choice

I have two Tamil friends. Their names are SriLankan Tamil and Tamil Sri Lankan. “Aren’t they the same?” you ask. No, the order in which the identifiers appear is significant, and is crucial for the rest of my story.

My friend SriLankan Tamil (SLT for short) has the following take on the politics of Sri Lanka. History started on 4 February 1948, the day the suddhas (white folk) left the island after 500 years of colonial rule, leaving us to run our own business. Our independence was not won in a fight. The struggle in India, the weakened state of Britain after the war, and the discovery that to have a flow of wealth from the poor to the rich, you need not physically control them, were elements that made the suddhas leave. SLT is saddened by the decline since 1948. “Have we built a single yard of railway line on our own?” he often asks. “Have we developed the capacity to build and maintain clean toilets?” he often laments.

My friend Tamil Sri Lankan (TSL for short) has a different view of history. He starts further back in time and claims that we were different nations (the Tamils and Sinhalese, that is) before the suddhas arrived. And now that they are gone, we should get back to where we were and go our separate ways.  “Otherwise, the majority will simply destroy the minority,” he fears. And his fears are not without foundation.

Nationalism articulated by TSL has two causes that eminent scholars of social and political sciences find hard to disentangle. One is the realization by Sinhala politicians that manufactured racism is a big vote winner, and in recent years they have developed it to perfection.  Second is a superiority complex entrenched among Tamils they must necessarily be clever because the suddhas chose them to run post offices. Had you lived in Jaffna in 1976, when the Vaddukkoddai resolution calling for separation was passed and in 1977 when the TULF won a landslide victory with that resolution as mandate, you would have noticed how one type of racism served both as trigger and cover for the other.

SLT thinks that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution can give a workable level of devolution to the provinces. Its implementation will be a framework in which Tamils, in parts of our country where they have lived for generations, can be empowered to make their own decisions in terms of preserving their cultural heritage and identity. That is no threat to the majority. Nor is it in any way a challenge to the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The autonomous region of Trento in Italy, the federal governance structures in India and Switzerland are all examples that a small amount of local decision making power actually makes the global state stronger, not weaker.

TSL disagrees. He thinks that the 13th Amendment is a non-starter. He has studied its provisions with a microscope. An example of something hilarious he has found is this: there is asymmetry in how the centrally appointed governor and the elected Provincial Council are supposed to share power. The Governor has discretionary control over certain things which over-rides powers of the elected local body. Now, who decides the topics in which the Governor exercises discretion? It is the Governor himself! Funny, don’t you agree?

We can also understand the differences between my friends from their professional training. SLT happens to be a statistician. As such, his interest lies in average-case analysis. If life for his people can improve on average, he is rather pleased. He is aware that in situations that are polarised – bimodal distributions, the technical term for it — averages can be misleading, but usually ignores this important fact. TSL, on the other hand, is trained in law. As a lawyer, he is interested in worst-case analysis. He concerns himself with each and every potential scenario in which things can go wrong, for it is when things go wrong he gets to earn a living.

In Tamil politics, my two friends never manage to reach agreement by discussion. Their exchanges on facebook, for example, have very short time constants. It goes like this. One of them copies an article favourable to his particular point of view and clicks “like”. The other makes a comment critical of it. And next we see are blows below the belt. “Oh, you sound just like VP,” SLT would say, to shut TSL up. “But that is just what MR is also saying,” TSL would say. They then part company, agreeing that facebook wall is not the place to have a political discussion — and repeat the same in a few months. That my two friends are not in a position to exploit the opportunity of post-war Sri Lanka to develop a consensus in understanding is, to me, a regrettable aspect of the project known as uthuru wasanthaya or vadakkin vasantham).

vasantham

Enter Hon. Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament.

