Groundviews

Crossing Red Lines: The New Tamil Consensus in Sri Lanka


R Sampanthan is a Member of Parliament and leader of the Tamil National Alliance and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi. Photo from vivatamils.2009 on Flickr.

A visit to the Mayan exhibition in Paris tells the tale of a splendid ancient civilization with an advanced mathematics, now reduced to marginality by colonial conquest. It also reminds one that the civilization of the Sinhalese, whose language is distinctive, whose collective existence is not far flung and whose state is in a strategically hostile situation or environment, can be reduced to an exhibit in an ethnographic museum, if it is not collectively strong, adaptable and very smart indeed. This must not be taken as a chauvinist, racist or ethnocentric sentiment: for example, I am neither Mayan nor Guatemalan, yet I am anguished by their fate.

An American witticism attributed variously to Dr Henry Kissinger and film director Oliver Stone says “just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”. It increasingly seems that Tamil Nadu is to Sri Lanka what Florida is to Cuba. The voices raised in three intersecting, interactive circles, Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lankan Tamil politics, against the carrying out of the sentence on the killers of Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson and Indira Gandhi’s son, tell a story. These voices include the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, the TNA, and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF). It would be only the naïve who regard these protests as stemming from a principled opposition to the death penalty. There seems to be a touch of solidarity in these protests and certainly a sense of impunity, by which I mean, a sense of entitlement which assumes that even the murder of the grandson of the iconic founding Prime Minister of India, should not be treated as a heinous atrocity punishable by death, but should be somehow overlooked; allowed almost to slide. These protests and petitions must surely alert the Sri Lankan people to the dangerous neighborhood in which we inevitably exist.

A notable event took place recently in Delhi. It was attended by all parties claiming to represent Sri Lanka’s Tamils of the North and East barring the EPDP of Douglas Devananda. The meeting was therefore a largely representative one. A report by the Conference Coordinator Selliah Nagarajah, posted on August 28 from New Delhi, on the website Sri Lanka Guardian says that:

“The conference of the Sri Lankan Tamil Parties organised by the Parliamentary Forum for Human Rights for Global Development (PFHRGD) was held on 22 & 23 August 2011 at the Constitution Club Hall, New Delhi. It was to serve as a forum to discuss all the issues relating to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem and to ascertain the opinion of the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders on how the Indian government could facilitate an early resolution. It was further aimed at providing an opportunity for the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders to present their consensual views to the Indian Parliamentarians in helping them set out a framework of action required to be taken by the Indian government in its continued endeavour to find a lasting resolution to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem…

Nine registered political parties were invited for the conference and eight parties attended the two day meeting. The following represented the eight political parties: Akila Ilankai Thamil Congress: Gajendrakumar G Ponnambalam, Selvarajah Kajendran; Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi : Mavai Senathirajah, M.A. Sumanthiran; Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front: Suresh Premachandran, Nadesu Sivasakthi; Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front: G.Gnanasekaran, S.Raveendran; Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation: Selvam Adaikalanathan; Tamil United Liberation Front: V.Anandasangari; Pathmanabha Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front: T.Sritharan , Thurairetnam; Democratic People’s Liberation Front: Kandiah Sivanesan, Benedict Thanabalasingam.

…Delegates expressed their serious concerns on the present situation of the Tamils in North Eastern Sri Lanka and unanimously decided to approve the following resolution on matters of immediate concern. Therefore we request the following must be done as a matter of urgency…” (‘What They Talked About Tamils’, Sri Lanka Guardian)

There was no endorsement in the text, of the 13th amendment, even as the base line for a settlement. There was no criticism of the Tigers for having murdered leaders and members of every one of these organisations. There was no denunciation of the murder of Rajiv Gandhi though the meeting took place in India in the 20th anniversary year of that heinous assassination. Among the multi-point resolution passed, Point 2 not merely stands out but leaps out at the reader: “…The army must be withdrawn from the North and East immediately.” (ibid) 

In case this is regarded as a one-off reference, we have clear confirmation of its import from Mr Suresh Premachandran as quoted by the Daily Mirror:

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has with the help of some Lok Sabha members had submitted a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting him to prevail upon the Sri Lankan government to remove the military camps in the North, TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran said today… “We interacted with a number of Lok Sabha MPs from the ruling party and the opposition and submitted this memorandum to Dr. Singh through them”, he said and added that the dismantling of High Security Zones was another key demand highlighted in the memorandum.’ (‘TNA Submits Memo to Manmohan’, Kelum Bandara, Daily Mirror, Wednesday Aug 31st, 2011) 

After a decisive and total military defeat of a powerful armed secessionism, and with the Sri Lankan armed forces a strong, determined, legitimate and permanent presence in the Northern and Eastern areas of a re-unified country, it is absurd that the latest expression of a Tamil consensus holds out for ‘the immediate withdrawal of the army from the North and East’. This is beyond anything that JR Jayewardene, Premadasa, CBK or even Ranil would accede to while embattled by the Tigers! More basically, which army anywhere in the world, least of all South Asia, would withdraw from a geo-strategically vital frontier?

