By Niyanthini Kadirgamar
Over two years since the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine came to power, it is clear that the Government has failed to address the deepening economic crisis.
Instead of addressing the economic burden on the people, it is seeking to extensively privatise State services, taking forward highly-questionable projects like Uma Oya, SAITM, Hambantota harbour and Port City – all initiated by the Rajapaksas. The people have responded to each of these projects with large-scale protests, voicing their dissatisfaction and anger.
The democratic space which opened up two years ago is shrinking with State repression against such protests. The ruling parties are caught in a blame-game with the Rajapaksa faction, even as they are unable to disentangle themselves from decisions contributing to the present crisis.
At a time when democratic rights are under threat, the role of Opposition parties, the JVP and the TNA, is in sharp focus. In this context, it is pertinent to question the main Opposition party, the TNA’s response to economic concerns and the larger idea of democracy itself.
Parliamentary politics of Tamil parties
For the second time in history, the leader of a Tamil political party is the leader of the Opposition. Tamil parties in Parliament have in the past and present limited their role to narrow representation of the ethnic demands of the Tamils alone and acting with a regional party mindset.
Such a perspective, stemming from federalist politics, kept Tamil parties disengaged from the south and developments in the country as a whole. Burning issues, like economic problems, workers’ rights and neo-colonial pressures have been treated by Tamil parties as if they were the concerns of the south. On occasions where Tamil parties have intervened on national issues it has been limited to constitutional questions.
With respect to working class struggles, there are hardly any memorable interventions by the Tamil Congress or the Federal Party. However, Tamil workers were part of such struggles – including the historic general strikes of 1947, 1953 and 1980 – and even lost lives due to the brutal attacks by the State, whilst their political leaders rescinded from workers’ causes. While the main Tamil parties did not actively oppose such struggles, they have almost always chosen silence over a principled stance, suggesting that at the heart of its nationalist politics is an unmistakable elitist character.
Tamil Parliamentary politics has a history of aligning itself with the UNP’s politics. In spite of being taken on several rides by successive leaders of the UNP, on offering a solution to the ethnic issue, Tamil politicians continue to prefer such an alignment. Authoritarian tendencies demonstrated by the UNP did not seem to irk them as much as actions by other parties have.
The Jayawardena era starting in 1977, led to authoritarian measures like the introduction of Emergency Rule and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). While Tamil parties have been the loudest critics of the debilitating effects of the draconian PTA, which explicitly affected their constituency, they failed to articulate the impact of the rise of authoritarianism on the working class populations.
Emergency Regulations and the Public Essential Services Act have been used to brutally stifle trade union actions in the past decades. However, the failure to acknowledge this fact contributed to setbacks for Tamil politics, particularly opportunities to build meaningful alliances with working class Sinhalese to challenge rising authoritarianism.
Indeed, history shows us that the repressive arm of the State, was first pointed at those in the south and then with impunity in the north. State repression came down on workers’ struggles and economic demands first, before mobilising the majority community’s economic frustrations into anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim sentiments, and eventually full blown attacks on ethnic minorities.
TNA’s response to State repression and workers’ struggles
One would have hoped that Tamil politics learnt from this historical trend of State repression. However, TNA’s silence on the recent attacks on protesting students and workers have raised questions about its commitment to challenge anti-democratic attacks by the State.
Trade unions have been alarmed by the unexpected use of military and armed thugs by the Government to dismantle the strike by CPC employees last week. Peaceful student protests against SAITM have also been repeatedly attacked by tear gas and water cannons.
The TNA has not articulated its position on a number of burning issues affecting the country, including privatisation, trade agreements or development projects. More worrying than their silence is the active support shown by TNA MPs towards the Government’s response to the CPC workers’ strike, during the parliamentary debate on 27 July. Furthermore, there was not even a single word or condemnation of the use of the repressive arm of the State and the alleged attempts to abduct a student leader.
This concern comes at a time when labour conditions and economic development of the war-affected regions are in dire straits. The lack of initiative so far by the Tamil political leadership to address such issues is not very encouraging.
The TNA chose to vote in support of the National Budget, even when promises to allocate funds for reconstruction of the war-affected areas did not come through. The Jaffna Municipal Council employees went on strike late last year, but their demands to make them permanent employees was not addressed by the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). Weeks have passed since a Satyagraha was launched by villagers affected by crematoriums which are located among people’s dwellings. The NPC, which is responsible for the management of crematoriums, has not responded yet.
There is a real need to strengthen worker’s rights in the post-war north and east through the development of trade unions. Will the Tamil leadership also undermine the emergence of such trade unions?
TNA as the Opposition party
Trade union actions have made the rulers nervous for good reason, as they have at times led to deeper political consequences. However, to be fearful of losing power and interpret every protest as vying to purely topple the Government, as echoed in the Opposition Leader’s speech in Parliament, is symptomatic of the disconnect between politicians and people’s concerns.
The faulty economic policies of the Rajapaksa Government are still fresh in people’s minds. The present Government along with the TNA now, are willingly making those policies their own, by taking forward the same projects. If this Government continues to respond to people’s frustrations with the repressive arm of the State, those Rajapaksa memories will soon fade, and they will turn against those who are taking forward these policies now.
A strong Opposition is vital to the functioning of any democracy. However, while the JVP to an extent has maintained its opposition role, the formal Opposition benches are yet to be fully assumed. Such a vacuum has paved way for the Joint Opposition voice to seem louder and has left people feeling less confident with their representatives in parliament to provide a critical voice. In this context, to blame people for resorting to direct action is a gaffe.
Contrary to statements made by TNA representatives, the people are not disillusioned due to protests. Perhaps a loud section of the middle-class in Colombo are disillusioned by the number of times they are stuck in traffic. The people are disillusioned by the dire economic difficulties and the inability of this Government to address them. The protests are likely to mount with the deteriorating economic situation. And we cannot allow State repression to be the answer.
(The writer is a researcher based in Jaffna.)