Terminology from consumer electronics helps to understand Sumanthiran MP. First, we had the radio, converting electromagnetic waves to sound. Then there was the tape recorder which played back recorded material. Remember, these were being sold separately during the Sixties until someone figured out you can package the two in a single box? A Two-In-One it used to be called, and served as a prize gift from a friend returning from a trip overseas. MP Sumanthiran is the two-in-one of Tamil politics. He has both my friends, Sri Lankan Tamil and Tamil Sri Lankan, integrated in one.

Sumanthiran is appointed to parliament by the Tamil National Alliance. These guardians of Tamil Nationalism claim that, post-war, their call for separatism has ended. To show this to the world, they ditched from membership a gang of three, perceived to be closest to the LTTE. But whether they have indeed distanced themselves far enough from the evils that were committed in my name without my consent, is not entirely clear to me. This is particularly hard to judge because the TNA are exceptionally talented at saying different things at different times to different people, and though Sumanthiran’s discomfort in that setting sometimes shows, his appointment by the TNA puts him in good company of my friend, the Tamil Sri Lankan.

In parliament, Sumanthiran has delivered some admirable speeches, playing a one-man-band of an opposition.  His contribution when the 18th amendment to the constitution was passed, removing the last remaining rusty bolts holding Sri Lanka’s democracy together, was excellent. I found it to be of similar quality to the speech by P. Kandiah, former MP for Point-Pedro, in the debate on the Official Languages Act of 1956. When our hopes were further dashed by the removal from office of our country’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, Sumanthiran rose in Parliament to make another remarkable speech. These make him the perfect Sri Lankan Tamil.

Thus, the coin that we see rolling along has two sides: the Sri Lankan Tamil and the Tamil Sri Lankan. But we know that every such rolling coin will sooner or later have to reach its more stable state of lying on one side. So, how do we wish this man to go forward? More to the point, how do we see in the choices he can make, the future of our country? Here is one suggestion I have in the form of two mutually dependent challenges.

My challenge to Sumanthiran: Leave the TNA.

Recognize that the Tamil Nationalist politics has not made the lives of the Tamil people any better than in 1948. The way our nationalism was articulated has not won us any friends in the world. Promises made to the people, from “vote for us, we know how to get federalism” to “accept us as sole representatives, we will carve out a separate state in which milk and honey will flow” have been miserable failures. It is time to think outside the box than sing from the same old hymn sheet.

My challenge to the electorate in the South: Elect Sumanthiran to Parliament.

Recognize that there are issues, serious issues, we Sri Lankans have to address, and they have to be analysed and vocalized. In economic development, in good governance, in education, in irrigation and drainage, in electricity pricing, in running better railways, in building clean public toilets, in making appointments of Vice Chancellors, and in maintaining law and order — just to mention a  few — we have much to develop.  This man is highly talented and can speak on behalf of us all. Recognize also that speaking of the issues specific to the Tamil community — and believe me, there are such issues — is not separatism, for the Tamil people are also Sri Lankan.

If Sumanthiran and the southern electorate — the first time voters of the facebook generation in particular — can rise up to this coupled pair of challenges, and he is returned to parliament on a non-ethnic vote, that would be the desperately needed ray of light at the end of the long dark tunnel our country has travelled through in the last 60 years.

lightandtunnel

That also will be the beginning of the reconciliation we so urgently need, in memory of the thousands of Sri Lankans we have massacred – some whose skeletons we are discovering in orderly deep graves in Matale and others that we are refusing to discover in chaotic shallow bunkers of Mullivaikkaal. After all, we do not wish these graves to be our only achievement since the suddhas left us to mind our own business, do we?

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    A really clever piece. A great read.

    To round things off, here’s a challenge to the North: make Sumanithiran the TNA’s leader and chief negotiator.

  • Dev

    Poor Kadirgamar gave his life for Sri Lanka but he is being refused the dignity of having a statue erected of him at the Kadirgamar Institute (by higher ups I have heard)-will this fate also befall Sumanthiran?
    Why don’t you let Suanthiran carry on his good work for our people?

    Will the man be elected by the south? A Tamil and a Christian to boot too ? Will BBS/JHU/let him?

