Do the Tamil Critics of the 13th Constitutional Amendment have the Political Strength to Force a Future Govt to Introduce a Devolution Scheme better than what is Available in the Provincial Councils?


Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

Sri Lankan Tamil politics has become more complicated due to contradictions among Tamil political parties regarding what position northern and eastern Tamils should take in the upcoming Presidential Election.

It makes no sense to expect Tamil parties to be inclined to act unitedly or to come to a unified position to find a solution to the national ethnic problem.

The idea of fielding a Tamil common candidate at the Presidential Election has occupied Tamil politics in recent times.
Though the Democratic Tamil National Alliance (DTNA), consisting of a few Tamil parties whose leaders formerly were prominent members of armed militant groups, have decided to support the attempts to field a common Tamil candidate, the initial enthusiasm among some Tamil parties is now absent in this regard.

There are conflicting views not only between parties but also within each party regarding the common candidate.

Seminars were first organised by a civil society organisation called ‘Makkal Manu’ (People’s Petition) to mobilise support for the idea of fielding a Tamil common candidate. At present, a new civil society organisation called ‘Tamil Makkal Boduchabai’ (Tamil People’s General Assembly) is vigorously spearheading that campaign.

It seems that prominent members of the Tamil People’s General Assembly believe that if they can get the broad support of the Tamil people in the north and the east, they will be able to exert pressure on the Tamil parties to support a common candidate.

Since there has never been a coherent civil society group among the Tamil people, attempts to build on a civil society organisation to prevail upon Tamil politicians to act effectively is welcome.

However, their goal must be relevant to the domestic and international political conditions in the post-war period and to the present-day realities of the Tamil people in the north and east. There is no point in trying to rally Tamil people behind mere sentimental slogans.

Centrepiece of Tamil nationalism

It is said that the idea of a Tamil common candidate was floated with the aim of turning the Presidential Election into a sort of referendum in the north and east to show southern Sri Lanka and the world what the Tamil people’s current position is on the national ethnic problem.

While the Tamil parties are faltering without taking a firm decision, the Tamil People’s General Assembly has been campaigning on some principles such as the sovereignty of the Tamil people, the traditional homeland, and the unification of the people to build them as a nation.

As the campaign by the new civil society organisation in support of the idea of a common candidate is closely identified with the cause of Tamil nationalism, many Tamil politicians are frequently making supportive comments, keeping in mind their future political prospects.

It is also true that some politicians believe that forging a consensus and finding a suitable common candidate will ultimately be impossible, but they are dubiously talking in support of the move.

Speculations are rife about the possible internal and external elements behind this move. It was suspected from the outset that this was a ploy to ensure that a particular presidential candidate in the south did not get substantial votes of the Tamil people.

The Tamil People’s General Assembly is committed to projecting the common candidate as the contemporary centrepiece of Tamil nationalist politics. But they are merely talking about theories and have yet to come out with clearly-defined political demands.

One wonders whether those who are advocating the idea of fielding a common candidate have any plan for the next step if the people of the north and east regard the Presidential Election as a referendum and give a ‘mandate’.

A ‘political Ascetic t’?

It is important to remind the Tamil people, especially the youth today, that after the Vaddukoddai Resolution, the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), who asked the northern and eastern Tamil people to give them a mandate for a separate Tamil state in the July 1977 General Elections, had no plan on what to do next.

They captured 18 Tamil-dominated constituencies and TULF Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam became the Opposition Leader in Parliament. What happened after that was the recent history of Lankan politics. Politicians and new civil society leaders who speak in favour of the idea of a common candidate should be aware of the danger of a similar history repeating itself.

At the same time, the views expressed by them regarding the process of selecting the common candidate are very interesting. It is said that the common candidate should not be a politician and should only be a symbol of the message that the Tamil people want to convey to the south and the world.

