Campaigning for Sri Lanka’s August 5 general elections, the country’s main Tamil party has foregrounded the promise Colombo made to New Delhi on power devolution, the need for greater connectivity to India from the northern Palaly airport, and the need to expedite the return of Sri Lankan refugees living in India.
Releasing its poll manifesto in Jaffna on Saturday, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — an amalgam of three parties with the largest representation from the Tamil-majority north-east in the last Parliament — said that during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the Sri Lankan government “repeatedly assured” the Indian government that it would “implement the 13th Amendment in full and build upon it so as to achieve meaningful devolution”.
While the promises are yet to be fulfilled, the TNA manifesto pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the Sri Lankan Parliament in March 2015, when he observed: “When we accommodate the aspirations of all sections of our society, the nation gets the strength of every individual. And, when we empower States, districts and villages, we make our country stronger and stronger… I am a firm believer in cooperative federalism.”
The TNA, led by veteran Tamil leader R. Sampanthan, said sovereignty lies with the people and not with the state. “It is not the government in Colombo that holds the right to govern the Tamil people, but the people themselves.” In this regard, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 — was “flawed” as power was concentrated at the Centre and with the Governor, its agent. “Our political philosophy is rooted in a fundamental democratic challenge to the authoritarian state.” In the November 2019 presidential elections, it backed Sajith Premadasa, against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who secured very few votes in the Tamil-majority areas.
Criticism from voters
In terms of its own constituency, though the TNA has traditionally retained its support base in the post-war decade, the alliance faces growing criticism from voters for its lack of development initiatives, especially in regard to job creation and economic revival, while governing the Northern Provincial Council from 2013. Further, the failures of the TNA-backed former unity government, helmed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, to deliver on the many promises made to the Tamils have contributed to voters’ disillusionment with their elected representatives.
In this parliamentary election, the TNA will compete mainly with former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran’s alliance, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Minister Douglas Devananda-led Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), aligned to the current Rajapaksa administration, among others.
In addition to underscoring its long-pending demand for power devolution, the release of political prisoners, the TNA said it would challenge militarisation and “attempts to Sinhalise” the Tamil region “in the guise of conservation and archaeology”; the TNA promised an alternative economic vision, focused on local development.
Better access to India
The manifesto also spoke of better access to India through the Palaly International Airport and passenger services through the Kankesanthurai Port to open up new economic, cultural and literary opportunities. The previous government, with Indian assistance, upgraded the Palaly airport into an international airport, enabling resumption of flight services from India to Jaffna after decades.
Referring to Sri Lankan refugees living abroad, including those in India, the manifesto said: “In particular, expeditious steps must be taken for the return of about 1,00,000 refugees in south India with measures in place to enable to resettlement and successful re-integration post-return.”