Image courtesy AFP

The TNA has swept the polls in the North. More importantly, the Tamil people have voted courageously, convincingly, and clearly. It was an expected outcome, but as President Rajapaksa took off to New York, he would have known that numbers and statistics on paper, more than just mind-made presumptions, can have a very coruscating impact, that the numbers in this case do not lie; not in the ‘South’, and never in the ‘North’.

The election to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) was not just a provincial election. It was that, and much more than that. It was almost like a referendum; not for a separate State, for the TNA Manifesto did not demand a separate Tamil Eelam State, in any explicit manner. But it was certainly a referendum of sorts, calling for the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people, for greater autonomy, for a re-structuring of the existing constitutional framework, and for accountability.

Lessons about the Conflict

The result in the North tells much about the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.

Firstly, it tells us that the problem here is not just a problem of discrimination, or about the need for a more Tamil-friendly government in the ‘South’, or the absence of economic development. It is also not so much about the need to devolve a few powers to the periphery so that the people in those areas could benefit from them; a theory which was in any case rubbished when a Colombo-based Mr. CV Wigneswaran was nominated as TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate. This is not a conflict that can be resolved only by enacting a new bill of rights, or by establishing more independent institutions.

Rather, the problem is more about nationalism and nationhood, about the Tamil people’s aspirations, about their need to be recognized as an equal nationality on the basis of equality and self-determination. It is a question that has to do with a deeply polarized polity, or deeply polarized polities. In broader terms, it is a question about how peoples with contrasting views about their nationhood, about their histories, can still co-exist peacefully.

Secondly, another related point that this election drives home, and one which should be openly acknowledged, is that whatever the historical facts one may adduce for or against the ‘traditional homeland’ argument of the Tamil people, the verdict of the Tamil people shows that for all practical purposes, the North, at least, is an entity which the Tamil people can consider to be their ‘traditional homeland’. There’s another phrase for that (which the TNA uses, as well as the Indo-Lanka Accord): ‘historical habitation’. Of course, these are vague and wooly, and contestable, terms; but not so for political purposes, not when one part of the country votes in a clearly recognizable and distinctive manner. Interestingly, with the holding of the NPC election, what the Sri Lankan government has ended up doing (unwittingly) is to further politically strengthen the Tamil nationalists’ claim for a ‘traditional homeland’. So you may spend your whole life seeking historical arguments to demolish such territorial claims, but the brutal and agonizing reality is that such claims get validated, strengthened, solidified in numerous different ways; especially with election-results like this. This then appears to be a clear win for the Tamil nationalists.

Thirdly, the Tamil people have also shown quite convincingly that infrastructure development and the construction of hotels are not enough, that the ‘Uthuru Vasanthaya’ kind of narrative means nothing much to them. And in Kayts, they have dealt an important and necessary blow to the EPDP which continues to carry out its armed activities. In a sense, the Tamil people have done their utmost to ensure that the government and its allies are not afforded too much legitimacy. That poses a significant challenge to the government, a challenge that no community in the ‘South’ has been able to pose.


But there is also a more serious dimension to note. A careful examination suggests that much of the above was precisely what the Sinhala nationalists feared might happen.

One: so for example, while the Sinhala nationalists often claim that the problem in Sri Lanka is not a problem of discrimination, they are not wholly incorrect in stating that the problem here is largely a problem of Tamil nationalism too (as often stated by the likes of Prof Nalin de Silva). This election strengthens the point, given the nationalist rhetoric of the TNA. Now that the Sri Lankan government has missed the plot, the Sinhala nationalists could begin to wonder whether President Rajapaksa has been too lenient, even careless, about holding the NPC election. And the Sinhala nationalists would well be thinking that they might have got their Rajapaksas mixed up.

Two: it will be seen from the above that it is not incorrect to argue, as Prof GH (‘Gerry’) Peiris pointed out more recently, that the Indo-Lanka Accord (and indeed the 13th Amendment) recognized the ‘traditional homeland’ claim of the Tamil nationalists. That the Indo-Lanka Accord goes some distance in acknowledging such a claim, has been pointed out by many analysts. And more importantly, for all practical purposes, this recognition comes about largely through elections, and once a people have voted in a clear and convincing manner in favour of a manifesto promoting the demand for self-determination and autonomy, especially at provincial/regional elections which are specifically focused on promoting self-government to that contested province.

One question of course is why the LTTE failed to support the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment. That was perhaps a case of the LTTE being too impatient, lacking in political imagination, and unable to make crafty use of the language of the Indo-Lanka Accord (or the 13th Amendment framework). In other words, it is not that the Indo-Lanka Accord does not recognize a Tamil homeland; rather, it is just that the LTTE could not read the Accord in a way that promoted their project.

