In Sri Lanka’s presidential poll in 2015, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), representing Tamils of the north and east, led its constituency in a crucial protest vote against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As the country gears up for the next presidential election, scheduled before the end of this year, Jaffna district MP M.A. Sumanthiran, who is also TNA’s spokesman and a senior lawyer, weighs the options before the Alliance, amid mounting discontent among Tamils over the incumbent government’s performance. He also reflects on broader political questions and international dimensions in an interview at his Colombo residence. Excerpts:
In the 2015 polls, the TNA backed the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe combine that, among other things, promised a constitutional political settlement to the Tamil question. Though the process took off, the constitutional reform process is now stalled. Why couldn’t it succeed?
At a certain point during the process, the coalition government wasn’t as strongly knitted together as it was in the beginning. Fissures started emerging and deepened with time, particularly ahead of the local government elections [in February 2018]. The two parties began seeing each other as rivals again. They were more keen to get an electoral advantage over each other than to collaborate and settle this long-standing issue. As a result, they were not willing to own even those matters that had been agreed upon after discussion. They started backing out. That happened primarily with the President’s party [Sri Lanka Freedom Party]. Subsequently, when it became clear to the others that they were not going to sail with the consensus of everyone, nobody seemed to want to carry the can by themselves. They also began to back out.
By that you mean the Prime Minister’s party [United National Party/UNP] as well?
Yes, now looking back, I can say that at a certain point when they realised that their coalition partner was not going to share the responsibility of taking this through, they themselves started backing out. Of course, neither party said it in as many words. They resorted to blaming each other for the protraction of the constitutional reform process.
For the upcoming presidential election, the Rajapaksa camp has named Gotabaya Rajapaksa as candidate. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is running, and the UNP is yet to name its candidate. The government you backed in 2015 has not delivered on its promises. How do you view your options now?
To start with, we backed a candidate in 2015 based on certain promises. Apart from the promise to solve the Tamil national issue, the primary promise given was that the executive presidency would be abolished. We sincerely believed that with the two main parties coming together, coupled with the fact that since 1994 the people of this country have clearly given a verdict to abolish executive presidency, it would be done this time. But that hasn’t happened, and we are in a situation where we have to support one candidate or another for the post of executive presidency that they promised to abolish. We are not amused by this turn of events. We will wait for all the parties to name their candidates and put out their manifestos. We will hold discussions with the candidates and take a decision. We are not in a hurry.
The prospect of a political solution was one of the reasons for the TNA to back the ‘national unity’ coalition in 2015. Leaders from different parties who subsequently voted for a new Constitution are now backsliding to the existing 13th Amendment [an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987]. Is it a situation of one step forward and two steps back?
This keeps happening all the time. The 13th Amendment is a watershed: it was the first time that the governance structure was radically altered by the creation of provincial councils which had a measure of legislative power and some executive power through the governor.
When the 13th Amendment was enacted, the Tamil side substantially rejected it saying it was not a meaningful devolution. There are good reasons for that. So, the promise by the southern leadership has been that not only would the 13th Amendment be implemented, but that they would go beyond that and make devolution meaningful. But there was no attempt to implement the 13th Amendment in full, even after the war ended. On the contrary, President Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to take back powers that came with it.
It was in that context that the 2015 change came, and a promise given to us that leaving aside the 13th Amendment, there would be a solution found to the Tamil national question based on previous negotiations which, at times, crossed over to a federal arrangement as well. Now, to say that we will consider implementing the 13th Amendment is to go back on all those promises.
But, as I said, this keeps happening all the time. After telling their southern constituencies election after election that devolution will lead to a division of the country, these leaders find it impossible to commit to anything more. While they want to keep the chunk of the majority vote for themselves, in a two-party system like in Sri Lanka, it also becomes necessary to get a substantial minority vote. So, they resort to this ‘full implementation of the 13th Amendment’ rhetoric — that way the southern constituency doesn’t feel insecure, and they are still promising the Tamil voter something. Their pledge is not sincere, we don’t take it seriously.
