Tamils Need To Speak Up, And In Time

Speech is silver, silence is golden.” If there is one occasion where this dictum does not seem to apply, it’s in political negotiations of every kind. This does not mean that every stake-holder together should create a Tower of Babel all at once. It only implies that those that have demands should speak up, and in time – for other stake-holders, to hear and act upon, at least some of them.

It has become the practice with the nation’s Tamil polity to sit back and watch the ‘fun’ as other stake-holders create an unintelligible cacophony all the time. It’s more so when the national discourse of the kind involves possible pointers to a political solution for the ethnic issue.

After a point, the Tamil political leadership cannot escape the blame that they had often reacted to what’s on offer.  That’s where they had not over-stated their postulates and demands.

Now that Parliament has converted itself into a Constituent Assembly, the Tamil socio-political leadership cannot delay throwing up its ideas for all of Sinhala-Buddhist majority to hear.

Post-war, and under a government of their choosing, they have both the opportunity and freedom to move around the country freely in 30 years, and have themselves heard, as much in southern Sinhala-majority parts of the country as in the Tamil-majority areas, starting with the Northern Province.

As the Tamils’ chosen political leader, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has to formulate not only their strategy but also their demands early on – and take it to the Sinhala people.

They need not go over the head of the near-eternally divided Sinhala political and social leaderships. They could instead co-opt the majority Sinhala constituencies along with the Sinhala political leadership(s), both in the government and the Opposition, to communicate with.

Owing to a variety of reasons, over the decades since Independence, successive Tamil political leaderships have always stopped with talking to the Sinhala-led government of the day. There can be no two ways about it, yes. But nothing stopped them from taking the Sinhala political Opposition into confidence, too.

Today’s, UNP-SLFP marriage of convenience need not deliver on the Tamils’ expectations – but it can well be the starting-point. They cannot blame either the National Unity Government or factions within the ‘Big Two’ Sinhala majors if internal contradictions, based on politics and personalities, tend to be given a policy and philosophical colour. There are, of course, more serious issues than politics of personalities, too.

Nothing also stopped the Tamil leaderships in the early years of ethnic strife from co-opting the national and Sinhala media and also the Sinhala-Buddhist majority on their side, as well. Post facto explanations and excuses would not serve the day’s purpose just now. Today, instead, a new dawn might have come their way in this department. They should not waste it away, as in the past, on trivia.

 

Torpedoing from within

The TNA has precedents in the matter, for them not to fall into the same trap as their predecessors did. Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike went back on the B-C Pact only after S J V Chelvanayagam said at a Batticaloa rally that it was ‘only the first step’. Chelva did not offer any explanations, then or later.

The Tamils had a good start-up deal again in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and 13-A. In the absence of a strong political Opposition from within the Sinhala community, it was inevitable that divisions within the then ruling UNP had to torpedo the same. It’s another matter that the TULF and the LTTE too opposed it, but for exactly opposite reasons.

There was no political Opposition to JRJ at the time. It was not the case for CBK and her ‘Chandrika Package’. The UNP’s opposition to the deal this time was again accompanied by the LTTE’s over-confidence and destructive approach. The less said about the Norwegian-facilitated CFA the better.

The deal did create a conducive atmosphere for political negotiations, to split from within and quarrel with the Government on post-tsunami P-TOMS, rather than substantive issue.

Post-war, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa offered talks, the TNA went back and forth at the same time (which is what the government too was doing anyway, and with greater visibility). In 2010 polls and later in 2015, the TNA succeeded in getting the Tamils to vote for a candidate of their choice, but to different end-games.

There is no knowing if the TNA had negotiated any outline of a political settlement to the ethnic issue with the presidential candidate of their choice in either election. Technically, they had voted to help present-day President Maithripala Sirisena win. They had before them, the commitment of Sirisena helping to dissolve the ‘Executive Presidency’, but not anything seemingly substantial on the ethnic front. The subsequent parliamentary polls ‘legitimised’ Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe earlier nomination to the post. Though the TNA had worked with Wickremesinghe and his UNP for Sirisena win, they went alone in the parliamentary polls. This does not mean that the UNP and PM Wickremesinghe would renege on the Tamils’ expectations. Yet, whatever is on offer from now on would be for reasons other than the Tamils’ support for helping Sirisena to defeat incumbent Rajapaksa.

