By Rathindra Kuruwita
Last few months have been turbulent ones for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) who has seen one of its coalition partners, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), leaving the coalition and threatening to gather anti TNA elements around it. This is a culmination of the attempts by a number of leaders of the Party, since 2016, to gain control of the Party and most of those who are attempting to give TNA Leader R. Sampanthan the boot seem to believe that the Tamil votes would be cast for the most militant elements.
Therefore, there have been continuous attempts to force the Government to give more autonomy to the North and the East and to re-merge the two provinces. While this has been the TNA’s stance from the beginning, unlike Sampanthan who knows that this will be a slow process and the consensus of the Sinhalese is vital to win the rights of the Tamils, some younger and edgier Tamil leaders seem to want federalism and the re-merger now.
Wrong side of history
Federalism and the re-merger are recurrent dreams of the Tamil nationalist parties. However, demographics of the nation make both these propositions extremely unpopular and have no chance of actualization, unless the Tamil leaders change their marketing strategy.
In fact, I believe that the demographic trends in recent decades ensure that federalism and the re-merger impossibilities.
According to the 2011 census, the Sinhalese are 74.9% of the population, Tamils make 11.15% while there are 9.3% Muslims in the country. Considering that these proposals will be opposed by the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese, it is unthinkable that any Government will be able to obtain the support needed to make such changes. On the other hand, Muslims of the East, who were greatly victimized by the LTTE, remember 1990 anyone, and have a deep-rooted distrust towards the any over-arching moves of administrative unification under TNA domination, are unlikely to be thrilled of prospects of a re-merger.
Chief Minister of Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran has become increasingly militant after it became increasingly obvious that the NPC was failing to live up to the expectations of the public. The nomination of Wigneswaran, who is a former Supreme Court Judge whose son is married to former Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s daughter, as TNA’s NPC chief ministerial candidate generated massive hype. Banking on the hype TNA won the 2013 NPC election, the first Provincial Election in the North,with an overwhelming majority.
However, it was quickly proven that Wigneswaran and his Ministers were incapable of developing the war-affected area. It is a well-known fact that the NPC returns most of the allocation earmarked by the Central Government and that the development drive, carried out by the Central Government, which revitalized the Northern economy has come to a standstill in the last three years. For example, the Central Government allocated Rs 5831 million for the NPC as capital expenditure by the 2014 Budget, but the NPC spent less than 30% of the fund. Simultaneous to the economic stagnation abuse of drugs and alcohol has skyrocketed.
Faced with these challenges and their inability to address these issues Wigneswaran and co fell back to the tried-and-tested method of Sri Lankan politicians to stay in power, stoking sectarian hatred. A number of NPC Members of TNA, have presented a number of counterproductive proposals, often antagonistic to Sinhala and Muslim communities and embarrassing to the Government who has tried to give more powers to the provinces.
However, the more militant stance seems to have won them the support of their constituency. So, much so that TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, who was appointed the Opposition Leader and seemed to have taken a more moderate stance to befit the role of a national leader, has also fallen back to a stance he abandoned a long time ago.
Unfortunately, this internal battle for the leadership of the Tamil political movement is taking place amidst a time of transition in Sri Lanka. Currently, the leaders of the Government, especially Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, are of the belief that more powers should be devolved to the provinces and there is a fragile consensus among the people that some form of devolution is needed to solve tensions between ethnicities. However, the militant approach of the TNA has created a backlash from the nationalistic elements of the South and a number of moderates who voted for the UNFGG Government are also looking at these developments in the North with dismay.
As I have mentioned repeatedly, the vote against Mahinda Rajapaksa was not a vote against Sinhala nationalism. Rajapaksa lost because he did nothing substantial to the Sinhalese and by 2015 many understood that his ‘Sinhala first’ bluster was hollow.
However, some Government leaders seem to have mistaken the forces that brought them into power are pro federal and anti-Sinhala nationalist. A look back at recent history should tell us acting under such assumptions is politically catastrophic and only strengthens nationalistic forces. But surely Wickremesinghe should know this but the Premier has shown over and over again that he does not learn from the past.
Rathindra holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore, and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org