Tamil politics after UNHRC ‘exit’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

It would be interesting to know how Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha feels about the UNHRC processes of the past decade. He was there when the nation continued to boycott the resolutions on ‘war-crimes probe’, after Sri Lanka lost the same under his predecessor, and for obvious reasons. That was under the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister.

As Permanent Representative (PR) at Geneva, Ambassador Aryasinha was later tasked by the previous ‘yahapalanaya’ government with coordinating the co-authored resolution with western diplomats. Today, the Government of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has announced the decision for the nation to walk out of those co-authored resolutions, 30-! And 40-1, and as Foreign Secretary, Aryasinha is there to brief UNHRC officials.

There are no comparisons. There cannot be any, as Am Aryasinha is a career diplomat and the other is a political party, driven by constituency interests and electoral prospects. Whatever was/is there, could only be in the reverse, if at all. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was opposed to the Government stand when the latter boycotted the early UNHRC resolutions, seeking/directing an ‘independent, international’ probe into allegations of war-crimes and other ‘accountability issues’.

The past five years of yahapalanaya dispensation meant that the TNA had no role to play other than silently endorsing whatever the Government of the day co-authored with the western powers. Today, five years down the line, they are back to their original game, of appealing to the West to punish Sri Lanka for its intransigence of the previous years, and cautioning the Government leadership nearer home, as to what awaits them.

Lost leverage

The TNA however does not explain either to its constituency or to the nation, or Tamil-backers in the West and the rest, independent of the Diaspora, as to why they did not get an ounch or an inch from the yahapalanaya government, especially of then UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The TNA kind of yahapalanaya, or ‘reforms’, stopped with putting Maithripala Sirisena in the President’s seat and Wickremesinghe in the PM’s chair.

The TNA had better leveraging powers under the previous regime. Since the inception of what was proudly presented as the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), the Tamils had a friendly and sympathetic leadership at the nation’s helm – or, that is what the TNA told the world and made their own Tamil constituency believe. At the end of five years, it’s scores of missed political opportunities.

The TNA wasted the political leverage that the turn of events offered them, almost from the word ‘Go’ for Sirisena to turn against his President and party boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the very minute Gota Rajapaksa was elected President in November last. They lost it all in the name of ‘goodwill’, for whom and by whom, and why – there are no explanation or justification. There was none even once through the five years, whenever and wherever the TNA’s support was sought and they gave it to the Government leadership that identified with PM Wickremesinghe.

Ethnic credibility

The best opportunity presented itself after the twin constitutional crises, initiated by President Sirisena. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his part of the GNU/yahapalayana government needed TNA’s parliamentary support for survival. The Supreme Court verdict only confirmed that Parliament and not the President’s Office was the venue for deciding the legislative majority of an incumbent Government.

In a way, the Supreme Court’s unanimous, seven-judge verdict was in conformity with the neighbouring Indian counterpart’s decision in the famous ‘Bommai case’ (1994). That was when TNA’s case for being heard by the nation’s political bosses was also re-affirmed, though indirectly.

The Wickremesinghe leadership wanted the TNA’s votes for survival. Even the ‘interim’ Prime Minister in Mahinda Rajapaksa, sworn in by President Sirisena in a huff, met with TNA leaders, seeking their support. After a point, the ‘incumbents’ (?) only wanted the TNA to stay neutral, while the Wicrkemesinghe and the UNP wanted their support, outright.

Moral high-ground

Without playing politics, the TNA leadership played for the moral high-ground, or wanted the world to believe its version. After multiple confabulations, TNA’s R Sampanthan declared that they would back the Wickremesinghe leadership, but would not use the tricky situation to bargain with him on the ‘Tamil cause’ or a ‘political solution’ to the ethnic issue, and on their terms.

It did not go unnoticed that the West at the time had taken a strong position on the ‘constitutional crisis’. Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, otherwise a nominee of the UNP, did not find anything amiss in his confabulating with western diplomats in his office, when their position on the unfolding situation was well known to the nation.

