The Tamil Elephant in the Green (Blue?) Room

Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

Kalana Senaratne’s characteristically perceptive article on the implications of Maithripala Sirisena’s common candidacy for the upcoming Presidential election flags the Tamil question: what role do Tamils and issues of concern to them play in the politics of the election? Kalana deems the Tamils the ‘forgotten other’ of the upcoming campaign, noting that the contest is one between two versions of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Kalana is partially right. While the two main candidates will most certainly not attempt to provide reasonable solutions to the issues of militarization, devolution or the assault on Tamil community life and on civil liberties in the North and East; the Tamil question will not be forgotten. Instead, it will feature grotesquely in the propaganda of the incumbent, which, notwithstanding Mr. Sirisena’s background and studious avoidance of the ethnic issue, will seek to cast the challenger as a pawn in a global conspiracy to divide the country, deliver its leaders to war crimes tribunals, and carve out a diaspora run Tamil state in the North and East. The challenge for Tamil civil society and political formations is how best to respond to these dynamics.

In making this choice, the lived realities of Tamils within the island and the political principles animating their long struggle provide invaluable guidance.

First, while it is not difficult to divine in which direction the Tamil vote will go, we must ask why it will go where it will go. While many will remember the sweeping majority polled by General Sarath Fonseka in the North and East, the structural reasons behind the vote for Fonseka predate his candidacy; indeed they even predate the war. With the catastrophic exception of the LTTE enforced boycott in 2005, Tamil voters in the North and East have participated robustly in Presidential elections, mostly voting for one of the two primary Sinhala oriented ‘national’ candidacies contesting the election. Low levels of support for G. G. Ponnambalam and Sivajilingam’s candidacies in 1982 and 2010 respectively—the only two Tamil candidates to contest Presidential elections—demonstrate that the Tamil voter approaches Presidential elections differently to the way in which she approaches general, local or provincial elections. Thus, while Tamil parties have dominated the vote in the latter, they have had a general aversion to contesting at Presidential elections. Instead, Tamil voting at Presidential elections has been based, to borrow Krishna Kalaichelvan’s words, on “a clear identification of a lowest parameter that is compatible with a dignified Tamil life in the island”, and an identification of the candidate most conducive to the pursuit of that life. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not that candidate. It is for this reason that any initiative by fringe diaspora formations to inspire a Tamil boycott of the 2015 Presidential election or to induce a ‘Tamil’ candidacy will fail and fail spectacularly. It is also the reason why, from a Tamil voter’s perspective, the critical nature of the support for the common candidacy that Kalana talks about is a given. Some commentators are already arguing that the Tamil people should not be misled again into voting for a candidate who does not intend to deliver on Tamil demands. The suggestion is, frankly, insulting. Tamil voters will not naively expect Mr. Sirisena to deliver peace, justice and fairness to the Tamil population on assuming office; they never have when voting consistently for Sinhala candidates since 1982. Instead, what the Tamil voter appears to have understood is that voting prudently at a Presidential election and eschewing extremist recklessness is a necessary but insufficient condition for achieving a political solution.

Second, contrary to the perception created within the Sinhala political class that Tamil politics is obsessed over ‘Tamil issues’ to the exclusion of ‘national issues’, the positions and conduct of moderate Tamil politicians over the years demonstrate that Tamil politics has consistently, and at significant cost, articulated the principles of good governance that now appear to animate the joint opposition campaign. In other words, good governance and rule of law issues are unmistakably Tamil issues. From the Federal Party’s sophisticated objections to the entrenchment of Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution, to the TNA’s passionate opposition to the 18th Amendment and impeachment, articulate Tamil politicians have often led the most stirring defenses of democracy and good governance in the most trying of times. This should not be surprising. The breakdown of the rule of law and democracy has disproportionately impacted the Tamil community. The limited recourse the community may have had in the past to a system of rules and an inconsistent judiciary has been taken away: the non-implementation of even the meagre existing provisions on devolution – a problem compounded by the unavailability of any form of judicial redress. The institution of the President has had particularly odious effects on the Tamil people. It has concentrated power at the centre and thwarted devolution, limited judicial recourse through immunity provisions and the President’s control over judicial appointments, converted the governance structure of the country into a semi-monarchical Sinhala feudalism and weakened Parliament—thereby weakening the Tamil voice in Parliament. Thus, a campaign for abolishing the Executive Presidency—never mind how flawed the alternative—will be to the certain benefit of the Tamil people.

How then must the opposition campaign? How does a Sinhala dominated opposition allay the fears of the Sinhala community that the opposition campaign—a cause for which there will be critical but overwhelming Tamil support—will harm the Sinhalese? Equally, how must a responsible Tamil opposition express its positions to the Tamil people credibly, without undermining Mr. Sirisena’s ability to attract Sinhala votes? Honesty in these matters is often the best policy. The Sinhala and Tamil sides of the campaign must tell their respective constituencies that on some major issues, such as the Executive Presidency and broader good governance and rule of law concerns, there is no zero sum game between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and that Tamil support for the ending of the executive presidency is based on the same reasons behind support for it from Sinhalese. If we are indeed to be united, then surely some causes must unite us. Honesty also requires that both Sinhala and Tamil leaders address the ethnic issue frontally, and tell their respective constituencies that while consensus is important, there is no consensus yet on issues of concern to the Tamil people, indeed there may even be fundamental disagreement, and that these issues will have to be negotiated in a new era. Perhaps in this case, honesty also makes for better electoral politics.