By Jehan Perera
The speech of TNA leader R Sampanthan at the annual sessions of the largest Tamil political party that took place in Batticaloa in the east has raised the red flag for many of those whose primary concern is the unity and sovereignty of the country.
This can be seen in the adverse media commentary and statements issued on the topic. Ironically it was only a month ago that the TNA leader raised aloft the national flag of the country in Jaffna. He did this together with the Leader of the Opposition, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at a joint May Day rally held in the northern capital. On that occasion Tamil nationalist opinion was very critical of his action in raising the flag and saw it as a capitulation to Sinhalese ethnic majority domination at a time when little is being done to address the political roots of the ethnic conflict.
The national flag has long been one of the contested arenas of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms. When the flag was designed more than six decades ago, the stylized lion at the centre of the flag was taken to be an affirmation of the central place of the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka and was opposed by the minority representatives on the flag design committee. After considerable disputation on the issue the existence of the Tamil and Muslim communities was acknowledged in the flag by two vertical stripes at the corner of the flag. At this May Day rally Mr Sampanthan also said that the TNA wanted provincial powers in Tamil speaking areas within a united Sri Lanka. This has been a long standing demand of the TNA. However, his raising of the lion flag was the subject of discussion and criticism among TNA supporters as to why that he did it. Even some TNA MPs expressed displeasure over the incident. Responding to Tamil media reports that members of the Tamil community were angered by the gesture, he responded, that the raising of the flag was ‘a symbol of solidarity with the workers of Sri Lanka and a sign of solidarity and reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil people in the country’. The TNA leader also felt oblighed to defend his conduct at the May Day rally and denied that he had been pressurized y anyone to hold up the Sri Lankan national flag.
It is unfortunate that the government did not take suitable actions that would have built upon the positive action of the TNA leader in affirming his commitment to the country’s unity. Government members did praise him for the gesture but used it to score political points when they also said that it was an indication that he has given up the TNA’s demand for a Tamil Eelam and was the first sign that he fell in line with the government’s stand. At the same time the government appears to have found the joint May Day rally of the TNA with the UNP to be a political challenge. Therefore they did their utmost to discredit the event pointing to the relatively small number of Jaffna participants at the event. In addition a further counter-productive action of the government was to show some persons waving the Tiger flag of the LTTE at the rally. As this scene was shown only on state television there was a reasonable suspicion that this was a product of government propagandists. The fact that the government’s large security apparatus did not apprehend those who engaged in this illegal activity added credence to the suspicions that this Tiger flag waving was not genuine. This also makes it reasonable to infer that the government is continuing to use the threat of the revival of the LTTE for its political purposes. The surest source of political support for the government continues to be the nationalist sentiment that puts the country unity and sovereignty above anything else. So long as the threat of division of the country remains in the consciousness of the Sinhalese ethnic majority, the present leadership of the government can be assured of their overwhelming support on account of being the ones responsible for defeating the LTTE in the war. In this context, the speech of TNA leader Sampanthan at the annual sessions of his party will feed into the fears of the ethnic majority electorate and further strengthen the government’s hold over this electorate. In his speech he spoke of the Tamil people being entitled to the right of self-determination in a united Sri Lanka but in a political structure that is not unitary. In addition he stated that if this right was continuously denied the TNA would claim the right to external self-determination.
The question is what led to the change in the approach of TNA leader Sampanthan, who raised the Sri Lankan national flag in Jaffna along with the Opposition Leader but warned of his party’s option of supporting secession at his party sessions in Batticaloa. It would appear that like his counterparts in the government, the TNA leader has to be concerned about keeping his electorate with him. So far his moderate leadership of the TNA has not been able to deliver results to the Tamil people of the north and east. As a result, Mr Sampanthan is being outflanked by more nationalist members of his party who are gaining ground within the TNA and may even seek to oust him. A more nationalist and secessionist leadership of the TNA would make an accommodation with the government even harder to achieve. A situation of worsening ethnic polarization might be beneficial to the hardliners in both the government and TNA, but this will not lead to problem solving that is in the interests of all. There are some problems of great emotional and symbolic importance to the Tamil people that the government could speedily resolve and in doing so could also strengthen the position of moderate politicians like the present TNA leader.
One set of issues has to do with missing persons and whether they are still in government custody and the detention of Tamils without trial on the grounds that they worked for or supported the LTTE. Another set of problems stems from the large military presence in the north and east, and has to do with them intruding in on social events and giving preference to Sinhalese traders and fishermen when it comes to granting permits to trade or to fish. These may be relatively minor in the larger scheme of things, but they occur in daily life and give people the sense that they are not being treated equally. The few problems highlighted above do not require far reaching political reform to resolve. The government is capable of addressing these problems on its own and giving solutions to the people even without the cooperation of the opposition political parties. In any event, the leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeatedly said he will support government efforts to resolve the ethnic conflict. As a first step resolving the day-to-day problems of the people speedily and dispelling the ill feelings that they generate would serve to create a conducive environment in which more structured reforms can be discussed. This will enable Tamil leaders like Mr Sampanthan, who have never espoused political violence to never have to contemplate sacrificing more lives to the cause of secession. Three years after the end of the war, the present opportunity to move forward without continuing to be bogged down in ethnic conflict needs to be taken.