What is the guarantee that the TNA, with Provincial powers and added legitimacy in hand, would not launch an agitation for the removal of the Sri Lankan armed forces, as it has called for in this memorandum, and seek Tamil Nadu or Central Government support for such agitation, whether or not it succeeds in drawing them in? Do we want the North converted into another Kashmir?

Of no little significance is the discussion of the ‘war crimes/international inquiry’ issue, as reported by the conference convenor in the article on the SLG website.

“…At this stage, Mr Kagendran and Mr Ponnambalam, delegates of the Akila Ilankai Thamil Congress, wanted the conference to pass a resolution calling for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Chairperson objected to the inclusion of a new item in the agenda at this late stage as he had no mandate to deviate from the agenda. Several delegates suggested that it could be taken up as an added issue under matters discussed under the topic “Immediate Concerns” earlier. The conference reopened the agenda on “Immediate Concerns” and agreed to include the following as item 7 of the matters requiring urgent action:

“An independent international inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity should be conducted.”

Now, what is one to make of the fact that no tendency or powerful single party was willing or able to take a moderate stand and put the brakes on these two calls, i.e., for the immediate withdrawal of the army and the holding of an international inquiry?

If the immediate withdrawal of the Army from the country’s North and East and the conducting of an ‘independent’ international inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity are two planks of the Tamil consensus, or rather, the Northern and Eastern Tamil consensus—with the EPDP as an honourable exception—what does this say about the degree of militancy or radicalism of Tamil sub-nationalism? Perhaps more pertinently what does it say about the total divorce from reality of those who subscribe to these views? These are two issues on which no Sri Lankan government or Southern political party will, should or can concede or compromise on, because they lie at the core of vital national interests.  They are ‘red lines’ and non-negotiable.

The drift apart in political discourse between the dominant Southern and Northern blocs may make for a cold peace. The lack of a commitment on the part of the Tamil parties to a mutually agreed upon ceiling on devolution feeds the Southern centralist apprehension that any large unit devolution would be a jumping off point for centrifugal demands. A noteworthy interview given by the TNA’s Premachandran, to Shakuntala Perera of the Daily Mirror a few days ago, provides ample evidence that these apprehensions are not entirely paranoid in nature. 

“Q: You often speak of the Indian example. How much is India a model for you on these issues?

A: Even though India is a federal system the provinces are still asking for greater power. So on these grounds there are various Chief Ministers fighting for more. There is no real power devolution in that sense. While Jammu and Kashmir has one system, somewhere else the system is different, depending on the people and the language etc. They even want to divide Andrapradesh.”

Mr. Premachandran is a plain-spoken man. It is exceedingly obvious from his answer that even Indian model federalism or more correctly quasi-federalism, is not enough for him, though (i) the Tamil people of Northern Sri Lanka are far less numerous and a far smaller fraction of this country’s population than those of the regions he names and (ii) the provisional IRA and the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland have accepted power sharing/devolution within a unitary state. One can only guess at his commitment to the 13th amendment and the role he and his co-thinkers within the TNA will play in the likely event that they control the Northern Provincial council. Given the strategic location of the area, its interactivity with and susceptibility to politico-ideological osmosis from Tamil Nadu, any Sri Lankan government would be given pause by the prospect.

Still, matters are by no means hopeless. As President Rajapaksa informed Parliament in his address which signaled the termination of the Emergency, elections to the Northern Provincial Council will be held next year, which will bridge the political deficit between that province and all the others. This is an exercise in devolved power through basic electoral democracy. Who can deny that democracy is either the best solution or the best pathway to a solution? And who can deny that the likeliest chance to make peace would be an understanding based on a deliberative dialogue, between President Rajapaksa and Mr. Sambandan? There is obviously a deficit to be bridged. And this is where the non-state, social sector can contribute towards greater understanding between communities and regions.  The Sri Lankan corporate sector, the professionals, and most significant of all, a concerted multi-faith effort, in particular by those religions that cut across the ethnic divide (providing an example of unity in diversity and a transcendent identity), can deepen and develop the positive yet modest role that they already play to bridge those gaps. In fact it may be an urgent imperative to prevent a cold peace from degenerating into an externally provoked and catalysed civic conflict.