Meanwhile, it is also expected that he will not show any interest in politics after the election, i.e. the common candidate must be a ‘political ascetic’. What is the guarantee that the proposed common candidate in the Presidential Election will not show interest in politics if he gets a significant number of votes from the Tamil people? Can such a ‘political saint’ be found in Tamil society?
On a theoretical basis, if the common candidate gets significant votes in the north and east, the possibility that he may be identified as the future leader of the Tamil people cannot be ruled out. Leaders of Tamil political parties may have suspicions about this. That is why many of them are not enthusiastic about the matter of a common candidate.

The possibility of the Tamil People’s General Assembly becoming a new political party cannot be easily ruled out, depending on the support the common candidate gets among the Tamils.

Perverse trends

When Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was in Colombo last week, met the leaders of the Tamil political parties, it is learnt that views were also exchanged on the issue of the Tamil common candidate. The conflict between the leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) regarding the common candidate has also been exposed in front of Jaishankar.

The leaders of other Tamil parties have said that the issue of a common candidate is still at a discussion stage and that no final decision has been taken. The Indian Minister did not comment on it, only asking them if they were serious about it.
At the same time, there is also a tendency to brand those who express opinions against the idea of a common candidate as traitors to the cause of Tamil nationalism.

This is nothing but a continuation of a perverse political trend that has been dominant in Tamil politics for a long time.
If Tamil nationalism is to be strong, the existence of the traditional Tamil homeland and its people is essential. Tamil people should have hope that if they continue to live in their own territory, there will be a good future for themselves and their descendants.

But, unfortunately, such a situation does not exist today in the north and east. Most Tamils tend to migrate to the West. This situation poses a serious threat to the demography of the Tamil territory. It would be useful to conduct a survey to find out how many Tamils in the north and east prefer to continue living in their own land instead of going abroad.

A civil society organisation engaged in mobilising support for the idea of fielding a common Tamil candidate would do a more useful job if it focused on explaining to the Tamil people the dangers of Tamils’ interests in migration.

This being the case, during the meeting with Jaishankar, parties other than the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) insisted on the need to hold Provincial Council Elections and fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and President Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) – the main candidates for the Presidential Election – had recently pledged that their future governments would implement the 13th Amendment.

Devolution and political wisdom

The important question is how the Tamil parties will approach the new situation today where all three main prospective presidential candidates are in favour of the implementation of the 13th Amendment. While saying that the amendment is not a solution to the national ethnic problem, the Tamil parties are demanding the Government to implement it and conduct Provincial Council Elections as the first step in the journey towards a permanent political solution.

The Tamil parties cannot think that their work is over after making such a demand. It is necessary for the leaders of the Tamil parties to have the political wisdom to wisely use the opportunity to convince southern Sri Lankan Sinhalese politicians about the value of devolution.

It would be a big deal if the positions adopted by the main candidates could significantly change the majority community’s negative perception of the 13th Amendment.
With all three main presidential candidates supporting the implementation of the 13th Amendment, it would be prudent for the Tamil parties to ask the other two for a pledge not to oppose the implementation of the same if any one of them wins and comes to power.

Some Tamil parties ask whether these candidates propose a federal system of government as a solution to the national ethnic problem in their election manifestos and whether they will agree to change the unitary nature of the Constitution. One does know what to say about their political wisdom in the present context.

We hope that the leaders of the Tamil parties have not forgotten that Jaishankar had asked them during an earlier visit to Sri Lanka how they could expect a federal solution from Colombo governments which were not ready to implement even the 13th Amendment.

There are politicians who feel that because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) opposed the 13th Amendment, it is their ‘moral obligation’ to continue to oppose it for the sake of Tamil nationalism. Some politicians and civil society leaders say that there is no point in talking about the amendment and that they are not going to accept it even as an interim arrangement.

Veteran Tamil leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who had once said that they would not touch the amendment even with a stick, has been among the first to stand in the forefront demanding its full implementation now.

This columnist is no fan of the 13th Amendment. But just one question for those who are dead set against the amendment: whether we like it or not, the only legal arrangement for devolution of power in the Sri Lankan Constitution today is the 13th Amendment. Do you have the political strength to force a future government to introduce a better devolution?

Sri Lankan Tamils should no longer be a group of people who are repeatedly trying failed experiments and expecting a different result every time.

Courtesy:Sunday Morning