Tamil National Alliance (TNA)leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan underwent heart surgery at a hospital in New Delhi on December 7th. The surgery according to TNA sources was successful and the veteran Tamil Parliamentarian from Trincomalee is likely to be discharged this week
The septuagenarian Sampanthan will not however be returning to Sri Lanka soon. Given his age and state of health, Sampanthan will be recuperating in Chennai with his family and not engage in active politics for quite a while.
Rajavarothayam Sampanthan ~ pic courtesy: Reuters
While wishing the TNA leader a speedy recovery this column notes with concern that the delay in Sampanthan returning to the fray may affect the slow progress towards an evolving political understanding between the Government and Tamil National Alliance.
Writing in the “Daily Mirror” of October 16th 2010 this columnist argued strongly that political rapprochement between the Govt and TNA was urgently necessary.
Here are some relevant extracts from that article –
“This does not mean that the TNA gives up all dignity and self-respect as a political party representing the Sri Lankan Tamil people. It also does not mean that the government is right in all what it does and that the TNA has to simply toe its line without question.
What it means is that the TNA as a responsible party representing a badly affected community needs to be flexible and constructive in its approach. It has to deal diplomatically and judiciously with a head swollen regime riding the crest of a triumphant wave with the belief that might is right.
As far as the Tamil people are concerned there are two crucial issues needing immediate attention.
Firstly there is the imperative need to rehabilitate and resettle all displaced persons. Along with that are the related requisites of reconstruction, development, economic revival, enhancement of employment and improvement of education. There is also the need to secure the speedy release of all detained persons and re-integrate them into society.
Secondly there is the need to redress genuine grievances and accommodate legitimate political aspirations. For this to happen there must be a willingness and readiness to focus on the attainable rather than hanker after the desirable however attractive it may be.
Given current realities what is feasible is to obtain full implementation of the provisions provided through the 13th and 16th amendments to the Constitution albeit with some modification. Greater devolution to the North and East and full fledged official language status for Tamil should be the goals.
For the TNA to achieve these goals it needs to work with the government in a spirit of cooperation and not confrontation. Pressure exerted by India and other Western nations on Colombo can be helpful but can only play a supplementary role.
Experience should teach the Tamil parties that “rights” obtained through external intervention will not be realised on ground if the Sinhala polity resents it. What is workable is for the Tamil political representatives to interact with the ruling regime and work in partnership. Politics is the art of the possible!
President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 07 March 2010 at the President’s House Colombo met Indian Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao
On the other hand the Rajapaksa regime too should reflect and revise its approach towards the Tamil and Muslim people. At present the government may be right on top and Mahinda Rajapaksa may feel that he is king of the world.
The political parties representing minority communities have lost all bargaining clout and are virtually powerless. This does not mean that the government should ignore the minorities and roll on like a juggernaut while mouthing meaningless platitudes that there is no majority or minority anymore
In the case of the Tamil people the Rajapaksa regime needs to arrive at some form of understanding with their premier political representatives. Whatever the disgraceful pro-Tiger past of the TNA there is no denying that the alliance performed creditably in the 2010 elections without any Tiger support and won the most number of seats in the Tamil majority regions.
Instead of trying to promote other “replacements” or encourage defections the Rajapaksa regime would do well to forge a working relationship at least with the Tamil national alliance. It does seem clear that the government intends introducing further Constitutional amendments in the future. At least one of these (19th or 20th) would relate to devolution as provided through the Provincial councils.
Although the government has the necessary Parliamentary majority to push through these amendments without TNA support, it would be better to have the TNA on board.
The prestige of the government would rise high if it can win over the TNA and pass the required amendments with its support. Such an amendment would be durable and doable. Likewise the TNA would achieve lasting success if it can work together with the government and play a constructive role in catering to the economic, social, cultural and political needs of the Tamil people.
If this ideal state of affairs is to evolve both the Govt and TNA have to end the current stalemate. It is not for both sides to wait for the other side to stretch out hands and then grasp it. It is for both sides to reach out to each other. For this a greater sense of political maturity and statesmanship is required.
