TNA and the New Era of Tamil Politics: Are They Living Up to the Challenge?

The TNA, the remnant of old politics in the Tamil community has entered a new era. The post LTTE politics has made it possible to create conditions for a democratic culture in the North and East. But the defeat of the LTTE alone will not make it possible to create a genuine democratic culture. The Sinhalese political leadership should show its sensitivity and empathy towards a community of people who have suffered nearly three decades of the most destructive and the brutal war the country had ever seen. The IDPs are becoming almost a forgotten human tragedy. Some of them are still languishing in camps. The most important and crucial input should come from the Sinhalese political leadership in their responsibility to offer a genuine political solution. None of the main contenders in the Presidential election did talk about any political solution in a way that would satisfy the democratic aspirations of the Tamil people. At this moment the TNA has a major role to play in democratic politics. The TNA’s endorsement of Sarath Fonseka in the Presidential election and his success in receiving a wide margin of Tamil votes than President Rajapaksa shows that the  TNA’s strong influence on the Tamil vote even without negotiating a substantial package of devolution of power for the Tamil community. However, can the TNA be trusted as a democratic party? They have not announced any new policy or explained how they are going make changes to their old politics in the aftermath of the LTTE’s military defeat. The TNA can not survive as a democratic party of the Tamils without making changes to its political ideology inherited from its association with the LTTE and its allotted role as the silent partner of violent politics.

The main thrust of this article is to discuss the political problems that the TNA  poses for Tamils and themselves by  not understanding or willfully disregarding the changes that they should be making in order to be available as a safer democratic alternative for the Tamil community.

Importance of repositioning
The unexpected, dramatic and decisive military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 at the hands of the Sri Lankan military marked a seismic shift of the politico-military landscape of the Tamil community to the political proper by opening a new era of democratic space in the North and East. Throughout its existence, the LTTE acted as if the historical burden of the Tamil’s national future had rested on their shoulders, a self professed moral responsibility that required them to make others subservient to their political ideology by coercion and political violence. The TNA (Tamil National Alliance) became their proxy. The LTTE military defeat has changed the whole scenario and the huge political vacuum left by them has not been filled by the TNA or the ex –militant groups (EPDP, EPRLF P, PLOTE and TMVP) who work with the Sri Lankan government. The TNA appears to be the most favorite candidate to fill this vacuum because of their political base in Tamil nationalism but they are unable to do so without demonstrating how they have come out of the violent and totalitarian cohabitation with the LTTE.

Neither pro -government and ex- paramilitary groups nor the TNA can pursue old politics in the new era of democratic politics. Unless the TNA makes it quite clear about their association with the LTTE and how they tolerated an unprecedented political and military suppression and targeted assassinations of their own community by the LTTE a Tamil militant organization, TNA’s political honesty and democratic morality becomes dubious and questionable. If they disregard this, it will be incongruent with the Tamil community’s democratic project.

If political parties are not open to their political past and hide their serious political mistakes they will tend make the same mistake again and again. In the South the JVP has adopted this kind of evasion about their past. If the TNA continues to do that it would be possible they will be easily become the pray to another narrow nationalistic military project. This could be avoided only if they accept it as anti- democratic and a political mistake.  It is necessary to make parties responsible for their anti democratic and other kind of political criminality they have committed in the name of liberation. If the TNA wants to re-enter democratic politics it has to forge a new political identity and make a departure from its questionable past as the proxy of the LTTE.

Nature of old politics
In order to reposition as a democratic party it is necessary to look at and understand the serious political mistakes the TNA were responsible for during those dark years of violent politics.

