By N Sathiya Moorthy
In the reverse, continual attempts by President Rajapaksa to reach out to the Tamils of the war-torn North should be seen as the Government’s desperation at wanting to do the right thing by the community, to whatever extent possible. In this, the role of the President as the Head of the Sri Lankan State should not be confused with his political role as the leader of the ruling SLFP-UPFA. This does not mean that the Government has done enough.
Nor should the Tamil thinking, as always in the post-war years, be limited to the incumbent’s intentions to run for a third term in a row, after amending the Constitution to facilitate the same after re-election in 2010. If so, they are in danger of misunderstanding the limited or larger signals emanating from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity. The latter is not confined to either President Rajapaksa or the SLFP-UPFA combine.
Outside of the ruling combine, UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared that his party would not accept any political solution to the ethnic issue outside of 13-A. Read carefully, it cut both ways for the TNA and the Tamils. The UNP has to convince itself, particularly the southern party leaders like Sajith Premadasa that it could have the electoral cake and eat it too, by adopting such a policy. It’s not about Sajith’s slain father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa opposing 13-A. It’s also/more about the strong southern constituency against all perceptions and interpretations of Tamil separatism.
Unequal Swap, Or What?
In Northern Province recently, President Rajapaksa reportedly offered to swap Executive Presidency as a constitutional office for ending all demands for a separate Tamil state from out of the united Sri Lanka. As always, it’s a clever political move from his side. The UNP, again as always, has said that it’s President Rajapaksa’s way of stalling the process. If a, he may have actually stalled both on their respective tracks. Rather, the twin shall never meet.
In claiming that various separatist Tamil Diaspora groups in the US and Europe has been meeting. President Rajapaksa also declared that UNP’s Ranil had met them, too. The political hurt that President Rajapaksa wants to inflict on the UNP and its possible presidential candidate is calculable from his side but incalculable from that of his adversary. With his campaign managers already floating the possibility of presidential polls ahead of the papal visit in mid-January 2015, the political message from President Rajapaksa’s speech is discernible without effort.
President Rajapaksa seems wanting to imply that the vocal and vociferous separatist Tamils were negotiating with Ranil and the UNP to facilitate their return to the centre-stage of Sri Lankan politics. This would be so if Ranil were to count on the Tamil votes (as he and the UNP have had done over much of the past decades). It would be more so, if he or his party nominee were to become President, Prime Minister, or whatever position finally gets designated as the CEO of the government in any future politico-administrative structure.
In all this, President Rajapaksa is sending out clear signals to the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency and not just the nationalist sections among them,that he was standing between Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism, as he had done during the conclusive war years. In doing so, he is also seeking to end the national discourse on the abolition of the Executive Presidency. His message is clear. That the nation needed a strong Centre to put down fissiparous tendencies with an iron hand and that no one other than him possessed the same just now.
To the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist constituency, that is saying a lot. Their numbers are also not as negligible particularly as the Tamils want the world to believe. That’s also because some anti-Mahinda political analysts seem to have concluded that the TNA’s choice for the common Opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka, in the 2010 presidential polls actually did him in. If Fonseka, with his colourful contribution to the military extinction of the LTTE, could fall prey, could Ranil, UNP or an UNP-led Opposition combine escape it in the next election, whenever it’s held?
Sajith Premadasa has not only his slain father’s iconic image in the latter’s constituency to protect, he also needs to protect it for self and the party as a whole. That way, the more cohesive the UNP became as a structural and organisational machinery, more demanding could the Tamils become in wanting demonstrative party position on their own political and administrative demands, viz the post-war situation.
Unlike in 2010 or earlier, the Tamils might now demand a public commitment not just in Jaffna, but also possibly in Colombo and elsewhere on what the party and the combine, if any, that the UNP could put together, would offer on the ethnic front, before deciding to vote for a Ranil or whoever is the UNP-backed presidential candidate. According to their own belief, they have little choice but to vote for anyone challenging the incumbent in any presidential poll, in January 2015, or November 2016 – when alone it’s due. It was true of the incumbents in the past, and not exclusive to President Rajapaksa.
