A political battle of major proportions, perhaps the most portentous in years, is looming in Sri Lanka this year and is being preceded by a debate amounting to a battle of ideas. The matter at hand is the much delayed and deferred election to the Northern Provincial Council.
Political forces are arrayed in four positions on the battlefield. On the Tamil side there are those who hold that the existing 13th amendment to the Constitution under which the Northern Provincial Council was established, was inadequate from the start and that therefore, contesting the election and holding office would be of no positive consequence, and may even have the negative consequence of legitimising the institution. The other position occupied within the Tamil political spectrum is of those who regard the 13th amendment to be flawed and deeply unsatisfactory, but grasp the value of contesting and winning the election, and occupying the political real estate that remains.
On the Sinhala side are those who wish to abolish the system of provincial autonomy, those who do not and support the system of limited provincial autonomy, and those who seek to retain the bare bones of the system for fear of the external repercussions of abolition, while gutting the provinces of any real measure of autonomy.
At the moment, the predominance on the Tamil side is of the more pragmatic mainstream politicians who would like to occupy whatever political space that opens up, and on the Sinhala side, of those unhappy with provincial autonomy but seek to dilute rather than dismantle it in its entirety.
The major error on the Tamil side was and remains the failure to grasp that the 13th amendment was the best that could be achieved even when the political, or more accurately politico-military, balance was far less in Colombo’s favour. It proved the best deal achievable even with a far more overtly, robust Indian role and power projection.
When the liberal administration of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sought perhaps imprudently to range well beyond the 13th amendment in the form of three political packages in 1995, 1997 and 2000, the efforts were opposed as expected by Sinhala hardliners, but more fatally by the conservative United National Party (UNP) Opposition headed by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe. Most crucially, President Kumaratunga’s risky, politically ambitious quasi-federal initiatives did not have the acceptance, still less the support, of the parties and personalities (most prominently at the time, the TULF) currently grouped in the Tamil National Alliance.
In its sporadic and ultimately abortive discussions with the administration of President Rajapaksa, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) urged that these drafts of 1995, 1997 and 2000 be taken up for discussion, but those deals were no longer on the table, the Tamil politicians having proved that what was once said so famously by the liberal intellectual Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, of the Palestinian political leaders was also true of them, namely that they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Having failed to put sufficient daylight between themselves and the LTTE before the war ended with a decisive disaster for the latter, the Tamil nationalist politicians might have been expected to realise that the 13th amendment was the only fall back available, and that it should be defended doggedly against attempts by the triumphant Sinhala hawks in Colombo to roll it back. However, the TNA not only declined to take the 13th amendment as the explicit basis of negotiations, it initially rejected that structural reform as the starting line. The keynote speech by Mr. R. Sampanthan, the leader of the main Tamil parliamentary party (TNA) at the 14th Convention of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) [the main constituent of the TNA] in May 2012 was in many respects a landmark event. It played into the hands of the neoconservative hardliners within Colombo’s power elite and ruling troika, bringing the bilateral talks to an abrupt halt.
Mr. Sampanthan’s convention address not only stated clearly that the political project lay outside the parameters of both the 13th amendment as well as the structural form of a unitary state, but also provided considerable evidence to the Sri Lankan political leadership that the goal of a sovereign state of and for the Tamils, one in which they enjoy absolute rather than shared or devolved authority, remained the goal.
The ITAK/TNA leader’s speech said “we must prove to the international community that we will never be able to realize our rights within a united Sri Lanka.” Colombo seems to believe that with such a strategic objective in mind, it is logically inevitable that Tamil nationalism will reject, discredit and undermine any solution proposed or arrived at within a united Sri Lanka, especially a solution within a unitary state such as is the 13th amendment.
Mr. Sampanthan, the most prominent local leader of the Northern Tamil community, reiterated at his party’s annual convention its commitment to achieving with the support of the international community, the same “soaring aspirations” that could not be achieved through armed struggle.
By the time the TNA collected its collective wits, the Government had commenced the siege and attrition of the 13th amendment, while the hardliners within and outside were campaigning for outright abolition.
On the Sinhala side, the drive for rollback of provincial autonomy or crippling by means of the removal of any powers with regard to land and its utilisation, fails to grasp the possible blowback of such unilateralism; a unilateralism based on the assumption that the Tamil question in Sri Lanka is a purely internal matter for a sovereign state, and oblivious to the Kissingerian category of “intermestic” issues; those at the interface of the internal and the international.
New Delhi, which failed to militarily support an unambiguously pro-devolution President Kumaratunga during the Tigers’ siege of Jaffna in 2000, did not extend the requested and requisite degree of military support to Mahinda Rajapaksa in an equation that would have linked such support to political progress in lockstep as it were. Instead of simply insisting on the implementation of Sri Lanka’s own constitutional provisions (obviating the need for protracted, problematic talks with the TNA and the reinvention of the wheel), it was persuaded into echoing President Rajapaksa’s promise of 13 Plus. No wonder it finds itself in a dilemma on the next steps.
The anti-Sri Lankan hysteria in Tamil Nadu is reminiscent of the foaming at the mouth in Florida for decades at any mention of Castro’s Cuba. What takes Tamil Nadu beyond Florida is the ubiquity of Tiger symbolism including portraits of Velupillai Prabhakaran, in the pan-Tamilian agitation. In a rich irony of future history, that wave of agitation which rises higher during election year and its aftermath in India may well be exactly what sweeps away his UNP competitor and gifts President Rajapaksa all he needs for re-election to a third term. Given that he is increasingly a human shield for the Sinhala hawks in his ranks or a George Dubya to their Cheney-Rumsfeld, this cannot but have decisive repercussions on Delhi’s protracted efforts to secure a modest if authentic measure of provincial self-rule for the Tamils.
(Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. in Geneva from 2007-09, and until recently, Ambassador to France. He is the author of Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2013.)