Rapprochement between the Government and Tamil National Alliance is the need of the hour. Both sides must realise that time is of the essence”.
This column notes with great sense of satisfaction that much water has flown under the bridges since the above appeal was made on October 16th. Significant developments in the sphere of Govt-TNA relations have occurred and gone largely unreported in the media.
While ignorant and biased critics of President Rajapaksa continue to berate him for not attempting to evolve a political settlement to the unresolved Tamil National question, the Machiavelli of Medamulana has in his distinctive functional style initiated some quiet moves to arrive at a political understanding with the premier political party representing Sri Lankan Tamils.
These moves have been largely centered around an unobtrusive dialogue between President Rajapaksa and TNA leader Sampanthan that has focused on ways and means to forge closer understanding and cooperation between the Govt and TNA on important issues affecting the Sri Lankan minority ethnicities in general and the “Ilankai Thamizhar” in particular.
While progress in this respect has not necessarily been at break-neck speed, forward movement has not been at snail pace either. However in the context of Sampanthan’s surgery and recovery there is bound to be a temporary lull in this regard.
This then is the reason for concern expressed by this column that the health condition of Sampanthan may affect the progress towards a Govt-TNA understanding.
There was a stage in Tamil politics when the ailing, elderly Samuel James Velupillai (SJV) Chelvanayagam was the single most important Sri Lankan Tamil political leader. This columnist during his late teens and early twenties used to fervently hope that the Tamil national question would be peacefully resolved while this leader of the Gandhian mould was alive. The future of Tamils seemed bleak and desolate then in a post –SJVC scenario.
PRIME MINISTER S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (left) and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, leader of the Thamil Arasu Katchi, shake hands after signing what came to be known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact on July 26, 1957. Bandaranaike repudiated the agreement in April 1958 in view of a campaign led by the Buddhist clergy and sections of the Sinhala political leadership. ~ pic courtesy: The Hindu
Sadly, Chelvanayagam passed away within a fortnight of this columnist receiving his baptism as a cub reporter on the “Virakesari”. In fact my first by-line was for a human interest story relating to SJV’s death. With the wisdom of hindsight I now feel that my fears then were indeed proved right. The Tamils have indeed been like a rudderless boat in the absence of Chelvanayagam.
Election poster in Trincomalee ~ pic: Drs. Sarajevo
Rajavarothayam Sampanthan is no Chelvanayagam but he is the “best” of what is available now, notwithstanding his “dark” period of subservience to the LTTE. He is the leader of the Tamil party that contested Parliament democratically and won the most number of seats from the districts in the North and East of Sri Lanka.
Apart from being the acknowledged leader holding fissiparous factions of the TNA together, Sampanthan in his own way has earned the recognition of the Governments of Sri Lanka and India. While some pundits may observe glibly that no man is indispensable this column opines that the man called Sampanthan is currently playing a historical role. This is why his health is a cause for concern.
It may be recalled that there had been some positive developments of a minor nature in Govt-TNA relations in September 2010. Mainly due to iniatives by Economic Development Minister and Presidential sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, some TNA Parliamentarians participated in District Development meetings. When MP’s Suresh Premachandran, Saravanabavan and Sumanthiran of the TNA attended at a development meeting in Jaffna, Basil Rajapaksa who chaired the meeting explicitly welcomed their participation.
There was however a setback of sorts in October. President Rajapaksa himself chaired two meetings reviewing resettlement and development activities in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. The TNA however was a conspicuous absentee in the meetings held in Trincomalee and Vavuniya respectively. This despite willingness expressed by the TNA to participate.
When all these events were happening or not happening the TNA leader Sampanthan was in Chennai. Again he was not in the best of health but was in constant contact with party members in Sri Lanka. Despite Sampanthan being physically absent from Sri Lanka he was together with the President engaged in a very worthwhile exercise away from the media spotlight.