TNA’s moral posturing in this background only confirmed criticism that it was not playing the ‘Tamil card’, but the game of the West and for them. Then or since, they did not make any public demands on the UNP leadership, on the political solution and also the ‘war crimes’ probe, on which they were/ are vociferous only when the Rajapaksas are in power.

Put differently, it has meant that when the UNP (now, Wickremesinghe or not) was/is in power, the TNA cares for the Government’s stability than for the ‘Tamil cause’. When the Rajapaksas are in power, it is the other way round. That is to say, with a Government that they say is sympathetic to the ‘Tamil cause’, they have noting to seek. From a Government that they claim is antagonistic to the ‘Tamil cause’ even otherwise, they have everything to demand.

They go the West’s way, but there again, there is no knowing whose purpose they are serving. The question if the West would have done the same thing as the US bar now on Army chief, Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva, would have happened if there was greater understanding on bilateral issues of different kinds, has no answers, at least as of now.

The question is also if the US would or would not have taken the same decision, independent of bilateral issues and independent of self-proclaimed TNA pressure, too, does not have any satisfactory response from any quarter. There is a need to study in depth the influence of human rights groups from within the US and the US Administration, Democrat or Republican, on such matters independent of the TNA demand and bilateral relations (including the ‘China angle’ to begin with).

With Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as President for the next five years, the TNA and the West cannot escape his presence, prominence and predominance in decision-making in and for the Government. Granting that the Tamil-friendly UNP and allies win the parliamentary polls, even if for argument’s sake, what is it that the TNA can expect another cohabiting leadership, that too divided at birth, to deliver?

The question then will also be about the UNP having to accommodate the aspirations of their Mulsim backers, whose multiple parties are already their electoral partners – which the TNA is not. As in the past, the UNP, which is as sensitive as the Rajapaksas, on the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ constituency, could point to the Muslim demands for internal-political solution involving the TNA’s Tamils, could leave it to them, to fight it out – politically, of course.

Tamil vs Tamil

The way the parliamentary polls are panning out in the SLT/TNA areas, the latter seem to fear more for the new four-party combine, calling itself the ‘Tamil People’s National Alliance) that its traditional rivals in the past. Headed by TNA’s estranged former Northern Province Chief Minister, Justice C V Wigneswaran, the TNA seems hard-pressed to take a hard-liner way than the other, which anyway has little choice, even otherwise.

Those in the Wigneswaran camp, starting with the leader, have two or three basic characteristics. One, they love to hate the Sinhalese, especially the Rajapskas, more than the TNA. Two, they love to hate the TNA even more. They are equally uncomfortable with the Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam-led ACTC-TNPF, if he is not an ally. Ponnambalam cannot accept anyone else as his leader, with his sharpest and deepest of hard-liner political image doing the rest for him.

Independent of what the Sinhala South may decide in and on the parliamentary polls, the fight in the Tamil areas in the North and the East is over the TNA defending its fortress, which seems to have developed new chinks after the presidential polls, all over again. Their own perception seems to be that the Rajapaksa ticket ensured that the Tamil votes stood by them, but now that the issue is not Rajapaksas, they may face the kind of electoral troubles from fellow-Tamil parties, as they did during the local government polls of 2018.

That is the kind of fear that they seem to radiate in their hard-hitting attacks on Wiggy & Co, which otherwise is only a bunch of turn-coats, who had left the TNA at different times, more because of ego clashes and personal ambitions than Tamil aspirations. Alternatively, the TNA can hope to flag the ‘Rajapaksa bogey’ all over again, citing the possible continuance of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in office, and the dominance of the Rajapaksa clan in the affairs of the Sri Lankan State, possibly more than in the immediate post-war period.

Either way, it is anybody’s guess if and how such a course would help the larger ‘Tamil cause’ than act as a nuisance if Mahinda R returned as Prime Minister, or shore up their constituency’s aspirants if he were to lose office. The TNA too only seem to be having questions, but no answers – but also seem to have the hope of drowning fellow-Tamil criticism in their own high-decibel attacks on the rest and call for all those Tamils fearing another ‘Sinhala-Buddhist reprisal’ to fall behind them – hence fall upon them, too, to cover them from verbal onslaughts of every kind and from every direction.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)