Sri Lanka Scene: Strengthening the Tamil Bargaining Position

by T. Sabaratnam; originally published February 24, 2004

Weekly Review

Two significant developments have marked the parliamentary nominations that concluded at noon today (Tuesday). The first, in the order of importance, is the open entry of the LTTE into the democratic electoral process. The second was the intense debate generated by the entry of Buddhist priests into active parliamentary politics among the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Both are positive, far-reaching developments. The Tigers, who, by their total commitment to the peace process and strict adherence to the ceasefire that was two years old on 22 February, had won the admiration and trust of the international community, would by coming openly into the electoral process would legitimize their sole right to represent and decide on behalf of the Tamil people.

S. Balakumar, a senior member of the LTTE leadership, who opened the LTTE’s election campaign in Kilinochchi on Sunday, made their participation in the April 2 election explicit. Addressing a group of LTTE political workers who would spearhead the election campaign, Balakumar declared: For us this is not a mere election. It is an opportunity given to us to convey to our people and the world our political desires; aspirations.

He told the audience that the era of boycotting of elections had closed. Times had changed. The outlook of the international community had changed. “We too have altered our strategy in keeping with those changes. The need of the hour is to express our political aspiration forcefully, united.” He added that the LTTE is not contesting the elections themselves but is supporting responsible political leaders and social activists acceptable to the Tamil people.

R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which submitted nominations for the five electoral districts in the northeast- Jaffna, Vanni, Trincomalee, Batticoloa and Ampara- on Monday, confirmed that the TNA is contesting the polls on behalf of the LTTE.

He told the first seminar held for teachers and principals of schools in the Trincomalee district to formulate an election strategy. “We openly state that the Tamil National Alliance is contesting the forthcoming general election on behalf of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.” He added that the TNA is contesting to tell the international community that Tamils in the northeast are wholly behind the LTTE in the peace effort.

Selvam Adaikalanathan, after filing the TNA nomination in Vanni, voiced his confidence that they would win a large enough number of seats to command a significant presence in parliament.

A high-level committee comprising representative TNA leaders and the LTTE are meeting on Tuesday to draw up an election manifesto. TNA sources said they would seek a mandate from the people signifying their approval:

· The LTTE is their sole representative and have their authority to negotiate a peaceful solution on their behalf.

· The LTTE has the sole right to take any decision on their behalf.

· They approve and back the LTTE’s proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Administration with full powers as an interim measure until a final solution is worked out.

That mandate would strengthen the LTTE’s stand and its negotiating position, Sampanthan said.

TNA sources, who predicted that the TNA would sweep the entire northeast, said the election and its result would tell the world:

· The LTTE has the backing of the Tamil people of the northeast.

· The LTTE is not anti-democratic as even the Sinhala fundamentalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, national parties like the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Muslims and groups like the EPDP and the independent group led by TULF president V. Anandasangaree contested the election.

· The LTTE gave an assurance through one of its senior commanders, Col. Karuna, that they would not interfere with the election and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission will monitor the election campaign and polling.

Several sources are at work to prevent the LTTE to gain international recognition as the sole and authoritative representatives of the Tamil people. These entities are keen in getting more political parties and independent groups to contest Jaffna and thus reduce the TNA’s share of MPs. They were able to get only Anandasangaree and the EPDP to contest the election. Anandasangaree has got a few loyalists and the EPDP its office staff to sign the nomination papers. The two major national parties, the United National Front (UNF) and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), could not find Tamil candidates.

The Buddhist Debate

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), formerly the Sihala Urumaya, which was the first political party to file nomination papers in the Jaffna district, fielded Sinhala Buddhist priests. The Ruhunu Peoples Party, too, has nominated only Sinhalese. Ven. Methananda, JHU’s chief candidate, who flew to Jaffna to hand over the nomination papers said, “The nominations in Jaffna is to assert the right of Sinhala Buddhists and to emphasize the unitary character of this country.”

The decision of the JHU to nominate the Buddhist priests to contest the election in all the 22 electoral districts of the country has generated an intense debate about its morality. Mahanayaka Theras of the most influential Malwatte and Asgriya Chapters issued a statement expressing their disapproval. The statement contains this paragraph:

“This is the beginning of a grave calamity to the Buddha Sasana. Therefore, for no reason can this be approved. Both the clergy and the laity who are concerned about the Sasana are astonished by this move, They are astonished.”