  • Jon

    Yeah, well, all those ruinous years of civil war certainly wouldn’t have helped the SL economy, would it? Can’t blame the ‘suddhas’ for that!

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Mahesan Niranjan,

    Your writing is so brilliant that I kept asking myself have I read this author before? Then it struck me. It was when you wrote “If you don’t mind my asking, what is your race?” in Nov 2009.

    What you suggest is not an impossibility as Tamils and Muslims have been elected from Sinhala electorates.

    • Off the Cuff

      “Thus, the coin that we see rolling along has two sides: the Sri Lankan Tamil and the Tamil Sri Lankan. But we know that every such rolling coin will sooner or later have to reach its more stable state of lying on one side”

      An example of a razor sharp mind of a man I grew to admire.

  • Ajit De Silva

    This is a superb piece of writing – devoid of any jingoism for separatism.

    Yes, I too listened to Mr. Sumanthiran’s speech in Parliament and that was, indeed, a fresh breeze. I hope he carves his own identity in the Sri Lankan polity lest he will be corrupted and we will lose him altogether.

    This article and Mr. Sumanthiran’s speech on the 18th Amendment should be translated into Sinhala and disseminated among the majority of Sri Lankans who cannot understand, read and write in English. Otherwise, it will only feed the academic interest of a few.

  • J Fernando

    Yes the man can make great speeches but what I find interesting is why people cannot let this poor soul to be in the party he wants to be, why should he join the SLFP/UNP?
    He is a educated and intelligent man (as evident from his legal work ), he has made the decision.

    • Off the Cuff

      What is more interesting is why your bile boils when a Tamil expresses his wish about a fellow Tamils politics.

      • J Fernando

        On the contrary I support him, I just don’t understand why the man (Sumanthiran) who is brilliant as we all know is not allowed to make his own mind up, he has decided that the TNA is the party that he wants to belong to and we should support him.
        Long time readers know who the racists are and who are not( hint, lets call them link posters !)
        Unlike some I am a real Buddhist and don’t have jealousy in my heart.

        • Off the Cuff

          You wrote “On the contrary I support him, I just don’t understand why the man (Sumanthiran) who is brilliant as we all know is not allowed to make his own mind up,”

          How does Mahesan Niranjan prevent Sumanthiran from making his own decision? Could you quote what he has said that can be interpreted as such?

          You wrote “he has decided that the TNA is the party that he wants to belong to and we should support him.”

          What is your problem as a Sinhalese, when a Tamil like Mahesan Niranjan, presents his own viewpoint to a Tamil political leader like Sumanthiran?

          Has Mahesan Niranjan Lied or instigated Hatred like say Usha?
          If you can tolerate Usha’s lies without a HUM, why do you want to shut up a sane and moderate Tamil articulating his viewpoint, to a political leader representing him?

          Sumanthiran is intelligent as you have noted. If he listens to Mahesan Niranjan it would not be because Sumanthiran is an ignoramus. Are you afraid, like Dev above, that Mahesan Niranjan’s viewpoint might appeal to Sumanthiran’s intelligence?

          Are you afraid that Sumanthiran might dessert the LTTE political mouth piece, the TNA, as a result?

          You wrote “Long time readers know who the racists are and who are not( hint, lets call them link posters !)”

          Yes Mahesan Niranjan is a genuine long time contributor and he would know who other genuine long time contributors are. Yes you do claim to be one but strangely, your first post appeared on the Nimalaruben thread in May this year. Strange for a “Long Time (im?)Poster” whose years of silence was broken in May 2013, attempting to dictate GV policy.

          BTW why are you deserting debates regularly?

          You wrote “Unlike some I am a real Buddhist and don’t have jealousy in my heart.”

          Glad to note your piety! Is that why you are trying to subvert Mahesan Niranjan from presenting his ideas to a Tamil politician?

          But is that declaration about your religion, similar to your declaration about your ethnicity?