The LTTE on its journey to totalitarianism used the TNA to acquire a democratic face for its undemocratic activities. The TNA provided a mass base for the LTTE’s military project. The LTTE also brought the TNA under its political wing into submissive politics fusing their political ideology with the TNA’s narrow nationalistic politics.  Even though they appeared as genuine and equal partners the TNA was not able to be critical of the LTTE’s political and military line. When the LTTE eliminated all the other militant groups, political activists, Tamil political leaders and intellectuals in the Tamil community, the TNA never criticized the LTTE for these crimes. The TNA should have opposed this anti democratic assault on their own people and the way in which they managed keep quiet and offered tacit support is unacceptable. It is interesting to know whether or not they were able to oppose these and the response that they received from the LTTE. The TNA also demanded that the Sri Lankan government must negotiate with only the LTTE and campaigned vigorously that no other Tamil group to be included in any negotiations. This political demand, for the benefit of the LTTE demonstrated that inclusive practice and political pluralism was sacrificed for the politics of totalitarianism. In the process the TNA also argued for the LTTE as the sole and authentic representative of the Tamil people and equated the Tamil community with the LTTE.When the LTTE made it clear that they would not accept any political settlement short of separate state, the TNA kept quiet and did not explain their political position on the issue at the time and did not make any effort at distancing themselves from the separatist political line of the LTTE. Mr. Sambandan’s recent statement that they never advocated a separate state and their long held political view from the TULF days that any settlement would be within a unitary state of Sri Lanka has been clarified only after the LTTE’s defeat It is also important to know whether the TNA made any protest about the expelling of Muslims from Jaffna and its subsequent perpetuation of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE as this forms the very basis of depriving the ethnic minorities of their legitimate rights.

The whole political association with the TNA was part of the LTTE’s military project. The TNA never condemned armed violence nor did they repudiate armed struggle in achieving political aims. At least now they should understand the futility of the armed intervention and how the armed struggle could close democratic space rather than opening it. Only through honesty and genuine reflection can people become able to trust their political integrity and their genuine desire for a democratic alternative in similar situations.

The Challenge
If the TNA wishes to face up to the new challenge of democratic politics they will have to accept the new political culture that is evolving after the defeat of the LTTE.The TNA needs to declare in no uncertain terms that they will not pursue separatist politics and will accept political solution within a  unitary state. This will not be a difficult task now as   Mr. Sambadan has clarified that they never advocated a separate state in the past. The main political benefit of this would be the weakening of the foundations of the Sinhalese hegemonic forces. The Presidential election and the unexpected huge margin of UPFA victory demonstrates that any political move or even a slightest suspicion and indication that would potentially divide the country will be defeated. This is the reality and if you want to change this reality you need to accept a separatist political ideology is a non-starter. Along with this the TNA should repudiate the armed violence and actively work towards democratic politics in their struggle for the maximum devolution of power. They need to condemn the political assassinations carried out by the LTTE and assure people that they will never be silent about such criminal activities in future.  They also need to build bridges with the Sinhalese south in their democratic struggle against the authoritarian tendencies of the Sri Lanka state. Such a move will pave the way for a greater understanding in their common struggle for democracy. The LTTE dominance in Tamil politics was a great hindrance for such an understanding and this should end now. The TNA has to make their views clear about the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims and oppose such fascistic tendencies within Tamil politics. They should act responsibly in the North and East with regard to potential Muslim return to former homes. If they continue with old political ideology they will strengthen narrow Tamil Nationalism which would take them to the past. This will destroy the current achievements and close the democratic opening that is already in place.

Conclusion
This account shows that the TNA has a long way to go in clearing their undemocratic past and rebuilding their political profile in order to face the challenges of new politics. They need to throw away their dogmatic politics. Unless they achieve this they will repeat the history of submissive politics when there is another armed project in place. That would be politically dangerous and democratically disastrous. The TNA’s politics needs to be widely debated as the future implications can be very critical for the democratic politics of the Tamil community if they are unable to reposition democratic politics in a meaningful and genuine way.

  • wijayapala

    Dayapala,

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article, but I feel that I have to play devil’s advocate. I agree that TNA like JVP has not owned up to its past and that its silence over LTTE atrocities had harmed the Tamil community. Certainly the TNA has not earned an ounce of faith among the Sinhalese (although Rauf Hakeem has forgiven the TNA very quickly).

    However, are the Tamils demanding that the TNA develop a new vision? My impression from the local government elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya was that the TNA is still somewhat popular despite the defeat of the LTTE. We will get a better picture of Tamil perceptions in the upcoming General Elections- but how should we Sinhalese react if TNA sweeps the north and east?

    I strongly think that the ball is in our court- if we want the TNA to reform, we should reach out and offer alternatives to a separate state, instead of waiting for the TNA to come to us. I don’t like the TNA but we don’t have an alternative if the Tamils reject Karuna, Pillayan, and Douglas. We should definitely avoid the mistakes JR made dealing with Amirthalingam and TULF. It is true that Amirthalingam played a double game with the militants but he was basically a harmless person- much like Sampanthan today.

