M.A. Sumanthiran MP
In less than a week, Sri Lankan citizens all over the island will go to the polls to select the country’s eighth executive president. There is no denying that, irrespective of the result, this election will mark a crucial turning point in Sri Lanka’s political history. A stark choice faced voters in the 2015 presidential election.
The people were called upon to choose between perpetuating authoritarian rule and turning a democratic corner. Despite the failures and disappointments of the past five years, I still believe our people made the correct choice that January day.
The 2019 presidential stakes have the same zero-sum quality.
As the country’s largest Tamil party, it was incumbent upon the TNA to make its position on the presidential candidates known to the people. That announcement was made last week. The TNA has endorsed the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa as the ‘better man’ in the 2019 presidential race.
Predictably, the announcement has brought out the worst in the Sinhalese extremists gravitating around Premadasa’s challenger. Allegations of “secret deals” and monetary hand-outs in exchange for the endorsement abound, ironically from the same political formation that admittedly paid to enforce a boycott and disenfranchise thousands of Tamil people in the North and East in 2005.
Our announcement has also escalated the unitary-federal rhetoric, as the SLPP seeks to misrepresent proposed constitutional definitions about the nature of the state, brought about by nearly three years of all-party deliberations, to monger old fears about separatism.
I believe a brief explanation of the terms under discussion is necessary to set the record straight.
In the constitutional assembly discussions, we were told that the Sinhala people were most comfortable with the word aekiya () being included in a proposed draft constitution, in order to have the assurance that the oneness of the country is preserved.
During those deliberations, there was consensus that Government cannot be concentrated in Colombo and that it must get closer to the people. For that purpose, maximum power sharing within one undivided country was the consensus vision of the 2016-2019 effort to shape a new constitution.
Aekiya was defined in the draft constitution that was annexed to the second interim report presented to the Constitutional Assembly by the Steering Committee. It was agreed that the word aekiya raajya and its Tamil equivalent Orumithatha nadu would be used to describe the nature of the republic. Consensus was reached that both the words aekiya raajya and orumiththa nadu would be defined as a “state which is undivided and indivisible”. In other words, the ‘oneness of the state’, which is the literal meaning of aekiya raajya, would be preserved.
The reason the Steering Committee decided to veer away from the term ‘unitary’ and the Tamil equivalent of that word Ottaiyaatchi was simply because they denote the concept of ‘one legislature’ or ‘one Government’. Sri Lanka already has more than one functioning legislature, as a result of the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which set up nine provincial assemblies in a bid to devolve power from the centre to the provinces. Furthermore, in Sinhala, the word aekiya rajya means ‘one country’.
The UNP, SLFP, TNA and JVP managed to reach agreement on this definition. The Joint Opposition, which functioned as a separate caucus during the constitutional deliberations, refused to accept the position, insisting on the classic definition of unitary state.
Most constitutional scholars worldwide agree that the definition of the unitary state has undergone radical transformation. The United Kingdom, which calls itself a unitary state, has stretched the definition so far from the original spirit of the word, that Scotland and Northern Ireland have won the right to vote itself out of the union. The world has moved on from the unitary-federal binary, and countries have evolved new ways to describe the forms of Government under which they may choose to live. The 2016-2019 constitutional reform effort was the first time since independence that the Tamil people of Sri Lanka engaged in a constitution-making process together with the two main parties.
The Tamil National Alliance, which is the main party representing Tamils of the north and east of Sri Lanka, engaged whole-heartedly and unreservedly in the constitutional reform process. The effort was to bring about a constitution that met the aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s people. To that end, the TNA made every effort, and every concession within our means, to help that process to succeed.
The idea was simple, that Government must be taken to the lowest possible place. During the deliberations, it was a three-tiered structure that was envisioned, comprising of the centre, the provincial assemblies and even local councils.
The preamble to the constitution and the definitions previously discussed was an affirmation that Sri Lanka would remain one undivided and indivisible state. All of us agreed that we want to live in an undivided Sri Lanka. There is no contradiction here, in language or spirit of that intention.
The tragedy lies in our continued quibbling over words, instead of making an honest effort to address the national question that has been festering wound, causing anguish and devastation for 60 years, because of the failure of generations of political leaders to reach consensus on a permanent solution.
In a bid to show solidarity, five Tamil parties recently came together and put down their expectations of presidential candidates contesting the November 16 election. The initiative was led by students of the University of Jaffna and the Eastern University in Batticaloa and resulted in a 13-point proposal agreed to by five of those parties.