None on united Sri Lanka
In responding to President Rajapaksa’s statement, TNA spokesperson and National List parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran has referred to the party’s repeated assertion that they wanted a political solution (only) within a united Sri Lanka. Hence, goes the TNA argument, President Rajapaksa should abolish the Executive Presidency. Weak as it may still be, it’s an argument, still.
The TNA claim, to any Government leader, would be presumptuous. This would be independent of whoever is in power at the Centre. Over the past year of the party-controlled Northern Provincial Council’s (NPC) life, it has passed private members’ resolutions one after the other only against the Centre bordering on what could be interpreted as early signs of Tamil separatist revival. There has not been one resolution of the kind, which reaffirms the TNA’s faith in a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. Their past public rallies and protests promised for the future also carry the same or similar theme.
Independent of President Rajapaksa’s political cunning, the TNA would still have to prove to itself and the rest of the nation, and of the world, that it word counts and its word alone counts among the Tamil masses. Throughout the post-war TNA politics and public rallies, the increasing differences over issues and policies not just personalities and their egos stood out. It was visible even at the May Day rally in which TNA leader Sampanthan was joined on the Jaffna stage by UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, a couple of years ago.
Maybe, future TNA rallies and conferences should (also) focus as much on issues of a united Sri Lanka as they address concerns of Tamil rights and aspirations the latter independent of Tamil separatism, in the past or into the future. Taking the cue from their own experience with the Tamil masses and their aspirations, they need to address the majority-Sinhala society, and through them their polity.
The TNA cannot ask the Government and the Sinhala-Buddhist polity to address it as the Tamils’ representative (‘sole representative’ or not) and itself wanting to talk only to the Government of the day. The pressure from the respective constituencies is real and neither polity can escape this reality. Nor can either of them have a selective view on the subject.
A continuing TNA interaction with the Sinhala masses over the head of the latter’s now-entrenched and even more divided leadership(s) may produce the kind of results that the Tamils can settle for at least in the interim. That’s not happening, however. Over the decades, the Tamils moderate or militant have found comfort in dealing with the Sinhala polity in power, and blaming it (alone) for whatever has gone wrong.
Ban on foreigners
In the present-day context, all this needs to be contextualised to the new Government order, reintroducing the ban on foreigners visiting the Northern Province without prior security clearance. The ban had been removed not very long ago, and its re-introduction is bound to rise heckles both in the national and even more in the international arena.
The Government has attributed the ban as being necessary to check against whipping up disharmony among communities. This requires certain clarification if it’s not to be misunderstood and misrepresented, both in the Sinhala South and outside the country. The anti-Muslim episodes involving the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the new breed of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces, can also be read into the new riot act of the Government in power.
Interestingly, the new ban would apply to SLT Diaspora members with foreign citizenship and passport, as well.
So can it apply to those who surreptitiously enter the Northern Province, either to whip up the smouldering Tamil sentiments, separatist or otherwise? Overseas agencies and agents of the UNHRC, out to record Tamil victims’ accounts on accountability issues for the benefit of the ongoing OHCHR probe, cannot escape the ban, either.
Yet, all this are a throw-back to the days prior to those that President Rajapaksa and his Government had declared when the North was safe for foreigners to travel and also safe for Sri Lankans to let them travel there. It’s a reflection on the kind of nervousness that had marked the respective approach of successive governments in Colombo, to restore normalcy and also prove to the world and to itself that the war-torn North had become normal, after all.
Today, the ban would provide material for the anti-government, anti-Rajapaksa camp(s), both within the country and outside, to begin charging them with resorting to human rights violations, informal media ban and the like that had marked the war years.
It’s however a reflection also of the Government’s increasing apprehensions that uncontrolled and misdirected resolutions of the NPC, if allowed unchecked by the TNA leadership, has the potential for greater mischief than generally understood or, otherwise directed by the party and the political administration in the North.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.