On 23 May 2009, four days after Sri Lanka’s civil war had come to its brutal and bloody end, Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon arrived in the island.
On a quick trip to the embattled Northern Province the UN Chief flew over the final theatre of battle in Mullaitivu, an area still smouldering from deadly fighting, where a panel of UN experts would later estimate that tens of thousands of people had been killed. From his helicopter, Ban gazed down upon a scorched landscape that was heavily cratered and scattered with debris. To meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa whose Government had just defeated the LTTE and claimed victory in a 26 year armed conflict, the Secretary General had to make a flying visit to Kandy. With all the travel packed in to the UN Chief’s visit in 2009, he had fit in one last important meeting at the Bandaranaike International Airport shortly before his departure. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the leader of the largest Tamil party represented in Parliament was to meet the Secretary General at BIA. Sampanthan arrived at Katunayake at the appointed time, but was barred from proceeding towards the meeting area by security personnel. Security officials informed the TNA Leader that he could not proceed because Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, defence secretary at the time was of the view that “the airport was not a meeting place”. Sampanthan reached out to UN officials stationed in Sri Lanka, including Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne to gain access, but the effort proved futile and the veteran Tamil politician was compelled to forgo the meeting.
Seven years later, on his second visit to Sri Lanka, Ban Ki Moon landed in a very different country.
This time he would fly to the northern capital of Jaffna to meet with Sampanthan and a delegation of TNA legislators at the historic Jaffna Library on a sweltering afternoon. Having once lost an opportunity to brief the UN Chief, the 83 year old leader of the TNA seemed determined to make their meeting count last Friday (2). Sampanthan who generally reserves his more fiery remarks on the ethnic question for political speeches delivered in the North and East, surprised observers at the meeting with his assertiveness.
The TNA Leader briefed the UN Secretary General on the continuing problems faced by his people, including prisoners being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the delays in returning land owned by private citizens in the North and East. But it was when the veteran Tamil politician explained the hopes riding on a new constitution that he gave powerful expression to 60 years of Tamil frustration about the elusiveness of a permanent solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.
If the Government fails to live up to its promise to deliver on a new constitution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil people for self-governance, the people of the Tamil dominated regions of the island would make themselves ‘ungovernable’, the TNA Leader asserted in his meeting with Ban. Sampanthan told the UN Chief that while the Tamils would never take up arms again and the Tamil political leadership would dissuade youth in their community from resorting to violence, his people would be unwilling to submit meekly to the majoritarianism of the Centre. “They don’t have our consent to govern us,” he told Ban during a 30 minute meeting. “The 1972 and 1978 constitutions were drafted without the consent or participation of the Tamil people.” Sampanthan said the consent of the governed was essential to democratic rule.
The TNA Leader’s pledge that his people would become ‘ungovernable’ has resonance with a massive civil disobedience campaign in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in February 1961, sources with insight into the TNA meeting with Ban last Friday told Daily FT. The campaign was organized by a disillusioned Federal Party led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, after Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s 1960 SLFP Government reneged on pre-poll promises to the Federal Party about the establishment of district councils and Tamil language provisions that would mitigate injustices of the Sinhala-Only legislation. The satyagraha campaign crippled the Government administrative machinery in the North and East for nearly two months until the Government sent the military in to restore order. During the 50 day satyagraha, the North and East printed its own postage stamps and even ran a parallel postal service in the region.
Sampanthan’s strong intervention on the matter of the constitution with the UN Chief surprised some Tamil MPs participating in the meeting because the TNA Leader is better known for his measured approach in discussions with international actors. In his engagement with the international community and the Government, Sampanthan is far removed from Tamil chauvinist politics and comes across as a moderate statesman willing to work with other stakeholders. In the process of negotiating peace and justice in Sri Lanka, the Sampanthan-led TNA adopts rational strategies. Rather than grandstand and risk losing key opportunities to influence the process, the TNA regularly opts for quiet diplomacy and discussion with the Government to secure to secure mechanisms and solutions that best serve the interests of the Tamil people.
