This year promises to be a decisive one for Lankan Tamils. Events that take place this year will considerably determine the future trajectory of Tamil politics. It is only a beginning where the end of the LTTE’s totalitarianism gives the Tamils opportunity to evaluate their nationalist politics that has brought only tragedy so far. Failure to do this would have tragic consequences.
The concluded UNHRC sessions and the proposed CHOGM make up the list of key international fixtures. Efforts of the TGTE – like the formation of Tamil Eelam Freedom Charter – and other such diaspora groups will provide much entertainment, all to no avail. Apart from these events, the continuing struggle between Tamil Nadu and the Indian Central Government will also be of significance for India’s need to wake up from her long slumber in trying to wish away an explosive situation on her doorstep.
However, local political (and economic) developments are what matter most. The climax, no doubt, will be the promised Northern Provincial Council election to be held in September (or August, according to the Elections Commissioner).
Despite the fact that Provincial Councils, in their present form, are powerless organs and of little consequence in determining the national political discourse, Tamils simply cannot afford to lose come this September. There are three prime reasons for this. First, to lose in a free and fair election would, foremost, delegitimise everything Tamils have fought for in the past thirty years, and effectively spell doom for the Tamil cause. Second, it will legitimise the regime’s post-war dynastic project, consolidate Rajapaksa power, and significantly undermine internal democratic resistance against the incumbent regime. Third, calls for justice and accountability from human rights defenders, too, will – at least partly – be rendered meaningless. Therefore, the election is of immense importance for both Tamils and, indeed, for all Sri Lankans who desire justice and democracy. A Tamil – and thereby, a TNA – victory is an utmost necessity.
Connected to the NPC election are several matters that demand careful analysis.
Militarisation and Sinhalese Colonisation
Sinhalese colonisation schemes that are being carried out in the North (and in the East) will, in the long run, undermine the political power of Tamils. When viewed in relation to the NPC election there are at least two immediate concerns.
First, given that the present regime is a master at the electoral game, a sizeable Sinhalese population – coupled with heavy military presence – in the North will be an important weapon wielded by the government. As Tisaranee Gunasekara noted in her incisive analysis of militarisation in Sri Lanka:
“Militarisation in the North is aimed not only at imposing a non-consensual peace on Tamils but also at implementing a project of demographic re-engineering…military cantonments would break the contiguity of Tamil villages in the North and act as control centres and as symbols of dominance. They would form expanding Sinhala islands in a contracting Tamil sea…And the Sinhala soldiers and families can become an excellent first line of defence against any Tamil struggle for political rights and democratic freedoms.”
The primary concern, then, is the manner in which the military and the Sinhalese population will be used by the state during the election. During the days leading up to the Eastern Provincial Council elections last year, a group calling itself the ‘blue force’, threatened Tamils who came to place a vote for the TNA. Given the significance of the NPC election, a rise in such activities can be expected.
The second concern is related to the electoral numbers game. There is a distinct possibility that the government will resort to ballot stuffing and other forms of election rigging techniques. While moving enough Sinhalese to the North before the election to independently effect a substantial electoral gain is unlikely, the Sinhalese vote could nevertheless be decisive when combined with the Muslim vote in these areas. The rapid pace at which new Sinhalese settlements are being created only validates such fears. The result would spell disaster for the colonisers and the colonised alike, possibly leading to anarchy and bitterness: resources are scarce, and the Government’s plans neither go beyond grand promises to the Sinhalese populating the North, nor evince any long term plans or means for their welfare.
Implications of TNA’s Internal Conflicts
The internal politics of the Tamil National Alliance also adds an interesting dimension to the NPC election. An article that appeared in Thinakkural sums up the matter in detail:
“TNA’s internal conflicts are not ideological clashes: they are strictly related to power. It is evident that Suresh Premachandran wants to become the leader of the TNA, after Sampanthan. However, Sampanthan, and thus the ITAK, is pushing Sumanthiran as the next leader. For Suresh, it is securing public opinion in his favour [that] is crucial. Therefore, becoming the Chief Minister of the Northern Province is an essential component of Suresh’s game plan. However, in the existing administrative framework of the TNA, it is the ITAK that nominates candidates; unless the alliance is registered as a separate political party before the NPC elections Suresh stands no chance of being nominated. The real intentions behind the constituent parties’ demands to register the TNA will come to light when the Northern PC elections arrive: if the nominee is someone else, Suresh will break away from the TNA to test his luck.”
