Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

What options now for the TNA and Douglas? – An unambiguous message from Jaffna

There is no getting away from it; the scale of abstention in theJaffna Municipal Council (JMC) elections has sent an unambiguous message. The people of Jaffna have rejected the UPFA controlled Sinhala State and its procedures and practices, have rebuffed the war victory, and distanced themselves from the jubilation in the South. The offer of reconstruction and investment, the peace dividend, as an alternative to the recognition of Tamil identity and crafting of a political solution to the national question, has been rejected. No Sir; there ARE majorities and minorities in this country. Calculating from election department figures, 78% of the electors spurned the JMC election and if we add the 8% who voted for the erstwhile LTTE proxy, the TNA, then there has been an overwhelming expression of dissent against the State; Vavuniya consolidates this conclusion.

These two percentages, which use the total number on names on the electoral roll as the base, are misleading and we have to make a correction. The apparent abstentions were so high because about 40,000 of the 100,000 registered electors are no longer in Jaffna, having come south, been driven out by the LTTE, gone abroad, or gone to heaven a few maybe to the other place. This however is irrelevant because had they been present their behaviour would have followed the same statistical pattern as a correct computation will confirm. The total votes cast (22,000) is 37% and by implication the abstentions are 63% of the 60,000 currently remaining registrants (CRR). The TNA poll of 8,000 is 13% of the CRR. The last two percentages add to 76%; as astonishing rate of rejection of the State’s credentials by the people of Jaffna. And Jaffna, warts, caste, moral fortitude, education, conservatism and all, is the heart and repository of Tamil political culture.

Political implications
The difference between the behaviour of the Sinhalese and Tamil electorates is astounding, it is as if they were living on two different planets. The UPFA scored a 72% landslide in the Uva, in all previous PC elections in non-Tamil provinces it won handsomely, and a landslide is looming in the Southern Province. The next presidential election will be a cake walk for Rajapakse; the UPFA is also on track to win the general elections. Palpably then, the war and the concentration camps have polarised the communities just as we who opposed the war, remained consistent to this position, and demanded a negotiated political settlement, had predicted all along. Yes, the LTTE has been destroyed; no, nothing has been resolved and nation building remains a far fetched mirage, still mired in a chauvinist miasma.

I see the JMC and Vavuniya outcomes as the first stirrings of Tamil nationalism after its catastrophic defeat earlier this year, and since at this moment, there is no plausible left alternative, there will be further deterioration in the relationship between the Sate and the Tamils. Tamil hardliners argue that this is a rejection of the one-country concept by Jaffna, the cultural and historical heart of the Tamils; but that is too far reaching an inference to draw so quickly. Things have not yet gone that far, but they could, say five years down the road, unless a more democratic and pluralist government takes the place of the UPFA in its present incarnation. And this is not to imply that the UNP in its current avatar is any better so far as the national question is concerned.

Douglas Devananda summed up his disappointment rather well in The Island 10 August and implicitly and unintentionally answered an important question. He said the ruling coalition had implemented a range of measures to alleviate the suffering of the people in the districts. People should have been grateful to the UPFA for liberating them from LTTE terrorism, instead they backed the TNA in Vavuniya and abstained en masse in Jaffna. His perplexity is understandable, but he needs to do some rethinking because unwittingly he has answered the following question: To what extent are the Tamils prepared to give up political demands and recognition of their identity in exchange for the benefits of a putative peace dividend? I am not a Tamil nationalist and care not a whit for any nationalism, but to settle the national question you need to deal with the Tamils, not with me!

The TNA’s paralysis and Douglas’ dilemma
One would have thought that the TNA would have been able to recognise the stirrings of independent Tamil political activity, come out of its stupor, move in on the ground floor and campaign aggressively. Not so, it played dead during the campaign. Having lain down and spread itself for the LTTE it is taking a while to stand up, shake off the dust and adjust its clothing. Nevertheless it will be the natural beneficiary of the return of the Tamil community to political life. It is now poised to win the Northern Province (NP) PC elections if only it can sprout a backbone, but precisely for this reason the government will not hold the poll.

The EPDP with 10,600 votes, that is 10.6% of the electoral register or 17% of the CRR, technically won the JMC elections and politically lost it. The pro-government camp was routed in Vavuniya where Vanni Tamil fury about the concentration camps must be running high. I think Douglas did pull all the votes he could; hence my inference is that it is impossible for a UPFA-EPDP to win a NP-PC election. Some lame excuse will be trotted out for deferring it. The Vannie Tamils and the people in the camps will turn against the government with fury if they are allowed to vote.

Nevertheless it is interesting to speculate about how the politics of Douglas and the EPDP should evolve if they are to have any future in the post-LTTE scenario. Let us do this by speculating about the following scenario: How will the politics of the EPDP evolve if it wins the NP-PC? I asked a friend who gave me the following conventional answer.

“While I do not discount that Douglas and the EPDP have over the years gained a following among the Tamil-speaking people, their ability to be politically dominant among the Tamils is dependent on government patronage. Firstly it is thanks to MR that Douglas will have funds, jobs, houses, boats, loans, and land to dispense to the Tamils. More, it is the support of the police and army that enables the EPDP to use force to weaken other parties and dissuade Tamils from supporting them”.

I am not sure this is the only option open to Douglas. As Tamil political activity revives Douglas will have his eye on filling the post-LTTE leadership vacuum. He can’t afford to let the opportunity slip again; this is his last chance. He covets the mantle of leader of the Tamil people, successor to Chelvanayagam and Prabaharan. I think it was Nehru who said “success goes to those who dare and act, it seldom goes to the timid” and Douglas has that kind of personality. If he wants to go for glory he has to change his role; this to me is the root of his perplexity. Has he realised that if he wants to grow he cannot remain forever in the shadows, a mere Rajapakse suckling? The JMC and Vavuniya elections have spelt out that leadership of the Tamils is not open to Rajapakse quislings.

There are quislings and quislings; Karuna is in it just for the trips and the perks, he is a political nobody; Pilleyan is a gun trotting cowboy, not an experienced politician. Douglas, however, is an accomplished political street fighter with plenty of cabinet and insider experience. He is skilled but in a trap inside the UPFA. For example, for how much longer can the EPDP continue to duck the camp issue? A concentration camp for 300,000 Tamils, run by the Sinhala State, is something no Tamil party seeking leadership of the community can ignore any longer.

Pushing my thoughts a little further; what about the relationship between the EPDP and the Tamil diaspora? Fence mending can bring political and economic benefits. With the new-LTTE renouncing terrorism and putting secession on the backburner, there could have been room for dialogue, though the removal of KP from the scene has played into the hands of hardliners and I suspect there will be a hardening in the diaspora. Gothabahaya’s pledge to go after overseas LTTE activists throws down the gauntlet. All this makes dialogue between a presumed more independent EPDP and a potential new-LTTE, or at least the diaspora at large, problematic. The TNA knows it cannot ignore the diaspora or the new-LTTE fractured though it is. If Douglas wants to count for anything among the Tamils he has to find ways to mend his fences with the near million strong overseas Tamil communities.

This is all speculative, but speculation yields insights.