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The State of Sri Lankan Tamil Politics in the Post LTTE Period

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  • March 01, 2013
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Professor S D Muni
    Discussant: Shri M R Narayan Swamy and Dr N Manoharan

    Dr. Ashok K Behuria began the presentation by stating that this paper was largely based on the field visit to Sri Lanka. The paper studies the perceptions of a wide range of people to understand the Tamil mindset after the war. The Tamil speaking people constitute 24% of the population, of which the Sri Lankan Tamils comprise 11% while the Tamil Muslims and the Indian Tamils are 9% and 4% respectively. The paper focussed only on the Sri Lankan Tamil perspective and their expectations from India. There have not been many drastic changes in the Tamil demands since independence. The demands of the Tamil political parties ACTC and later ITAK were the following: a) federal Sri Lanka with one or more Tamil States with autonomous powers, b) parity of Tamil with Sinhala as official languages, c) repeal law disenfranchising Indian Tamils, and d) cessation of dryland colonization schemes.

    President Bandaranaike came out with the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. Immediately afterwards he made a pact with the Tamils in 1957, which is known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. There was resistance from the majority community in a big way; UNP, a centralist party, staged a march from Colombo to Kandy. In the following years UNP leader Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayakam had a pact but it could not be implemented due to massive resistance from the SLFP, which had earlier signed a similar pact with the same Tamil leader. Such competitive maximalist stance characterised the nature of ethnic politics in Sri Lanka.

    Thus, the pacts granting greater autonomy to the Tamils could not be implemented. From the 1950’s onwards there was increasing colonisation by the Sinhalese migrants in the Tamil areas. Further, the riots in 1958, 1961 and 1974 led to further alienation of the Tamil community. Ethnic outbidding was prevalent in the Sri Lankan Tamil parties as well and a similar pattern persists even today. Its nature transformed from a passive politics to a militant form in the 1970s. In 1972, the Tamil parties came together and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF). In1976 TUF renamed itself as Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

    There was the perception that the Tamils became militants because India was backing them. However, there is no evidence to prove this existed before the 1970s and 80s. In the 1980s India intervened in a big way resulting in the formulation of the 13th Amendment. Dr. Behuria points that Sri Lanka borrowed many things from the Indian federalism to envisage the devolution in Sri Lanka, but it was a mistake. Sri Lanka is different from the Indian experience and is not as diverse as India. Both the LTTE and Sri Lankan government wanted the Indian forces out of their state.

    None of the agreements could be implemented because it did not satisfy the maximalist expectations of the LTTE on one hand and the totalitarian aspirations of the Sinhalese chauvinist constituency on the other. In 2001, LTTE allowed the political front TNA to come up and it was almost a mouth piece of LTTE. From then on, the TNA began to dominate the North and also had a considerable presence in the East. There were 18 rounds of dialogue between TNA and the Government in 2011, but they could not reach a political settlement. The demands of the TNA included;

    1. Resettlement and rehabilitation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 2. Removal of High Security Zones (HSZs) and disarming of paramilitary forces operating in the North and East, 3. The issue of political prisoners and detainees being detained at various places under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency regulations, before May 2009.

    They agreed on the 13th Amendment as the starting point for the negotiations. Some sections of the Tamil community believe that this is not enough and at the same time parties like TNFP completely reject it. There is an opinion that it is an Act that will further lead to the domination of provinces by the centre. The talks were put on hold by Rajapaksa government and it stressed on seeking a political settlement through multi-party discussions in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC)

    Perception on India

    India’s insistence for the 13th Amendment and Rajapaksa’s reservations about it is cited as instances of India’s inability to comprehend the changing realities in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese and the Tamils have moved away from 13th amendment for different reasons. The former considers it as an ‘imposition from outside’, while the latter regards it as an ‘indecent compromise of Tamil interests.’ In Jaffna, the Tamils feel that India had used them for its own interest. They urge that India must ensure that they get their due from the Sri Lankan government. However, some of them also feel India will sooner than later stop due to Rajapaksa’s China blackmail. There is an open recognition of the dangers of militant politics and denunciation of LTTE’s policies vis-à-vis India.

    While concluding, Dr. Behuria opined that this dialogue is unlikely to lead to a solution. There exists a rightwing in the majority community. It was observed that the Sinhalese government delegates were highly unhappy while talking about the devolution of the police power and the land power. In such context, India must quietly play its role for finding a way for resolving the problem.

    Major points of discussion and suggestions to the author:

    • Initially the demand was for 50-50 representation and after independence it developed as language, autonomy, independent state and now devolution. These issues have to be analysed with the particular situation at that point of time. These are, the end of colonialism, post-colonial pre-LTTE, during LTTE and post LTTE. Along with situation another variable is strength that is demographic, political, economic, military, diplomatic, strength of opposition against the government and the external support.
    • What the Sri Lankan state has tried to do is to keep the Tamils apart by different legislations and also by trying to cooperate with external forces like the UK, Israel, the US, India and now China. How did this all affect the Sri Lankan politics, what were the internal conflicts within the Sinhalese community and how groups like JVP used the Tamil issue as a rallying point need to be looked into.
    • There is the need for encouraging and strengthening moderate politics, unifying the Tamil polity which is divided and the creation of a broad front which includes moderate Sinhalese voices that stand for more devolution.
    • The Sri Lankan government should have accepted that a lot of damage was done during the war and shown the readiness for reconciliation and rehabilitation. In the present scenario, the people who never supported LTTE have turned against the state. The belief that the LTTE is coming back, perfectly supports Rajapaksa to pursue his oppressive policies.
    • India should have a fresh thinking in term of the 13th Amendment and encourage all moderate voices to come together. For this purpose the Indian civil society and think-tanks can play an important role.
    • Research paper of this nature should focus on issues like the way forward, the dynamics of the Sinhalese and Muslim parties, the significance of Divineguma Bill etc. In the present scenario the devolution is going to be an impossible task and in such a context the position that TNA would take needs to be looked at closely.
    • India should not only focus on the Tamil issue but also look at issues like disappearance of the journalists in Colombo, the impeachment of the Chief Justice etc. hence a broader approach should be evolved.
    • There is a difference in perceptions of the new elite and the old one. The voice of the new elite is more dominant today. Having a broader approach is a very tall work and the dominant voice is not for any solution. A macro-pattern can be discerned that is maximising the demand by both sides.
    • SLMC is not fond of Rajapaksa but at the same time, they are concerned about power and they want to be seen as an equal force with Sri Lankan Tamils. Thus, this issue is focused in the North and the East. Also delimitation of constituency is carried out in such a manner the Tamil are becoming minorities in all the areas.
    • The Sri Lanka government is not at all sincere in its implementation of 13th Amendment.

    Report prepared by Ms Deepa Varughese