          I will renew my previous challenge which you failed to take up.
          Can you produce a single comment you have made in defence of either?

          Prove me wrong.
          Good Luck.

          • George

            You pop in at every topic like a jack-in-the-box and subvert the discussion, not every topic has to be “I win” “they lose”.
            Let others express their opinion, just leave it at that.
            I hate coming to these boards now, this is all I see in every discussion you get involved in -fighting.

          • George

            My comments were aimed at the person calling himself , off the cuff

          • Off the Cuff

            Hi George,

            You say “You pop in at every topic like a jack-in-the-box and subvert the discussion,”

            Please explain how my defence of Mahesan Niranjan SUBVERTS the discussion?

            Are you also worried about Mahesans advise to Sumanthiran?

            “not every topic has to be “I win” “they lose”.

            Sure I agree

            “Let others express their opinion, just leave it at that.”

            I am not on the staff of GV to prevent ANYONE from expressing their opinion. You are not on the staff of GV to stop me from expressing My opinion.

            If you cannot tolerate dissenting views you have your own remedy. No one is holding you here by force are they?

            Kind Regards,
            OTC

          • Off the Cuff

            Dear GV Moderator,

            My reply to George seems to have gone astray.
            Comments posted later have been published.
            http://groundviews.org/2013/06/01/sumanthirans-choice/#comment-53777

            Hi George,

            You say “You pop in at every topic like a jack-in-the-box and subvert the discussion,”

            Please explain how my defence of Mahesan Niranjan SUBVERTS the discussion?

            Are you also worried about Mahesans advise to Sumanthiran?

            “not every topic has to be “I win” “they lose”.

            Sure I agree

            “Let others express their opinion, just leave it at that.”

            I am not on the staff of GV to prevent ANYONE from expressing their opinion. You are not on the staff of GV to stop me from expressing My opinion.

            If you cannot tolerate dissenting views you have your own remedy. No one is holding you here by force are they?

            Kind Regards,
            OTC

        • jansee

          Now we have to invent a barometer to determine who is a real Buddhist? By the way, is Patali Champika Ranawaka one?

          • Dev

            There are only a few patriots/true Buddhists in SL, the (short) list includes:

            1) Gota Rajapakse
            2) Percy (Mahinda) Rajapakse
            3) Off the cuff
            4) Wimal Weerawansa

            and thanks to your suggestion….

            5) Patali Champika Ranawaka

          • jansee

            Dev:

            You have missed out the barometer??

  • jansee

    A rubbish from an idealist. I was once as idealist as this writer. Mahinda Rajapakse was a human rights campaigner/defender who dared to defy the then ruling regime and tell the whole world about the atrocities happening in the country. His presence in the UN sparked calls of a traitor. What is he today? A man standing accused as the worst human rights perpetrator in SL. The UN was set-up to prevent future wars. Did that prevent the cynical Iraqi adventure nor the Gulf War? The UN went through an introspect sort of holy fire to find fault with itself on where and how it failed the civilians in SL. So, this will go on and on. Not that I am not in favour of “trying” but in the context of SL the majority Sinhalese became just too greedy, used their numbers to grab everything within their reach and it will be simply too much to give up their comfort zones. Even ten Sumanthirans cannot change this. After all, from the APRC and the number of promises made before the war concluded and what exactly happened after the war could not have been lost on this writer (Mahesan Niranjan). To me, he is a fool chasing the shadows. He is not the first and he will not be the last.

    • Off the Cuff

      Jansee,

      You wrote ” … but in the context of SL the majority Sinhalese became just too greedy, used their numbers to grab everything within their reach and it will be simply too much to give up their comfort zones”

      You have managed to turn a non communal page into a communal one.

      The quotation below is from Dr Jane Russel’s book “Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution”, (page 240).

      “the more and more rapacious demands of the Tamils”

      Despite your inventive Rhetoric above, Dr Russel puts the Tamil demands in perspective.