The only time we had a different approach was in 1994, when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga contested. She turned the whole narrative around, promised a federal arrangement and got some 60% of the vote. In 2005, Ranil Wickremesinghe too made a similar pledge, though not as vociferously as President Chandrika. But the LTTE refused to accept that both times. A separate sovereign state was firmly embedded in their ideology that drove their political struggle. Although they engaged in discussions, peace talks and negotiations, when it seemed like a federal arrangement was possible, they broke it, probably fearing that a delivery on that promise will forever extinguish their dream of a separate state.
Now in the absence of the war and war weariness, no leader is willing to go that far. They think the Tamil votes can be obtained by seeming to be the lesser of the two evils, rather than being the party that actually delivers on the promise.
When you look at the specific challenges of the Tamils in the north and east, how do you view their situation today, 10 years after the war, with regard to accountability and reconstruction?
During the first five years after 2009, the Rajapaksa regime treated the war victory as a licence to totally subjugate the Tamil people on the basis that you went to war, you lost, and the winner takes it all. It paid lip service to a political settlement. It implemented big infrastructure projects. But in the absence of any attempt to alleviate the sufferings of the people, to improve their livelihoods, and address their immediate concerns, the mega projects were totally alien to the war-affected community.
Now, in the last five years, it is far more complex. The government began addressing people’s long-pending concerns. Military-held lands were returned substantially, if not fully. On accountability, there were measures such as the setting up of the Office on Missing Persons — it was an important one even though the progress on investigations is far from satisfactory. Some political prisoners were released.
On reviving the economy of the Tamil people, nothing has really materialised. Unemployment is increasing. But the last five years saw an expansion of democratic space — the northern people took to the streets to protest and voice their dissent and dissatisfaction. That was impossible under the Rajapaksa rule when fear and surveillance pervaded the north and east.
The Rajapaksas had made it clear to the Tamils that they ought not to expect much in terms of rights. This government gave reason for hope and then failed to deliver. Our people are bitterly disappointed.
You referred to efforts towards de-militarisation. How do you view the recent appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as army commander by the President, given the allegations of war crimes against him?
As disagreements within the coalition began growing, the President began resorting to some drastic measures. That came to a head in October 2018, when he sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. The appointment of Shavendra Silva as army commander now must also be seen in that light.
The President’s trajectory is very different to what it was when he was elected in 2015. It was he who led the way by example towards reconciliation in a very constructive way — by not celebrating the [war] victory day, by having the national anthem sung in Tamil on National Day, boldly by making a case for ethnic reconciliation, a new Constitution, etc. Now, regrettably, he has gone back on all of that. We are very disappointed because we know that the President is not given to racism; his actual views are very liberal towards power sharing. But now he is behaving out of character, compelled perhaps by electoral and other political reasons.
But it is also significant that the coalition partner [UNP] has not commented on the appointment.
How do you look at the role of the international community now?
The international community and their moves in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) have been significant for us. The good thing about the UN resolutions is that although they are non-binding, they have a very persuasive effect. A lot of the changes on the ground here I think are due to the resolutions that were passed in the HRC, including ones co-sponsored by Sri Lanka after regime change. One can’t directly attribute each change to a particular act, but the fact that there is an oversight has made a difference.
When I say international community, I have been referring to the countries apart from India until now, because India did not get involved in the UNHRC resolutions. It was neutral most of the time. But India has a special interest in the political resolution of this long-term issue. And that comes from India’s own bilateral treaty with Sri Lanka, the Indo-Lanka Accord. India has an interest in seeing that implemented in full and in leaders going beyond that to achieve meaningful devolution. Because even that promise was given to India, and nobody else, by no less than Mahinda Rajapaksa.
So, when we talk about the international community’s pressure, it is India and the others. While other countries back us significantly on human rights and democracy, it is only India that has a direct link to the contents of the political solution, as it was only India that was able to change the governance structure in 1987 with the 13th Amendment.
Our engagement with India has continued through Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terms and after the change in government in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Sri Lanka more than once. He has even gone to Jaffna — he was the first Prime Minister of India to ever visit Jaffna — and has assured us that India’s policy towards Sri Lanka and the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka remains the same.
The TNA is scheduled to meet Mr. Modi in Delhi soon. Some political leaders here have referred to the Indian government’s move in Jammu and Kashmir while commenting on prospects for a political solution here. How do see that?
