by Kusal Perera, on his blog, September 27, 2016
Tamil politics took a new turn last Saturday not given much political attention in Colombo. The Tamil People’s Council (TPC) called for a mass protest on that day (24 Sept) under the banner”Ezhuga Tamil” (Let Tamils Rise) demanding early answers for their pressing problems. Jaffna district parliamentarian of “Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi” (ITAK), the dominating party in the TNA and its spokesperson Sumanthiran told Jaffna media they don’t oppose it, but appealed to the people to “consider if the timing is right”. His argument was, such protests are not necessary when the TNA leadership is in serious discussions with the government in negotiating answers to Tamil problems.
Clearly, the ITAK leadership cannot publicly oppose those demands put forward by the TPC. They are very much rooted in Northern Tamil life. Yet ITAK leadership cannot back them openly too. They don’t want to be seen in public campaigns the government is uncomfortable with. They feel such would threaten their day to day engagement with the government. For the Northern Tamil people seven years after the war, the wait had been too long and too agonising to waste more time. The “Ezhuga Tamil” protest thus turned out as a mass public event, ignoring Sumanthiran’s plea for better timing.
The “Ezhuga Tamil” protest now brings in a new political approach that would not only challenge the government, but would challenge the politics of ITAK leadership as well. It reflects a political reality, both the government and ITAK leadership should not only be humble enough but also wise enough to accept. It reflects the complete “lack of trust” on the political leadership in Colombo. Distrust that began in 1948 when founding fathers of the SLFP were part of the UNP and in government. When that combined government de-franchised and made the plantation sector Tamils aliens in independent Ceylon.
“Thanthai” Chelva one of the 02 Tamil Congress (later ACTC) MPs who opted to vote against the Citizenship Bill in 1948 December, voiced the “distrust” in no uncertain terms participating in that debate. Referring to PM Senanayake, Chelvanayagam is on official record saying, “…..He is not hitting us (North-East Tamils) now directly. But when the language question comes up, which will be the next one to follow in this series of legislations, we will know where we stand. Perhaps that will not be the end of it….I oppose it (the Citizenship Bill) firstly on that ground”.
It was this firmly defined “distrust” in the Colombo (Sinhala) leadership that led to the formation of ITAK in December 1949. Unfortunately, the 68 year long post independent history is all about this “distrust” between Tamil people and the Colombo Sinhala leaderships. History is about using brute force against democratic peaceful Tamil protests in 1956 and resorting to arrogant means in breaking up the Gandhian type peaceful civil disobedience movement in 1962. Deploying the military for work the police could do. Trashing negotiated political agreements as in 1957 and 1968 along with most uncivilised political decisions by the Sinhala leadership as in 1983 July. Creating havoc in heart of Jaffna, burning the famed Jaffna library even after the TULF agreed for DDC in 1981 despite their massive public mandate for a “Separate State” at the 1977 general elections, left little reason for the Tamil people to have trust in the Colombo Sinhala leadership.
The end of the brutally concluded war in 2009 May, the totally militarised racist politics of the Rajapaksa regime based on Sinhala supremacy, made things worse. Thanks to the LTTE, the Tamil constituency was left without a leadership once the LTTE was physically wiped off the map of Tamil nationalism. It took a year or two for the ITAK leadership in TNA to lace their boots to step in. For the battered and surviving Tamil people, there was no political alternative to choose from. All other Tamil political entities were tied to Rajapaksa one way or another.
Rajapaksa playing the role of a “Sinhala saviour” and crowned in the media as a modern day “Dutugemunu”, was a tough challenge for the ITAK leadership to meet head on. With Sinhala supremacist politics labelling everything Tamil as “LTTE and separatist” the ITAK leadership was compelled to play moderate and distance themselves from “separatism”. Surviving North-East Tamil people too were not interested in “separatism”. They had more urgent problems needing immediate solutions. Yet their rallying round the TNA was no total endorsement of ITAK politics. It was sheer frustration and anger against the Rajapaksa regime that provided the TNA with the large Tamil vote bank to bargain for their place in Tamil politics.
