NORTHERN AGITATION PROVOKES RACISM IN SOUTH
Radicalisation of Tamil politics is turning out to be a critical problem for the country’s political sphere, as the government has already embarked on a comprehensive mission to bring about reconciliation and accountability.
This trend aims to derail the government’s plans for reconciliation, while causing fear and suspicion among Sinhala-Buddhist sections in the South. This may trigger a political resistance in the South against attempts toward reconciliation and accountability, while driving the North in the direction of ‘extremism’. It has now reached a point where the government has to take the bull by the horns and deal with the problem, without trying to find easy escape routes.
Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran, a former Supreme Court judge, rides the crest of this communalist wave in the North. When the Tamil National Alliance fielded him as the Chief Ministerial candidate at the Northern Provincial Council election, many believed he would bridge the gap between the North and the South, as he had a proven track record in the country’s judiciary. He was heavily backed by TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, M.A. Sumanthiran and the seemingly moderate bloc in the TNA camp.
In fact, the hardline bloc of the TNA backed Mavai Senathirajah for the position, claiming the Colombo-born Vigneswaran was a bad choice for the Chief Ministerial candidacy. Therefore, the group supporting Vigneswaran had to lobby hard to make Vigneswaran the Chief Ministerial candidate as the retired Supreme Court judge, at that point, seemed to be the ‘man of the moment’.
However, after his ascension to the Chief Minister’s office, Vigneswaran did a somersault by projecting himself as an ‘alternate leader’ in the TNA, appealing to the extremist elements in the North. He had no qualms about aligning himself with those advocating extremism in terms of the north and east problem. They were the same groups that vehemently opposed Vigneswaran’s candidacy, when the TNA decided to field him for the Northern Provincial Council election.
Vigneswaran’s first drastic step was the setting up of the Tamil People’s Council in December, last year, to counter the seemingly moderate path taken by the TNA leadership, after January, last year. The TPC was projected as an alternative to the TNA and Vigneswaran suddenly became the new hero of the Tamil radicals.
Former Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of ACTC, Senior ITAK vice president Prof. S. Sittambalam, Northern Province Councilor Sivanesan alias Bavaan of PLOTE, Dr. Poopalan Lakshman of the Jaffna Hospital, Batticaloa Civil Society Secretary, T. Vasantharajah and N. Vijayasuntharam Editor of ‘Valampuri’ newspaper published in Jaffna were present at the inaugural meeting of the Tamil People’s Congress. They were critical of the TNA saying the party was cozying up to ‘Southern politics’, deviating from the Tamil cause. It was clear, from the outset, that the TPC’s objective was to confine politics in the North to a communal cell.
‘Eluga Tamil’, a rally that stirred up a hornets’ nest, in North as well as in the South, was the latest manifestation of the TPC’s blatantly communalist objectives.
The rally was organised by the TPC, led by Vigneswaran. Several other hardcore members of the TNA and other Tamil organisations were also present at the event, showing their solidarity with the cause. The rally was a clear indication that Vigneswaran did not have much faith in the idea of reconciliation, as it could turn him into an Ideologically Displaced Person (IDP) in politics.
The Chief Minister has now realized that his political future depends on the manner in which he capitalizes on the rift between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. That is exactly why the Chief Minister is attempting his best to fan communal flames in Jaffna, with the support of several extremist politicians in the province. This makes Vigneswaran and Mahinda Rajapaksa two sides of the same coin.
The rally raised awareness about several key demands of the Council, including what they termed as “ongoing militarisation and State sponsored Sinhala colonisation of the Tamil homeland, the need for an international investigation into mass atrocities committed against the Tamil people, the continued detention of Tamils under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the need for a political solution based on a federal model which recognises the Tamil nation and its right to self-determination.”
After the rally, the TPC made a lengthy public declaration, outlining their demands. The declaration, inter alia, called fora “federal solution based the constitutional proposals submitted by the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) be adopted to ensure non-recurrence of the direct and indirect repercussions described above, of the war, and as a solution to the Tamil National question.”
“Although this government has assured the international community that the proposed Third Republican constitution of Sri Lanka will bring about a resolution to the Tamil National question, the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka continue to stress that unitary character of the Sri Lanka and the pride of place afforded to Buddhism will not be altered in the constitution,” it said.
“We strongly believe that this government is attempting to force minimal power devolution within a unitary State on the Tamil people.
We also believe that the government is attempting to hurriedly pass the proposed constitution in Parliament and win the approval of this minimalistic constitution at a referendum, with the support of the majority of the Tamil people.
This strategy, we believe, will enable the government to proclaim that it has solved the Tamil National question through the proposed Third Republican Constitution,” it also added.
The TPC’s attempt took a violent turn when some of its participants and supporters pelted stones at housing quarters used by Sathosa employees. Many shops in the area were closed to show support to the protest, but the Sathosa outlet in Kilinochchi remained open. The quarters used by the Sathosa employees came under attack a few hours after the protest and law enforcement authorities suspected that there was a direct connection between the two events.
Although the Chief Minister publicly claimed that the protest had nothing to do with communalism, his conduct came under heavy criticism from many sections, including some front-line members of his own party.
Among them was M.A. Sumanthiran, who, at one point, strongly backed Vigneswaran when the latter was fielded by the TNA as the Chief Ministerial candidate.
Sumanthiran, speaking to the BBC Sandeshaya said, it was ‘inappropriate’ to launch a protest march at a time when the party was holding discussions with other political parties in the country on the proposed new Constitution.
