Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA), that chiefly represented the Tamils living in the north and east in the post-war decade, suffered a huge setback in the August general elections, losing six seats in Parliament. With the Alliance’s presence in the legislature having weakened and the Rajapaksas back in power at the Centre, that too with a thumping two-thirds, what are the prospects for TNA’s long-standing demand for a political solution? Alliance spokesman and Jaffna MP M.A. Sumanthiran weighs in…
The TNA has suffered a huge setback in the August parliamentary elections, and has ceded ground to both, hard-line Tamil nationalists and allies of the Rajapaksa government. What are the Alliance’s reflections?
It is a very serious setback. We have been reduced from 16 to 10 seats in parliament. This is not very different to the local authority election results of February 2018.
One of the primary reasons is that we supported the [Sirisena-Wickremesinghe] government in office from 2015 to 2019. The expectations of the people were very high then. They hoped that all their problems will be fully resolved during that period. Although there was substantial progress in most matters, all the issues [pending since the war ended] were not fully resolved. I think there was a lot of disappointment over that fact.
Even the political solution, which is a historic demand of the Tamil people, did not materialise by way of a new constitution that was promised. We made great progress on that front too, but finally the question is whether it was achieved or not. When it was not achieved, it was counted as a failure. In regard to the release of military-held lands, there were considerable gains. But overall, since the expectations were not met, we also suffered an anti-incumbency sentiment, although we sat in opposition right through that time.
Secondly, our party has been mainly, or one could say solely, looking for a political solution. We have been disregarding a lot of economic issues faced by our people. In that last five years we did try to address some of those economic issues, because the government in office was favourable to us, yet the people did not actually see the benefits realised. With the political solution also evading us, people who hoped that at least their economic lot would be made better were disappointed. There may be other reasons also, but I think primarily these are the two reasons that explain why we ceded ground on both sides – the hard-line Tamil nationalist side, who are looking for a final solution to the Tamil national question, and to government allies, who appealed to some of the people looking for better economic prospects.
Going forward what will the TNA do?
Well, the TNA must pursue its objective of a dignified solution to the Tamil national question. That is fundamental. Our efforts in that area must continue and I think people must realise that in democratic space like what we have now, with a preponderant majority in the country being Sinhalese and Buddhists, for a solution to emerge, we must win over at least a sizeable section of the majority community. Without that, it is not achievable. Certainly not achievable if we keep antagonising them and heightening their own fears. That is one.
The other is, even as a political party we need to get involved in providing better economic lives for our people. If the government is not cooperative in that regard, then I think we must at least facilitate job opportunities, increase economic activity etc through participation by our diaspora community. And for that we will have to set up certain structures that will actually make a difference on the ground.
What about justice questions?
The justice question is linked to the political solution. Questions of justice and accountability arose because of the ethnic conflict. Whenever we asked for our legitimate political rights that is when we suffered violence. So the whole struggle for political rights itself became violent and then ended up in a full-scale war as they call it here now.
The processes in the UN Human Rights Council for justice took the form of transitional justice, in which you have truth, justice, reparations and the guarantee of non-recurrence. In 2015, the Sri Lankan government offered a political solution by way of a new constitution as the guarantee of non-recurrence. All the other pillars of transitional justice are also important, and we have been pursuing those as well. But eventually, it must result in a permanent solution to the root cause of the conflict. Sometimes, it is better to solve the root cause of the problems first and then look at the justice issues that had come up in the interim. This is something we learnt in South Africa. To secure the future before looking at the past. I think that is the more sensible way of addressing these issues. Our pursuit of a political solution taking primary place in our political agenda is due to that factor.
Both the 19th Amendment that the TNA backed and fiercely defended, and the 13th Amendment that you have sought to build upon, have come under threat. How will this impact national politics and Tamil interests in particular?
The present government, in trying to get back to office after suffering defeat in 2015, appealed to narrow communal forces amongst the majority community, igniting fears about others who are numerically in the minority.
Unfortunately, this is a political game that is often resorted to by politicians of the majority [Sinhalese] community. The failure on the part of the previous government between 2015 and 2019 to deliver on its promises, particularly in achieving reconciliation within a united country not only affected the confidence of the Tamil people but also that of the Sinhala majority.
