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

The Future Tamil Politics

Eelam War IV shattered and devastated Tamils social, economical, cultural and political structural factors. These four structural factors were corner stone’s of the Tamil National Struggle and were intricately interconnected to each other. These became primary targets during the war and were destroyed. To give this research paper a focus and due to contextual developments I will only be analyzing the political aspect. However, I will give due prominence, understand and agree upon the arguments that all four factors have equal prominence.

After the age of “alliance building” the Tamil polity needed to analyze and consider surrounding geopolitics maneuvers and the new world order. The very existence and future of Tamil politics will be based on its present moves while reflecting upon the past. It must be shaped in a manner so that it can discourse with Southern / Sinhala politics, regional / continental and global politics. In order to establish a strong foundation for Tamil politics there should be a linkage and set of leverage mechanisms between Tamil politics in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu[1]. Improving the effectiveness and efficiency between these dynamics will increase the chances of better influencing on geopolitics. Basically, moving towards goal based unity and avoiding factionalism will ensure the re-emergence of a future Tamil polity. To achieve this, the support of likeminded Sinhala and Muslim are essential. Their voices should be heard and the genuine concerns of both communities’ should not be ignored.

The formation of a strong foundation and the creation of “smart” links with the international community would lead to the achievement of this unity based goal under the basis of the right to self-determination. The support and recognition of the international community is vital for the Tamil cause. Whether it was the military victory over the LTTE or the justification of the CFA the success of both these attempts depended on the support of the international community to the Sri Lankan. “As far as the Sri Lankan ethno-political conflict with all its ramification remains unresolved, the GoSL will look for outside assistance, in either peace or war.”[2]

In the present stage it is challenging to define whether a solution will be based on a “united” Sri Lanka or not. However, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s “unitary” state concept or its present constitution is not going to be a sustainable solution to the protracted ethno-political conflict. There is a historical basis for this argument. Prior to British colonization the Tamil kingdom was ruled separately and independently. “There was no coherent political structure uniting the entirety of the island even during the periods of colonization under the Portuguese (beginning 1505) and later under the Dutch ( beginning in 1656). Rather, there were a number of fragmented Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms scattered throughout the Island, centered in Kotte in the Southwest and in Kandy in the central highlands; and a predominantly Hindu Tamil kingdom in the North of the island, centered in Jaffna;” Helena Whall, “Assessing the Sri Lanka Peace Process”.[3] The British merged all three kingdoms together due to administrative purposes[4].

The implications of separation or unification (or something in between), devolution and self-determination must be understood by all stake holders prior to an agreement being reached. In turn, parties must understand the reasons of the ‘other’ in the thought framework of seeking one potential solution and rejecting others[5]. It must be stated here that an independent separate state for the Tamil people is also not an achievable task, under the current circumstances and strategic importance of Sri Lanka’s location in geopolitical interests.  A ‘United Sri Lanka’ may be possible for at-least an initial solution, if it accepts Tamils self- autonomy based on the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination of ethnic minorities emerged as a universally recognized prerogative that ethnic minorities in Europe and the former Soviet Union used to demand political concessions and regional autonomy from ethnic majorities. In the “Charter of Paris for New Europe” 1991: the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identities of national minorities have the right freely to express, preserve and develop that identity without any discrimination and in full equality before the law…unless the Sinhalese-majority is willing to accept the right to self-determination of Tamils, it is doubtful that any peace initiative will succeed.  [ Chelvadurai Manoharan in Rupesinghe (ed) 1998, pp.253-270][6]

Depending on political outcomes the Sinhala people can think whether they want a unitary Sri Lanka or a united Sri Lanka and the Tamil people can decide whether they want to remain or understanding the potential for external self-determination. However, self determination should be the final goal. Leader of the Tamil National Alliance, Hon. R. Sampanthan observes,  “Whether Tamil people will eventually accept the devolution package will depend on vital aspects of the final package that are contained in the proposed new constitutions, as the nature of Government, the actual power devolved relating particularly to Law and Order, State Land, Finance etc.; in the unit of Devolution whether the scheme of devolution can survive the vagaries of political adventurism, whether the scheme will actually endure, and so on. If the final package is one that can provide the Tamil people a peace with honour, it is bound to have a healthy impact on all shades of Tamil political thinking.”[7] Before the final package the Tamil community’s basic needs of short and midterm goals should be fulfilled. Vigorous linkage between Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Diaspora is crucial to conduct integrated macro brainstorming sessions of all different perspectives and diverse opinions, in order to achieve this goal. The purpose of this current paper is interconnected to this purpose because it analyzes Tamil politics in Sri Lanka and Tamil Diaspora politics separately. This includes the current situation and future activities, which should be done by both actors.