The reality is such that the ITAK and the constituent parties can achieve very little as individual political entities. Here, the role of the Indian Central Government is also worthy of attention. When the TNA visited India last October, the Central Government reportedly emphasised internal unity. As for the Indian Central Government, the primary factors that underscore the need for a coherent strategy as regards the Lankan Tamil question are Tamil Nadu and China. If protests in south India rage unquenched, it will cause many headaches for the Central Government. The last thing the Congress needs is a fully hostile Tamil Nadu before the General Election next year. China has already become the principal foreign investor in Sri Lanka, and the influence of the Asian giant is tangible. China’s growing power over Sri Lanka clearly undermines India’s role as the regional super power. Additionally, for India, the 13th Amendment carries an emotional dimension to it as well. A split in the TNA will land India in a rather precarious situation: that is, it will be pushed to take sides. In light of India’s recent track record with regard to Sri Lanka, it can be assumed that it will back the ITAK. The damage a split will cause, domestically and internationally, will be horrendous. Domestically, the Tamil vote will split up and cause severe harm to (what is left of) Tamil political power; internationally, it will give the impression that Tamils are divided and their aspirations distorted. It is, therefore, only logical that the constituent parties, including the ITAK, somehow stay together.
The smaller constituents of the TNA have gained much ground over the past few weeks. Leaders of the four smaller constituents, in late February, unanimously agreed to register the TNA by the end of March, with or without the consent of the ITAK. In effect, this was an ultimatum. The decision, naturally, forced the ITAK to reconsider its stance on the matter and prompted several compromises from its hierarchy.
But, if the appraisal of Thinakkural is correct, registering the TNA now might not be an optimal step as far as the future of Tamil politics is concerned. Suresh Premachandran is a very ambitious individual, and his political history suggests that he is capable of taking extreme measures to meet his personal ends. The manner in which Suresh pushed the issue of registration last year provoked a senior citizen from the Tamil diaspora to describe him by the idiom ‘bull in a China shop’. The post-Sampanthan era will, no doubt, pose major challenges. Tamils can only hope that Sumanthiran and Premachandran work together and complement each other. The Northern PC election will set the precedent for the future.
The Role of the Governor and the Future of Douglas Devananda
The Northern Governor has, in the absence of a Provincial Council, established himself as a powerful individual. It is reported that he has his eyes firmly set on acquiring the powers of land distribution before the elections. If the TNA wins it will have to come up with a strategy to curb the Governor’s powers.
Douglas Devananda, who is seen by most Tamils as a partner-in-crime of the Governor, has proclaimed his desire to become the Chief Minister. Yet, there are rumours that the government may consider KP as the candidate for the CM portfolio. If that happens, Douglas’ standing as a leader will diminish. He is already a spent force. The very fact that Douglas is considering competing in the PC election goes to show that his Ministerial portfolio is meaningless. However, if Douglas secures the UPFA’s nomination, the NPC election will make for a violence-filled denouement.
Re-emergence of the TNPF as a Major Political Force
Re-emergence of the TNPF, headed by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, as an influential political force is a factor that must not be underestimated. The TNPF demonstrated its opportunistic instincts when it, unwarrantedly, condemned Sampanthan for comments the TNA leader had made with regard to the LTTE’s conduct. Furthermore, Ponnambalam’s political agenda is not Tamil nationalism, but rather Tamil-Hindu nationalism. Ponnambalam has defined the Tamil nation as a people of the same religion in his interviews with TamilNet.
The TNPF also wields significant power over Tamil university students. This coupled with strong diaspora backing can cause substantial damage to the TNA (It is worthy to note that the TNA has done little as regards creating opportunities for young Tamils to engage in politics). The manner in which the TNPF approaches the NPC election will set the tone for future TNA-TNPF confrontations.
