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

The Tamil Issue: The Political Football of the Presidential Election

The 5th Presidential election in Sri Lanka is heading towards a photo finish. In this context once again the Tamil issue has become the political football in Sri Lankan politics. Let’s have a look at few recent election news headlines:

  • “Defeat secret pact between Fonseka and Sampanthan; Give verdict against betrayal; Will never allow rebirth of LTTE – Rajapaksa”
  • “On 27th I will abolish Rajapaksa – Douglas Agreement – Fonseka”
  • “We challenge Fonseka to accept unitary state” – JHU, Rajapaksa camp
  • “LTTE suspects released for President’s ‘support’ – Lanka Truth, Fonseka camp

There was a time that ethnic conflict and war in Sri Lanka was nicknamed as ‘the injury of the beggar’. Political parties were making use of the war to remain in power rather than genuinely working towards a political solution. Peoples’ rights were grabbed one after the other in the name of the ‘war against terrorism’. In the political jargon ‘war against terrorism’ became the panacea to cover up all anti-democratic actions. Finally, based on exaggerated strength of its armed struggle and its diaspora support the LTTE decided to battle it out. Within two years the LTTE faced an ignominious defeat. Government leaders told us that LTTE, its separatist agenda and terrorism is over and the government had liberated the Tamil people. Now the time for peace and development has arrived, so they declared.

Now we are witnessing a different scenario. Te Presidential election has become a political contest to defeat ‘separatism’. One day, Buddhist monks led by Rajapaksa sit in Colombo threatening to fast unto death unless Fonseka, the main opponent of Rajapaksa tears apart the so-called agreement he entered with the Tamil National Alliance. The next day, Buddhist monks led by Fonseka sit in Colombo threatening to fast unto death demanding so-called Rajapaksa – EPDP agreement to be abolished. JHU, the Buddhist monk’s political party playing a decisive role in the Rajapaksa campaign, challenges Fonseka to proclaim that he will not change the unitary nature of the State.

Two days ago, I called a Tamil journalist friend who moved to Jaffna after the end of war to get a feeling on the election campaign in the North. After talking about politics we moved to family concerns: It was then he told me that his 4-year old daughter, who was born in Colombo insisted that she wants to stay in Jaffna. My mind had a flashback. It was a political poster I had seen decades ago when I was still a kid. This only poster I remembered from those days was a map which showed how the country was going to be divided on ethnic lines by the Left. This 4-year old child must be going through the same feeling I went through some 50 years ago: That is we are divided people and a divided country!

Expectations that the end of war would have given way to an informed discussion on the Tamil issue have almost disappeared during the Presidential election campaign. Instead, what we see today is how the Tamil issue is becoming a political football once again.

Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka showed keen interest in obtaining Tamil people’s support at the beginning of the election campaign. Rajapaksa secured the support of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EDPD) led by Douglas Devananda and the Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers (TMVP) led by Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan while Fonseka secured the support of the Western People’s Front led by Mano Ganeshan and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by T. Sampanthan. Douglas Devananda of EPDP put forward a 10-point programme as its political platform for the election. According to Devananda, the President agreed to implement the programme once elected. Here are the major points in that programme:

“Starting with the implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution […] to progress towards more and more power sharing in stages marching towards the political target of a unified government in the centre with Regional Autonomy; Speedy re-settlement of our displaced people in the Vanni and others who were displaced due to the setting up of High Security Zones, in their own area; Speedy implementations of action-plans designed to ensure their rights to livelihood; Steps to be taken to withdraw the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Regulations that have been in force for the past 30 years, plus the upholding of the democratic rights of the people in a violence-free society; General Amnesty and Rehabilitation to all who have been arrested and detained for political reasons and those who have surrendered; Steps to be taken to locate, and to find the truth about, persons reported missing.”[i]