He directed his criticism at the TPC, led by Vigneswaran, for attempting to derail their engagement, with regard to the new constitution.
Sumanthiran, while distancing his party from the Northern Province Chief Minister’s initiative, stressed that the TPC supporters had launched the protest disregarding his party’s advice and the TNA had no part in it.
Such protest, he said, could create misunderstandings between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
“The Tamil National Alliance is committed to finding a just and fair solution for the Tamil community through democratic means and constitutional reforms,” he said, adding that the TNA had already embarked on this process.
He said this could be fulfilled through the Constitutional Council which is represented by all political parties.
Apart from the TNA stalwarts, many other political parties in the South, including several minority parties, lashed out at Vigneswaran over the Elugha Tamil controversy.
Minister Mano Ganesan, who has earned a reputation as an outspoken Tamil politician, said the rally would do little to help the government’s plans for ethnic harmony. UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim too was quick to condemn the statement by the Northern Province Chief Minister.
A senior of the SLFP and cabinet minister Nimal Siripala de Silva launched a scathing attack on the Chief Minister saying the latter attempting to incite racism by inviting people to the streets.
“The Chief Minister must not make this kind of remarks that will encourage extremists in the North agitating for a separate state and those in the South who are attempting to create fear psychosis over resurgence of the LTTE. This government, I must say, will not tolerate such attempts,” de Silva, a staunch supporter of President Sirisena, said, addressing a press conference in Colombo.
‘I cannot understand why a man of his calibre, a retired Supreme Court judge, is attempting to strengthen and support extremism,’ the Minister said, asserting that the SLFP, a key stakeholder of the government, would allow the formulation of a Federal constitution.
Meanwhile, the Chief Minister’s conduct has created a wide gap between the radical and relatively moderate elements in the TNA. It can be assumed that Vigneswaran’s group will also move in the direction of forming a separate party, breaking away from the TNA. However, at this point, the TPC prefers to function as a front organization, without taking up the role of a new, radical political party. This equation will probably change when the government announces the Provincial Council election for the North.
However, in another interesting turn of events, Vigneswaran was the notable absentee at the opening ceremony of the National Sports Festival 2016, held at the Duraiappah Stadium in Jaffna. Many said Vigneswaran had decided to boycott the event.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was the Chief Guest at the sports festival and Vigneswaran was invited as a guest of honour.
However, NPC Chairman and several other provincial ministers were present at the event, to encourage Sri Lanka’s national athletes.
Vigneswaran’s conspicuous absence at the sports event showed that the Chief Minister did not want to engage with events promoting harmony and reconciliation.
Vigneswaran’s conduct also gave an opening for the BBS organization to make a dramatic re-entry into the country’s political sphere.
The BBS and representatives from a few other extremist Buddhist organisations held a protest in Vavunia, on Friday, demanding action against the Chief Minister.
BBS General Secretary Galagoda-aththé Gnanasara Thera and Sihala Ravaya stalwart Iththakande Saddhathissa Thera were seen at the forefront of the protest. This was the first public event organised by the BBS as they went into a dormant phase of sorts after the Rajapaksa family fell out of power, in January, last year.
This time, the Tamil community in the North and their provincial administration were at the receiving end of the BBS’s scathing attacks. During the protest, the BBS supporters threatened to ‘come back’ if the provincial administration in the North continued its acts against the Sinhalese community in the area.It was, one might say, a veiled threat to replicate the Aluthgama attack against Muslims which sent across the society, two years ago. It is, without doubt, a classic example on how the Tamil racism feeds the Sinhala-Buddhist racism and supremacy. It is all too evident that Vigneswaran and the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists are the two sides of the same coin. This is why Vigneswaran’s conduct is no different from that of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at this juncture.
This situation may compel the government and the country’s civil society to launch a concerted effort against racism and extremism. It is now quite clear that racism and extremism will hamper the ruling alliances’ grand plans for comprehensive political reforms.
In a context where many political parties, including the TNA, have decided to positively engage with the reforms process, the ultra-nationalist elements in the North and the South will be a stone in the shoe for the government.
It was against this backdrop that the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform headed by Lal Wijenayake called on Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter Ven. Thibbotuwawé Sri Sumangala Thera to brief the latter about the ongoing process.
During the discussion, the Mahanayake Thera gave his inputs to the Committee members who are in the process of preparing a final report on constitutional reforms.
In his remarks, Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera reiterated that good characteristics of the present Constitution should be made entrenched provisions, when the new constitution is being formulated. The Mahanayake Thera opined that the unitary status of the country and the right status and respect to Buddhism should remain intact when the new constitution is being drafted.
The Mahanayake Thera said the Committee and the government will come under flak from many quarters if these vital characteristics of the present Constitution are omitted when drafting the new Constitution.
The Mahanayake Thera, going another step further, inquired from the Committee representatives about public views on the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The total abolition of Executive Presidency was a key promise of President Maithripala Sirisena when he ran for presidency, last year.
“It is impossible for the Committee to obtain views of each and every person in the country but obtaining the views of a cross section of the society representing various social strata is vital for the formulation of the new Constitution,” the Mahanayake Thera said.
Wijenayake then presented a book containing views of a cross section of the society on Constitutional Reforms. Sources close to the Committee said it would also meet several other prominent figures in society to make them aware of the ongoing process and gather their inputs.
They added that this would make the entire process transparent and allay certain fears among some sections in the South over the formulation of the new constitution.