    My preference is for Anandasangaree to become a prominent leader, but if we have to deal with Sampanthan then we should not be afraid.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    Mr. Thiranagama,
    Lets face it, the only thing that the current tamil leadership can offer is empty rhetoric. Bunch of impotent old men who can only help the people they represet in very incremental steps. How can they help others when they cant help themselves. When they are called “Para demala’ by people as high as the Presidents brother without any repercussion.
    Even as impotent as they are, thew were able to win Majority Tamil votes, not becuase the Tamils love them more but becase they loved the three SLFP stooges Douglas, karuna and Pillayian.
    These tamil leaders have nothing to show for their leadershi ut at least they have the welfare of tamils at heart and they tamil people showed their contempt for the three stooges by giving TNA the vote.
    As an experienced political scientist like you knows, for democracy to florish, the civilan polictcal infrastructure must be solid. The istitutions that are supposed to have power should have genine power. Succesive sinhalese govenments destroyed the political infrasturctrue in Tamil Areas by destablizing law and order. Starting with the Satyagraha in 1961, to the Tamil conference in 1974 . They were able to burn the Jaffna Library with impunity while the police and army watched from Jaffna fort.
    You of all people as someone who was involved in the Tamil striggle know that repeated humilations like these were the sparks that set the LTTE Fire. (and I regret the death of your wonderful wife Rajini. Its like a forest fire. once it starts on one know how it will end. Luiterally and figurtaively, the Tamils had the Tiger by the tail.

    Now the Sinhalese are beinging they have the Lion by the tail, and god only knows where it is going to take them.

    The sinhalese have the political, economic and militray power. At the moment, the tamils have only emply rhetoric. So it is rather disingenous for the Sinhelse demand anything from the Tamils as they have nothing to give except their self respect. And you know you are not going to get it.

    And as experinced sociologist, you very well know that only thing constant about history is that it is never constant.
    So its up to the sinhalese leadership to change their ways and offer their hand.
    Otherwise the past 62 years will be repeated but only more intensively.

    I dont think your people and my people deserve to go through that again. There fore I urge you to demand the same thing you ask from the Tamil leadership from your fellow sinhalese leadership.

  • Kathir

    The undemocratic,pro -fascist TNA or Tamil national alliance have to be totally defeated in the coming general election to safeguard the majority of the Tamil people.This is the urgent need and must be achieved by the Leftists and Democatic forces of the country.Nomore we want this culprits in the political field of Tamil masses.This reactionary and pro imperialist forces has to be totally errased forever,just like the Mafia LTTE or Tamil Tigers.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    –Kathir said,
    February 10, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    The undemocratic,pro -fascist TNA or Tamil national alliance have to be totally defeated in the coming general election to safeguard the majority of the Tamil people.This is the urgent need and must be achieved by the Leftists and Democatic forces of the country.Nomore we want this culprits in the political field of Tamil masses.This reactionary and pro imperialist forces has to be totally errased forever,just like the Mafia LTTE or Tamil Tigers.–

    Kathir, karthir Kathir,
    do you understand the word DEMOCRACY? Let me help you by giving the definition from Brittanica.

    democracy

    –Form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodic free elections. In a direct democracy, the public participates in government directly (as in some ancient Greek city-states, some New England town meetings, and some cantons in modern Switzerland). Most democracies today are representative. The concept of representative democracy arose largely from ideas and institutions that developed during the European Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and in the American and French Revolutions. Democracy has come to imply universal suffrage, competition for office, freedom of speech and the press, and the rule of law.—

    now do you realize how stupid the following comment sounds like?
    –Nomore we want this culprits in the political field of Tamil masses.This reactionary and pro imperialist forces has to be totally errased forever,just like the Mafia LTTE or Tamil Tigers.–

    ERASED? What do you think you are? The rubber tip at the end of the pencil?

  • Jaffna Tamil

    Brother Wijepala,
    Thank you for the post. You have said it far more eloquently that I have.

  • Dhiraj

    Sri Lankan Tamil politics will not change in the near future. It is characterised by its ethno-centric, racist, inward looking, separatist agenda. As long as Tamil extremists (read Jaffna Tamil politicians) hold the reigns, we can expect no change. The TNA was the stooge of the LTTE and they have shown no visible change in their ideology post LTTE. If “reaching out” means pandering to their demands the GOSL should stay clear IMO.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    Ah, Dhiraj..
    you say..–It is characterised by its ethno-centric, racist, inward looking, separatist agenda.-

    Physician, heal thy self!

