In the wake of the recent ‘Maaveerar Naal’ celebrations in the north, The Island staffer C.A.Chandraprema spoke to Arun Tambimuttu about the direction that Tamil politics has taken in recent times and the implications for the future.
Q. The 1.5 million or so Tamil people living in the north and east have known nothing but isolation, and turbulence over the past half century or more. During the colonial era and for about a decade thereafter, the people of that region were well integrated with the rest of Sri Lanka and they progressed and advanced in life. But after the 1950s there was this policy of isolation from the mainstream. This grew into a full blown civil war from the 1970s onwards and that led to more isolation. The war ended in 2009. But the policy of isolation continues. What is the way forward for the Tamil community living in the north and east?
A. In the post-independence period the Tamil people had some genuine concerns and grievances with matters like the language policy. However even during this half century of isolation, Tamil continued to be the language of administration in the north and east. I question the wisdom of having Tamil as the language of administration in the north and east and Sinhala as the language of administration in the rest of the country. Until around 1950 no one was talking about a Tamil homeland. C.Suntharalingam may have been an early proponent of this idea of a homeland but no one took him seriously. When the Tamil people elected Tamil nationalist political parties, they ended up being outside the government and the Tamils isolated themselves. After 2009, no one will deny that there was a lot of development work done in the north and east. I would go to the extent of saying that such a development thrust reaching into all corners of the northern and eastern provinces had not been seen before in the post- independence period. However the north and east has had a separatist tendency for decades so things cannot change in a few years. My concern is also that things may have regressed in the past year or so.
Q. It’s not as if the Tamil people of the north and east have not seen better times. They prospered during the colonial era and in the ten years after independence. The partnership between G.G.Ponnambalam and the UNP worked very well. Then came this policy of isolation, war, destruction and defeat. After going through the mill in that fashion, one would think that there would be a demand from within the Tamil community of the north and east for a return to the period when they had seen better things. In most places in the world, things change after cataclysmic political events.
A. Unfortunately, you can’t regard the people living in the northern and eastern provinces in isolation. There are tremendous influences bearing upon them from the Tamil diaspora which has its own ideas and agendas, and then there is the Tamil Nadu factor. There are Tamil films, social media, the internet and you tube. The people of the northern and eastern Tamils have been and are victims of the aspirations of the wider, global Tamil community. Despite the new roads, reestablishing rail links with the rest of the country, and rehabilitation of other infrastructure, there really wasn’t enough time for a robust debate to take place within the Tamil community about its past present and future. From the 1950s onwards any Tamil who wanted to integrate with the country or who was against separatism was branded a traitor by Tamil nationalist politicians. This came back to haunt them when Prabhakaran labelled them as traitors in turn and killed many of them.
Even today things have not changed much. If you are to be a good Tamil, you have to accept their prescription of what it is to be a good Tamil. Many voices were suppressed through terror. Only a handful of people are willing to come out and express alternative views. Most of those who took part in the heroes’ day celebrations this year were very young people from 18 to 25, who were too young to remember the war and terrorism and the atrocities that were perpetrated. Now martyrdom, terrorism and suicide bombers are being glorified and the state has allowed that. The direction that that things are taking gives cause for concern.
Q. The Southern Province where I come from has a population of about 2.5 million. The Tamil population of the northern and eastern provinces together is 1.5 million. The Tamils resident outside the north and east are living their own lives just like all other Sri Lankans. All this turbulence is taking place among the 1.5 million Tamils living in the north and east. If the lives of these people are being driven by an impetus coming from outside – from the 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu and millions more living scattered in various parts of the world – what hope can this community have of ever being able to lead normal lives like the Tamils living in other countries and indeed like the Tamils living outside the north and east in Sri Lanka itself?
A. This is an issue of the mindset. Dissent was frowned upon. This is a community that has gone through years and years of suppression. Large numbers of Tamils were killed by Tamils. There was a lot of intolerance. Post war nothing was done to change that. I have to blame the previous government also for that. Platforms should have been created for alternative voices to emerge. Post 2015, the failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is that they try to appease Tamil nationalists. Their intentions may be well meaning, but their understanding of the issue is questionable. By their policy of appeasement they have strengthened the resolve of Tamil nationalists and they have legitimised the Tamil nationalist agenda. The three principles of the Tamils nationalists are; that the Tamils are separate nation, that the Tamils have a homeland comprising of the northern and eastern provinces and thirdly the right to self-determination. Has Mr Sampanthan renounced these three principles?
In time to come, Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe will come to realize that they have made a serious mistake in trying to appease the Tamil nationalists. This does not mean that you should not seek an honorable settlement for all Sri Lankans. But you cannot ignore the reality. Look at the statement that the Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran made to the effect that the ministers of the government were only trying to appease Sinhala voters by making various noises and that no one would actually be arrested for celebrating Heroes Day. Even though a northern provincial minister refused to raise the national flag, Mr. Sampanthan has taken no action against him. Even though Mr Sampanthan himself came for national day celebrations, one gets the impression that these are just theatrics and the Tamil nationalists are trying to achieve the goals of the LTTE by other means.
Recently Mr Sampanthan issued a statement saying that the Tamil youth should not be overly concerned about employment and opportunities for advancement because their primary goal is to secure the political objectives of the Tamils. In the 1950s and the 1970s they throve on the travails of the youth, the lack of employment and opportunities. Once again we see this attempt to isolate Tamil youth from the mainstream. The Eastern Tamils, a population of 600,000 and more, have not been represented in cabinet in the past 25 years, even though we have had jumbo cabinets of 70 or more Ministers. This is what is sought by those who seek to thrive through the isolation of the northern and eastern Tamil people.
Q. We see that Tamil leaders like Mr Sampanthan and Wigneswaran are in the 1950s to 70s mindset. They want the devolution of power and a separate state. But with this constitution making process, this whole idea of trying to divide the country into eight or nine separate units is not going to work out in practice because each province has its own minorities who don’t relish the idea of being under a different majority community in the province especially in a situation where the provincial administrations are going to be vested with powers bordering on independent states. In the Eastern Province, the Muslims are now the majority community with Tamils being just over one third of the population. If the north and east are not merged, the devolution of power will not be to the advantage of even the Tamil people of the East. It is due to the resistance of communities that will be affected when they become minorities within all powerful federal units that this constitution making process has come a cropper.
A. In 2015, the TNA promised the Tamils that the Northern and Eastern Provinces will be merged. That promise no longer seems practicable. If the Sri Lankan state allows the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be merged, they are automatically conceding this concept of a Tamil homeland. The realities in the country are however, different. We don’t have natural boundaries, this is one unified country. If you take the Mahaweli river, it starts in one province and ends in another.
Devolving power on the basis of ethnicity, is a slippery slope to nowhere. I think the TNA knows that this is a futile project that will be rejected in the country. But what they want to see is an electoral map where seven provinces will vote against the constitution and the northern and eastern provinces vote for it, so that they can take that result and canvass the Western world to achieve their political objectives.