(Excerpted from the “Lanka Guardian Colu,m” appearing in the “Daily FT” of 17 November 2022 under the heading “Ranil’s ‘Big Bang’ Budget bomb and the tempting of Tamil politicians)
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has invited all Tamil MPs for discussions on resolving the problems of the Tamil people before the 75th Independence Day which falls on 4 February 2023. He has flagged his development plans for the North and East, especially Trincomalee.
The Tamil MPs have assented, with the more prominent TNA MPs understandably signalling that they would prioritise the political and Constitutional goals.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is a stand-in President, continuing what’s left of the term of his elected predecessor who was ousted by a momentous civic uprising. Furthermore, he is not elected to the President or the Parliament, nor yet is the party he leads. He has no mandate to negotiate anything with the Tamil parties and certainly no mandate to deliver on anything, however laudable.
M.A. Sumanthiran has reminded the President of his 2016 Constitutional draft and suggested that he carry it forward. This suggestion omits the glaring fact that whatever mandate Wickremesinghe had for that particular project evaporated in 2020 when he and his party utterly failed to be elected to Parliament, and therefore any resumption of that venture would be completely illegitimate.
Dazzling development plans for the North and East are not likely to go down well in the suffering South at this time of economic shrinkage and mass privation. Even in Italy, the notion of regional unevenness in development has long served as fuel for ultranationalist populism, even fascism.
Parliamentarians M.A. Sumanthiran and Eran Wickremaratne have been the most consistent and strident advocates of a Referendum on a new constitution which combines the abolition of the executive presidency and greater powers for the provinces. This is a dangerously irresponsible notion. It took only two maverick politicians, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage, and one large bus to persuade the majority of the British people to vote for Brexit.
A new Constitution along the lines that Suma and Eran advocate and is the possible product of a dialogue between President Wickremesinghe and the Tamil MPs, is bound to be trashed at a referendum. At a time that people are hurting badly, they will vote for anything that emanates from the government – which in today’s Sri Lanka as in Chile in 1990 would be an excellent thing, except that the text of the draft constitution will not be the only thing that goes in the shredder.
When ethnonational/ethno-regional issues are the ones at stake unlike in Chile, the backlash is going to have a toxic sting. With the Aragalaya being the replay of Hartal 1953, and Ranil Wickremesinghe playing Sir John Kotelawala the Second, his non-unitary draft Constitution of 2015-2019 would ensure a replay of Sinhala Only 1956.
Tamil politicians would do well to revisit the alternative political perspective of two generations of Tamil leftists from N. Sanmugathasan, veteran communist and founder of the island’s Maoist movement, to K. Pathmanabha, founder-leader of the EPRLF.
1. They warned against the practice of Tamil nationalism to regard the rightwing, reactionary, pro-West UNP as its main partner in Southern politics.
2. They argued that this alienated the progressive movement of the South which should be the natural allies of the Tamil cause.
3. They pointed out that the preferential option of the UNP as partner, an ideological and class option on the part of the Tamil political elite, contributed to the strength of Sinhala chauvinism because it folded into the backlash against the UNP led comprador capitalist elite.
4. They advocated an alliance between the progressives of the North and South as the main axis of a transformational politics.
5. They prophesied that the bourgeois Tamil nationalist project (including the LTTE project) would end in failure.
Tamil politics has been governed by a priori principles rather than a shrewd sense of time and place. Mainstream Tamil nationalism has tended to go with the Southern leader or party which offered them the most, rather than the ones who could actually deliver the most, which may have been significantly more modest than the empty promises of the higher bidder. No agreement between President Wickremesinghe and the Tamil politicians can stick in a context of economic contraction, austerity and polarising economic policies.
Tamil politicians should attend the meeting with Ranil and insist on the immediate halt/reversal of the planned/ongoing cartographic carve-up of the East and the immediate holding of Provincial Council elections.