Tamil National Politics in Sri Lanka

In the aftermath of the LTTE the Tamil political vision in Sri Lanka has lost its activism and identity. Tamil politics in Sri Lanka manifests itself at different levels. Actors such as the LTTE and their proxies, anti-LTTE groups, government loyalists and leftists all contain elements that are representative of these manifestations. A major Tamil political alliance known as the Tamil National Alliance – TNA became the LTTE’s political proxy. The TNA is a coalition of four prominent political parties as follows; All Ceylon Tamil Congress [ACTC], Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front [EPRLF], Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization [TELO] and the Tamil United Liberation Front [TULF]. Conversely, there are also former militant movements are which are partly used politically and but more seriously used as paramilitaries by the government as tools against the LTTE’s political ideology and action. Each actor tried their utmost to weak their adversary. Sadly, anti-LTTE politics weakened the Tamil cause. In addition, it justified government atrocities and human rights violations. On the other hand, the LTTE also failed to recognize genuine alternative voices. However there are other political actors and voices such as politically leftist groups.

The TNA was formed just before the 2001 parliamentary election. It follows the Thimpu Principle. Furthermore its election manifesto accepted the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Democratically elected, the victory of the TNA was ensured through an overwhelming Tamil vote. Senior member of the TNA, MP Hon.Suresh Premachandran said, “The Tamil people in this country and the Tamil Diaspora all over the world wanted a peaceful settlement to this issue. They also wanted a settlement that could ensure equal rights with the Sinhalese in all spheres of life. They believe in shared rule over the island as equal stake holders. They gave us a mandate to work for a sustainable peaceful solution”[8]. The TNA captured fifteen seats in 2001 and twenty-two in 2004 general election.

Outside of Northeast, Ceylon Workers Congress [CWC], Up-Country People’s Front [UPF] and Democratic People’s Front [DPF] are prominent Tamil political parties. Apart from abovementioned political parties, there are leftist’s parties and very few alternative voices which support the Tamil cause. They are between the governments and LTTE. However, they are powerless and not influential factors in Tamil or Sri Lankan politics.

Until the LTTE power existed, TNA, CWC, UPF and DPF had robust relationship with the LTTE. At-least they had Memorandum of Understanding [MoU] with the LTTE. At some level and after some time CWC and then UPF links with the LTTE reduced. The DPF leader Hon. Mano Ganeshan continuously and courageously criticized the government for their human rights violations against Tamil people. Until the LTTE’s military defeat, they showed their support to the LTTE and strongly opposed the government mass atrocities and human rights violations.

The TNA did not participate in 2008 April eastern provincial council election, but when they contested without any big propaganda in the northern elections in 2009 August, even after the LTTE’s military defeat the Tamil people again showed their support to the TNA. It was a big achievement for TNA and strong message to the Sinhala state and international community.

The destruction of the LTTE’s establishment has started to weaken the TNA. The current ruling government plans to impose a law to get the names of ‘Tamil’ and ‘Eelam’ illegal to be used in the names of political parties. Since 1949, the word Tamil is in practice as a name for political parties[9]. Anti-LTTE groups who are with the government also started to feel as politically orphaned. Now it is very clear to everyone that the Southern Sinhala polity or Sinhala state used Tamils as a tool for their self-interest and the own purposes against the Tamil cause. This realization is not enough, now those Tamil political parties are re-thinking their activities and reacting real politically. It is essential that these parties join with the TNA and form a common political party whose goal must be to re-store Tamil rights.

Not only Tamil politics weaken but the “winners of the war” are also divided into two. Those are President Rajapakse and retired General Fonsek, who was the army commander who led the military operation to defeat the LTTE. Few months after the military victory over the LTTE the Rajapakse regiment is diminishing. The ‘War Heroes’ have been separated and formerly same regiment heroes are getting ready to confront each other in the forthcoming (January 26, 2010) presidential election. Both heroes are throwing mud at each other and labeling themselves as the ‘true war victors’. In early December (2009) the President stated that “yesterday’s patriots can be today’s traitors”, which was a verbal and vibrant attack on his former close associate and commander. Common opposition presidential candidate and retired General Fonseka called the incumbent president a ‘tin pot dictator’ [10].

