C.V. Wigneswaran (left) and ITAK leaders
There is an intention in the top echelons of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) to re-orient the party’s policies to suit emerging local, regional and international trends.
The aim is to face the next Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections in September 2018 with an agenda different from the traditional politicised and confrontational one, a reliable source in the party said.
The ITAK hopes to be a party propagating and implementing economic development while fighting for the political rights of the Tamils.
The change in orientation has come about given the proven futility of Tamil politics thus far, the source said. Given the utter failure of the non-developmental, highly politicised and confrontational orientation of the NPC led by Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, and a change in the concerns of local and international players, a makeover of the aims, objectives and style of Tamil and ITAK politics is called for.
The NPC, which has been in existence since September 2013, is about to complete its five-year term an year from now. But it has little to show by way of achievements, whether in the political or economic field.
From the word go, the NPC has been only highlighting political issues, passing resolution after resolution on the plight of the Tamils, even accusing the Sri Lankan Government of continuing to commit “genocide”.
Encouraged by the international community’s interest in pressing war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the NPC spent all its time trumpeting the humwan rights and political grievances of the Tamils mainly to be heard in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
The NPC partly succeeded in achieving its aim in as much as UNHRC passed hostile resolutions against the Rajapaksa regime, threatening it with international judicial intervention. The EU had deprived Sri Lanka of trade concessions under GSP-plus.
During the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV, the West sought international humanitarian intervention to save lives, though this would have completely disrupted Sri Lanka’s military campaign. The West also wanted to browbeat Rajapaksa into toeing its line on all issues. It was seeking a role for itself in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs and also wanting to make it a handmaiden in its geo-political moves. But Rajapaksa stood firm and thwarted the West’s plan.
After the war, Rajapaksa bent over backwards to accommodate China and Chinese interests in Sri Lanka and the region, which raised the hackles in the West and neighbouring India. Hostile resolutions were tabled in the UNHRC.
Side-lining of Tamil issue
But once Rajapaksa was defeated in the January 2015 presidential election, and the August 2015 Parliamentary elections put the opposition United National Party (UNP) in power, there was a sea-change in the West’s attitude to Colombo and the Tamil question. It warmed up to the pro-West and pro-international community new regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The West considerably softened its stand on the human rights, war crimes and Tamil questions. The earlier harsh prescriptions in the UNHRC resolutions were toned down, and suitable verbal assurances were given to the new Lankan Government on sensitive issues like the induction of foreign judges and investigators in war crimes cases. The Tamil issue was effectively marginalised.
Focus on economy
India, which has been involved in the Tamil question since the 1980s, shifted from political involvement to economic involvement. It has been wanting to execute development projects all over Sri Lanka, in the Tamil-speaking north and east as well as the Sinhala-speaking south.
In the north, the Indians built 50,000 houses for the war displaced, and restored and laid railways. In the South also, railroads were laid. The Indians held a series of industrial exhibitions in the north to promote trade, investment and Joint Ventures.
In the case of Sri Lanka as a whole, efforts were made to enter into a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Presently, talks or on to sign an Economic Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) by year end. India and some other countries like Norway have tried to get the Northern Province Chief Minister to show interest in economic development.
But Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran has shown no interest in these moves. His consistent stand has been that a political solution should come before economic development; economic development should not in any way harm the local natural environment and disturb the simple Lankan Tamil way life; should not exploit any of the North’s natural resources; and outsiders should not be employed in local enterprises even if there is a shortage of labour or skills.
Given the anti-development mindset, no wonder the Sri Lankan north has not seen any economic development. The north remains a mere market for goods made elsewhere because a good section of its population lives on remittances from relations residing in the West.
No developmental administration
Over-occupation with political issues has led to the utter neglect of administration. The Leader of the Opposition in the NPC, S. Thavarasa, has demanded times without number, that the Council pass statutes to run the provincial administration on organised lines. There are 38 subjects which need statutes but very few statues have been passed, he points out.
While the Chief Minister is not interested in administrative intricacies, other NPC members lack awareness and skills as they are all first-timers, he said.
Earlier on, monies sent by the Central Government in Colombo would be sent back, unspent. The Chief Minister would say that the projects earmarked by Colombo were thrust on the NPC and therefore not worth implementing. A deaf ear would be turned to Thavarasa’s plea that sanctioned projects be implemented while seeking funds for the NPC’s own projects.
The Chief Minister and his Ministers would not visit Colombo and negotiate projects with the powers-that-be in the capital.
It is this situation which is prompting at least some of the top leaders of the ITAK to think of reorienting the party, inculcating a new ethos and a new set of goals in its cadres and voters. They will be fed on a new diet of political concerns and not empty and unrealisable political slogans. A beginning is to be made in the run up to the September 2018 NPC elections.
What is giving the “new look” leadership some confidence is the way the powers-that-be in Colombo are proceeding with the drafting of a new constitution. The reports of the constitutional sub-committee were liberal in outlook. There is a wide measure of agreement on key issues like the Nature of the State, the place of Buddhism, and the extent of and nature of devolution.
According to Dr. Jayamapathy Wickremaratne, a key member of the Steering Committee, devolution of power to the provinces is not a demand of the Tamil majority Northern Province alone. Chief Ministers of the Sinhala-speaking provinces in the south also want devolution.
They want provisions regarding devolution to be clearly stated, and the boundaries between the Centre and the Provinces clearly demarcated. They also want the curtailment of the powers of the centrally-appointed Governor over provincial officials, he said.
Parliament has already passed a law to give 25% of the seats in local bodies to women and allot 60% of the seats to be filled by elections held under the First Past the Post System so that elected members are closer to the voters than they have been hitherto under the Proportional Representation System.