We don’t think the decision that the Indian government took with regard to J&K will have a bearing on its position vis-à-vis Sri Lankan Tamils. J&K had a special status, and for good or bad reason, the Indian government has decided to do away with it and has bifurcated it into two Union Territories.
But when you look at the Indian government’s dealings with other States in the past, it has been very flexible in granting more powers to States through negotiation, especially those wanting to separate from the Union, like Mizoram, Assam or Punjab.
Also, there is no resistance to the creation of new states in India — be it Telangana or previously Chhattisgarh. So, as far as we can see, India looks at these issues pragmatically.
From what we have been assured by Prime Minister Modi, the Indian position on Sri Lankan Tamils remains the same and India’s good offices will still matter while we try to achieve this meaningful devolution of powers as envisaged in the Indo-Lanka Accord. To that extent, we will seek his assistance when we meet him in Delhi very soon.
Following the Easter Sunday attacks and the subsequent violence targeting the Muslim community, you raised concern that what was once done to the Tamils was being done to the Muslims now. Given the history of turbulent Tamil-Muslim relations — seen also in the LTTE’s mass expulsion of Muslims from the north in the early 1990s — and the lingering distrust between the two minority communities, how do you view Tamil-Muslim relations now, particularly in the east? Is there solidarity?
After April 21, initially there seemed to be a widening of the gap between Tamils and Muslims, which you might see even now on the surface. But I think deep down both communities are more conscious now than before that we need to stay together.
Although there was some sense in the Tamil community that the Muslims did not stand with us when we were the targets, more and more people now realise that that sort of attitude won’t help us. As Tamil-speaking communities in the north and east, where we are a preponderant majority, we must stand united, or we will not be able to withstand the pressures from the majority community. The Easter attacks and post-Easter attacks have certainly helped solidify that understanding.
The TNA is often criticised by some Tamils for consistently supporting this government despite its many failings. On the other hand, the TNA’s own performance in governing the Northern Provincial Council — to which it was elected in 2013 — also drew considerable flak from the community. It appears that you have a double incumbency disadvantage.
Vis-à-vis the Northern Provincial Council, that was certainly a missed opportunity, a grave one at that because that has a lot of ramifications. In our call for devolution we can now be told that we squandered the opportunity given to us, albeit in a system that didn’t grant enough powers. The accusation is that we didn’t use even those limited powers and there is substance to that accusation.
Collaborating with the Centre has also affected us, although we did that because there was a real opportunity to resolve the long-standing issue when the two main parties got together. Now that that has failed, and the coalition has broken down and we are seeing various ill effects of that breakdown, the TNA which propped up and even now props up the government is seen as having backed the wrong horse and not achieving anything for its people.
That is a fact and we will have to bear that when we meet the electorate next time.
Over the last five years you opted for a politics of engagement with the southern leadership. During the October political crisis last year, the JVP leader remarked that the time had come for parties like the JVP and the TNA to work together. More recently, after the Easter attacks, the TNA said it would work with the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), representing Malayaha Tamils, and stand with the Muslims. What does the TNA’s future look like?
See, with the defeat of the LTTE the call for a separate state is over. When that project is over, our approach also should change. There is no substitute for engagement, because what is the alternative? You are not going to take up arms and fight for a separate state, that is not your objective anymore. It is a solution within one country. If it is a solution within one country, engagement is the only way forward.
Unfortunately, I think the TNA’s approach to this hasn’t changed sufficiently. We are still hanging on to the old habit of confrontational politics. We can be confrontational, but a greater degree of engagement, a greater degree of appreciation that we are living in one country, and that this is our country, must be there. That is a shift that must necessarily take place and I think our constituency is ready for that shift.
During the last five years, though the government didn’t deliver on promises, it may have contributed to a realisation that we must be engaged much more.
The next phase will have to see a significant shift in how we engage with the forces in the south. We have had discussions with the JVP and post October 26, the 52 day-saga, many told us that the JVP and the TNA were the two parties that held the political side together and that JVP and TNA coming together even on a political project would be a welcome change. I can’t say readily at this presidential election whether we will see a coming together of such forces, but in the long-term definitely that is the way to go. There may be the two main parties with whom we will anyway have to engage with and collaborate – because one or the other will be in office, but for real change I think we will have to work very closely with the JVP and other progressive, alternative forces in the south.