Tough positions adopted by the TNA Leader at his meeting with the UN Chief underscores how critically important the constitution-building process has become for the Tamil party. For the better part of 60 years, Sampanthan has watched from the sidelines as Governments and political parties in the South have reneged on promise after promise to the Tamil political leadership about settling the ethnic question. Perhaps it was this experience that prompted his refusal to enter into formal agreements with the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena in exchange for support at the polls in January 2015. Instead, Sampanthan has chosen to trust Sirisena and his Prime Minister and to work actively with the new administration to help them to deliver on their promises of reconciliation and lasting peace. As far as the TNA leadership is concerned, a new constitution provides the best opportunity to achieve equality and political autonomy for the Tamil people and finally resolve an ethnic conflict that has blighted the country’s post-independence history.
But history has proved so scarring that even Sampanthan, who has shown whole-hearted faith in the constitution-building process, is beset by doubts from time to time, party members say. Both SLFP and UNP politicians broadly support the decentralization of power. But the TNA fears that when it comes down to the nitty gritty – as with the question of reducing the powers of Provincial Governors, southern politicians show a tendency to get jittery. As committees deliberate on various aspects of the constitution and the constitution drafting process gets underway, the TNA leadership seems to have decided that the UN Secretary General’s visit to Sri Lanka last week was the right time to press the international community to ensure the Government stays the course on its promises to meet Tamil aspirations.
But when Sampanthan walked out of the Jaffna Library to address the media following his meeting with the UN Secretary General last week, demonstrators gathered outside grew agitated. They screamed “Sampanthan kallan” – accusing the man who had just delivered a fiery appeal on behalf of his people before the head of the United Nations of cheating the Tamils and being an insincere partner in the struggle for Tamil rights. Crowds of people still searching for disappeared loved ones and demanding the return of their lands were mobilized outside the Library that day by Northern Provincial Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan and Tamil National Peoples’ Front President Gajen Ponnambalam.
Badly received in the North
Sampanthan’s strategy of engagement is poorly understood in the North, where nationalist forces are quietly mobilizing support against TNA moderates. Antagonism towards the party’s spokesman and Jaffna District Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran is growing in Tamil nationalist circles, where he is perceived as a Colombo-bred elitist politician, disconnected from people on the ground. In part, this perception is being actively created by the hardline sections of the TNA who are resentful of Sumanthiran’s proximity to the party leader and fear his eventual rise within the party as Sampanthan’s natural successor. But observers say that growing opposition to the TNA’s alleged elitism has been somewhat mitigated by both Sampanthan and Sumanthiran travelling more frequently to the North to engage with people on the ground. Bottom trawling by Indian fishermen continues to rob poor Northern fishermen of livelihood in the most remote parts of the Northern Province and Sumanthiran’s decision to champion legislation to ban the illegal fishing method within Sri Lanka’s territorial waters has also won him significant support on the ground, post-election.
But the more radical sections of the North, including victims who are increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of investigations and redress continue to perceive Sampanthan’s engagement with the Government as attempts to appease the South. And in an odd twist, recent positions adopted by the TNA’s own Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran have compounded these fears. In an interview last week, the Chief Minister claimed that Sumanthiran and the TNA Leader were soft-peddling the grievances of Northern Tamils and ‘pandering’ to the southern constituency in order to endear themselves to their ‘friends’ in Colombo.
When Wigneswaran entered the political fray as Sampanthan’s choice for Chief Minister of the Northern Province in 2013, he was hailed as a Tamil moderate who had navigated the Sri Lankan legal system, and an inclusive candidate who could bridge a widening chasm between the island’s north and south. For two years, the Chief Minister played this role. He regularly sought out Sampanthan’s counsel and insisted on Sumanthiran accompanying him to meetings with Government officials and visiting foreign dignitaries.
But sometime soon after the January 2015 presidential election, Wigneswaran began to chart his own course, taking positions and making statements that directly contradicted positions adopted by Sampanthan and the TNA. When the Parliamentary election was held in August last year, the Chief Minister, who had been elected on the TNA ticket two years before, declared himself ‘non-partisan’ and refused to campaign on behalf of party candidates. He even made a subtle appeal to the Tamil people that their support should be extended to Ponnambalam’s TNPF that was contesting the TNA in the North.
