Elections, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

The Tamil Population and the Politics of Boycotts and Non Participation

The first opportunity that the population of this island had to vote in an election based on universal adult franchise was in the State Council elections of 1931 under the Donoughmore Constitution. The people of the other communities voted with much enthusiasm but two large segments of the Tamil population did not. One segment, led by the Jaffna Youth Congress boycotted it because they wanted immediate Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in Jaffna on the invitation of the Jaffna Youth Congress when the boycott decision was made, prophetically warned of the likely ill-consequences of a boycott which could be misinterpreted in the South. Some of the more responsible local leaders also opposed the boycott but the radicals succeeded in getting the boycott resolution adopted. The other segment, led by the old guard conservatives boycotted it for the opposite reason- because the Donoughmore Reforms went too far too early.

Thus while people of other communities celebrated the achievement of universal adult franchise and Dominion status by voting, two major sections of Sri Lankan Tamils engaged in the first of what was to be a long sequence of mindless, unproductive, escapist boycotts and self exclusions from national politics. That first boycott led predictably to a pan-Sinhala government in the 1930s and other negative developments thereafter.

The LTTE enforced boycott of November 2005 led to the terrible agony inflicted on over a million Tamils in the North and East as well as on large numbers of Muslims in the region over the last few years. A critical difference between the first and (hopefully) the last boycott is that unlike the first, the last was violently enforced. The factor common to both boycotts, and to all those in-between, was that they heaped needless suffering, yet continuing, on the Tamil people.

Alarmingly, some irresponsible Tamils are again advocating either boycotting or effectively spoiling the vote. There are only two candidates with any chance of winning. While neither of them may be attractive to Tamil voters, those who wish to make a difference have no choice but to vote for either of them at least as a second choice – otherwise the vote would be meaningless and no better than a boycott. That would be a betrayal of their civic responsibility and an abandonment of any attempt to secure anyone’s welfare. Voicing an indication of a decision not to vote or to effectively spoil their vote would also be carrying a message to the two leading candidates that they need not take Tamil concerns into account because the Tamils would either not vote or effectively spoil their vote.

Participation in national politics is absolutely essential. The choice for politicians from minority communities need not be between (i) complete marginalization as in the tradition set by the Federal party long ago, (ii) virtual disassociation from ethnic issues as in the case of eminent Tamil and Muslim Ministers such as Lakshman Kadirgamar and A.C.S Hameed who were never seen as champions of Tamil and Muslim rights or (iii) servile cooption as a ‘quisling’. In our recent history we have the examples of minority politicians such as Badiuddin Mohammed, Mohamed Ashraff, and S. Thondaman who do not fit in to any of the above categories but have effectively participated in national government at the highest level and greatly contributed to the welfare of their communities. There is no reason to believe that Sri Lankan Tamil leaders cannot play such a role in national politics.