The President apparently had taken the initiative to appoint a “representative” to engage in “unofficial talks” with the TNA. Sampanthan in India responded positively to this path-breaking gesture by the President and nominated his own “representative”. Both representatives who enjoyed the trust and confidence of Rajapaksa and Sampanthan respectively were reportedly competent in Constitutional matters.
These unofficial talks were in a sense a prelude to more serious “official” talks expected in the future. The unofficial talks on the sidelines described as “preliminary discussions” had resulted in significant forward movement. Both representatives participating in the “one on one” talks reported back regularly to the President and TNA leader respectively.
According to informed sources the two representatives had utilised earlier agreements and reports as a substantive basis for these preliminary discussions.
The Indo –Lanka accord of 1987, The Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee report of 1993, the Constitutional Reforms proposals of 1995 and 2000, The inaugural address by President Rajapaksa at the APRC conference, The majority and minority reports of the Experts panel at the APRC and the Preliminary/interim reports of the APRC Chairman were some of the documents used as a basis to formulate an acceptable framework.
The preliminary discussions between the two representatives had according to knowledgeable sources made commendable progress in most respects. Some of the salient points on which preliminary agreement was reached were -
- There will be no concurrent list and the reserved list will be limited to matters such as National Defence, Foreign Affairs, National Fiscal Policy, Immigration/Emigration, Citizenship, Customs, Posts, Telecommunications, International Airports, Major Harbours, Railways, National Highways, and Maritime Zones. All other powers will be exercised by the provinces.
- Exclusive powers over land, development, health, education, etc., and fiscal powers, including the power to receive foreign direct investments to be granted to the provinces. Foreign loans may also be negotiated and received by the provinces directly with the concurrence of the Centre.
- All state land in the provinces (except those that fall within the reserved subjects such as national airports, harbours etc.) to vest in the provincial council with provision for the Centre to request and use lands necessary for other national projects.
- The national finance commission to evolve a scheme for the allocation of resources based on the principle of balanced regional development with the provinces being categorised based on the present levels of development in order for those lagging behind to “catch-up”.
There were however some areas on which agreement was not reached.
The most important of these was the issue of Police powers for the Provincial Councils. Another crucial area of disagreement was the unit of devolution. Although the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been de-merged now the TNA is yet hopeful that some meaningful compromise could be achieved.
As far as this column is concerned the areas of disagreement in the preliminary discussions is not a major obstacle. This column opines that the substance or powers of devolution are more important than the unit. It is possible that as further talks of a concrete nature ensue the “Tamil” side may opt to compromise on the unit in return for greater substance
Even on an issue like granting police powers other alternative arrangements may be possible. One option is to grant the Provincial Council the powers of community policing and/or unarmed Policemen. Another option is to recruit more Tamils and Muslims to the Police force and deploy them in larger numbers in the North and East while not giving Police powers to the Province.
According to informed sources another vital issue that transpired in the preliminary discussions was the concept of power sharing at the centre.
Historically the Tamils agitating for equality on the Island had earlier thought of theselves as an All – Island community and wanted to share power at the centre with the Sinhalese majority.
[GG Ponnambalam, SJV Chelvanayagam & M Tiruchelvam]
The “balanced representation” demand put forward by GG Ponnambalam snr of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) was basically a formula aimed at ensuring equitable power sharing at the centre. The advent of SJV Chelvanayagam and the Federal Party saw Tamil self –perception changing to that of a regional minority demanding federalism or devolution for the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
This demand was opposed by the Tamil Congress. The Tamil political discourse of the fifties and sixties of the 20th century was replete with the pro and anti arguments for federalism
Former Tamil United Libertion Front (TULF) Parliamentarian and eminent Constitutional lawyer Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam would often tell this columnist “It is because we (Tamils) could not share power at the centre that we are forced to demand power sharing at the periphery”. In a significant development the demand for Federalism transformed into a demand for secession leading to an armed struggle that has debilitated the Tamil people and destroyed the Tamil areas of historic habitation.
