CM Wigneswaran’s de-militarisation, rehabilitation-related concerns are genuine

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Pro-LTTE, pro-separatist websites could not have done a greater disservice to the larger Tamil cause just now than projecting Northern Province Chief Minister Justice C V Wigneswaran as our new national leader. It may in a way be a greater disservice to Justice Wigneswaran, too, who may not share their present views about him, and mostly definitely, their cause for a separate Tamil State.

Despite being suave and gentlemanly, Wigneswaran has always been straight and forthright in his views, particularly on the Tamils’ problems and their solutions. Before his entering active politics and becoming Chief Minister at one-go, the very same sections that now hail him used to criticise him for being a Colombo elite who did not (have to) face the rigours and destruction of war.

After becoming chief minister and more so over the past year or so, Wigneswaran has endeared the self not only to the separatist ideologues as is becoming increasingly visible. He is also possibly the only post-war Tamil leader to visit the war-affected villages and people, and to reassure them. His job as chief minister expects and entails him to do so, but their career/service as a politician had entailed his fellow TNA leaders too to have done so. None had made the attempt unless there was something immediately political about it, more so in terms of competitive Tamil politics internally.

Endearing him to the separatists is not an option available to any Tamil social or political leader, or any member of the international community. Pedantic to the point of being proselytising, ideologues of Tamil separatism are not the ones to let go off any opportunity coming their way. So, if a Wigneswaran does not approve of their ways, and yet has views that are different from that of the Sri Lankan State on specifics and generalities, then he could be their man for the hour. Others can wait until their turn came.

Through his long years and of political career, TNA’s R Sampanthan has endeared himself as a moderator par excellence in his circumstances. He has been at it for too long for any hard-liner Tamil to accept him as our new national leader at any time and more so after the sudden end of the war and of the LTTE in May 2009. Yet, he has been a good negotiator, but a negotiator who did not or could not deliver much, despite persistent though not consistent attempts.

As chief minister, Wigneswaran cannot but air the grievances of his people. As a Tamil leader, he is yet to wholly establish his credibility, against the oft-repeated accusations deriving from his upper class, if not upper caste (Jaffna Vellala) socio-economic background. As the elected chief minister committed to serving his people, and laying down a roadmap for successors to come in and also take forward in their time.

Wigneswaran’s rehabilitation-related concerns are genuine, his worries about de-militarisation are a reflection of his people’s continuing apprehensions, his prescription for a political solution are born out of being a high-level participant in the national/international Tamil discourse on the ethnic issue, particularly since his attaining the age of superannuation as a Judge of the Supreme Court. That was even before the ethnic war had ended in May 2009. 

Wigneswaran-with-SambanthanGood negotiator or not

There has not been any occasion thus far to know if Wigneswaran would make a good negotiator or not. Solutions to every aspect of the ethnic issue involve hard negotiations but negotiations it has to be. Negotiations are all about give-and-take and without give-and-take there can be no negotiations. Thus far, Wigneswaran has only listed out what the Sri Lankan State would have to do for the Tamils, and the Provinces, with his Northern Province in mind.

Call it a perception difference, or personality difference, or political difference or even an attitudinal difference, Wigneswaran has had problems with two successive government leaderships at the Centre in as many years. He and his elected provincial administration could not have their way with the predecessor Rajapaksa regime.

Even before they had met even once after the 8 January presidential polls, Chief Minister Wigneswaran and present-day Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have exchanged hot words in public.  One focussed on political perceptions, the other made it personal. Wickremesinghe calling Wigneswaran a liar is sure to have its reverberations in the Tamil psyche, without producing a corresponding electoral counter-poise in the Sinhala nationalist constituency, if that was also the reason.

It is also not given to a constitutionally-elected prime minister to say on record that he would not meet with a similarly-elected provincial chief minister. It’s not only about the ethnic issue, per se. Under the evolving scheme of power-sharing between the Executive President and the non-executive prime minister, the business of the State cannot have a sparring/warring pair at the helm. Post-war does not require it, nor does it deserve it.

Preferred as Wickremesinghe maybe in the Tamils eyes for a Sinhala leader until now, the prime minister would suddenly become the epitome of all that’s wrong with the majority community leadership since Independence. In comparison, one-time Sinhala hard-liner (?) in President Maithripala Sirisena may have endeared himself in relative terms to the Tamil people in the North. Since assuming office he has visited the North twice.


Presidential task force

During the more recent Jaffna visit, President Sirisena has also announced the setting up of a Presidential Task Force (PTF) to address minorities’ issues. It could be the beginning of the end to the ethnic issue, one would hope, but it need not be so is another attendant concern, flowing from decades of Sri Lankan experience.

