Sri Lanka: Time and again, Tamil politics hits the dead-end

Image credit: Colombo Telegraph; Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran

N Sathiya Moorthy 14 February 2019

With multiple polls staring at the Sri Lankan nation in the coming months, the electorally-sensitive minority ‘Tamil politics’ in the island-nation keeps hitting road-blocks and dead-ends, of their own making, time and again. With the result, the credibility of the mainstay Tamil National Alliance (TNA) may have hit a new low but without any viable alternative in sight.

The latest is the statement by former Northern Provincial Council (NPC) Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, once belonging to the TNA but has since founded his own ‘Tamil People’s Party’ (TPP). Addressing a public meeting in NPC capital Jaffna recently, the former Supreme Court judge surprised his hard-line supporters as much as he ran down the TNA leadership of octogeneraian, R Sampanthan, when he declared that the LTTE had killed innocent Tamils and also Tamil intellectuals.

Wigneswaran’s anti-LTTE tirade, possibly the first one from him, may have deflected from his comparing the TNA with the unforgettable militant outfit. “Like the LTTE, the TNA wants to be accepted as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamils,” he said. Needless to explain, Wigneswaran was underscoring at least his unwillingness to concede it, though there is truth in his allegation as far as the TNA’s unilateral moves and methods as far as politico-electoral decision-making is concerned.

Post-LTTE, a majority of the Tamil population had gravitated towards the TNA, both as the best of the available political alternatives and also as the inheritor to the pre-war moderate leadership of the community. They also invested their continued political aspirations on the party along with their unfulfilled constitutional aspirations, which the LTTE too had failed to obtain for them.

In walking the talk since the bloody end to the conclusive war in 2009, the TNA leadership, however, applied the same yardstick of faith on the majority Sinhala political leadership, this time of the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU). From the start, it was predictable that the GNU was bound to fail, and with that the confidence that the TNA had campaigned for the Tamil people to place in the anti-Rajapaksa leadership of duo – namely, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The failure of the GNU was predictable but with the government parties having adequate numbers since the parliamentary polls of August 2015, the TNA’s numerical strength in Parliament was not worth the paper on which it was written. Only the GNU split would render the TNA’s parliamentary backing relevant after the twin constitutional crises of late 2018, but then the party did not have a clear-cut strategy to hedge and make its demands work.

Now when the Wickremesinghe government has settled down in office, the PM’s UNP leadership is looking at re-creating another GNU. On the face of it, it is to consolidate the majority Sinhala support for the UNP-UNF, by creating more Cabinet berths under the 19thAmendment of the Constitution, passed in mid-2015. But one unmistakable fall-out for the Tamils is the lesser dependence of the Government on the TNA for continued survival, taking its bargaining-power down with the party.

‘Black Day’ demo

On the ground, students of the Jaffna University observed the nation’s Independence Day on 4 February, as a ‘black day’. Traditionally, Jaffna campus has been the barometer for reading the mood and methods of the Tamil youth for decades. The added concern for the Government was that President Sirisena promptly cancelled a visit to the Northern Province around the time. Local media reports indicated that it may have owed to security concerns – possibly the first time since the end of the war and the exit of predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Elections-2015.

This time, the demands of the Jaffna students did not focus on political demands or constitutional reforms. Instead, they focused near-exclusively on the daily concerns of the ‘war victims’. This included freedom for ex-LTTE cadres and innocent Tamils in prison since before the end of the war, return of Tamil lands, still in possession of the armed forces, and the like.

Through the past five years, the TNA had more or less narrowed down the party’s demands to cover these areas. The promised new Constitution had for long become a subject matter of intellectual discourses in select media channels, but the ordinary Tamil people had got used to the idea of their political leadership’s conduct in such matters over decades.

This also meant that political parties and groups hoping for campus-support for their election campaign in the coming months could rake up both war-linked rehabilitation and also constitutional reforms at will, to target the TNA. On all scores, mostly, the party does not have convincing responses to offer the Tamil electorate.

