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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sri Lanka: Tamil politics at a turning point

(Sulochana Ramiah Mohan/ The Morning.) The political landscape of the North and East is entering a new phase with optimism for confident developments under the leadership of the newly elected Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) Leader, MP S. Sritharan. Having secured 187 votes in the party leadership election, he has expressed a fresh perspective on the Tamil politics of a united role embracing all the other political parties of the North and East. However, the heavily fragmented Tamil politics and their diverse agendas continue to face challenges in aligning their space in the political sphere with their policies, despite the shared Tamil aspirations that unite them all.

 

There appears to be mixed feedback regarding Sritharan, reminiscent of the comments about MP Sumanthiran, who also vied for the ITAK leadership last week. Sritharan has faced accusations of favouritism, allegedly protecting his close associates and offering seats to his favourites in the past party elections. Similarly, Sumanthiran has been criticised for his moderate views, openly talking about it, which has caused discontent within the Tamil community.

Critics argue that Sumanthiran did not “accept” the Tamil militancy. While many share similar sentiments as Sumanthiran, he has been the one to openly express these views, sometimes landing him in hot water. This particular stance appears to be a primary reason why Sumanthiran has faced criticism at various points.

Further, during the decision-making process of the Central Committee, it was Sumanthiran who communicated to TNA Leader R. Sampanthan that he should consider “retiring” from politics. This message from Sumanthiran to Sampanthan perceived that the retirement suggestion originated from Sumanthiran.

Sumanthiran, residing primarily in Colombo, is often viewed as a moderate figure. Despite being supportive in advocating for the rights of several detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, his political ambitions, based in Colombo, are seen by many as propelled by his own agenda rather than a collective response.

On the flip side, Sritharan, residing in Jaffna, has seamlessly established a strong presence among the Tamils in the North. He has actively advocated for the Tamil cause and is known for his spirited Tamil nationalism. While addressing various issues, his primary focus has been on revitalising the “lost” identity of the Tamils, specifically that which existed before 2009.

The only common ground among all Tamil parties is the pursuit of a ‘federal system’ within a united Sri Lanka, rejecting any notions of separatism or resorting to force. The ongoing political discourse, facilitated by international intervention, aims to address past issues such as alleged war crimes, the return of confiscated land and the release of detained Tamil political prisoners. This dialogue is intricately linked to the demand for a federal system that grants autonomy in governing their own affairs. Additionally, there is a call for active provincial council operations, seeking support from the Tamil Diaspora to foster development in the North and East – an initiative the Government has agreed to allow.

Further, there is a collective desire for the full implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which includes the 13th Amendment enshrined in the Constitution. However, the persistent internal divisions among the Tamil parties have hindered progress, leaving the Tamil people in the North and East without significant advancements.

Persistent divisions

A Northern politician who wanted to remain anonymous expressed deep concern about the persistent divisions, describing the future of Tamil politics as grim, marked by escalating confusion and conflict. He noted the transition from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to the ITAK functioning independently as a single party. With no existing alliance, parties like the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), TAP, Tamil Thesiya Katchi (Sivajilingam and Sri Kantha), Jananayaga Poraligal Katchi or Crusaders for Democracy (Ex-combatants party) and TELO came together and formed a new party named the Democratic Tamil National Alliance (DTNA) in January 2023.

“Unless there is a unified front, there is no future for any political party,” he added.

He said each party of the North is affiliated to the Tamil Diaspora community. They don’t fund them but when it comes to elections they may come forward to support. He said the National List is filled by the ITAK and they nominate members which is why the issue originated.

Now, one year has elapsed since the formation of the breakaway DTNA and they are not willing to join a single party called ITAK. ITAK has been calling itself the sole representative of the Tamil people and their party is ‘the party’ but the alliance said they were not given consideration and they simply nodded their heads to the ITAK.

So, the DTNA has proposed that ITAK join them rather than they join the ITAK.

Regarding this matter, MP Selvam Adaikalanathan, the Leader of TELO, told Ceylon Today that the future of Northern politics hinges on forging alliances to effectively address the people’s issues. He emphasised that without unity, there would be reduced representation, leading to increased agitation and frustration among the Tamils, potentially diverting their attention to other political parties. Adaikalanathan underscored the importance of preserving unity as a crucial factor for the Tamil community.

He acknowledged ITAK as a major political party and expressed willingness to join as allies, provided there is a distinct symbol for the alliance, not the existing ITAK symbol.

Adaikalanathan emphasised the need for a common symbol, stating that the current ITAK symbol should not be retained for the alliance, as it exclusively represents ITAK. He stressed that having a shared symbol is vital for the unity of the alliance. He said ITAK is “not the Opposition party” but there has to be transparent, unbiased politics, hence the ITAK party symbol should be dropped for a new symbol. He feared that the people of the North would be more frustrated over the horrible split political culture of the Tamils.

The DTNA’s symbol is a traditional oil lamp and they want to abolish the divide-and-rule policy. They don’t want to be under the umbrella of the ITAK.

However, the most significant repercussion is the absence of a provincial council, negatively affecting the lives of the people in the North and East. Tamil politicians argue that, particularly in the post-conflict era, the non-existence of the provincial council has had a detrimental impact. The Government appears to be reluctant to acknowledge the necessity of Provincial Council Elections, providing the Central Government with an additional advantage in avoiding Tamil-related issues. According to them, the operation of the provincial council is crucial to halt land grabs.

