There were rumblings within the Federal Party, a constituent partner of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with ‘hawks’ driven by sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, and the more sober ‘doves’. The FP and TNA leader R. Sampanthan could fall into the latter category. Only a month ago, on May Day, he won plaudits from a vast majority of people for waving the Sri Lankan national flag with the Opposition Leader.
But his convention address in Batticaloa last weekend was deeply unsettling. Is he merely a sheep in wolves clothing or a wolf in sheep’s clothing is the question asked in many quarters.
The veteran politician’s speech was provocative to put it mildly. He was throwing back the pages of contemporary history to the dark chapter that prevailed on the eve of the outbreak of the 30-year bloody virtual civil war in this country. A time when minority Tamil politicians fanned the flames of ethnic tensions only to be consumed themselves by them at the hands of the radical, armed elements.
The TNA leader also tried to rewrite history. He spoke of the race riots of 1958, ’77, ’81 and ’83 that drove the Tamil youth to seek secession through an armed struggle. These were his words: “Historically, it was the violence against the Tamil people that drove them to take up violence themselves. When peaceful struggle was consistently and brutally quashed by violent means, Tamil youth were forced to resort to violence.”
This begs the question, why then did this armed struggle target and assassinate Mr. Sampanthan’s erstwhile leader Appapillai Amirthalingam? Why were other Tamil politicians like the Jaffna parliamentarian V. Yogeswaran, its Batticaloa MP Sam Thambimuttu, its Uduvil MP, V. Dharmalingam, and so many moderate Tamil politicians from other parties, Tamil youth from the EPRLF, TELO and the EPDP also part of the early armed struggle systematically gunned down? Why did Mr. Sampanthan himself have to seek personal security from the Sri Lankan armed forces during this period?
The bitter fact is what Mr. Sampanthan cannot say in public. Violence against the Tamils was indeed part of the cause for the uprising. It is the truth and nothing but the truth but not the whole truth. The other part of the cause was because it was organised and unleashed by India as part of its geo-political interest at the time in destabilising Sri Lanka. And yet another part was the sheer frustration of a vast section of the Tamil youth who were not from the Vellala caste at their inability to enter mainstream politics so dominated by the Federal Party. The social order in the North and the caste hierarchy played such a critical role that leave alone winning a seat to Parliament, no-one outside this caste would obtain nomination to contest a seat. Of the 14 MPs elected from the TULF, the precursor to the TNA in the 1977 Parliament, 13 were Vellala.
That was one major factor in the Tamil youth turning their backs on the democratic political system and training their guns on the conservative Tamil politicians of the day. That is why the Tamil youth, once armed took the upper hand and dislodged the FP and TNA as the voice of the Tamils and self-appointed themselves as the ‘sole representatives of the Tamil people’. Now, with the crushing of that armed struggle, Mr. Sampanthan stands up in Batticaloa to say that the TNA speaks as “the legitimate representatives of the Tamil people”.
It was not that much different from the southern JVP uprising in 1971, a lesson the Tamil youth picked up from their Sinhala brethren with much greater ferocity thanks to India’s succour. Mr. Sampanthan and his clan cannot run away from this hard fact, however embarrassing it may be.
The caste barrier had to be smashed in the North if the majority of the youth were to have a place in the sun. Some of them could not enter certain kovils, or have a seat in public transport. The personal laws that governed their area were heavily stacked against their upliftment.
The TNA relies on the international community and India to rectify the political problems of the North. So, Mr. Sampanthan confirms. What of the social problems? The Government might be asked to provide a solution to the political problems. It is also its duty to find a solution to the economic problems of the North. Then what of the social problems? Mr. Sampanthan made no reference whatsoever to this. Does it mean they do not exist?
“The softness of our stance concerning certain issues, and the compromise we show in other issues, our diplomatic strategies to ensure that we do not alienate the international community. They are not indications that we have abandoned our fundamental objectives,” he says.
What are these fundamental objectives, then? Mr. Sampanthan answers the question himself when he says the struggle is “outside a unitary government in a united Sri Lanka”. Yes, he speaks of a united Sri Lanka but outside a unitary form of government. Also, the “right to internal self-determination” as if he is a reincarnation of the former LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham. Dangerous words that would test the 6th Amendment to the Constitution that forbids such talk.
As if this was not enough, he refers to the 13th Amendment as not necessarily being an acceptable solution. Then in pregnant words he says that in the event their right to self-determination is continuously denied, they will claim a right to “external self-determination”. Bluntly put, he is referring to secession, and unashamedly calls upon the United States and India to force the pace.
The writing is on the wall. The TNA is re-enacting the scenario that prevailed in the 1970s and preparing the ground for another secessionist movement. The influence that the hardline elements of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora have on the TNA is clear, and its leader even pays salaams to fallen LTTE cadres in an opaque kind of way.
He refers to the 30 years of violent political struggle – “this chapter of blood, tears, courage, despair and great destruction” and claims the Federal Party has not taken the Tamil people down the wrong path.
These are the seeds that sow racial disharmony and force a Government backed by the majority to neutralise such communal overtones. The TNA leader did not speak a word about a Sri Lankan identity of one people in one country. Can he speak for all the Tamils in Sri Lanka? One would think not.