Sinhalese settlements and the military must be handled with foresight. The Tamil side must demand intense international attention and monitoring mechanisms for a long period, starting well before the actual day of the election. Token presence of monitors on Election Day will only serve to legitimize the election carried out under conditions of threat and intimidation. It must also be noted that there are reasons why the government may still conduct a relatively clean election: first, in all probability, the victory margin of the TNA will be too overwhelming to erase by fraud; second, given the stakes of the election there will be considerable international, especially Indian, attention.
The political reality of Tamils is such that it is of immense importance that the TNA decidedly wins the NPC election. However, the leaders of the TNA must recognise the weight of their responsibility and act accordingly. Suresh Premachandran, in this regard, has a lot to learn. Informed sources claim that the Chief Minister candidate, in all probability, will be Mavai Senathirajah. Premachandran, we can assume, knows better than to defect from the TNA, lest the fate of Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam befall him. He will be very reluctant to show himself as someone hindering Tamil unity, especially since he is keen on leading Tamils in the future. However, there is a very dangerous possibility that Suresh may stay within the alliance and continue to cause internal headaches.
If Premachandran is serious about leading the Tamil people, he must first reduce his appetite for petty quarrels, and prove that he is committed to principles of fairness, justice and equality. Tamils cannot afford to have another leader in the mould of Prabhakaran. He must set his focus on matters that concern the Tamil cause, as opposed to trivial issues. Sumanthiran, on the other hand, must develop his politicking skills and improve his public relations. He cannot be seen as an introverted and arrogant lawyer, if he is keen on engaging in competitive politics and, more importantly, playing a key role, as many would like, in leading the Tamil cause into the future.
India, on the other hand, must force the Sri Lankan government to implement its own promises, and recommence negotiations with the TNA. Delhi must deal with Colombo on strictly bilateral terms; passing resolutions in the UNHRC is of little value.
Tamils will vote for the TNA – for tactical purposes, if not out of conviction. But, TNA leaders will do well to remember that they have, historically, failed the Tamil people multiple times, by failing to build up bridges and by blindly endorsing the LTTE. It is, then, right for the Tamils to expect a thrust from within the TNA for principled politics and internal democracy. The best thing that can happen to Tamil politics is cooperation between the five constituent parties. Compromising the Tamil cause for personal ends will go down in history as an ‘unforgivable’ sin.
The TNA must develop a coherent strategy to curb the detrimental role of the NP Governor: calling for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment may be the first step in this regard. The NPC election will be a ‘make-or-break’ battle as far as Douglas is concerned. A loss – either in securing the UPFA nomination or in the election – may well be the final nail in the coffin for Douglas’s political career. If that happens, Douglas Devananda will join the growing list of those who have been used and later dumped by the Rajapaksa regime. He will be in most distinguished company.
Finally, it is essential that the TNA gives careful consideration to an electoral strategy to counter the TNPF. Even though the TNPF is not yet a potent threat when it comes to elections, it could still push the TNA into adopting neo-nationalist politics. The TNPF’s emergence as a major political force, at least in decibel terms, will alienate Tamils of other faiths and will seal-off all possibilities of Tamil-Muslim cooperation in the future. However, Tamils have in the past distanced themselves from religious partisanship – ironically G.G. Ponnampalam Senior failed to impress the Tamils with his call for a Hindu University in Jaffna. It would also silence the few remaining moderate Sinhalese voices. That would mean revisiting the days of the LTTE, and getting trapped in a hole from which there may never be redemption.
 Unless there is will in the executive, no state institution can be effective in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka looks at the PCs as a hindrance to their political project. Therefore, the PCs are powerless.
 Broadly refers to the Tamil struggle for political equality.
 Tisaranee Gunasekara, Militarisation, Lankan Style, Economic and Political Weekly
 Maravarman, Dirty Secrets behind the TNA’s Internal Conflicts, Thinakkural (New Tradition) (November 10 – P2)
 A matter the TNA failed to mention in its official statement after the visit.
 Tamils have lost much in their quest for the ‘ideal solution’. It is important that they treat the struggle as one made up of different phases.