Meanwhile, Suresh Premachandran, the Leader of EPRLF and Spokesman for DTNA (Jananayaka Tamil Desiya Kootani) stated that in response to the stance of the new Leader of ITAK, MP Sritharan, who expressed a desire for unity and collaboration, they are looking forward to joining forces for the advancement of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

Former MP Premachandran acknowledged the appointment of Sritharan as the new Leader of ITAK and extended his warm wishes. He said Sritharan took the leadership and is the son of “father figure” Chelva. “You took up the mantle of leadership of persons like Chelva who were actively involved in various struggles initiated by organisations such as ITAK, Rajavarothayam, Rasamanickam, Vanniyasingam, Naganathan and Amirthalingam.”

He added that Sritharan has been chosen to lead the party in its ongoing endeavours to represent the interests of the Tamil people. Premachandran’s statement said the DTNA, along with other Tamil political entities ITAK, All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), united to form the Tamil National Freedom Alliance, under the leadership of Chelva, due to the inability to achieve their demands independently.

Chelvanayakam

Since 1976, Chelva, without concentrating only on ITAK to secure the rights of the Tamil people, advocated for the formation of the Tamil National Liberation Alliance, a united front, rather than contesting independently to fight for the rights of the Tamil people.

Subsequently, in 1985, various Tamil organisations, including the Tamil delegation, consisted of representatives from the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), united under the banner of the Thimpu Principles. This collaboration aimed to establish a foundation to resolve the Tamil national conflict, marking a significant step towards a solution for the issue.

In the quest to safeguarding the rights of the Tamil people, when the Tamil Tigers resorted to armed struggle, the Tamil National Alliance advocated its position through democratic means. Both factions collaborated with a sense of unity, working together to achieve the rights and aspirations of the Tamil people, Premachandran noted.

Due to internal conflicts and various disagreements within the TNA, several parties and individuals chose to withdraw from the alliance. This departure occurred not only during elections held in 2023 but also due to the necessity for the Sri Lankan Tamil People’s Party to contest independently to assert its own agenda. Consequently, they have disengaged from the alliance’s activities.

In this situation, Premachandran said, “We have united with various parties, including the EPRLF, TELO, PLOTE, Tamil National Party, and Jananayaka Porali, to form the DTNA. Due to the absence of a formal structure for the TNA, either in the form of a coalition or an alliance, various disagreements have emerged within the unity.

He added that in clarifying these matters, they have established a policy framework for the DTNA, which is functioning as a steering committee for electoral directives. He said their party encompasses all participating parties under the umbrella and has been structured to facilitate coordination and organisation for the alliance. In this context, recognising the needs of the time, even when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) commenced its formation in 2002, various parties that contributed to it continued to express demands. However, the TNA did not succumb to internal disputes and continued its pursuit without swaying.

Fighting for rights of Tamils 

For the past 22 years, TNA has been actively engaged in political endeavours, fighting for the rights of the Tamil people without establishing itself as a political party, and later evolving as TNA during election periods. It is this continuity that has seen various parties disengage from the party and quit TNA.

In this context, Sritharan emphasises the need to establish a new alliance uniting those who were with the TNA and share his vision, initiated back in 2009, to create a renewed Tamil National Alliance.

Through dialogues with various stakeholders, Sritharan envisions the consolidation of all factions within DTNA to form a robust entity that actively advocates for the just demands of the Tamil people. This contemplation reflects his determined commitment to building a cohesive force for the Tamil community.

At the foundation of this, Premachandran said their DTNA was established one year ago, and it continues its operations to this day. In this dynamic scenario, instead of contemplating new formations, there is a desire to see existing and already active entities come together. The aspiration is for all these parties to collaborate and actively engage in advancing the collective goals, emphasising the importance of unity and shared efforts.

On the contrary, some believe that the endorsement from C.V. Wigneswaran, the former Justice and Chief Minister of the Northern Province and Leader of the Thamizh Makkal Thesya Kootani (TMTK), primarily aligns with the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Nevertheless, Wigneswaran holds the perspective that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is not a comprehensive solution to the Tamil issue, advocating instead for a federal resolution. He has passionately voiced the sentiments of the Tamil people and their aspirations for their homeland.

There are also speculations about Wigneswaran’s potential candidacy in the upcoming Presidential Election, although this has not been officially communicated to the masses.

The new chapter of the Sritharan-led ITAK will be closely watched. He has raised many concerns about the “lost” identity of the Tamils of the North and the East. He wants to regain that glorious identity and also wants to see that the North and East are merged. In an interview with Tamil Guardian, Sritharan said they would be moving towards a solution in the merged North and East, where the land of the Tamils, their language, culture and cultural identities are recognised. “Above all, it must be recognised that the Tamils are the indigenous people of this land. It must be recognised that the Tamils are a unique national ethnic group. Our journey is moving in this direction.

“We believe that the time for that is near. Therefore, it is not a matter of mere sloganeering. It must include other forces that can provide strength on that basis. We will unite with other parties and make every effort to achieve a political solution by demonstrating our strength, as a strong force. I will meet and interact with other party leaders to start democratic dialogues. At the same time, the civil society and Tamil nationalist activists in the North and East should be brought together to create an open democratic dialogue with them. We have to initiate dialogues with the organisations in the Diaspora. Through such democratic initiatives, we all can focus on a common ground. This will pave the way for advancing the demands and formulating common political policy. We will try hard towards this end,” he said.

The Morning 

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