And here’s the danger. The TNA is now in a position to go in any direction it wants to go: it can take a very ‘separatist’ path (and read all these documents in a way promoting separatism), or a path promoting greater unity. The danger is that the moment they adopt the former path, the prognostications of the Sinhala nationalists come true. In short, the current situation calls for a lot of patience, for just a slight slip on the part of the Tamil nationalists would validate the entire narrative of the Sinhala nationalists (that is if, according to some, this hasn’t happened already).

Three: and finally, it is also not incorrect to argue (as Mr. SL Gunasekera did) that the 13th Amendment was not about devolving powers to the people of the North (given Mr. Wigneswaran’s nomination). Rather, for certain sections within the TNA, it was about having a person who is more comfortable with the language of international diplomacy, someone who could be a voice that the ‘international community’ couldn’t ignore. And the moment Mr. Wigneswaran trips and adopts a discourse which he perceives would please the external forces, the Sinhala nationalists would be proven correct.

Viewed from this angle, then, what emerges now is a highly tensed situation. And what the above reflect is very simply this: that every victory for the Tamil nationalists seems to validate the perennial fears of the Sinhala nationalists, while every victory for the Sinhala nationalists in turn validates the fears of the Tamil nationalists. If then, both communities need to rethink what May 2009 and September 2013 mean to them respectively; for all victories mean a defeat to someone else, all defeats a victory to another.

What can be done?

With great victories come great responsibilities too. On the one hand, it would be well if the Tamil nationalists, while continuing to make their political claim for self-determination (with the intention of exercising it within a united Sri Lanka), also promote a discourse which places equal importance on the greater democratization of the rest of the country. That is essential. And the Tamil people will not lose anything by attempting to convince the Sinhala people that they (the Tamil people) are for a united Sri Lanka.

Of course, this cannot be done by simply walking together or holding hands with the Opposition parties; it is also not easy with political manifestos which sound more like written submissions prepared for a case before the International Court of Justice! Rather, the TNA and other Tamil parties would need to articulate more fully and comprehensively, even carefully, their political, cultural and also economic aspirations and plans and how these could also benefit the construction of a united Sri Lanka. It is also necessary for them to construct a more distinct Tamil-Hindu Sri Lankan identity that is vibrant and strong enough to withstand unnecessary intrusions from Tamil Nadu and the West.

On the other hand, however, it is necessary for the Sinhala community to take a serious and cold look at the election results, at the polarization that has taken place, and question whether more LTTE-bashing takes them anywhere. They will need to understand that the Tamil people are not terrorists, and that attaching the ‘terrorist’ label on the TNA is similar to attaching such a label on the Tamil people too. And to be sure, it is also necessary to shed this idea that somehow the Tamil politicians have misled the Tamil people. Nothing of that sort has happened unless one imagines the Tamil people to be a fools; and the politician-people dichotomy is largely a myth.

But doing all this doesn’t mean that the problem confronting us will be resolved. That too is a fat illusion. Yet, some progress can be made in moving towards a place that is far better than the present. 


For the moment, however, there is only a question: why then do we need to welcome this result, this victory of the Tamil people? It is because that despite all the dangers and uncertainties that hover over us, the Tamil people of Sri Lanka have given a clear verdict. It is because the Tamil people, after long years of suffering, have stood resolutely, together, in exercising their franchise. It is a result to be welcomed for all those reasons, but also for showing those of the younger generation the sheer complexity of the problem at hand. It is a result to be welcomed precisely because it wakes us from our slumber, because it tells us that not everything is well, up there in the North. It is to be welcomed because it reminds us of what true reconciliation ought to be, that it is not about giving a hand to those who come crawling towards you, but about unconditionally accepting the other as your equal: one might be inclined to praise Prabhakaran, and yet, we are equals for we too have had that mad rage within us; one might talk incessantly about a homeland, but in denying it we too had believed in our own version of a homeland – so here’s a hand. And this verdict is to be welcomed because at a time when most political movements are turning into political dinosaurs, the Tamil people might just have taught them a few lessons on struggle, courage and resilience. For some Sinhalese like us to whom the Tamils are our equals, this is our victory too; a victory of, and ultimately for, the commons. There is much work to be done now, together.

  • KDAmarasiri

    “Northern and Eastern provinces are ethnic homeland of Tamils !.” It is nonsense. They want separate treatment!
    They are not discriminated. They have been given unnecessary priority in every sector and they want special treatment of powers as a community. Tamils have always being invaders of Srilanka.They need special treatment for invasions they made in the past.What about Red Indians in North America ? They were the real owners of USA and Canada. Are they given special powers? Why don’t these rogue countries correct their attitudes.

    NO one is concerned about them.
    Navi Pillay has to see into their plight.

    • Tamilan

      Are the tamils in your opinion now Invaders or natives? 😀 You are speaking about invading tamils and from native red indians? [Edited out]

    • truth

      Are you awake? Sinhalese are the people who were given preferential treatment ever since SL got independence!! The whole trouble started from the time Sinhala only, standardization etc. etc.

