Reaching out to Sri Lanka’s Tamil parties in Parliament on November 10, President Ranil Wickremesinghe invited them for a discussion this week, and pledged to resolve their pending issues before the island nation’s 75 th Independence Day falling on February 4, 2023. However Tamil politicians, who are yet to receive a date for the said meeting, are highly skeptical.
Many Sri Lankan leaders have in the past promised, and invariably failed, to deliver a political solution to the island’s Tamil national question. Most recently, the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, in power between 2015 and 2019, attempted to draft a new constitution but did not complete the task, much to the disappointment of Tamils who backed their government. “Let us all get together and make it a point to solve this problem by our 75th anniversary of Independence. We don’t need others to intervene in our country’s matters. We can solve our issues,” Mr. Wickremesinghe told Parliament last week.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest grouping of legislators from the north and east, welcomed his call and expressed readiness to “fully cooperate”. TNA Leader and 89-year-old parliamentarian R. Sampanthan, who has been trying to negotiate a constitutional settlement with various Sinhalese leaders for decades, has said that he hopes the President’s pledge is genuine this time.
The southern leadership must be prepared to do away with the unitary constitution, former Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran has said, ahead of the possible meeting with the President.
Federalism in focus
TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran said despite known differences among Tamil parties, the TNA invited them for a discussion this week, “as we all share the objective of achieving meaningful power devolution under a federal set up”.
The meeting of Tamil parties did not materialise as planned. “We are hopeful of holding it,” he said, while raising doubts about President Wickremesinghe’s “seriousness”.
Mr. Sumanthiran said he asked President Wickremesinghe, at the tea party following the Budget on November 14, about the said meeting. “The President told me that he was coming to Jaffna in January. When I asked him about this week’s meeting that he had announced, he said that if we wanted, we could meet this week. It [his responses] showed there is no seriousness to do anything in earnest,” the Jaffna MP said.
The need for greater power devolution and a political solution have also been central to Indian engagement in Sri Lanka. In the September session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Indian delegation noted “with concern the lack of measurable progress” by Sri Lanka on their commitments of a political solution to the ethnic issue. India has consistently urged Sri Lanka to “fully implement” the 13 th Amendment in the Sri Lankan constitution, even though Tamil parties in Sri Lanka frequently point to its inadequacies.
While sharply critical of the TNA’s positions, Jaffna legislator Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who leads the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), said the TNA’s recent invitation to other Tamil parties for a discussion was welcome, for it put federalism “back on the agenda”. In his view, even if President Wickremesinghe were to convene the meeting, “there is no point in engaging” unless he openly commits to basing the discussion on a federal constitution.
Recalling a conversation with the President in parliament, Mr. Ponnambalam said the President “just rejected federalism”. “So, what are we going to discuss with him? He simply wants to show the world that his government is legitimate, stable, and that he is talking to all actors. He just needs us to be at the negotiating table,” Mr. Ponnambalam told The Hindu. “If he [President] is sincere in his pledge to resolve the Tamil question, federalism should be a pre-condition for these talks. He should be open about it, and not lie to the Sinhalese people.”
Although Mr. Ponnambalam did not sound upbeat about the President’s invitation to Tamil parties, he is optimistic that the economic and political crisis this year has presented “a real opportunity for Sri Lanka to soul-search” and decisively address the long-pending concerns of Tamils. “People of the south feel let down. They see that their leaders fought a war in their name, pursued racist policies in their name…and for the first time since 1948 [year of Sri Lankan Independence] they are calling into question all that they have been told by [Sinhalese] leaders. If we can get our act together now as a country, we can certainly set things right,” he said.