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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

TNA’s challenge is not winning the North, but to govern it

Ethnic Tamils wait in line to cast their votes at a polling station during the first provincial polls in 25 years in Jaffna, a former war zone in northern Sri Lanka about 400 kilometres (249 miles) north of Colombo, September 21,2013. REUTERS-Dinuka Liyanawatte
Voting in the North ( Reuters photo)

Ranga Jayasuriya

One does not need to be a political scientist to foretell that the Provincial Council election to be held tomorrow is a one-horse race, in all three provinces.

The government’s victory in the Central and North-Western Provinces is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps, the only likely upset in the whole election is that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is destined to win the North, would emerge the winner with a slimmer margin, which would challenge the TNA’s claim as the principal interlocutor of the Tamils.

Nonetheless it would win, more than anything else, since the Northern Tamil electorate would vote on ethnic lines, a practice deep entrenched in their voting habits.
However, the real challenge for the TNA is not winning the election, but how it would manage to govern the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). That is why some of the rhetoric of the TNA would be self-injurious.
Granted that much of the State media propaganda against the TNA were based on concoctions and slander, but all could not be surmised as the fault of the vindictive State propaganda.

Impenetrable language barrier

This election is also a highlight of the impenetrable language barrier between the two communities. Much of the remarks made by the TNA heavyweights could well have been lost in the translation and the Sinhalese viewers and readers were fed with an overdose of misinformation and slander.
However, it works the other way as well. Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and others could play the crowd pleaser and tell the Northern electorate anything in those pocket meetings, which are rarely covered by the Southern media or their provincial correspondents.
It is in one of those meetings in Valvettithurai that Justice Wigneswaran told the crowds that their native son, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was a hero.
Recalling that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had once referred to Prabhakaran as a fighter, Justice Wigneswaran questioned, if the President is free to say that, why could the Tamils not call Prabha a ‘great hero’ ( mahaveerar). Later, four youths who were canvassing for the TNA were arrested by the police, with a bundle of newspapers and pictures of Velupillai Prabhakaran.

 Before that, TNA stalwart, Suresh Premachandran, was accused of calling on Tamils to take up arms. He later denied the allegation. Earlier this week, election monitors themselves charged that the TNA was inciting separatism and Tamil nationalism in order to woo Tamil voters.

 After effects would be costly

This is dangerous stuff. It could win votes, but the after effects would be costly.
The Tamil political leadership conveniently blame the Sinhalese political leadership for historical grievances, some dating back to the immediate aftermath of Independence, such as the disenfranchisement of a large swathe of Tamils of Indian Origin by the Government of D.S. Senanayake, and the other legitimate grievances which were caused by measures taken by the populist governments in 1950s and 60s. However, they conveniently forget that racial relations in much of the world had not been much different during that particular era. It was the time that the US had Jim Crow laws that provided the legal justification for the segregation of Blacks.

Notwithstanding the discrimination, both perceived and real, suffered by the Sri Lankan Tamils, until 1983, Jaffna was the second most prosperous town, second only to Colombo in Sri Lanka. The Tamils accounted for one-third of the ranks of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS).
While Sinhala majoritarianism had been mildly discriminatory, that could, by no means, justify the murderous and ultimate self-destructive path that Tamil nationalism took.

Grew into a Frankenstein monster

The TNA should make sure that it would not repeat the same mistake that its forefathers did. For another legal luminary and a stalwart of TULF, Amirthalingam, the nascent Tamil militancy was only meant to be an irritant on the government, which he and the old school TULF wanted to exploit as a bargain chip in their quest for greater autonomy.
The beast that Amirthalingam and others nurtured, mainly ideologically, grew into be a Frankenstein monster.
A campaign for legitimate rights of minorities which could have been won much easily as the political landscape opened up progressively and democratically in the subsequent years, was lost in a murderous blood lust. Not only did it drain the country’s economic prospects, it forced the government towards an increasingly militaristic and authoritarian path to defend itself from a vicious internal threat. It also created room for another bunch of egregious terrorists, named the JVP, to emerge from the South, pandering to Sinhala nationalism, which was hurt by India’s intervention in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka lost three decades of economic growth and the two generations of youth.

Nationalism is a social construct by the cultural and political elite. Amirthalingam knew it and Wigneswaran and the others know that as well. Hence, their stressing on, ‘We, the Tamil People of Sri Lanka are a distinct People in terms of the interpretations maintained in relation to International Conventions and Covenants.’ (Excerpts from TNA manifesto.)

Lessons to be taken note of When those primordial impulses are incited in their recipient audience, they could take a life of their own. Amirthalingam did not want Prabhakaran to groom suicide terrorists, but the latter did, and had an equally willing bunch of Tamil youth to wear the explosive belt and a recipient Tamil constituency who would cheer at every act of barbarism.

Those are lessons from the past that the TNA should take note of. It should strive to build a bridge with the Sinhala South and not to burn it.

If it fails in reassuring the South of its merit, it is unlikely that it would be able to govern the North, no matter what the election verdict is.


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