It is sad that a veteran politician and parliamentarian in TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan, should lent credence to the muted cacophony of anti-Mahinda voices in the country, by declaring that the latter’s SLPP victory in the recent LG polls alone would cause ‘Tamil Eelam’ to bloom.
That Sampanthan should say so in Parliament, when the nation was gripped in political uncertainty in the aftermath of the LG polls, and the House too was gripped even more about the consequences than all the alleged causes, including Sampanthan’s very own, makes his/TNA’s intentions and goals narrower than already.
No one can question the Sampanthan’s seniority, political acumen and parliamentary prowess. Nor can anyone, after all these long years and decades, question or suspect his commitment to a ‘united government’. Yet, at the end of the day, every time he or his TNA colleagues speak up in Parliament, now or even in the party’s earlier avatar, as the original TULF, they have talked only about the ethnic issue and none else. Even there, they have always accused only the Sinhala polity, or sections thereof, without wanting to either look at the mirror or look at inwardly before saying their customary say, be it inside the country or outside.
Whether or not Mahinda R said what he is supposed to have said, or whether or not ‘innocent Sinhalese’ voted for his SLPP in the LG polls only because he had said it, Sampanthan can only divert the nation’s attention and those of his international backers so much. Maybe because the ‘national media’ (read: near-exclusively Sinhala-centric English language Press) does not report, comment or editorialise much on the Tamil affairs, for their own ‘ignorant’ reasons, Tamil politicians since Independence have been getting away with whatever they had to say.
Hands chopped off
It is not as if there is no truth in what the Tamil polity has been saying over all these years, especially in terms of the Sri Lankan State’s side-lining or side-stepping the ethnic issue and a negotiated political settlement as long as they could. Nor hasn’t any of them actually backed the larger Tamil cause over these decades, whether it was the parent UNP or the once-breakaway SLFP that was in power. Alternatively, they were the cause for Tamils’ concerns and the cause, but alternatively, the Tamils, too, have gone out of the way, to unsettle the existing Sinhala political stability, by aligning invariably with the anti-government Sinhala polity of the day.
Barring CBK, almost every Sinhala politician (be as President or Prime Minister, or candidate thereof) had done precious little to change the situation, or their own image as a ‘Sinhala hard-liner’ bordering on being branded a ‘Tamil-hater’. But then, the so-called Tamil moderates of every season had played the same old game. Even the LTTE was doing the same thing, only that in Elections-2005, they wanted war and hence Mahinda as President – and Tamil voters, made Mahinda the President, by boycotting the presidential polls at LTTE’s instance.
According the Tamil media reports of the time, the only Tamil voter who dared the LTTE in a stray polling-station in the LTTE-controlled North had his hands chopped off. A decade after the war and the LTTE, the Tamil moderates, starting with the TNA, has not bothered to find out if such a person existed, if he was dead or alive, if so, when and how. Yet, they want thousands of Tamils reportedly killed by the armed forces in the last battle and the war, probed as individual cases, to fix responsibility and accountability at the appropriate levels.
Independent of what Mahinda R and his SLPP might have said or not said during their LG poll campaign in the Sinhala areas, TNA should acknowledge the former giving it a left-handed compliment, even if for other reasons and in other ways than so very openly. Both sides are playing to the gallery, and the TNA is no exception. They want Sampanthan’s parliamentary reference to be heard more in Jaffna than in Colombo or the Sinhala South — and even more in western capitals.
Yet, in the LG polls in the North, the TNA, despite being seen as winning most seats and most LG bodies in Tamil areas, especially the North, has creating more space to other Tamil parties, many of them non-moderates. At the pace in which the TNA is sliding, and at the current pace at which the Tamil hard-liners are occupying that electoral space, slowly but surely, the rest of the nation should rather look at Mahinda’s campaign-point rather closely (whether or not he had this very aspect in mind).
Leave aside the ‘other’ Tamil parties, even within the TNA, there is neither unity, nor absolute ‘moderation’ as the Sampanthan leadership wants the world to believe – and the world too believes, most of the time. It is thus that no one either in the TNA, or the international community, has been talking for long about the leadership’s inability to rein in the hard-liners from within, instead blame it all on the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State.
If Mahinda had campaigned for ‘innocent’ Sinhala voters’ mandate in the LG polls, the first post-poll reaction against the Tamils, or the TNA leadership came, not from anyone in the South, but near-instantaneously the TNA’s very own Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran. Whether the party kept him out, or he stayed away, the former Supreme Court Judge was conspicuous by his absence from TNA’s LG poll campaign as he has been from most party conclaves, for months and years now.
There has been trouble within the TNA, as there trouble within the united TULF in its time, and even within the LTTE at its peak. It has also been customary for the leadership of the day to pass the buck on to the prominent Sinhala polity of the day, and blame the Sri Lankan State, too, for their own mistakes, too. They have gotten away with it all along and hope to do so this time, too.
It was thus that when the Tamils were divided post-Independence, the late SJV co-opted the Eastern Tamils, who had a history and culture of their own, and an ignorant world bought it, then. When S W R D Bandaranaike as SLFP’s founder-leader and maiden Prime Minister tore up the B-C Pact with Chelvanayagam, the world recall it now only for the act but not for the latter’s declaration that it was only the ‘first step’.
It was the ruling UNP Ministers who were in the forefront of the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom, but many in the world even today wrongly attribute it to everyone else. When later CBK offered peace, the LTTE thwarted it and the Tamil moderates sang along. Later, when Rajapaksa as war victorious President commenced negotiations, the Tamil Diaspora especially made the international community in this ‘IT era’ believe the other way round.
When Sirisena-Ranil duo came to power, the Tamils and the TNA did precious little to win over their cause, but now when they are on a weak wicket and split for all practical purposes, Sampanthan is talking political solution, and is also pointing figures at a third party, in Mahinda R, who was down and mostly out for much of these past three years. The next step would be blaming it all on the larger Sinhala polity, and proclaiming the Tamil innocence and patience, as ever.
Contributing to mess
Again, it is not as if the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State apparatus controlled by them, have not contributed enough to the mess, but then, there is more mess of the Tamils’ own creation, where no international power could moderate, or hope to understand the nitty-gritty, to be able to even consider moderating – leave aside the rival Tamil stake-holders accepting even such facilitation (and for good reasons, again). For a variety of reasons, including his own age and loosening grip over the Tamil constituency, Sampanthan needs to put the TNA house in order and in good time.
There is no denying that now is the best time for anyone to hope for a negotiated political settlement to the ethnic issue than any time in the past. That includes the months and years after the end of ethnic war, when the TNA and the Rajapaksa leadership were talking peace and political settlement. Today, when Maithiripala Sirisena, voted by the TNA and the Tamils is still the President, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is purportedly favourably inclined towards the Tamils and the international community alike, the TNA only has to stay the course, but without ignoring, agitating and antagonising Mahinda & Co, who are back for real, at least for this very hour.
Instead, Sampanthan’s charges against Mahinda R, which have political consequences in the South than electoral benefits for the TNA, could become the tipping-point. Anyone’s in Sampanthan’s place, and wanting a political settlement acceptable to all stake-holders would not be saying such things, unless the intention is not to have a political settlement, at least for now. It is not that the Tamils’ wooing of all Sinhala sections, or Sampanthan’s studied silence viz the Mahinda camp would have helped in the LG polls, or would help them from now on, but then, it would not help the Tamils and their larger cause, either – nor and ever.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)