Against that backdrop the preliminary discussions between the representatives of President Rajapaksa and TNA leader Sampanthan focusing on the question of power sharing at the centre is a singularly positive development. The unofficial talks addressed the issue of evolving a viable mechanism to ensure power sharing at the centre but failed to arrive at a solid arrangement
Nevertheless the fact that such talks on this crucial issue did take place is by itself a positive development. It is to be hoped that the issue would be dealt with conclusively when official talks between the Govt and TNA occur in the future.
Given the historic fear and reluctance of the Sinhala majority to devolve greater powers to the periphery the forging of a power sharing mechanism at the centre may create the necessary climate where an adequate and equitable power sharing arrangements could be endorsed without paranoia.
The preliminary discussions between the two representatives produced satisfactory results. The commendable political initiative by the President had laid the groundwork for more meaningful, authoritative discussions in the future. The areas of agreement arrived at in these unofficial talks could be a solid foundation to build upon at further talks. The stage was set for the President’s low-key political initiative to proceed to the next level.
This was made possible by the return of Sampanthan to Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa extended a discreet invitation to the TNA leader for talks. What was noteworthy in the invitation was that the President wanted to talk with Sampanthan alone. The TNA as a party was not invited. Only Sampanthan was invited for one on one talks with the executive president.
One reason for the invitation being extended to Sampanthan alone was due to the comfort level enjoyed by the President with the veteran Tamil leader. It was also a matter of trust and confidence. The harsh reality is that the Govt particularly the President is unhappy about some of the statements and views expressed by some TNA personalities. There are also intelligence reports available about covert links maintained by some TNA stalwarts with LTTE or pro-LTTE elements among the Tamil Diaspora.
Thus the President preferred to deal with Sampanthan directly and alone. There are some relatively junior TNA personalities whose credentials are impeccable in Govt perception. Among senor TNA leaders the Govt considers only Sampanthan as trustworthy and free of covert Diaspora tiger influence.
The one –on – one talks between Rajapaksa and Sampanthan took place on November 3rd 2010. Both interacted alone without aides. Various matters relevant to the Tamil people in particular and Sri Lanka in general were discussed in detail. External Affairs minister Prof.G.L. Peiris joined the Rajapaksa-Sampanthan talks during the final stages.
Sampanthan during the talks with the President entreated him to utilise the historic opportunity afforded. He pointed out that Rajapaksa had been elected President again and had a two-thirds majority. Sampanthan said that Mahinda enjoyed the absolute trust and confidence of the Sinhala people and could therefore be magnanimously receptive to the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils without risking a Sinhala hawkish backlash
Sampanthan also requested President Rajapaksa to trust the TNA just as that party would trust him. He said that if such a climate of mutual trust could be established the TNA would extend its fullest cooperation to the President and his government. While stating that the Govt with a two-thirds majority did not require the TNA’s quantitative support the Govt could benefit by the TNA’s qualitative support and cooperation.
As the premier political formation representing the Sri Lankan Tamils, Sampanthan pointed out that the Govt stood to gain politically by getting the cooperative support of the TNA. He further said that the President’s political stature and prestige would be greatly enhanced through TNA support. It may also strengthen him in confronting issues of democracy, pluralism and human rights.
The TNA leader also renewed two earlier requests to which the President had agreed in principle. In the first meeting held between the President and TNA after the April Parliamentary elections, Rajapaksa had agreed to the setting up of two govt-TNA joint mechanisms. One was to oversee resettlement and development matters in the North and East and the other was to work out a viable political solution. The TNA had even submitted a list of nominees to one of the joint committees.
Now Sampanthan renewed the requests in his meeting with the President. He stated that the immediate issues the TNA was concerned about were Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Livelihood of the displaced persons particularly in the Wanni, the area worst affected by the war. Sampanthan said that the North and East generally, have also been affected by the war, and while displaced persons need to be resettled rehabilitated and provided livelihood, other affected people need to be assisted in numerous ways. He said that this task should be implemented in a comprehensive manner.