So, they [Rajapaksas] were able to actually come back to power with the support of a more vociferous, hard-line Sinhala opinion, which wanted to assert the dominance of the Sihala-Buddhist people over the others who live in the country. Naturally, having come to power the government is now seeking to appease those forces and deliver their promise to their core constituency. In doing that, they have promised a new constitution, but as an immediate delivery they brought forward the 20th Amendment Bill to show that the President, or the Executive, will be a strong Sinhala-Buddhist ruler who will keep everybody else in the country in check and assure that the rights and safety of the majority community will be ensured.
The 20th Amendment seeks to go back to the pre-19th Amendment situation, where you have a super powerful Executive President with unparalleled powers anywhere else in the world, without any real checks and balances. But that seems to have caused concern even among their own supporters who either think that these powers in the hands of the current incumbent itself is excessive or that another president later in the future will abuse these powers. So, the first attempt by the government in showing their core constituency that they are delivering on their promise seems to have run into trouble.
Moreover, there is a context to the country wanting to abolish executive presidency, and the majority Sinhalese community repeatedly giving that mandate for over a quarter of a century. That is because, repeatedly, the country has witnessed abuse by those who come to that office. And that abuse impacts not only minority communities, but also the majority community. Memories of that abuse of unbridled powers vested in the executive presidency is a one that cautions people in the south as well. That is the reason why, although this government was apparently given the mandate to remove the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, when the draft 20th Amendment came, even those who had given that mandate have become sceptical. They do not want to give that kind of powers to one person.
This time too the mandate given to the Rajapaksas is no different from the southern voters’ repeated mandates, at least from 1994, to abolish executive presidency. It is more to do with the working arrangement between the President and Prime Minister, and people being told that incidents like Easter bombings were possible because the standoff between the President and the Prime Minister, and that the 19th Amendment was responsible for it. But there was no mandate from the people to revest in the President the powers in executive presidency prior to the 19th Amendment.
As for the 13th Amendment, although the Provincial Councils were set up in 1987 as a solution to the Tamil national question, it didn’t satisfy the Tamil side for one, who continuously claimed it is insufficient and not meaningful sharing of powers. But it has also contributed to accentuating the fears of the majority community by propaganda that strengthening the provincial councils will result in the secession of the country. While the Tamil side has been clamouring for more powers to the provinces, in order that power sharing be meaningful, hardliners amongst the Sinhalese have been resisting that, claiming that it will lead to a division of the country. That too finds a resonance within the core constituency of the current government -- that fear, that any strengthening of the provincial councils will result in the country dividing. In order to assuage the feelings of that constituency, we are seeing rhetoric from the government side that they will keep that under control either by removing the provincial council system in its entirety or at least by reducing its powers.
The draft 20th Amendment may address those fears as well. Sinhala people believe that if there is strong President, then any attempt to divide the country can actually be dealt with by that President, as opposed a weak Executive, not being able to prevent any fissures in the country.
How does that explain the repeated mandates in the south for the abolition of executive presidency?
The call for abolition of the Executive Presidency comes from these excessive powers that are given to the President. People have been consistent in that position. What I said about the government’s core constituency is that if there are fears that arise in regard to the country facing a split, then they fall back on Executive Presidency to be able to control that.
Even in our negotiations in our last five years, to strengthen the provincial councils, coupled with the abolition of Executive Presidency, there was one area of the Executive Presidency that was retained and that was in relation to the President’s power over the provincial councils. We also ceded that as a “comfort factor” to assuage the fears of the majority that somehow one, central power was necessary to prevent any attempt by a province to secede.
The TNA also faced criticism for having backed the former government when it postponed elections to the provincial councils.
The TNA didn’t work to postpone the provincial council elections. What we were engaged in was the enactment of a new constitution, with more powers to the provinces. That effort to enact a new constitution had three major areas – devolution, a new electoral system and the abolition of Executive Presidency. When we had to agree on an electoral system, a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system was agreed upon. It was decided that there should be one system at all three tiers – at parliament, provincial and local government levels. That is why even before the constitution was enacted, the system that was agreed upon in the Constitutional Assembly deliberations was brought into the local government electoral system, and local government elections were held under that system.
The expectation was that in the new Constitution, Parliament and provincial council polls will also be changed to MMP. That was the reason for the delay in holding the provincial council elections. It was because the delimitation process that was conducted for the provinces was rejected by parliament. If we had succeeded in enacting the new constitution, a uniform election system would have been implemented at all three levels and provincial council elections would have been held. Unfortunately, the new constitution did not materialise. That is why the provincial council elections had got postponed. Our expectation was that the new provincial councils, emerging out of the new constitution, will be more powerful and more effective and meaningful in exercising devolved powers.