This was clearly and rightly understood by Sampanthan when he stubbornly insisted upon Justice Wigneswaran as CM candidate for NPC. He knew old TNA faces would not have enough appeal to draw the fatigued Tamil voter en bloc. Sampanthan was proved right. Not only Justice Wigneswaran, even the ordinary candidate Ananthi Sasitharan who had nothing to do with TNA politics but considered a grass-root candidate representing war affected women, came on top with a huge preference vote. While Wigneswaran topped the list polling 132,255 preference votes, Ananthi came next polling 87,870 votes. After Ananthi, the veteran politician Sithardan Dharmalingam of PLOTE who came third, managed only 39,715 preferential votes. All TNA candidates followed with even less preferences.
The new “Ezhuga Tamil” mass protest has all those factored in. Having voted out Rajapaksa over 20 months ago, Tamil voters find themselves left out again without answers to their urgent issues. Sumanthiran’s claim of serious negotiations with this government holds no water for men and women who for decades are still displaced. Still under police and military surveillance. Still unable to have the detained youth released. Still without answers for their “missing” family members. And then find their land being encroached upon by Sinhala people who come carrying Buddha statues. Tamil people don’t see answers to these issues from negotiations the ITAK leadership says it does with this government. Instead they see the ITAK leadership’s failure in having Tamil detainees released. They see the ITAK leadership avoiding the issue of Sinhala encroachments in the North. They see a loud silence on most urgent issues and the ITAK leadership compromising with the government, voting for anything and everything the government propose.
Rajapaksa is no more their issue. Their issue now is the “trust” the ITAK leadership has in this government, they don’t trust. They’ve been hearing very confusing talk on what the government intends doing with war crimes probe. Both President and PM have contradicted Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s pledges for a war crime probe with Commonwealth and international assistance. Both President and PM have promised the military, exactly the opposite of what the Tamil people ask for in war crimes probe. The military has been more vocal than government leaders over its presence in North-East. President and PM continue to remain silent on claims of Sinhala colonisation in North.
A week ago, President Sirisena addressing the UN General Assembly, evaded the issue of the OISL Resolution 30/1 and the war crimes probe. Instead he went on the “clouds” with plenty of empty phrases, meant little to the UNGA and the people of this country. Yet he wouldn’t forget to tell the world that his Sri Lanka is a “Theravada Buddhist” country. The official English text says, “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. There are solutions in Buddhist teachings to most of the problems faced by the people in this world.”
For the wounded Tamil psyche that needs heeling, none of it would mean “Reconciliation”. Reconciliation this government talks of is not “reconciliation” the Tamil people understand. This government defines “reconciliation” in terms of their own Sinhala Buddhist politics. State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardne explains “reconciliation” thus, speaking to the media on the “Ezhuga Tamil” mass protest. “They have put out some demands….asking the removal of army camps, to stop settling outsiders and establishing temples and some more demands…..we as a government will not move any army camp. We will not give into any demand and we will go with our reconciliation ….”
Politically, this government is what the Tamil people started distrusting from 1948. Part of the SLFP that departed in 1951 is now in combine with Wickramasinghe’s UNP. Politically it is once again the same equation that was in 1948. That political equation was then accused by “Thanthai” Chelva in 1949 December at the founding of the ITAK as a government that colonises Tamil areas with Sinhala people. “….Even more dangerous to the Tamil speaking people is the government’s colonising policy. We have only the beginning of it in Gal-oya….” said Chelvanayagam that day.
It is this increasing “trust deficit” that makes changes in Tamil politics. With the ITAK leadership too contributing to the growing Colombo “trust deficit”, there is a political void that grows in Tamil politics and felt most in the North. The “Ezhuga Tamil” protest is what comes into occupy that space. There is credible leadership too in the North that can occupy the void with “people based” politics, different to that of ITAK leadership. This new political face is not of ITAK making. It is only bound by the acceptance of the Tamil people who voted at the NPC elections. Having brought the people on to the street, this new political formation cannot go back either. Thus it has all the ingredients in pushing ITAK into uncomfortable corners and upsetting the Sinhala approach of this government. A political deviation up North, worth watching in months to come.