Sampanthan then requested that the TNA be involved in the process. He pointed out to the President that “When we are involved, the Tamil people, substantial sections of the Tamil Diaspora, and substantial sections of the International Community, will adopt a more helpful and positive attitude towards the fulfilment of the urgent tasks in the North and East”. He further stated that “the whole process will be infused with greater credibility, and will gather momentum. I expect that the required aid and assistance will become more easily available”.
Sampanthan then re-submitted the list of persons nominated by the TNA for inclusion in this joint committee mechanism to oversee and handle matters of North – East resettlement and development. Care was taken to include MP’s from both provinces involved in related efforts and constituent parties of the TNA. The names were –
R.Sampanthan M.P – Trincomalee District
Mavai Senathirajah M.P – Jaffna District
Suresh Premachandran M.P – Jaffna District
Selvam Adaikalanathan M.P – Vanni District
Pon Selvarajah M.P – Batticaloa District
S.Sreetharan M.P – Kilinochchi District
M.A. Sumanthiran M.P – National List
A part from this the TNA leader also requested President to set up a mechanism to commence a structured dialogue to help evolve an acceptable political solution. He suggested that this joint committee could consist of nominees from either side.
Sampanthan then submitted a list of five names. They were –
R.Sampanthan M.P – Trincomalee District
K.Kanag-Isvaran – President’s Counsel
Mavai Senathirajah M.P – Jaffna District
Suresh Premachandran M.P – Jaffna District
M.A. Sumanthiran M.P – National List
It is noteworthy that one of the names submitted is not a TNA Parliamentarian. Legal luminary K.Kanag- Isvaran is the son of former Tamil Congress Senator and lawyer SR.Kanaganayagam. The distinguished Presidents counsel who holds independent political views has been nominated because of his professional expertise in Constitutional affairs.
The TNA leader also indicated to President Rajapaksa that there were many “spoilers” on either side of the ethnic divide who wanted to disrupt matters and keep the political cauldron boiling. Sampanthan said that so far the TNA had resisted these pressures and remained steadfast in their commitment towards a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka. He earnestly urged the President to act speedily and positively in adhering to the TNA requests
President Rajapaksa who had been a rapt listener to the viewpoints articulated by Sampanthan assured the TNA leader that he appreciated the Tamil party leaders perspective. The President also indicated to Sampanthan through a few remarks that he was fully aware of the potential “spoilers”. He said that he could handle these trouble-makers when the necessity arose. The main thing he said was for the TNA to cooperate positively with the government in addressing issues facing the country
President Rajapaksa then said that he would consult with some of his cabinet colleagues and political advisers and set up the two joint committee mechanisms. He said that he would appoint Govt nominees to the joint mechanism on Resettlement and development after consulting Basil Rajapaksa. As for the other committe on a political settlement, President Rajapaksa said he would appoint ministers like GL Peiris, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dullas Alahapperuma and Basil Rajapaksa with a few legal experts.
President Rajapaksa then wound up the meeting after telling Sampanthan that he would set up both joint committee mechanisms after he was sworn in as President on November 19th. The President asked Sampanthan to be in touch with ministers GL Peiris and Basil Rajapaksa.
Sampanthan returned a happy and satisfied man after the meeting. He was quite optimistic about the future while informing his TNA colleagues about the outcome of his tete – a – tete with the President. The TNA leader also wrote to the President on November 10th outlining the essence of his conversation with the President on Nov 3rd and said he was looking forward to the setting up of the joint mechanisms.
Sampanthan sent a second missive to the President on Nov 18th congratulating him on being sworn in as President for the second time. He said “We extend to you our congratulations and best wishes on your assumption of office, for the second terms, as the Executive President of Sri Lanka”.
“We earnestly look forward to working with you, as already discussed with you, on all issues pertaining to the war-affected Tamil Civilian population in the North and East of Sri Lanka particularly in regard to the evolution of an acceptable political solution within a united country”
“We are confident that the necessary mechanisms to undertake these tasks will be set up as the earliest as per the assurances given to us”.