It’s anybody’s guess if former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, should have accepted the chairperson’s post of the Task Force. Given the entanglements that the ethnic negotiations are expected to entail, as over the past decades, the PTF is sure to invite as much trouble as ideas and ideologies. There are also the unforgettable and unforgivable memories of Wicrkemesinghe-led UNP burning the Chandrika Package copies inside Parliament when there were hopes that it could be the way out of the ethnic mess at the time.

This does not mean that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may be bad for an all-embracing ethnic deal that the nation can live with for long and all time to come. Post-war, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the best bet to market a balanced political solution to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority community, particularly the hard-line sections, whose numbers might have matched all Sri Lankan Tamils in the country put together  if not more.

Sri Lanka missed the bus then, it cannot miss the bus again. The problem for PM Wickremesinghe on this count does not come from the Tamils. The Sinhala-Buddhist community does not see him as a hard-liner, and the hard-liner constituency does not accept him as one of them. For now, he has two main tasks on hand. One is to get formally elected prime minister in the promised parliamentary polls.

Rajapaksa’s shadow looms large just now on the horizon though it remains to be seen if the former president would throw his hat into ring, and also becomes Sri Lanka’s very own Vladimir Putin. Two, constitutionally and politically, Wickremesinghe has to have the prime minister’s job defined / re-defined (unfortunately for Sri Lanka, once again only with personalities in mind).

It’s easier said than done, considering in effect the deep-seated personality of President Sirisena, which none has thus far gauged in any full measure. If his predecessor came from the deep South, the incumbent from the other end of the Sinhala geographical political spectrum continues to remain an outsider to the elitist politics of the Colombo Seven variety.

Sri Lanka’s past political problems, particularly within individual communities and political parties have been near-exclusively personality-driven, not policy-based. It’s more so in the realm of cohabitation between the president and the prime minister, to whichever parties they belonged. Between them, the JRJ-Premadasa, CBK-Ranil, and even the CBK-Rajapaksa (though belonging to the same SLFP) cohabitation were historic and problematic at the same time.

As President, Rajapaksa could manage it, not because his prime ministers were inherently weak, but because his popular image had broken through the roof after the armed forces under his political care had begun scoring decisive war victories against the LTTE. Memories may be short, but his early days were bedevilled by cohabitation problems with Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickranayake from his own party and on being a greater Sinhala-Buddhist than the other.

Getting elected as prime minister through the political process alone would confer legitimacy on Wickremesinghe’s current tenure as prime minister. Such a course would have also ensured that he had a parliamentary majority to call his own. If his twin-goals are achieved that’s when the real goals for a national government could be set and sought to be implemented.

Pending the parliamentary polls and the results, it’s also then that the real problems for a national government could commence. Personality apart, a prime minister sworn to modern, market capitalist tendencies and policies will be dealing with a president, still quoting Karl Marx and whose powers would not have been adequately clipped for him to assert the assumed powers of his redefined office.

It could then be found that the hybrid constitutional changes were no course for clarity, but only for greater confusion and confrontation. Again, it’s all for the voters the majority Sinhala voters to decide which way should the wind blow. It would be another matter that Wickremesinghe, if elected prime minister, would have to wear the twin masks of a liberal democrat to his international supporters on the one hand and the Sinhala-Buddhist tough-talker (without necessarily being dubbed a hard-liner) before the domestic constituency.

Be it 13-Plus or 19-A, it’s all in the wish of the leaders and the will of the people.  Competitive politics, whether of the Tamil or the Sinhala and of the Muslim and IOT kind, which are not in the news, thankfully has already begin heralding another innings of the old goeth, the new cometh. Post-Independence Sri Lankan history has shown that it’s the moderate that ends up becoming the hard-liner, and conveniently and at times consciously, too blames the other side for it all. After Wigneswaran, every moderate (?) Tamil leader now has begun talking tough also to get counted and not branded a traitor. After Mahinda R, the likes of Ranil are getting shriller and harsher. In his time, S W R D Bandaranaike had campaigned for Tamil rights once but was the one to lead a Sinhala-Buddhist coalition and piloted the Sinhala Only law, when that became his political/electoral survival.

S J V Chelvanayagam was/is called the ‘Ceylon Gandhi’ for his embracingsathyagraha, from the land of Gandhi and Gautama Buddha. Two decades down the line, he would pilot the Vaddukottai resolution, paving the way for Tamil separatism and handing over the torch to militant youth, who were already on prowl.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:

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