Sri Lanka: Post-Election Tamil Politics – Analysis


Some of the recent articles written from a Tamil perspective on the 19th Amendment blamed Colombo for not accommodating Tamil demands for devolution of power when enacting the Amendment. Arguments centered around the point that if the government was sincere in resolving the Tamil problem, it could have done so within the framework of the 19th Amendment because the government had more than enough majority in parliament to successfully adopt the new changes to the constitution. A striking feature of these analyses is that they failed to look internally at how the Tamil parties approached the issues of constitutional change that were made in April 2015.

Pertinent questions here are, did the Tamil parties make any demands for their support of the 19th Amendment? Why should Colombo concede when the Tamil parties were not asking for anything in terms of devolution of power?

Tamils who expected the government to voluntarily devolve powers, one can safely argue, have not learnt anything from the more than half a century of conflict. It is clear from the past that the government will not treat the devolution issue like a charity. The Tamils need to work, in fact work hard if they want political powers devolved. This should be done within accepted democratic principles taking advantage of political tools, not through violence. The use of violence for political purposes almost completely destroyed Tamil society and the country as a whole.

According to one source, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) requested the government to include provisions in the amendments to address Tamil issues. This should be considered as token because the party did not pursue this goal openly or earnestly. However, the EPDP is a minor party in terms of its vote bank and parliamentary representation. What about the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest and leading party that represents the Tamil community in parliament and outside? The TNA did not link the 19th Amendment to the question of devolution of power in any way. In fact, there was tacit approval for the Amendment sans any new arrangements to address the ethnic conflict.

The original proposal for the 19th Amendment was presented without provisions to either implement the 13th Amendment fully or improve upon it. It is this draft that was taken to the Supreme Court. M. A. Sumanthiran, now a leading figure within the TNA, defended vehemently the draft presented in the Supreme Court. His speech on the 19th Amendment in parliament did not include the words “Tamil” or “devolution of power.” Obviously, the party voted for the Amendment. Therefore, the party approved and lobbied for the Amendment in its original form. Hence, it is not reasonable to blame the government when the Tamil parties were not demanding anything to resolve their issues and unconditionally extending support.

Should they have raised the devolution issue? Some of the Tamil commentators believe that the ethnic conflict resolution issues should have been linked to the question of constitutional reform. On the other hand, a moderate section maintains that it should not have been linked to the voting. The consensus is that while voting in favor of the Amendment, Sumanthiran, in his speech, should have insisted on the need to address devolution issues. This was an important opportunity to highlight Tamil issues.
There are at least two reasons why the Tamil parties represented in parliament should have raised this issue. One, the 19th Amendment was not only dealing with presidential powers. It tried to resolve some of the major problems facing the country. Resolving the political issues of the Tamils is also important. Second, although the possibility for incorporating devolution issues in the 19th Amendment was nil, it provided an opportunity to highlight minority grievances. The opportunity should have been exploited strategically. Through its attitude towards the 19th Amendment, the TNA has now contributed to the view that ethnic issues are not significant anymore. This would certainly upset the Tamil nationalists.

Post-Election Politics

In fact, President Sirisena’s election provided a new opportunity to engage the government constructively because the Tamils played an important part in his electoral victory. That opportunity was also not used wisely by the Tamil parties.

When the war ended, the victorious government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa had two major means to achieve a desirable state of national integration and perhaps ethnic reconciliation: (1) through a political process where Tamil grievances are addressed within a reasonable framework, and (2) through military means where attention is paid only to national security at the expense of the rights of people who live in the North and East. The former government chose the second path. Military control over Tamils was tightened and the governor, a former army commander, ran a military type administration. This was one reason why the Tamils constantly insisted on a civilian governor.

Also, election to the Northern provincial council was delayed. This election was eventually conducted under pressure from India. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was set up only as a delaying tactic. The TNA refused to participate in the PSC process. The party had a reason to refuse to engage because the Rajapaksa government did not give the impression that it was serious about finding a political solution. It was not sending conciliatory signals. Obviously, Rajapaksa was catering to his voter base.

The political environment changed with the election of the new president. Positive signals were sent constantly. For example, Major C. A. Chandrasiri was removed from the governor’s office. Ms. Vijayaletchumi, former Chief Secretary of the Northern Province, who was hostile to the TNA and obviously serving the interest of the Rajapaksa government, was also removed. Some of the disputed land that was under military control was returned to its original owners. Reports from the North also indicate that normalization is taking place in the region. Although they do not guarantee that a reasonable solution to the ethnic conflict will be found under President Maithripala Sirisena’s government, at least positive signals are being sent.

The TNA either remains ignorant or sends hostile signals. For example, the Northern provincial council adopted a resolution calling for an international investigation in March. To put it mildly, this was hostile and badly timed. Interestingly, Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran who hitherto resisted the resolution suddenly decided to bring it before the council as soon as Rajapaksa was gone. This was a poor strategy. It is imperative to note that the resolution was originally proposed by Sivajilingam last year. It is not clear why Wigneswaran thought that this March was the time to get it endorsed. Obviously, he was catering to his constituency.

The resolution and content of the discussions that Wigneswaran had with international leaders who visited him clearly demonstrate the belief that the international community, namely the United States and India, will find a solution for the Tamil problem. This is one reason why the TNA leaders are more interested in discussing their problems with international figures visiting Sri Lanka rather than constructively communicating with the new government.

From the inception, it was clear that the United States was promoting the resolution against Sri Lanka for strategic reasons, although humanitarian concerns also played a role. Some Tamils, including some of the leaders of the TNA believed that the US would punish Sri Lanka for human rights violations. This was a misplaced belief. Since the new government has demonstrated willingness to collaborate with India and the West, these two countries will now work very closely with the Sri Lankan government. The visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Secretary of State John Kerry to Sri Lanka were certainly a setback for the Tamils who believed that the international community would save and defend them. Therefore, it is high time that Tamil parties paid more attention to internal processes rather than international help.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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