In his discussion with Tamil National Alliance Fonseka committed himself to

“… lift the state of emergency and PTA; Release all the persons who are in detention without any evidence within one month of coming to power; Grant of general amnesty to those who were members of the LTTE and help in their rehabilitations; Dismantle high security zones progressively; Restoration of civil administration in North and East; Allow displaced persons to return to their original homes and to provide alternative accommodation when necessary; And a political solution to be found through a newly elected parliament.[ii]

Both EPDP and TNA have categorically stated that they do not advocate separation but stand for a unified (sic! not unitary) country. In essence, there is not much difference in the understanding reached between the different Tamil parties and the two main Presidential candidates. As a country, we all need to encourage all Tamil political parties to engage in democratic politics and to strengthen their determination to find a negotiated political solution. The Presidential election could have been a platform for such a discussion.

Instead, what we are witnessing are whipping up basic instincts of nationalism in order satisfy extreme Sinhala groups. For instance, the Rajapaksa camp is making such a hue and cry saying that Fonseka agreed to re-merge the Northern and Eastern provinces which the Fonseka camp vehemently denies. But Rajapaksa’s strong man in Jaffna Devananda still stands for a merged North and East as clearly seen from the EPDP’s website. Under “our vision” it says that EPDP stands for a permanently merged North and East as a single province[iii]. This is not only an EPDP position: Almost all Tamil political parties keep a merged North and East Province as one of their aspirations. To counter the Rajapaska propaganda, the Fonseka camp is also entering the game making the Tamil issue a political football: Every kick on the football is considered a possible goal. In the same way, kicking the Tamil political parties is considered as getting some more votes into the bag. Fonseka’s representatives promised the Democratic Bhikku Front who was fasting against the so-called Rajapaska – Douglas agreement that he will abolish the agreement as soon as he comes to power.

The history of post-independence Sri Lanka is a history of taking Tamil peoples’ aspirations and Tamil political parties for a ride. We know the history of 1959, 1966, 1987 and 2000. Political solutions were put forward only to take those proposals back once the Sinhala nationalist groups started to roar. When the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) made a deal, the United National Party (UNP) opposed. When UNP made a deal SLFP opposed. Tamil political parties who believed in democratic politics were cheated and humiliated once and again by the Sinhala majority regimes. At the end, LTTE emerged to replace democratic politics in Tamil society. The 28 year war which was a result of continuous discrimination faced by Tamils at the hand of the Colombo ruling classes devoured tens of thousands of lives. The scars left by the war will remain for years to come. The lesson Sri Lanka should have learned was that Tamils and their representatives deserve respect and justice. Peace cannot be sustained if it is not based on justice for all.

At the same time, the political game of using the Tamil issue as a football cannot be stopped unless Tamil political parties stop being a football. They need to have a broad front if they want to bargain with Sinhala rulers instead of succumbing to assimilation policy of the Rajapaksa regime. Only two mainstream Sinhala political leaders in recent times  have shown courage  to accept that Tamils in Sri Lanka are discriminated and they have a right to govern themselves. But unfortunately, when history presented both with an opportunity to work together in finding a political solution they failed. The opportunity was 2002 when Ranil Wickramasinghe became the Prime Minister under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Presidency. And the LTTE played the spoilers’ role in treating the Ceasefire Agreement as a joke.

Today Rajapaksa has taken the beaten path of Sinhala nationalism to ensure his victory, Fonseka followers, too, are stepping on to the same path. In this election, Sinhala extreme nationalists are delivering the message that Tamils do not have a right to enter into agreements to secure their rights with the ruling parties. They forget that Prabhakaran was not a mere individual. He was a representative of an entire generation which was disillusioned of democratic politics in achieving their rights. That generation made the political football into a huge fireball. It burned the whole country. Once again, major political parties have treated the Tamil issue as marginal, and worse, simply as a channel for making expedient promises. Every one is ready to prostitute the issue for a few more votes. Until this political football becomes another fireball our politicians, I suspect, may play the violin, sing Maharajanenei and kick the football for all it is worth.