For now, TNA’s international spokesman and parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran, has sought to put the lid on the ‘kari day’ (‘black day’) controversy by saying that the protests did not evoke much response in the Tamil areas of the North. Typical of the TNA, he has sought to contrast it with TNA’s very own position on such matters, pointing out how Alliance leader Sampanthan participated in the Government’s official function in capital Colombo.

In contrast, not long after the war, the TNA had backed Jaffna University students who launched a unique protest by lighting traditional oil lamps on the LTTE’s ‘Heroes’ Day’. When the security forces swooped down on the protests, the TNA claimed that the Tamils had the right to remember their martyrs in a mass observance, in temples and public places.

As it turned out, that year, 2012, the LTTE’s Heroes’ Day on 27 November, coincided with the Tamil-Hindu ‘festival of lamps’, ‘Thiru Karthigai’ in the Tamil month of ‘Karthigai’. In other years, post-war, Tamils, including TNA leaders on occasions, have observed the day by planing saplings, indicating that ‘revolutionaries continue to be born and branch out’.


Still the TNA may be in an advantage in electoral terms, at least as far as the parliamentary and provincial council polls may be concerned. This is because over the decades, the non-TNA parties has not identified with any convincing ideology and methodology, even as much as the TNA has done. While TNA may have been weakend, as indicated by the nation-wide local government polls in February 2018, there is nothing to suggest that the non-TNA parties are ready to come together and work together. Personality egos might continue to haunt them all.

In comparison, the TNA continues to look up to Sampanthan for guidance and leadership in all matters, political and electoral. Yet, the party is no more its own post-war self, when it garnered Tamil votes at will. In the LG polls last year, the party’s vote-share came down to 35 per cent, and nothing seems to be working to the party’s favour – starting with its own short-term tactics and long-term strategies.

There is also the problem of the intervening presidential polls, which are due by this year-end. Over the past many elections, the Tamil votes, including the Tamil boycott of the 2015 polls under LTTE threat, was decisive in the choice of the nation’s President. The situation may have been so now on paper, but there is no guaranteed that the TNA would be able to ensure the delivery of most Tamil votes to the candidate of the leadership’s choice.

In turn, this could force the TNA itself to call for a boycott of the presidential polls, if only to salvage some of the lost reputation among the Tamil people, and also hope to retain most of the parliamentary seats from the Tamil regions in subsequent elections. Going by previous elections, any successful call for the boycott of the presidential polls by anti-TNA Tamil parties could render the latter’s support irrelevant – and take away from the party and the community the tag of being the ‘decision-maker’ and ‘game-changer’ in national politics.

Talking to the Tamils

Possibly smelling an opportunity of some kind, Mahinda Rajakapsa had a separate breakfast meeting with Tamil journalists in his Colombo home recently, and promised to deliver the post-war political solution to the ethnic issue by ‘engaging with the Tamil people directly’. He charged the TNA with breaking away from the productive talks with his Government post-war, hoping that they would get it from the leadership of present-day PM Wickremesinghe.

Rajapaksa ruled that the new Constitution promised by Wickremesinghe to the TNA and Tamils was not going to happen anytime soon. He asked the TNA as to what would they tell their people – or, words to the effect. However, Rajapaksa, for his part, did not say what he meant by holding ‘direct talks with the Tamil people’.

For now, Rajapaksa said that he would go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment to give more powers to the Tamils, by conferring more powers on the Provinces and local governments alike, though there are grey areas where the Tamils especially had reservations in the past.

Reacting to Rajapaksa’s latest claims, which are mostly a repetition of the past statements, TNA’s Sampanthan has repeated his own self. News reports have since quoted him as saying that Rajapaksa ‘dodged’ the TNA in the post-war talks initiated by his Government. Granting the truth of Sampanthan’s claims, the TNA may now need to explain to their own Tamil constituency as to what has Ranil, and possibly Sirisena, too, did with their promise of a new Constitution, addressing the Tamil concerns, since before Elections-2015.

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