Calls for action against the Chief Minister for breaching party discipline mounted in the aftermath of the parliamentary poll, but faded eventually after the TNA leadership held discussions with Wigneswaran to iron out the differences. But even since, the Chief Minister has continued to make rash statements critical of the TNA and set himself apart from his party. His bizarre conduct in the past year has given rise to speculation that the Chief Minister is increasingly under the influence of hardline Tamil nationalist forces, comprising sections of the Tamil Diaspora, an increasingly powerful Jaffna civil society grouping and foreign advisors with alleged former links to the LTTE. Wigneswaran’s conduct has proven costly, even to himself, to say nothing of the damage it is doing to the stability of the Tamil National Alliance. International actors and the diplomatic community based in Colombo, once so eager to meet the elected Chief Minister of the North, have grown impatient with his inflexible positions. The resolution in the Northern Provincial Council alleging genocide of the Tamils during the final stages of the war badly antagonized New Delhi. And when US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power paid a call on him in November 2015, she strongly urged him to acknowledge changes that were taking place on the ground in spite of his impatience about the pace of reconciliation.
Still, when the UN Secretary General scheduled a visit to the Northern Province, the Chief Minister was adamant to use the opportunity to secure a separate meeting with him to discuss issues specific to the ground situation in the North. Ban was only scheduled meet TNA parliamentarians last Friday, but TNA Leader Sampanthan telephoned the Chief Minister and invited him to be part of the delegation. Wigneswaran thanked his party leader and said he would deliberate on whether to join the TNA meeting. He then set about lobbying UN offices in Colombo for a separate meeting, and managed to secure a brief time slot with the UN Chief on the eve of Ban’s visit to Jaffna. Overnight the Chief Minister’s office prepared a sheaf of documentation to be handed over to the UN Secretary General during the meeting, including lists of the disappeared, details of land yet to be released by the military in the North and reported cases of torture since the Sirisena administration took office.
Last minute appeal
But when Ban landed in Jaffna a little behind schedule, jittery UN officials appealed to the Chief Minister to settle for a quick handshake and photo-op with the Secretary General after the TNA meeting concluded. The Chief Minister explained in an interview a few hours later, that he had told the UN staff that he would require only five or six minutes with the Secretary General. A Colombo-based UN official intervened at this point to ensure the Chief Minister got his slot.
According to the Chief Minister, he was keen on separate talks with the Secretary General, since the parliamentarians from the TNA would discuss matters that were broader in scope, while the Northern Provincial Council was best placed to explain the problems of governance that plague the provincial council system set up by the 13th Amendment.
The idea that the Chief Minister should be the one to brief the UN Chief on the non-workability of the provincial councils is ironic, one TNA MP told Daily FT in Jaffna last week. The MP who asked not to be named, noted that for the better part of three years, there has been no real governance by the NPC short of the passage of several controversial resolutions that have increasingly radicalized the Chief Minister and the Council in the eyes of the Central Government and the southern polity. “Wigneswaran is neither administrator nor politician. Had he been either, he would have been able to deal with people and work with the bureaucracy. Instead at the very outset he antagonized the bureaucrats and he hasn’t been able to win them over since,” the MP explained. Other observers say the Chief Minister led NPC is determined above all else to prove that the provincial council is an unworkable unit of devolution; in other words, he is explicitly setting the NPC up to fail.
A new ‘Messiah’
Unfortunately, despite this ineffectiveness, sections of the Tamil people of the North are increasingly seeing the Chief Minister as a kind of ‘new messiah’ in the struggle for equal rights and dignity, according to seasoned politicians and political watchers in the North. The Chief Minister’s emphasis on accountability and heavy criticism of the ongoing military presence and ‘Sinhalaisation’ of the North is endearing him to a powerful and growing lobby of Tamil nationalists in the North and outside the country. When he accuses the TNA leadership of trying to barter the prosecution of war crimes for devolution, the message strikes a chord among a people who have been historically short-changed by both their own representatives and the Government at the Centre.
So far, the Chief Minister has been unable to translate this support into votes at an election. In January 2015 and eight months later at the parliamentary poll, the Tamil people of the North threw their weight unreservedly behind Sampanthan’s TNA, returning the party with 16 seats as the third largest party represented in Parliament. At both elections, the hardliners that have the tacit backing of the Chief Minister were roundly defeated by the Tamil people of the North and East.
