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Ballot Cry of Tamils In Sri Lanka: “Tamil Political Parties, Unite!” – Analysis


By J Jeganaathan

In the recently held local body elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern provinces of Sri Lanka the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was ruthlessly routed by Tamil National Alliance (TNA)-an umbrella political alliance for Tamils in Sri Lanka-which won 18 out of 26 seats. This is the first election in the war-torn Northern and Eastern Province ever since LTTE was defeated in war two-and-half years ago.

The electoral results may have been construed by different stakeholders in different ways to suit their agenda, but the big question is what does the electoral victory of TNA mean for the political fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka? Will TNA emerge as the sole political representative for Tamils replacing LTTE? Will the result strengthen the alliances’ unity so that they can raise the political grievances of Tamils in a single voice?

This article critically analyzes the election results and examines its impact on Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. The elections were held amidst increasing international pressure on Sri Lankan government over the UN expert panel report allegations on war crimes and human rights abuses during the war. In this context, the election results therefore, innately carry supplementary meanings for the future of Tamils.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Politically, the North East Province is one of the most sensitive provinces of Sri Lanka. The region was once under the control of Tamil tigers, which regarded the province as the ‘Land of Tamil Elam’. The majority of the population are Sri Lankan Tamils -97 percent in north and 40 percent in the east-and rest comprises of Sinhalese and Moors. Geographically, this province served as a fortress for LTTE because of its C shape landscape encircling rest of the country. LTTE was never defeated militarily by Sri Lanka until 2009 because of the geo-strategic advantage it enjoyed in defending against any military campaign.

First, the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) was keen to hold local body elections to demonstrate that democracy has been restored and people are being brought back into mainstream politics. Ground reports say that the ruling UPFA distributed money and other freebies to woo the voters. A local daily reported that army was used to intimidate voters in some pockets not to vote for Tamil parties.

Second, the government had intended to hold local body elections to project their democratic credibility to the international community. President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Northern Province just two weeks before the elections and announced a slew of development projects and promised equal rights for Tamils. GoSL responded very optimistically about the results as if they expected the results. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena in his message stated, “recent election results proved that the masses have rejected the false allegations directed at the government by various international entities and certain local political parties for narrow political gain”.

Third, though the TNA has gained political credibility and legitimacy out of the elections but, the integrity of the alliance is questionable. And although the alliance includes moderates and radical Tamil political parties, it has not developed a coherent agenda for Tamils ever since the alliance was formed. It lacks a charismatic political leadership and strong organizational capacity to negotiate with the government towards a political solution. The post-LTTE era has thus opened a new window of opportunity to strengthen the alliance in order to assert its democratic space within the Sinhala polity. However it also needs external support to nurture a new political culture devoid of violence and state suppression.

The Indian government, which could have played a significant role in creating a vibrant Tamil political space, failed to recognize this democratic need and is reluctant to work for Tamils political rights especially after the war. Moreover, the authoritarian Sinhala government, instead of respecting the democratic space of Tamils, has been pursuing oppressive policies to infringe on Tamils socio-political rights and freedom since the end of the war.

The results express the inner political sentiments of Tamils that have been brutally repressed by the successive Sri Lankan government and purposely suppressed by the LTTE. They also echo the collective cry of Tamils to their political representatives to unite in their struggle, strengthen their voice and consolidate their actions not for separate land but to assert their socio-political identity in the island nation.

This electoral victory of TNA, although a trivial factor in Sri Lankan politics, has indicated a new political direction for the alliance. The intriguing question of how far the TNA can nudge the authoritarian Sinhala majority government to work for a political solution remains unsettled. The Tamil political parties of different ideological strands must listen to this cry and reconstitute their political agenda according to the post-war politico-security situation.

J Jeganaathan
Research officer, Regional Security Programme
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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