      That undeniable greed, is visible for anyone to see, just by looking at the Eelam project’s map.

  • Cas Shivas

    Yes Dayan, Why don’t you throw that challenge to the South. Choose him your leader and make him the all powerful President. But it will never happen.Kadirgamar in SLFP, a Minister and their most powerful and brilliant spokesperson could not be made even a powerless Prime Minister and you know why.

    • Off the Cuff

      Hi Cas Shivas,

      Can you please elaborate with references about this Kadirgama affair?

      Had he come forward as a candidate, even as President, I would have voted for him without any hesitation. Unfortunately we can only speculate on how he would have been received by the Majority of Citizens of Lanka, as the LTTE took his life before it was put to the test.

      • Aia

        Mr Sumanthiran is one of the few SLTs in TNA. He made a clear choice when he accepted a MP position through TNA’s Natinal list to enter into the parliment, and we hear his voice since – there is no other choices for him to make. One of the best things done by Mr Sampanthan, although this does not appear to please a few within.

        Should he stick with, he can become the chief negotiator, not by choice but by neccersity. If you look for young talents in TNA, he is the only one. But, who he is to negotiate?. Is it the PSC? We saw what PSC did in the case of the Madam CJ. Sumanthiran as part of TNA was in negotiation with SLG but had to pull out because of its indifference. A solution to the ethinic issue, he believes is within SL but GSL likes to think like LTTE did-try to foster a hatred culture among the races.

        There are people who are prepared to vote for Kathiragama not for Kathirgamar, but even these type of people have doublts whether the majority vote for Kathiragama. Under such circumstances, Sumanthiran choice is clear: can easily becomes a minister through nomination or the chief negotiator by the election.

        • kamals

          Aia,

          Had Sumanthiran’s name been on the electoral list of one of the northern districts, he probably would not have polled enough preferential votes to enter parliament! Would you agree? If you do, then blaming Sinhalese for differentiating between Kadirkamar and Kadaragama is a bit childish, isn’t it?

          And you say there is no other young talent within the TNA. Sadly this is true. Do you think this is because there is no talent among young Tamils? Or is it because of a particular way the TNA was formed and now being managed keeps talented young Tamils out of it???

    • jansee

      Exactly. All these guys have conveniently forgotten that while it was CKB’s wish that Kadirgamar assume the PM’s post, the opposition from the Sinhala polity put to rest that idea. Look at the glowing tributes they heap on him.

      • kamals

        Jansee: and who shot Kadirkamar? At least the Sinhalese let him live — and CBK, also a Sinhalese, wanted him to become PM, you say! Also, have you forgotten that those who killed Kadirkamar also engineered Rajapakse’s rise to power.

  • Jayalath

    GOOD piece of Thought and An excellent initiation of preventing of lurching back to old folk dance and singing by some northern politicos . The Tamils are Sri lankans and their part of responsibility is to take part of better governance to all Sri lankan rather thinking of be part of part in Sri Lanka .

    I would really admire of having some people among us with such rational mind ,but they are only handful which is a discomfort .
    Infact , I will admire people like Sumanthiran , we were never lacked people like him among us . Laskman Adiragama is an Exmple who showed us remarkable commitment to the country who born , therefore , what I would impress if Rajapaksa can understand this and acquires the best from like people Sumanthiran as much as we benefited from Kadiragama .but in such circumstance that Rajapaksa has to genuinely demonstrate the integrity without playing a game .
    As We are in a juncture where we need people like Sumanthiran to restore an eternal peace and prosperity to the country , therefore it is our duty to elect and place this type of people in the right place .

    Neverthe less , the most important message of this Artical is the Graves ARE NOT THE Only Achiement, it has infinite meanings . I do not think that a person easily would understand the reality of a such sentence ,Also it is can be taken up in different ways by some , . However , I would admire the people who greatly realise the truth and who demonstrates it in deeds as well as the writing . if you are meaning to sake hand for all , here I’m with you .