Tamil groups place their demands ahead of presidential elections in Sri Lanka

Seek international probe of war crimes, repeal of terrorism law and investments from Tamil diaspora

October 26, 2019 10:24 pm | Updated 11:20 pm IST - Colombo

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils hold placards during a public rally in northern Jaffna, Sri Lanka, on Monday.

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils hold placards during a public rally in northern Jaffna, Sri Lanka, on Monday.

In a show of strength and solidarity, five Tamil parties in Sri Lanka recently came together and put down their expectations of presidential candidates seeking their support in the November 16 election.

The initiative, led by students of the University of Jaffna and the Eastern University in Batticaloa, culminated in a 13-point proposal that has now become a talking point ahead of polls.

Call for federal structure

The demands include evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a “separate sovereignty” status for the Tamils and their right to self-determination, rejecting a “unitary state”; conducting an international probe of war crimes; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; stopping Sinhala-Buddhist “colonisation” of the north and east; and enabling investments from Tamil diaspora to enhance development and employment in the war-affected areas. Leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation(TELO), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) — which are constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — along with the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) signed the document.

The Tamil National People’s Front decided to stay out of the exercise. Its leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam accused India of backing the initiative in order pressure Mr. Gotabaya for its own interests in the island, in countering China’s. The TNPF also called for a boycott of polls, arguing that choosing a candidate solely to defeat Mr. Gotabaya weakens the Tamils’ bargaining power with little certainty that the alternative will deliver.

However, students who led the effort offered a different perspective. A decade after the war, the community is still struggling to move ahead and the Tamils ought not to stop engaging, in their view. “The demands reflect our collective aspirations. We felt it was important to articulate them in one voice. We first looked at individual proposals from the different parties and then combined them based on several rounds of discussion,” said S.P.S. Babilaraj of the Jaffna University Students’ Union.

“The demands represent our needs in the north and east. We want candidates to consider them,” said Thavaraja Puvanaraj of the Easter University students’ union.

Neither of the two main contestants — Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa — has so far agreed to engage on the demands that some, even among Tamils, deem unrealistic, given past experience. The position of the Tamil leadership, particularly the TNA — the main political formation representing Tamils of the North and East in Parliament — is being closely watched.

The TNA has so far not declared support for any candidate explicitly. According to its leader R. Sampanthan, the demands broadly reflect the contents of earlier, historic agreements on the national question signed by the Tamil leadership with popular Sinhalese leaders, such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact and the Indo-Lanka Accord.

“Condemnation of the document [by candidates and southern leaders] saying its unacceptable is evasive and indicative of an unwillingness to deal with the issue,” Mr. Sampanthan said. “None of the parties today are asking for a separate state. Our people want credible and durable power-sharing.”

In 2015, the Tamil vote from Sri Lanka’s north and east, along with the Muslim and hill country Tamil votes, played a major role in dislodging then President Mahinda Rajapaksa by backing common candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Their support proved crucial to the President Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe combine’s ascent to power.

Failed promises

Today, the Tamil constituency and leadership are disillusioned. While acknowledging the incremental gains made in the last five years, they point to the many failed promises of the incumbent government. The average Tamil voter may yet not to be ready to cast her vote for a Rajapaksa — who brings back memories of fear, surveillance and repression — but the other options do not seem particularly enticing either.

However, the Tamil vote — about 18 % — could make a difference. And that is why some worry that a boycott — like the one enforced by the LTTE in 2005 — would strengthen Mr. Gotabaya’s bid, much like it did his brother’s then. A boycott must never be the first option, in Mr. Babilaraj’s view. “Voting is our fundamental democratic right, we must exercise it. We must push for our rights as much as we can. These demands provide a framework and we are willing to engage with any candidate within that.”

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