Some members of the clergy and laity staged a protest on Monday and the Mahanayakas refused to meet the monks who are contesting when they called on them on Monday night to explain their decision.

The Mahanayake of the Amarapura Nikaya Ven. Weligama Gnanaratna Thera has given his blessings to the monks who are entering politics. He said he blessed them because they had told him that they would set up a Supreme Buddhist Council in parliament and they would return to the temples after eradicating parliament and the country of the vices like corruption, alcoholism, murder.

Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera, General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, told the Buddhist Conference on Sunday their main task is to clean up the country of the vices such as corruption, indiscipline, alcoholism, violence. They want to establish Dhamma Rajjaya. He said, “Parliament has become a disorderly place. They scold each other in indecent language. We want to clear up this mess.”

Their program is extends further. In their letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was elected leader of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) formed on January 20, they spelt their program out.

They said: The UPFA should first accept that Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhalese and that it could not be divided in any way as it is a unitary state. We also demand not to hold discussions with the LTTE, not to issue licenses to open a single liquor bar in future and to ban unethical conversions.

What impact the JHU would make on the election is still not clear. The lay leaders of JHU who polled only 50,665 votes (0.57%) countrywide at the 2001 general election are keeping away fearing a similar fate this time, too.

Political analysts say the JHU would impinge on the UPFA’s vote bank of Sinhala extremists and Chandrika Kumaratunga, fully aware of this, tried to trick the Buddhist monks. She ignored the deadline the monks set for noon of last Tuesday and delayed her reply. When she was told on Wednesday the monks had decided to contest the election, she sent a letter inviting them for a meeting at 3 p.m. on Thursday. She instructed her secretary to telephone the monks and inform them about her invitation.

The monks rejected her invitation after a prolonged discussion saying that she had not replied to them within the set period. They also said that, after receiving their letter, she had reiterated her intention to continue the peace process and talk to the LTTE after forming her own government.

The JVP, whose vote bank of Sinhala extremists is in danger, has kept silent about the entry of Buddhist monks into politics. Political circles whisper that elements close to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP are straining every nerve to manipulate the monks to deliver an onslaught on the JVP.

Problems of the Muslims

While trying to contain the damage the entry of the Buddhist priests would inflict on the UPFA, Chandrika Kumaratunga pulled a political coup by engineering a split in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. She enticed the Athaullah faction to cross over to the UPFA, insiders say, with the promise of a powerful ministry. The desertion of A. L. M. Athaullah was done in such secrecy his own party, Ashraff’s Congress, was kept in total darkness. The leaders of Ashraff’s Congresss were discussing unity moves with the SLMC and other groups when Athaullah excused himself for 15 minutes and went out. When that 15 minutes dragged on to more than hour inquiries were made which revealed that he was at the President’s House signing nomination papers to contest as a UPFA candidate.

An angry leader of Ashraff’s Congress, S. Subairdeen, who called Athaullah’s action a betrayal and ‘one of the dirtiest a person can do’ said none of them knew about the Muslim National Alliance (MNA) which Athaullah had formed. He spoke about it only after signing his nomination papers and the MNA signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the UPFA on Sunday in the presence of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The impact of this split had an immediate effect on SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Till Saturday he was dictating terms to Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was having a running battle with CWC leader Arumugan Thondaman about his desire to nominate CWC vice president Faizer Musthapha as a United National Front candidate for the Kandy electoral district. Hakeem objected to it and threatened to pull the SLMC out of the UNF. Hakeem feared that Faizer would split his vote bank and he would face defeat. Arumugan stood his ground and Athaullah’s exit compelled Hakeem to withdraw his objection. He shifted to Ampara where he is going to have tough time. But he had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNF which allows the SLMC to contest Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticoloa and Ampara on its own and other electoral districts with the UNF.

Arumugan has thrown his lot with the United National Front headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe and is contesting all the upcountry electoral districts, Colombo and Gampaha on its nomination list. P. Chandrasekaran’s Hill Country People’s Front and Mano Ganeshan’s Western Province People’s Front, too, have fallen in line and will contest with the UNF. Former Hindu Religious Affairs Minister, Thiyagarajah Mahewaran, will contest as a member of the UNF in Colombo district.

The CWC and the SLMC, kingmakers of the recent past, have lost their influence. Political analysts predict the TNA to move into that position. The TNA is not keen in playing that role. Selvam Adaikalanathan said, “Our task will be to strengthen the bargaining position of the LTTE. That is the role we will play until a solution is found to the Tamil national question.”

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