Despite these manifestations of goodwill and hope the TNA was to be disappointed as there was no sign of the two joint mechanisms being set up after Nov 19th as promised. There were some indications that they would be appointed after Indian Foreign minister SM Krishna’s visit.
The Indian minister’s visit also held out hope to the TNA. Krishna spoke of a structured dialogue mechanism to resolve all outstanding matters. The foreign minister also had an extended conversation with Sampanthan during the state banquet hosted by President Rajapaksa in Krishna’s honour.
Krishna told Sampanthan that he had impressed upon President Rajapaksa the imperative need to enter into a structured political dialogue with the TNA. The Indian foreign minister also told Sampanthan that he had conveyed Indian PM Manmohan Singh’s opinion on the subject. Apparently th Indian PM had opined that he hoped the Govt-TNA talks would be underway when he met President Rajapaksa next.
In spite of the optimism exuded by SM Krishna developments on ground were not rosy. President Rajapaksa departed for Britain on November 29th for his aborted lecture in Oxford. TNA leader Sampanthan was taken ill and left for India on Nov 30th. President Rajapaksa returned on December 3rd but the mood in the Country is transformed as a result of the Tamil Diaspora antics in Britain. On the other hand Sampanthan underwent successful surgery but remains indisposed still.
The delay in implementing assurances given by the President to the TNA leader has caused much concern and worry in informed Tamil circles. This concern has been exacerbated by sentiments expressed by President Rajapaksa in an earlier interview to “The Hindu”.
At one point in the interview N.Ram, Editor –in – Chief of “The Hindu” asks the President “Now, there are heightened expectations about the political solution, the 13th Amendment-plus, that has been promised. The impression is that there is drift here?”
President Rajapaksa responds – “As you would understand, we can discuss this only now — with all the political parties. After the elections, we have had discussions and they will continue. The solution that I have in mind might not be good enough for them; they might not accept it. Not only the political parties, the people must accept it. They want a new leadership to be built up. After we send them back to their villages, they have all these expectations and hopes. We must find out from them too. I have already had discussions with our political leaders who are in the government and who are in the opposition”.
N.Ram then queries “Do you have in mind a clear political solution, even if you have not revealed the specifics?”. To this the President replies “Yes, but I will first find out their views. We want to appoint a committee, from both sides and discuss all these.”
This Column does not want to comment or conjecture further on President Rajapaksa’s views expressed to N.Ram of “The Hindu” but would like to emphasise that the views suggest there is a “Disconnect” between what was purportedly told Sampanthan in private and what was told publicly to the Chennai based newspaper.
The TNA also demonstrated its desire for a structured dialogue with the govt through a goodwill gesture on the second reading of the Budget.The TNA did not vote against the budget as was expected. This conciliatory move was heartily welcomed by Basl Rajapaksa in the House.In a press release the TNA observed thus –
“From the commencement of this parliament our position has been that the government must engage in discussion with us, the elected representatives of the Tamil people on this immediate resettlement and rehabilitation concerns and resolution to the national problem. However no meaningful steps have been taken by the government in this regard up-to-date. In this context we would like to demonstrate our good faith in participating in the discussions concerning the extremely important issues of resettlement and political solution. Therefore the TNA has decided to abstain from voting against the budget 2011 at the second reading today”.
The tragic history of worsening ethnic relations in Sri Lanka is replete with instances of leaders backtracking or failing to deliver on political promises. It is to be hoped that the seeming delay on President Rajapaksa is due to political procrastination and not political default. This column does not wish to speculate on possible reasons for the Presidents delay at this juncture but only urges him to set up the two joint mechanisms as soon as possible
While the ill-health of Sampanthan is certainly a drawback that should not deter the President from appointing the joint committees formally. Preliminary meetings could be convened without Sampanthan’s presence with TNA circles keeping the leader informed till his health improves
This column therefore urges President Rajapaksa to take the political move he initiated in promoting a dialogue with the TNA to its logical conclusion by appointing a joint committee mechanism for structured political dialogue.
“Time is of the essence” for the “Ilankai Thamizgar” of Sri Lanka
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org