Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Wanted for the Tamils: An Ashroff or a Thondaman

Now that the armed conflict of the LTTE is supposed to be approaching its end, it behoves those concerned with the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, to reflect seriously on the options available to redeem their future. In that context, the speech delivered at the seminar organized by NIPU on December 21, 2008, by Sumanasiri Liyanage onReformist Perspective on Constitutional Change, assumes relevance and significance. The text of the speech has been reproduced in Groundviews on February 10, 2009.

The Incrementally Progressive Approach
Liyanage sums up his preferred option for the Tamils as follows; 

My submission here is if the advocates of pluralist democratic constitutional order adopt a strategy of gradual and incremental reforms, it may produce better results. Thirteenth and Seventeenth Amendments notwithstanding their limits provide with options that would facilitate the journey towards a new constitutional order”.

In his article on “Tamil politics tomorrow: Options, challenges and pitfalls“ published in the Groundviews on February 5, 2009, Dayan Jayatilleka makes the following observation: 

“The tragedy of Tamil politics is that both the Tigers and the EPRLF failed to recognize that the 13th amendment represented the limits of the possible. The Tigers stand was rejectionist and violent, but even the EPRLF declared the 13th amendment as inadequate before they entered the Provincial council to work it. Therefore they never really settled in to work within those parametric constraints.”

Jayatilleka makes this submission more specifically when he says 

“This is why the only man with a roadmap, Douglas Devananda, has embraced President Rajapakse’s ‘comprehensive implementation of the 13th amendment’ as the only feasible start, while placing the 13th amendment Plus, and even consideration of the Indian model, as subsequent stages of political evolution. Between the various stages of his gradualist formula lie periods of the broadening of consensus and the building up of trust between the communities over time and through practical experience” [Tamil Nadu, the Indian model and devolution“, August 13, 2008.]

In my Hurry up and go slowly posted on the Groundviews on August 18, 2008, I wrote, 

“It is foolish to idle because the ideal is not possible. We can only achieve the optimum practicable at any point in time depending on the balance of forces currently operative. In this sense, the President’s declared move to implement the Thirteenth Amendment appears to be a first step in the right direction. May be no party agrees unreservedly to this move. Only it happens to be a move that no one would seriously oppose”.

My conception of the way ahead was optimistic: 

To think that implementing the Thirteenth Amendment is the end of the race would be deceiving oneself for want of a sense of history. The sincerity with which the Amendment is implemented should generate greater trust among the communities which in turn would doubtlessly make the stake-holders more amenable to greater consensus on further progress.”


Strategy and Tactics

It is perhaps an irony of fate that a people have to resort to strategic manipulations to realize their birth rights. Even such are the vagaries of politics based on the numbers game. But it is imprudent to refuse to resort to strategy after direct options have ended in failure. The most favourable scenario to Tamil interests would be the two major parties coming together on a pluralist liberal democratic platform. Going by past form however, such an opportunity appears to be remote in the extreme.

In the event of the major parties refusing to come together, Jayatilleka recommends the following strategy to the Tamils for the progressive realization of their aspirations:

“If they opt wisely to form a coalition with Mahinda Rajapakse, they can neutralize and outweigh the influence of the Sinhala hard-line parties and dark fantasies of settler-colonized permanently Occupied Territories, ensure the full implementation of the 13th amendment, prevent any unjust legislation, push for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, and accelerate the economic development of their areas. If they ally with the Rightwing Opposition which is tarred (perhaps for generations to come) with the brush of appeasement, they will continue to find themselves at a political dead-end.” [Tamil politics tomorrow: Options, challenges and pitfalls“, Supra]       

Sri Lankan politics being so unpredictable, opportunistic and temperamental, I personally think it would be unwise for the Tamils to hitch their wagon to a single star. The wiser strategy would be for them to choose their partner according to the exigencies of the developing situation.

In a climate where ruling parties have had to palaver minorities for their survival, optimum advantage is gained by helping the ruling party to maintain its slender majority in the precarious situation into which the Bahubootha Constitution has cast them. This was the strategy of Thondaman and Ashroff and it cannot be denied that they obtained the best possible bargains for their people, bargains that were not forthcoming through confrontation.

Allegiance in a ‘political marriage of convenience’ is not permanently owed to any specific party, but to the party in power. On the face of it, this strategy may appear to be dishonest but all is fair in love and politics. “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics”. What matters are the gains a leader makes for his people through skillful manipulation of the balance of power.

The paramount consideration for a leader is the welfare of his people. Most of the concessions the upcountry Tamils have won are undoubtedly the outcome of Thondaman’s manipulative tactics. That he zigzagged from government to government to achieve his mission may raise many a cynical smile but what matters is that Thondaman has had the last laugh. Ashroff adopted similar strategy and in the process, delivered much more for his people than conventional politics has been able to achieve for decades.


Responsibility of the Diaspora

The problem however is to find a Thondaman or an Ashroff for the Tamils. Tamil leadership has been decimated and neutralized through decades of violence. The leaders that remain do not command universal acceptance. Some have been overshadowed by their opposition to terrorism which has been the order of the day for most Tamils so far. Others have ruined their reputation through their own acts of omission and commission. Those who posed themselves as the leaders of the Tamils by proxy would naturally fade away with the civil war. The greatest need of the hour for the Tamils is to find their leadership.

In any case, the old leadership brigade of the Tamils is outdated and what would have been the new, lie at eternal rest in the vast graveyards of the North and East. Even to those who have survived, decades of armed conflict have denied the basic facilities that would have groomed them for leadership of their people. In the circumstances, the Tamils have to look to the Diaspora for guidance and direction and it is the sacred duty of the Diaspora to help fill the leadership gap in the present helpless situation of their people.

The Diaspora comprises the best brains available to the community but it is doubtful whether they would sacrifice their ample blessings in disguise, to answer the call of their siblings at home. Even if they are not prepared to sacrifice their new found fortunes for the sake of their people, the least they can do is to guide them through the critical post-conflict years. This calls for the preparation of a road map for amelioration of Tamil interests, a task for a Think Tank.

Impliedly the Diaspora has ample resources for a Think Tank par excellence but the problem is the absence of infrastructure to put together such a guiding light. Those who liaised internationally with the apparently losing cause have a new role to play here. They should take the initiative to put together a plan of action for the post-conflict Tamil cause and guide, harness, sustain and encourage their less fortunate siblings at home.

To begin with, leading lights of the Diaspora should follow up the lead given by the President in his Independence Day address calling for the return of expatriate Tamils. They should seek a dialogue with him with a view to laying down a foundation that would lead to the final emancipation of their people. Their lethargy at this crucial stage will only strengthen the countervailing elements to force the hands of government towards parochialism. A prompt hands-on, pragmatic approach by the Diaspora should be more meaningful and fruitful to the Tamils than all the efforts to get Clinton, Brown, Obama and Moon to help by remote control.