In Sri Lanka’s ethnically polarized political society, the political discourse of both the Sinhala and Tamil polity is sadly limited and largely restricted to being within their own respective communities, with occasional broadsides against each other. There is insufficient dialogue and engagement between the different political views, especially on the issues of reconciliation. Within that context, it was interesting to note recently the call by two former Members of Parliament for the Jaffna District, V. Anandasangaree and Suresh Premachandra, for TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sambanthan resign as Leader of the Opposition. They accused him of using the Opposition Leader’s position to defend the government and the reconciliation process, which they claim has not addressed the needs of the Tamil community.
1. The call echoes that of the Joint Opposition (JO)
The call by the two former Jaffna District MPs from the TULF and the EPRLF, both now leading their respective minor parties, the former without Parliamentary representation and the latter with a single member in Vanni District MP, Shivashakthi Anandan elected on the TNA / ITAK ticket, are, no doubt, aware that their call echoes that of various Joint Opposition(JO) leaders, who have at various times been repeatedly calling upon Mr. Sambanthan to resign and hand over the opposition leader position to the JO. When Tamil leaders find that their tactical moves are converging with that of the JO, who have diametrically opposite views regarding the reconciliation process, it should make them pause and reflect on the wisdom of their tactics.
2. Sambanthan’s leadership post the end of the war
It is worth noting the significant leadership which Mr. Sambanthan, has given the Tamil community and consequently made them partners in a reconciliation process after the end of the war. The destruction of the LTTE in 2009, created a political power vacuum in the Tamil community, which the veteran democratic leader quickly and adroitly filled, bringing the traditional leaders of the Tamil community back into control of the community, through the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) led TNA. This was no small feat, since there were many “wanna be” successors to Prabhakaran from the now surrendered KP, to the Diaspora based Nediyavan or Rudrakumara of TGTE and the ITAK’s old bete noire and historic opponents, the Ponnambalam family scion Gajendrakumar led All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). Even the war era, “sole alternative to the sole representative” as Douglas Devananda of the EPDP liked to style himself, tried to fill the power vacuum from the other side of the spectrum aligning himself with the Rajapakse regime and trying to get the UPFA / EPDP to power in the North and East. However, in election after election, beginning from the local government elections in 2010, the Eastern Provincial Council elections thereafter, which the TNA came quite close to winning, the Northern Provincial Council election which it did win and the General Elections of both 2010 and 2015, the TNA swept the polls in the North and baring Ampara District even the East, capturing way over eight five percent (85%) of the Tamil vote and delivering a consistent and stunning political rebuke to its internal critics and challengers. While the situations are not comparable, Mr. Sambanthan and the TNA has had a lock and monopoly on Tamil support at over 85%, which even President Rajapaksa at the zenith of his power, in the 2010 elections never had on the Sinhala electorate. The TNA’s high levels of support by their constituency has held steady from post the end of the war in 2009 through the present.
3. Removing the LTTE from Tamil electoral politics and the TNA
Under Mr. Sambanthan’s leadership the TNA post war made some significant moves, all the time carrying the support of the Tamil people. Firstly, the TNA, eschewed inducting former LTTE leaders and members into its ranks. There was a temptation for the TNA, to glorify and seek to run on a platform of sympathy for and empathy from the defeated LTTE. From Daya Master to KP, to various other LTTE political and military wing survivors, there were many who wished to get into active politics. However, the TNA eschewed this temptation and harked back to a former prewar era, drawing inspiration from the non-violent struggle and political life of SJV Chelvanayagam, rather than encouraging a nostalgia for the LTTE. While doing so, Sampathan pulled off the near impossible, in deftly moving away from the famous Vaddukodai resolution on separatism, by repeatedly, publicly and categorically committing to seeking power sharing within a united, indivisible and undivided Sri Lanka. That all this was done, in the ashes of the LTTE’s defeat and in the context of significant nostalgia for the LTTE within the Tamil community, especially in the Vanni, speaks volumes for Mr. Sambanthan’s political sagacity and skills.
4. Engaging the South as a partner in reconciliation
It is however in the engagement with the South, that Mr. Sambanthan has played his best game yet. Within a space of a few years, he turned Tamil politics from a near three decades long armed confrontation with the Sri Lankan State, to becoming a political ally and partner in the rainbow coalition which swept the seemingly undefeatable Mahinda Rajapaksa from power. Mr. Sambanthan’s logic was simple enough. Everybody’s rights, including that of the Tamil community is best secured by a robust liberal democratic society and not in a populist authoritarian one.
Furthermore, while progress on reconciliation has been slow, at times even painfully so, the direction has changed post the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration. Some private land and houses occupied by the military in the North was released to their owners, NGOs and the volunteer sector were given the space to meet the needs of the vulnerable, some PTA detainees were released, the TNA were included in a coalition Administration in the Eastern Province together with the national parties and the SLMC to complement its provincial administration in the North, Governors for the North and East, who were partners in peace and development replaced the former military background appointees and a process of constitutional reform was begun. While none of these outcomes may have met all needs at the present time and the processes may not have proceeded as fast as Mr. Anandasangaree and Mr. Premachandran desires, to ignore the change of direction and the real gains made, albeit at a slow pace, is to miss significant and noteworthy progress and movement in the right direction, which did not happen by accident, but largely due to the quiet and dignified political leadership of Rajavarothian Sambanthan. The TNA may have its faults, but Sri Lanka as a whole is blessed that the leadership of the Tamil community moved away from Prabhakaran to Sambanthan.