To tap into the well of support coalescing around his rhetoric and agendas, Wigneswaran will need to strike out on his own against the TNA. He would offer leadership to many of the North’s political stragglers and Northern provincial councillors that have alienated themselves from the TNA leadership and given their allegiance to the Chief Minister, seeing him as an effective counter-balance against the moderate positions adopted by the party leadership. If the Chief Minister pushes the TNA leadership to the edge and effects a sacking, or quits the party over the next two years, opportunity would open up for the creation of a new political force in the North that could bring together a motley crew of small Tamil political groupings including Ponnambalam’s TNPF and smaller constituent parties within the TNA itself that have grown increasingly impatient with the dominance of the main constituent Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) in the alliance of Tamil parties.
EPRLF Leader Suresh Premachandran for instance, who lost the 2015 parliamentary elections would see the Chief Minister as a path to political resurgence and the ideal figurehead to lead a counter movement against the TNA. Whether there is space for a splinter movement in a region ITAK has dominated electorally for decades remains to be seen. Equally uncertain is the Chief Minister’s own plans – will he choose to amble along rebelliously to finish out the two years left in his term or will he make a clean break with ITAK and the TNA while his popularity remains high?
And what if the Chief Minister’s true ambition lies elsewhere? Over the past year, Chief Minister Wigneswaran has deliberately pitted himself against the TNA leadership. He claims credit for the TNA resuming tough positions on devolution issues recently, saying it was a result of his own insistence that the party sticks to its election manifestos which call for a power-sharing arrangement designed on federal lines as a solution to the long-standing Tamil question. His antagonism is growing towards Sumanthiran, who he believes is actively seeking to destablise his provincial administration by inciting a group of NPC members to oppose the Chief Minister at the Council. The signs certainly appear to indicate that the Chief Minister could be styling himself as the next leader of the TNA, and one whose leadership influential sections of the North will gladly embrace.
For some constituent members of the TNA, this is a frightening prospect. Such an eventuality would be another curse upon the Tamil people, according to the MP who spoke to Daily FT in confidence. Tamil politicians would be left to deliver chest-thumping speeches about Tamil pride and achieve nothing tangible in the struggle for political autonomy and equal rights, the MP predicted.
Such old hands within the TNA believe the Tamil people’s best hope is to back Sampanthan and trust his judgment about achieving a final solution. “We had the infantry and the cavalry and still we failed to achieve anything meaningful. So now our best hope is to go through this process. And Sampanthan is the best man to lead that process on behalf of the Tamil people,” the MP said. If Tamil politicians are seen as spoilers seeking to derail the constitution making process, it would give the Government an excuse to shirk the issue again, the Parliamentarian warned.
The most rational sections of the TNA believe that this political moment presents the best chance for the Tamil people to achieve a lasting solution in a long political struggle. With both major political parties in the south currently governing by consensus, there will be fewer attempts to sabotage power sharing proposals in a new constitution. For its part, the Government has a bounden duty to empower Tamil moderates by offering power-sharing proposals for the periphery that they can carry back to the people. If the Government falters in its commitment to offer meaningful power sharing to the North and East, it will weaken the TNA’s standing in the Tamil community and validate the rhetoric of Tamil hardliners both in the North and overseas.
Sampanthan has a personal stake in finally achieving justice and equality for the Tamil people. If he delivers, his will be a legacy in the Tamil struggle to rival that of Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam. In his political career, Sampanthan has shown immense skill at playing the long game. The veteran Tamil politician, once denounced as LTTE proxy and apologist, outlived the Tigers. His survival has ensured a return to the non-violent, moderate Tamil political leadership in this post-war phase that reflects the character of the Tamil struggle in the first decades after independence. A litigator whose prodigious skill is legendary in the Trincomalee District court circuit, in Sampanthan the Tamil people could not ask for a better advocate. His stature, experience and negotiating skills are powerful motivators for a Government that owes its existence in part to Sampanthan’s decision to support change in January 2015.
It has been said before, but bears repeating. A permanent political solution within Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s lifetime is Sri Lanka’s last best hope for achieving peace within this generation. The TNA after Sampanthan will be a fragmented and disintegrating alliance, whose conflicting interests will make a final solution to an ethnic conflict that has spanned six decades only ever more elusive.