Tamils Resort to Nationalism to Shore Up Eroding Political Base

A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil prays for her relatives who died in fierce fighting between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels in Mullivaikkal in Sri Lanka last year. Pic: AP.

A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil prays for her relatives who died in fierce fighting between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels in Mullivaikkal in Sri Lanka last year. Pic: AP.

By JS Tissainayagam

In its list of demands, the ‘Eluga Thamil’ (Tamils Arise!) rally in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, on Sept 24 included phrases that form the bedrock of Tamil nationalism – ‘Tamil nation,’ ‘sovereignty’ and the ‘right to self-determination.’

This is because the Sri Lanka government and Tamil politicians supporting the regime are deemed ineffective in preventing the Tamils’ political power base from eroding, and supporters of the rally believe that nationalism is the bulwark against such attrition.

The rally was called by the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC), a loose coalition of political parties, civil society organisations and religious bodies co-chaired by the chief minister of the Tamil-majority Northern Provincial Council (NPC) C. V. Wigneswaran.

“Elected representatives cannot deliver the goods unless backed by a peoples’ movement,” said Wigneswaran, explaining the purpose of Eluga Thamil.

The circumstances that gave rise to Eluga Thamil echoes events in the 1970s.

In 1972, Sri Lanka’s Parliament, sitting as a constituent assembly, was debating a new Constitution. The Tamils, who are the minority in Sri Lanka, put forward demands for a Federal Constitution to share power with the majority Sinhalese. The Sinhalese, however, favoured a unitary state that concentrated political power in a central Parliament.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka constitution: What’s in it for the Tamils?

Failure of their efforts to convince the Sinhalese on federalism eventually led to Tamils demanding secession through peaceful, non-violent means in 1976. The suppression of this was gave rise to armed separatism that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of main rebel group, the LTTE.

Following the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, a national unity government was cobbled together, pledging to work according to principles of good governance. Although in the opposition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil parliamentary party, provides the regime support, especially on matters of national reconciliation.

Good governance, however, has not delivered much to Tamils, either in protecting their rights or ensuring security. Sections of the Tamil population that believe this is due to the eroding power base of the Tamils were an important element that called for Eluga Thamil.

One of many weapons wielded by successive governments in Sri Lanka to diminish the Tamil political power base has been changing demographics in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, where Tamils are 88 percent, and in the Eastern Province, where Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims are a majority.

Changing demographics were underway by the 1950s, principally through the state-sponsored settlement of Sinhalese – known as colonisation schemes – in areas where Tamils were the numerical majority. It was believed that Sinhala settlers would vote to ensure fewer Tamil legislators would be elected from these areas, thereby reducing Tamil representation in Parliament. It would also give local government control to Sinhalese. Moreover, large pockets of Sinhalese could threaten the physical security of Tamils through riots and pogroms. This strategy continues even today.

SEE ALSO: UN rights body OKs call for postwar Sri Lanka accountability

Demographic changes through settlements have been compounded by two other projects. One is using the almost exclusively ethnic Sinhala military toundermine civic life in the Tamil areas. This is by the military holding large areas of land both private and public. Although some land is being returned to Tamils, it is at a much slower rate than desired.

The second strategy is for the military to own businesses, ranging from wayside kiosks to hotels in Jaffna. This has led to frequent complaints by Tamil entrepreneurs that they face unfair competition. Further, militarisation has disempowered civilians from taking charge of their lives.

Holding on to land and running businesses within a militarised environment has led to the continuation of an unstable society with large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and an unsure future for entrepreneurs who want to invest in the North. These conditions make populations politically apathetic, as well as serves as an important push factor for outward migration. This, in turn, negatively affects the Tamil political power base.

This is why Tamils feel they are not in control of their politics and asserted the right to self-determination at the Eluga Thamil rally.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka says it will quickly process Tamil prisoners

Another issue connected to fears of changing demographics and the eroding Tamil power base is the complaint of the Tamil identity being challenged by building Buddhist temples in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans are70 percent Buddhist – who are almost all Sinhalese – and a large majority of the military is Buddhist too. The building of temples is a tangible way of advertising Sinhala-Buddhist control of the areas where they are built.

The Eluga Thamil rally challenged ‘Buddhisation’ by emphasising the ‘Tamil nation’. Nationalism is certainly controversial, but a mass of people live in northern Sri Lanka are bound by ties of language, culture and shared history. That doesn’t deny differences exist within Tamil society based on caste hierarchies, religious differences and patriarchy. But faced with attacks on social coherence by the introduction of cultural symbols they disapprove, Tamils have turned to nationalism as a bulwark.

As in the 1970s, Tamils believe that a way to minimise adverse changes in demographics, social coherence and insecurity is through a Federal Constitutionwhere at least a modicum of control could be retained by Tamils in the North and East with Tamil-speaking Muslims by sharing power.

Although the TNA’s election manifesto calls for a Federal Constitution with a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, there is suspicion that the structure of the state under the new Constitution would not share power effectively with the provinces. This is due to the implacable opposition of the Sinhalese to federalism. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said there was no need “to change the unitary character of the Lankan state”.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Pic: AP.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Pic: AP.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka leader calls for reforms to promote ethnic harmony

These statements have not hindered the TNA’s hierarchy from believing that working without public protest against the government is the best way to forge a Constitution that is beneficial to the Tamils.

Speaking on the Eluaga Thamil rally, TNA spokesman M. A. Sumanthiran was quoted as saying, “It is not appropriate … to launch a protest … when the party was holding discussions with other political parties in the country on the proposed new Constitution.”

However, a significant group of TNA senior members, including Wigneswaran, chose to disregard the party line.

This is because three questions vex those who believe the TNA will not negotiate meaningful federalism with the government: Why the secrecy shrouding negotiations; how would the Federal Constitution pass a constitutional assembly, a large majority of which is Sinhalese parliamentarians who reject federalism; and how will a draft constitution pass in a referendum where 70 percent expressing an opinion will be Sinhalese?

The Eluga Thamil rally is the expression of Tamil frustration witnessing the bases of their political power being compromised in favour of perpetuating Sinhala hegemony, as TNA members in the committees of the constitutional assembly appear to pussyfoot on pushing for a meaningful federal constitution.

In the minds of the organisers of the rally and their followers, the only way to keep their political power base intact is by resorting to a mass movement based on Tamil nationalist sentiment.

The question is whether the organisers of Eluga Thamil have the vision, determination and stamina to continue to press their demands through a mass movement in the event the government and the TNA fail them, or if this spark is destined to only sputter and die.


** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent

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