not have been expected to tender an apology for what it believed did not happen. This is a different Government, purportedly with a different perception and processes. Yet, it too has not gone beyond symbolism that does not matter in the present or relate to the future. That is also where the Tamils’ future lies.

It does not stop there, though. The UNHRC is still at it, and another UN agency too has constantly started reminding the Government about pending probes into custodial tortures (most of them pertaining to the war years). The Government now seems to be hoping that the US President-elect Donald Trump would have a different view of the UNHRC-ordered probe, which the incumbents have co-sponsored, if only to avoid immediate embarrassment and harassment.

The US itself is yet to discover Trump, and it’s not going to happen until he is sworn in President in mid-January. Sri Lanka has to wait its turn, and whatever is worked out in the short-term ahead of UNHRC March session could at best be a time-buying arrangement, not a permanent way out, either way – which alone could convince either the Tamil community, or the Sinhala majority, either or neither.


All of it only means that the bell has begun its toll, for all stake-holders in Sri Lanka, one way or the other. It does not mean the end, or the beginning of the end, or even the end of the beginning. It could still mean the sounding of the warning bells. It all depends on how such stake-holders hear it, and/or want to hear it, and act upon it, one way or the other. But the bell has begun its toll, after all, and will continue to ring until it’s all 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:


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