In this political game both candidates and political groups want to create alliances in order to ensure their victory. Both candidates are Sinahala nationalists and are mainly targeting the Sinhala nationalist voter base. For their victory they have to depend on minority parties. Apart from the TNA almost all minority political parities announced their stand in the upcoming presidential election. Now, both presidential candidates are trying their best to get the support of the TNA, which have a major voter base among the Tamil community.  There are unconfirmed reports that the TNA has divided into four sections. Already at-least two TNA parliamentarians are building their relationships with the government. However, sources close to the TNA stated that there won’t be factions among TNA. The present political turbulence in Sri Lanka could shake the TNA platform soon. Now the question raised towards all TNA members will be whether they will stand with their policy to work towards restoring Tamil rights or will they factionalize thus weakening the Tamil cause further more. However, an upper hand bargaining deal might strengthen the Tamil cause, but the issue is how it would possible under present circumstances. One thing is clear that doing independent Tamil National politics in Sri Lanka is a big challenge. Due to the TNA’s passionate campaign for Tamil political rights it already lost three of its parliamentarians. The TNA should re-strategies its activities.

Internally from now the TNA should empower itself. The Tamil Diaspora should back the TNA.  The Tamil people in Sri Lanka have already had shown their support to the TNA. The TNA should consider bringing all Tamil political parties together, including anti-LTTE groups, who are with the GoSL and other former militant movements, who stated that they are “mixed in mainstream democratic politics”. The time has come to unite all Tamil actors in one front. Goal based unity, which is re-storing Tamil rights should be the priority task and the goal. As TNA has majority seats in the parliament, it can coordinate all these activities. While concentrating on long term political vision, they have to give a priority for the Tamil peoples short term and midterm priorities. Especially, to fulfill their basic needs. Step-by- step they have to re-develop the Tamil people’s social, economical, cultural and political systems and structures. Trauma healing, resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction, reconciliation and the development of infrastructure for the Tamil people which were destroyed by the horrible war, should be deeply considered in the future project. In addition, the TNA should form a committee to work with Sinhala and Muslim community. They can start with likeminded people from both communities. More importantly and immediately, they have to construct a special team for public and media relations. This should be given priority for smart media strategies.

At the external level, they have to re-establish their international affairs committee with two units. One unit should target diplomatic relationships and the international media, the other should deal with the Tamil Diaspora.

Restless work at these levels will strengthen the Tamil cause and will be supportive towards achieving this noble cause. Basically, identifying the long term pragmatism internally and internationally will ensure the future stability of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka.


[1] The India government, sensitive to the feelings of the 50millions Tamils in India’s south. Tampoe, Mahen (2006): FROM SPICES TO SUICIDE BOMBERS AND BEYOND – A Study of Power, Politics and Terrorism in Sri Lanka. Athena Press, London, Pg.227

[2] Liyanage.Sumanasiri, Sahadevan.P, Kinra.Anisha (Eds.) (2009): Intra-State Conflicts and Inter-State Relations – Perspectives on India-Sri Lanka Relations, South Asia Peace Institute, Colombo, Pg: 112

[3] London: Paper for the Political Studies Association – UK 50th Conference, 10-13 April 2000

[4] Two different nations from a very ancient period have divided between them the possession of the Island. First the Sinhalese, inhabiting the interior of the country in its Southern and Western parts, and secondly the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners. The Cleghorn Minute, in 1799 June, Sir Hugh Cleghorn, the first British Colonial  Secretary wrote to the British Government.

[5] Rilkoff, Nik (2002) Critical Analysis: Fears, Expectations, and Issues relating to the Sri Lankan Peace Process 2002. Inpact,  Pg 26.

[6] Rilkoff,  Nik (2002):  Critical Analysis: Fears, Expectations, and Issues relating to the Sri Lankan Peace Process 2002. Inpact, 2002, Pg 29

[7] Rupesinghe, Kumar (Eds.) (1998) Negotiating peace in Sri Lanka : efforts, failures & lessons , International Alert of London, UK, Pg.412

[8] Eds. Keethaponcalan.S.I,, Jayawardana Ravi (2009): Sri Lanka: Perspectives on the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, South Asian Peace Institute, Pg.135

[9] Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), known as Federal Party established in 1949

[10] http://www.lankajournal.com/?p=9319 Accessed 05/12/2009

  • wijayapala

    Hi Balasundaram,

    However, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s “unitary” state concept or its present constitution is not going to be a sustainable solution to the protracted ethno-political conflict.

    Why not? Forget the history- why won’t it work today?

  • Anandam

    Ltte participated in the peace talk,but now, the TNA should bring the other tamil speaking parties under their umbrella and continue the peace talk to find a solution for the problem.

    Anandam

  • Balasundaram,
    This is a complete waste of time. Not cool man, not cool at all.