The landslide victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election was an act of sheer defiance by the Tamil people. Their emphatic endorsement of the TNA at the ballot box – whose campaign highlighted the core Tamil political demands and the Tamil armed resistance for independence – was a resolute affirmation (through the only means available to them) that the political aspirations outlined in the Thimphu declaration of 1985, continue to be the basis of the Tamil struggle. This was not a vote for the TNA. It was a vote for resistance. It was a refusal to accept the government’s mantra of ‘development, rehabilitation and reconciliation’ and an unequivocal assertion to the international community of the absolute minimum political demands of the Tamil people. Ironically, through the process of voting in the election, the Tamil people categorically rejected the NPC as any basis to a political solution. Four years after the government celebrated the military defeat of the LTTE, as the quashing of the Tamil nation’s call for freedom, this could not be further from the truth. The people have spoken and their message is clear – they have not surrendered. The Tamil people demand the right to self-determination.
Contrary to Sri Lanka’s rhetoric, the election was not a showcase of democracy or progress. Tamils voted amidst pervasive militarisation and widespread media suppression. The presence of Commonwealth election observers failed to deter a campaign of dirty tricks, military intimidation and election violence. That Tamils turned out to vote in their thousands in spite of this, is nothing short of incredible. Crucially, the election stands as an irrefutable testament to the effectiveness and clout of concerted international pressure. The NPC election would not have taken place without this. Meanwhile, the election results in the Sinhala South exemplify why the international community must continue to increase its pressure on the government. As the victory of the ruling UPFA coalition and the defeat of the opposition UNP (which had adopted reconciliatory and pro-devolution rhetoric on the Tamil question) illustrate, there will be no change from within. Sinhala nationalism and its abject refusal to share power with the Tamils, shows no sign of waning. Rather the rise of General Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party proves that the only possible challenge to Rajapaksa’s reign, will be from someone who espouses greater Sinhala nationalist credentials than he.
The unambiguous call for the right to self-determination, dispels the often propagated notion of a dichotomy existing between the political aspirations of Tamils in the homeland versus those in the diaspora. Indeed, the repeated calls on the diaspora to renounce the Tamil Eelam flag and distance itself from the LTTE, are rendered utterly absurd, when the TNA’s evidently popular election campaign centred around imagery and historic associations of the LTTE. Within the stranglehold of the 6th Amendment of Sri Lanka’s constitution and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the mandate given to the political demands espoused by the TNA’s electoral campaign, mirrored the diaspora’s 2010 referendum on Tamil independence. The two events, though worlds apart in circumstances, have thus mandated the absolute minimum demand of the Tamil nation as the right to self-determination. If free political space, economic stability, and personal security existed in the North-East, one can only surmise what the results of a referendum on independence would be.
This election was not a vote for the TNA. Quite the reverse, the Tamil people’s thumping endorsement of the party’s electoral campaign, was a clear rejection of the politics of its leadership. When the TNA opted to back General Sarath Fonseka during the Presidential election, it became evident that it had lost its way and become disconnected from its vote base. As the people demanded rights, it spoke of development. The TNA’s leadership knew very well the mood on the ground, yet repeatedly chose to deny it in the international space. Ultimately, the emergence of ordinary Tamil voices, who began articulating ground realities with a boldness that had long evaded those elected to represent them, threw this disconnect into sharp focus. The TNA’s leadership lamented the lack of bicycles as Tamil civil society activists decried the on-going structural genocide. The party leader sheepishly waved Sri Lanka’s lion flag, as the Bishop of Mannar told the world that the Tamil people were a nation.
The position of the TNA, as representative of the Tamil people, had become untenable. The calls for the formation of a broader Tamil body, encompassing the civil society in the North-East, the TNA and the only other Tamil nationalist party, the TNPF, underscored the TNA’s faltering mandate. As the NPC election approached, having consistently underestimated the will and resolve of the Tamil people, the TNA leadership was left clueless. Regurgitating the same old lines of development and devolution, the party tried to placate a people clamouring for recognition of nationhood, with a pledge to implement the 13th Amendment. The rise of the TNPF, which doggedly refused to acknowledge the NPC as any starting point to Tamil political aspirations, only added to their woes. The bar was being raised; and the TNA, desperate to win, had no choice but to jump. It is no mistake that it is precisely the mandate that the TNPF had been outlining since its inception, that the TNA eventually won on.
The party’s predictable success at the polling booth is often used by its leadership to justify overarching claims of unqualified support by the Tamil people. This is a grave mistake. Lacking insight into the party’s roots and rise to popularity, the leadership fails to see, that to the Tamil people the raison d’etre of a Tamil party within a Sinhala ethnocracy, is to be the embodiment of Tamil political aspirations at the ballot box. This election was no different. Eventually forced to respond to growing criticism, and calls that it should run its campaign on the core political demands of the Tamil people, the party leadership was forced into a game change. A manifesto was begrudgingly released, and crucially, in its interaction with the mass voter base, Tamil nationalist sentiment was emphatically embraced. Over and beyond the political demands outlined in the party’s manifesto, key candidates ran a campaign which focused on the fundamental issues of nationhood, homeland and self-determination; rejected the unitary constitution of the Sri Lankan state, unambiguously denounced the genocide of the Tamil people and called for an international investigation into such crimes. Grass-roots candidates with Tamil nationalist views and associations to the LTTE were actively promoted. Those who the TNA leadership had previously denounced as effective assassins, were renamed freedom fighters. The poster-boy of the NPC election, the Chief Ministerial candidate, was replaced with the face of the Tamil liberation struggle, the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran. And the Tamil people responded. In their thousands, defying the Sri Lankan military, they voted for liberation. Now, the TNA must deliver.