      One point you are saying that Tamils are invaders and then you say Red Indians are not given special powers thereby comparing Red Indians to Tamils. You seem to be confused or you just hate the Tamils, just because they speak a different language!!!

      • Eusense

        In every country of this world the majority gets “preferential” treatment. No one can deny that. That is what is happening in Sri Lanka too. In the US the Spanish speaking population is close to 25% (much higher than % of Tamils in SL) and has no self rule or preferences to Spanish language.
        Northern Tamils need to adjust and thrive like their counter parts in Colombo and other areas of the south.

  • Thunder

    I do not see any fundamental different opinions had among us what would the results be north east election in Sri Lanka . We all must welcome now and appreciate the out come .this is good situation and taking the north people into mainstream politics along is a huge achiement after 30 years of ethnic battle . Where I see a serious essence of compliance of both between the central government and north west province without doing things to people to take arms or depend on arms in the future . This is my view and hope . But who knows what could happen tomorrow because the politicias have high ability of igniting the hatred over night .So it should be our duty as ordinary people to be vigilant all the time with new steps taken by politicians in the area and out . Where reminds me the rant of Wingnaswaran regarding the rights of province after won the election .
    I believe there should be a good balance and confidence between the state and the province council affairs , and building the bridge between to them to fulfill the needs of people in the areas , which is imperative rather than stick to historical rights and debating about it .

    We also can see the significant steps taken by government to develop the North and east areas where people must support the government to achieve the development disregarding the political or ethinic differences.

    Next page.

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Kalana,

    Sri Lanka has a 3 million + Tamil population of which about 12% voted in the North. Hence characterising the vote of a strong Tamil Nationalist area, as a verdict of the Tamil people is an exaggeration. Recognise it for what it is. It is a Land slide victory for the TNA. It is also an endorsement of the TNA manifesto. What that is, needs no spelling out.

    What has happened to the Muslims of the North? Only 676 Muslims have voted.

    Certainly there is a Historical Tamil habitat as much as there are Historical Muslim, Sinhalese and other habitats. There is absolutely no harm in recognising a Historical Tamil Habitat as long as History supports the boundaries claimed. The British imposed administrative boundaries are not the boundaries of habitation. It cannot be, as Lanka had 80% forest cover and a 340,000 indigenous Tamil population during British times. This is absolute fact and is supported by History. It is thievery to claim otherwise.

    This is an observation from Prof Pradeep Jeganathan

    the very idea that Sri Lanka is made of discreet, competing communities of Sinhala, Tamil and Mohemedan is
    very much a colonial idea; first mooted in Colebrokke Camaron Reforms of 1833, which simultaneous with the misappropriation of Mahavamsa and the Vamsatthappaksini for a parochial European debate about the
    chronology of South Asian Kings. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years. This idea then, to repeat, was folded into the idea culled from a misreading of the Mahavamsa that history of this island is a series of battles between Sinhala Buddists and Tamil Hindus. There is no historicity to this, what so ever. We really must abandon this idea, that we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction. Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times.

    Lastly no right thinking Sinhala would look down on another just because of his/her race. Nor would a right
    thinking Tamil, Moor, Burgher or Malay do so. There is evidence that Tamils who did not find acceptance amongst Tamils found it amongst Sinhalese villagers.

    What Lanka needs is Honest deliberation, that will convince the majority of her citizenship (irrespective of ethnicity) that they are getting a fair deal.Current political rhetoric is a far cry from that. Such rhetoric is the breeding ground for extremists.

  • Obamasal

    Sinhalese have the Mahavamsa mindset with belief that they are the hybrid of a lion and human and came to Sri Lanka before Tamils did. Tamils lived only 18 miles away in South India whereas the ancesters of Sinhalese is claimed to have come from Orissa in India. They are of the belief that Tamils waited to set foot in Sri Lanka until their ancesters came 2,500 miles away. Indian fishermen are arrested almost everyday for crossing into Sri Lankan waters but no one from Orissa comes here. Until they come to realise that all in Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – have equal rights to live here the problem cannot be solved.

    The present problem originated when Sinhala Only was enacted in 1956 replacing the common English. Now more than 94% of the government jobs, 100% of the Security, 99% of the police, 99% of the institutions such the government, corporations, banks and judiciary, goverorship of the provinces are controlled by the Sinhalese, jet, they have the audacity to claim that minorities want special privilages. As emphacised in the article unless there is ” equal nationality on the basis of equality and self-determination” within undivided Sri Lanka all these constructions and developments won’t last for long..

  • Sinhala_voice

    Please tell me where is the Sinhala homeland

  • srivanamoth

    The Commonwealth Election Monitors have given the “show” away! Brave of the voters to have cast their vote despite facing threats from the military. Bravo for the Elections Department who have restored confidence in their integrity. What the results show is that a Southern party has also won seats. That is significant even if the TNA won handsomely, as expected. The real test is yet to come: what next for the Northern Provincial Council? Elections after all is only a means to an end for the people. It has a bitter history. Will there be a better future?