The effort of the university students was to determine whether all Tamil parties could find common ground on the aspirations of the Tamil people. The position reached by the five Tamil parties, is the historic position of the Tamil people. There was nothing new, or sensational in that document.
However, in the south of the island, a huge campaign was undertaken to portray the 13 point proposal as separatist and detrimental to the country. None of the candidates wanted to so much as look at this document. For that reason, we did not place it before any of the candidates contesting the 2019 presidential election. Even before the university students efforts, we had been talking to all the candidates in the fray, about what our expectations would be from a future Government. These discussions continued, but the 13 point proposal was not put before any candidate.
The Tamil National Alliance carries the mandate of the Tamil people. None of the other parties the students’ effort brought together could lay claim to that mantle. 16 out of 18 Tamil members of Parliament are TNA MPs. The other two members entered Parliament through the highest remainder system, meaning they could not even garner the qualifying number of number of votes in their districts. There is no dispute that the TNA and the TNA alone carries the mandate of the people of the North and East. That gives us a responsibility to make a decision when our people are facing a crucial national election.
In spite of this position, the TNA engaged in the university students’ efforts, and participated in the deliberations. However during this process, first, the TNPF led by Gajen Ponnambalam and later, the TMK, which is the former Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran’s party, issued unilateral statements.
The TNPF called for a boycott and the TMK claimed that they were unable to choose between the Sinhalese presidential candidates, and told the Tamil people to make their own choice at the poll. From that point on, the TNA realized there was no point in continuing the dialogue.
As the only legitimate political party in that grouping, we had a responsibility to advise our voters.
Fourteen out of 16 TNA MPs are members of the Illangai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK). Last Sunday (3), the ITAK Central Committee, comprising about 50 members from all districts met for deliberations about which candidate to support at the 2019 presidential election.
The discussions continued all day. Every single member of the party’s central committee insisted that our support should be extended to Sajith Premadasa, representing the New Democratic Front. No other sentiment was expressed at the meeting that day. At the end of the day, the ITAK central committee membership had made its decision to endorse Mr. Premadasa. The members wanted our decision announced as early as possible.
The TNA, however, is an alliance, made up of two more parties. Honourable R. Sampanthan who is the leader of the Alliance, was tasked with conveying ITAK’s decision to the TNA and seeking their views on the endorsement. Prior to the ITAK central committee meeting, the TNA Parliamentary Group had discussed the matter and other party leaders were also of the view that the Alliance should extend its support to Mr. Premadasa. In a meeting of TNA party leaders too, identical views were expressed. Earlier this week, the TNA issued a statement setting out our reasons for the endorsement of Mr. Premadasa as the next president of Sri Lanka.
We arrived at our decision following a comparison of the two main candidates in the presidential race. Every Sri Lankan citizen knows that in a presidential election, someone is going to win. This is the reality. We may have lofty ideals, but in a situation where our party does not field its own candidate, the real choice is between one or the other who has the capacity to win.
Between the two main contenders, the TNA was of the view that Sajith Premadasa was the better person; or put another way, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the far worse option. On this fundamental point, every single member of the three-party alliance was agreed. We are confident that our decision resonates with the will of our people. As the party that controls 39 of 40 local councils in the North and East, we remain in constant touch with our people.
In reaching its decision, the TNA considered other factors too. Corruption within the political system remains a front and centre issue for voters. Both main parties have been accused of perpetuating a culture of graft and patronage within the political system.
The SLPP candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will go down in history as the first person to stand for election to the highest office of the land, while being on trial for embezzling tens of millions of rupees from the state. He remains under investigation in a series of cases involving the misappropriation of funds, bribery and even abduction.
In contrast, Mr. Premadasa has never been accused of corruption. He has built a reputation for working hard and delivering results. Our people look to him to live up to his promises to continue the constitutional reform process and deliver on a political solution that will meet the aspirations of Sri Lankans across the country. We believe he is committed to that process, and it is our hope that this issue will be resolved at the earliest, so that we can all move forward and work towards the betterment of our country.
I feel certain that there is no intention on the part of the Tamil people to boycott the November 16 presidential election.
On the contrary, they badly want to exercise the democratic weapon of the franchise that they hold in their hands, and they do not want it to be a wasted effort. On election day, I believe that the Tamil people will cast their votes to ensure the victory of the better candidate, and one who has a good chance of winning the poll.