    Or let me explain in a manner that you can understand…

    My grandma used to tell me “when you point your finger at someone, three other fingers are pointing back at you”. As I cant draw a picture here, let me explain, when you point your index finger, your middle finger, ring finger, and little finger are pointing back at you.

    I hope you get it!

  • rperin

    What exactly is a “Parra Demila”? What is the literal meaning of this phrase?What are its linguistic deatures?Etymology?
    Any one konws?

  • Dayapala Thiranagama

    Dear wijayapala
    I am in full agreement with you that it is the resposibilitiy of the Sinhalese political leadership to offer a solution as an alternative to a seperate state.This is what the Sinhalese political leadrship has failed do throughout our history since independece.The Tamil struggle for their democratic rights is not going away it will bounce back unless we accept their legitimate grievences and offer solutions.In my view it is so hard for Pillayan,Karuna or Douglas to become the legitimate represantatives the Tamil people.The TNA will consolidate their hold on Tamil nationalism but we need to make them more democratic and along with the SLMC they will be a politically stronger force in the future.
    Dear Jaffna Tamil
    Thank you for your kind words about my wife.
    I agree that we need to ask the Sihalese leadership to come up with a reasonable political solution so that the Tamils will be able to live with dignity and respect.The Sinhelese political leadership is unable to fathom the Tamil feelings and their entitlement to basic democratic rights . I have clarified my views about the pro governement ex-militant groups in my response to wijayapala above.
    Dear Kathir
    When you advocate to erase other people because of their political views you yourself cease to be a democrat.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    I assume rperin is a non sri lankan.

    Para damil has no meaning other than as an insult!

    It is a combination of the word Pariaya (low caste) which is meant as an insult and Damila (Tamil). I dont think there is an equivalent insult in the English language, perhaps calling a Black man a “nigger” or a Hispanic man a “wetback”

    The people who use it are etymological Einsteins! almost always ignorant racists.

  • yapa

    I don’t understand what is happening in Sri Lanka and in the political aena and in these political discussions.I feel we are shouting and fighting like babblers. I think following quotations of Einstein have some relevance.

    1. Confusion of goals and perfection of means seems, in my opinion, to characterize our age.

    2. I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.

    3. A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.

    4. Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.

    4. Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.

    5. Force always attracts men of low morality.

    6.Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.

    7. Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

    8. Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.

    Thanks!

  • wijayapala

    rperin,

    What exactly is a “Parra Demila”?

    “Para Demala” literally means “outsider Tamil” or “foreign Tamil” or “enemy Tamil.” The term itself is anti-Tamil as it implies that Tamils are not really Sri Lankan (while quietly suggesting that only the Sinhalese are native Sri Lankans). “Para” means alien or different and “Demala” literally is the Sinhala term for Tamil. Demala used to have a neutral meaning but took on a racist tone over the last few decades. I myself use the term Demala when I speak in Sinhala but not in a racist context i.e. demala bhashava = Tamil language and demala minissu = Tamil people. I don’t know another way of saying “Tamil.”

    It is **NOT** true that “para” comes from the Paraiyar Tamil caste. This is an idiotic lie spread by Tamilnet and TNA MP Pakkiyaselvam Ariyanenthiran who is quite clearly ignorant of the Sinhala language. The Sinhalese generally are clueless about Tamil culture and would not know how to use caste to insult Tamils.

    What is more funny is that Tamilnet appears to be equally clueless about the Paraiyars, describing them as “prestigious ancestors of the Tamil social formation” when in reality they are treated as garbage by upper caste locals even to this day.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    Dear Mr. Thiranagama.
    believe it or not, you were on of my heros along with Rajini. I am glad to hear your voice again. I do have a copy of “No tears for me, Sister” and I share it with many people as I can.

    God Bless you and your family

  • Belle

    Jaffna Tamil,
    Have any idea how I can get hold of a copy of “No tears for me, Sister”?

    Thanks.

  • Jaffna Tamil

    Belle,
    I was able to get a copy though a friend. If you are interested in contacting me directly by email, I would be happy to send you a copy.
    However we have to be careful not to give poor Yapa’s feverish imagination an “extra special workout”!

  • Dayapala Thiranagama

    Dear Belle
    You will be able to order a copy of the documentary from the National Film Board in Canada from the link below.The title is “No More Tears Sister”

    http://www.onf-nfb.gc.ca/eng/collection/