By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
If the Southern Opposition is dwindling or dying, the Northern Opposition is deluded and in deep denial. These wings or streams of the opposition seem to be marginalising themselves to the point of irrelevance.
In a new interview, lawyer and civil society activist Sumanthiran, billed as the TNA’s Colombo Tamil civil society whizz-kid, has dug his heels in on federalism and a re-merged North and East, rejected the 13th Amendment, and is derisive about unity with the Tamil Political Parties Forum (TPPF) because they disagree on ‘fundamentals’. Here is the core of what he says:
“We have very specifically said that these reforms… must take the form of a federal structure… Well, the 13th Amendment is a reform made in 1987, which the TNA’s predecessor, the TULF had rejected. After negotiations with India, it was considered insufficient… The 13th Amendment obviously is not the answer… Therefore, we take it that any solution that goes beyond the 13th Amendment naturally must include the merger of the North and East… I don’t see any issue if the North and East are to become a merged province again.
“…But we are also conscious, that one cannot compromise on fundamental principles in the name of unity. We have been elected by the people with a mandate, and people have voted for us at an election which was conducted under extremely difficult circumstances. They have reposed some kind of confidence in us. They have rejected most of those parties that are part of this forum. We must not dilute or betray the confidence the people have placed in us by readily joining hands with forces who have been rejected by the people.” (The Nation, August 29, 2010)
With an LTTE intact and Prabhakaran alive, the TULF’s respected parliamentarians in exile in India, MGR as Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu, seventy thousand Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil, the Sri Lankan army either withdrawn or confined to barracks in the North and East, and no China card for Colombo to play, federalism could not be prised out of the Sri Lankan state, which conceded nothing more than the 13th Amendment, a temporary merger of the N&E and a promissory note (from JR!) to Delhi to improve upon the amendment.
Now, with a decimated and decapitated LTTE, a hundred thousand Sri Lankan troops in tight control of the North and East with every sign of constituting a permanent presence, dwindling numbers of Tamil voters in the area, and a reduced percentage of Tamils in the demographic makeup of the island, the TNA’s most sophisticated spokesperson scorns the 13th Amendment and clings to federalism with re-merger.
How does Sumanthiran’s TNA hope to obtain that which Chelvanayagam, Prabhakaran, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and MGR were unable to secure from the Sri Lankan state? My old man told me of a visiting US Marine who wanted to see a film and when taken to the New Olympia cinema, exclaimed, “Man, if this is the New Olympia, I’d sure have hated to see what the old one looked like”. Similarly, if Sumanthiran is the smartest the TNA (or is it the CPA?) can come up with, I’d hate to hear how the dumb ones sound. Luckily for the Tamil community, it has far superior (and realistic) minds such as Profs Ratnajeevan Hoole and Karthigesu Sivathamby and political and civil society activists Dharmalingam Siddharthan and Ahilan Kadirgamar.
There are no domestic drivers for federalism of any sort. The multiplier effect of the outright military triumph and the domestic drivers are all in the direction of the undermining of even the devolution available on the statute books and the reconfiguration of the realities on the ground in the hope of foreclosing space for territorially based Tamil (sub) nationalist politics. The TNA doesn’t seem to realise that it is fighting a desperate defensive struggle; not one that permits political fantasies or dogmatic and demagogic sloganeering.
What audience could the TNA be playing to and what factors or forces could it be counting on? If it is the Tamil Diaspora, the TNA should recall that it doesn’t vote at Sri Lankan elections and that Prabhakaran fatally overestimated its international leverage (tactical as distinct from strategic, or more cynically, a major nuisance value).
Could the TNA be hoping for India to pull a federal rabbit out of the hat? This seems the case, going by Sumanthiran’s interview. If so, the TNA should meditate on the phraseology of S.M. Krishna, India’s respected Foreign Minister, in the Lok Sabha, when he referred to a political settlement in Sri Lanka; “within and beyond the ambit of the 13th Amendment”. So, in Delhi’s calculus, that’s the base line: no less and no more.
I can’t recall when I last heard the term ‘merger’ or ‘re-merger’ (leave alone ‘troop pullback’) from Delhi. S.M. Krishna’s formulation sounds to me like 13 Plus, not in the least like federalism (with or without re-merger). How then does the TNA hope to secure that which way outside the parameters of the possible as laid out by Delhi for its policy towards Sri Lanka and the Tamils of the island’s Northern and Eastern provinces? Going by the view of an ‘enlightened moderate’ like Sumanthiran, the TNA looks askance at the Tamil Political Parties Forum because it represents “forces which have been rejected by the people”. Now there’s a bit of a problem there. The TNA has been accepted by a majority of the Tamil people of the North, which is why no one can rightly argue that either the TPPF or the Government of Sri Lanka should not enter a dialogue with it or consider it a prospective partner.
By the same token, the TNA is unacceptable to the vast majority of people on the island, i.e. in the polity taken as a whole, while the TPPF or its leading elements are acceptable to that vast majority. Being acceptable to the Tamil people is simply not enough. Any serious Tamil politics has to be acceptable to at least a bare majority of the Sinhalese, if not the overwhelming bulk of them, if these political demands are to be achievable. Thus Tamil politics requires a coming together of those Tamil parties acceptable to the majority of Tamils, with those acceptable to a minority of Tamils and a majority of Sinhalese.
Sumanthiran is ready to accept that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a mandate, but he says that the TNA has a mandate too. True, but the mandate of the Executive deriving from the electorate comprising the whole country and its peoples cannot but supersede a mandate derived from a far more restricted and parochial electoral base. The two mandates cannot be passed off as equal because we are not dealing with two sovereign and independent political units. It is this politico-ideological Freudian slip that reveals the secessionist residues (a cynic may say the recessed secessionist project) of the TNA.