As you mentioned, the recently elected Rajapaksa government has promised a new constitution. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in office [between 2005 and 2015], the TNA had 18 rounds of talks with his government in regard to a political solution, but a consensus couldn’t be reached. Then, with the successor government too you engaged on a new constitution, but it didn’t materialise. Given your experiences with the two governments, what is the scope for engagement with the Rajapaksas and the real prospects for a political solution?
The Rajapaksas, when they were in office previously, before the end of the war as well as after the war ended, had repeatedly assured the world that there will be a proper settlement of the Tamil question in this country. Before the end of the war, they assured India, the West, and at one point, the co-chairs, the US, EU, Norway and Japan, that once the LTTE is defeated there would be a proper solution on the lines of what was recommended by the All Party Representative committee and its experts’ committee.
Now we have reports of both, the APRC, as well as the experts’ committee. Those provide for a more meaningful devolution of powers. That is the direction in which the Rajapaksa regime assured the world that they will settle the Tamil national question.
After the war ended, assuring India at least three times, the Rajapaksa government agreed to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full and also build upon it so as to achieve meaningful devolution. The promise was again in the direction of greater devolution. Now, again a Rajapaksa regime seeking to give the country a new Constitution cannot forget those repeated assurances given to the world at large, in very specific terms, and try to travel in the opposite direction. They must necessarily take that historic context, very recent historic context, into consideration and deliver on their promise.
We, on our part, will cooperate fully as we did with them in 2011, when we had 18 rounds of talks, and as we did later with the other government for about three years in the constitutional assembly process. We will continue to constructively engage in the processes. Even in the 2015 to 2018 process, the Rajapaksa camp which was represented in parliament as the UPFA agreed to greater devolution through their representatives in the steering committee and in the various sub committees. There was a great amount of consensus on the question of devolution. The disagreements were mostly in regard to executive presidency and the electoral system. But in regard to devolution there was a great measure of consensus. So, while they were in office and while they were out of office, they had taken a particular stand and we expect that stand to continue into the new constitution making process as well.
You pointed to the Rajapaksas’ core constituency fearing secession when provincial councils are strengthened. You also spoke of the need to win over the southern people. How do you think this can be achieved when there is heightened suspicion around devolution?
The way the TNA addressed those issues in the last 10 years, after the war ended, is to repeatedly assure the people in the south that the solution will be within a united, undivided country. In the constitutional assembly process, we even suggested that the word ‘indivisible’ be included in the description of the State. Secondly, we ourselves have asked that the new constitution be approved by the Sri Lankan people at a referendum, meaning thereby that we do not want to do anything behind their backs. And that the majority community should be comfortable with and agreeable to the terms of the new Constitution. That transparent approach we think will win over the Sinhalese people. Progressive forces amongst them too must give them the confidence and assurance that such a compact will continue to remain.
On TNA’s campaign trail ahead of the August general elections, many candidates – some are now MPs – invoked India while referring to the pending political solution. Given that the Rajapaksas are riding a huge mandate, what do you think India or the international community can do given their other considerations, including geopolitical concerns?
Sri Lanka is physically an island, but metaphorically no country can be an island. In today’s world, we must all live adhering to certain universal values and respect each other’s concerns. Sri Lanka’s foreign relations have always been mindful of that.
As its closest neighbour, India’s concerns over political stability in this island is something that all Sri Lankans appreciate and value very much. So that is why in 1983, when PM Indira Gandhi offered her good offices, that was gratefully accepted by the Sri Lankan government. And that [sentiment] continues to date.
The conflict in this island has had its impact on India as well, with over 1 lakh refugees having to be sheltered in India for three decades of war. It is foolhardy to say that conflicts in this island have no bearing on India or other countries in the world for that matter.
That is why successive Sri Lankan governments engaged with India and the rest of the international community and gave these assurances in the past. To that extent, India’s continuing good offices will be necessary and will be appreciated by all parties in finally resolving this conflict.
Engagement with the rest of the international community is also important. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has sounded a warning at the opening session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and has highlighted the attempt to pass the 20th Amendment and how that might negatively impact the rights and freedoms, and reconciliation in this country. Those valid concerns must be seriously taken on board and addressed by the government.