 

Tactical advantage, but…

Successive Tamil leadership seems to have mostly waited for the Sinhala political leadership to formulate their views on the ethnic issue and power-devolution, and have invariably reacted to what’s finally on offer. More often than not, Sinhala political opinion had crystallised invariably by then, from grassroots upwards.

No Sinhala political leadership, whether in power or in the Opposition, has thus displayed a willingness to take the bull by the horn. Politics apart, it’s unwise even in ‘immediate national interest’, too, to do so – when seen from their perspective. The State apparatus too has not been tuned to reversing their view, once the Sinhala public mood and political views had crystallised.

The Tamil social and political leadership cannot continue to hide their internal, if not inherent, weaknesses in the ‘Sinhala insincerity’ any more. Whenever there is a unilateral Sinhala political discourse on power-devolution and negotiated settlement, the Tamils too have been divided on their own demands and modus of operation.

Afraid of facing an open division or revolt, the Tamils seems to play a strategic game of ‘golden silence’, when silvery speech might have served their purpose, better. If anything, it’s the consolidation of Sinhala public mood and political opinion that has invariably helped the otherwise divided Tamil polity – and at times, society – to bury the hatchet, once again, and put up a common front, one more time.

A corollary to this conditioning is also the Tamils’ expectations that an ‘external facilitator/mediator’ of whatever kind would be able to bring around the Government of the day. They invariably leave out the internal pressures that the Government leadership keeps facing all the time, from its own alliance partners and the political Opposition.

More importantly, the Tamils and their international facilitators/supporters seem to have continually forgotten the perceptions and compulsions of the Sri Lankan State, as different from the ruling Sinhala party, alliance or leadership. On the reverse, however, the ‘pregnant silence’ of the Tamils, in turn, has invariably led the Sinhala-led Government of the day and the larger Sinhala polity and society, to conclude that the ‘international community’ was once again conspiring with the Tamils.

The fact that the Tamils and the international community have been making similar demands on the Government from time to time is often taken as granted – and as ‘proof’ of the ‘conspiracy’. The inherent problems pertain to the inability of the ‘international community’, acting through diplomatic channels, to be as communicative with the nation’s ruling leadership as they could be with the non-State actors in the Tamil leadership, LTTE or no LTTE.

 

Blame game has to end

This game – or, the blame-game – has to end, here and now, if the Tamils have to get their due. After all, at the end of every internationally-facilitated peace process, the Sri Lankan government of the day has been stymied by precisely the same. The latter has either slipped away from its commitment at successive rounds of negotiations, or has not been able to implement the commitments already made – precisely for the same reason(s).

Conversely, by being less transparent in its initial dealings and assuming the mood of their population and fringe groups for granted, the Tamil political leaderships have invariably found the tables turned against them at every subsequent turn. The LTTE was one exception. It was not because all the Tamils accepted the LTTE’s continuing calls for a ‘separate State’, or something that would take them there.

The Tamils were afraid of LTTE’s terror. The Sri Lankan State, instead, could not have done it that way, all the time. To the State, and by extension the political leadership of the day, it was a time-bound tactic at best. The strategy was always to buy peace on its terms – or, to eliminate the LTTE.

They failed in the former but did succeed in the latter.  In the post-war, post-polls scenario, the TNA leadership of the Tamil community has lesser time now than the LTTE had in its time. It cannot allow things to drift as it did under the post-war phase of the Rajapaksa regime, and frustrate the ‘friendly government’ of the day, by continuing to shift the goal-post from their side, too.  The Tamils have possibly lost the first round, this time, too. By agreeing to a Constituent Assembly after rejecting Rajapaksa’s Parliament Select Committee (PSC), they may have widened the scope of discourse – hence, possible dissent, too. They need to get a solution on power-devolution before the Sinhala community’s ‘honeymoon’ with their new government evaporates, as it is bound to happen in the case of every other government, anywhere.

The TNA also needs to help ‘market’ any agreed package among the Sinhala community as they also have to do in the case of their own Tamil brethren – and without loss of further time! They cannot expect the Sinhala political leadership to offer whatever they wanted, and then market it among the Sinhala community, without arousing suspicions in the latter’s mind!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)