Elections, referendum and protests require active Tamil political participation

Events in the new year will stress for the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s North and East the importance of political participation if they are to ensure that the ideals they have cherished for decades and for which countless numbers gave up their lives, are not sacrificed for expediency.

This article will look at three events expected to take place in the country in 2018 – local government elections in February, the adoption of a new constitution and protests by victims as they continue to demand the return of private land and for information about the disappeared – where participation will be vital if Tamils are to remain a viable factor in national politics.

Local government elections have been announced for 10 February countrywide. Although local, they will be contested on national issues and large political questions. In the Sinhala-dominated South, it will be a referendum on the long-term viability of the incumbent national government. In the North and East, the results will show how far Tamils remain wedded to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in parliament. The TNA also has an overwhelming majority in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and a significant number of seats in the Eastern Provincial Council.

A new front

The main challenge to the TNA is from another collective of Tamil parties. The Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) has broken away from the TNA to contest the election in a new alliance under the Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) party symbol.

It is almost impossible that the new alliance will win a majority of seats in the local councils of the North and East. While it is yet to announce a programme of work and there are allegations that its constituent parties are working to New Delhi’s wishes, its appeal lies in the party’s leadership of TNA dissidents, while its platform denounces the TNA for compromising its electoral promises. The compromises are: ineffective accountability mechanisms for past human rights violations and an ineffectual political settlement through a new constitution, which goes against the party’s election promises.

Although the TULF is taking on the TNA at the forthcoming elections, it is important to note that other Tamil political formations in the recent past have displayed woeful political acumen.

The Tamil People’s Council (TPC) was formed under the leadership of NPC Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, the EPRLF, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and northern civil society organisations. However, other than holding very successful ‘Eluga Thamil’ rallies – one in Jaffna and another in Batticaloa – the TPC has done very little to rally behind important social and political causes of the day such as protests against military-held private land or the quest of families of the disappeared for truth and justice. There were also hiccups when the EPRLF split from the TNA and tried entering into an electoral alliance with TNPF which soon fell apart, before joining with the TULF. 

New constitution

Why then should the Tamil people vote for such a party? There are at least three reasons. One: there is concern that multiple parties in the electoral arena will fragment the core set of Tamil demands. That is plain wrong. Obviously there were no united set of demands within the TNA; if not the EPRLF would not have split. Second, groups and individuals leaving established political parties representing the status quo is not necessarily political fragmentation. In this case at least, the TULF, in its new avatar, is hoping to plunge into active electoral politics. In other words the TNA will have a rival centre of power competing for votes, support and funds. And where democratic politics in North and East Sri Lanka is in right now, competition will be beneficial. Third, the February elections are for local councils. It will give the Tamil voters a chance to evaluate the capability of the new TULF before deciding to either support or ditch it at provincial or national elections.

Tamils’ political participation will also be of vital importance if the proposed new constitution sees the light of day. Although a new constitution being introduced depends primarily on the political calculations of the ruling coalition, it has been enthusiastically supported in this endeavour by the TNA. Two important documents have been drafted by parliamentary committees working with experts – the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka and reports of six other sub-committees. Tamil commentators and interest groups reviewing these documents have said, the proposals are a gross violation of what the TNA told Tamil voters would form the elements of a political settlement. The Tamil Lawyers’ Forum, an interest group said, “Having been elected … on the basis of campaigns which clearly stated that the North-East was the inseparable and indisputable homeland of the Tamils, the … TNA should not act against the people's mandate.”

The two reports are only proposals which the Constitutional Assembly, responsible for crafting the new constitution has the discretion to accept or not. According to laid out procedure, there will be no opportunities for the public to comment on the proposals before new constitution becomes basic law. Even if the public views compiled by the Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform are given due consideration, the fundamental question is: will the Constitutional Assembly dominated by Sinhala-Buddhist parliamentarians vote for a constitution for a federal, secular and ethnically neutral state? In other words, whether or not the TNA reaches a consensus with the government on constitutional proposals, as it has in the Interim Report, the fact is that the Sinhala-Buddhist majority’s views will carry the Constitutional Assembly.

If the new constitution passed by parliament does little to meet Tamils’ aspirations, the TNA’s messaging on it to the Tamil public will be of crucial importance. TNA’s leader, also the Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan, has stressed that following its adoption by parliament, the new constitution has to be ratified by the people at a referendum. While seemingly democratic and the instrument to forge a consensus in pluralistic Sri Lanka, realistically what chances do provisions favouring Tamils or Muslims stand in passing at a referendum where 70% of the ballots will be cast by Sinhala Buddhists?

Referendum: the only safeguard?

Assuming that the TNA votes for a constitution that only inadequately fulfils Tamil aspirations, where will this place the Tamils?

A factor that has granted authenticity for Tamil opposition – both armed and nonviolent – has been the historic rejection by Tamil parties of both constitutions crafted in independent Sri Lanka. When the First Republican Constitution was being debated and the Constituent Assembly not only rejected the Tamil demand for federalism but even compromises for minimal power-sharing, the Federal Party withdrew in June 1971 and halted any further participation in the proceedings. When the Second Republican Constitution was adopted by the UNP government in 1978 and the TULF, then the largest Tamil party in the parliament did not participate because the then government refused accommodate its demands at the proposed round table conference.

If the TNA agrees to vote with the government to signal reconciliation and goodwill, the only safeguard the Tamils will have to reject the new constitution and thereby continue to agitate for a freer, fairer and more equal state will be at a referendum. No doubt the numerical minority living in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka will have minimal impact on a referendum that needs only 50% plus one vote to carry. But an important political statement will be made if a group that defines itself as a people and living in a territorially contiguous area rejects what becomes the basic law of the country.

Finally,  there are the public protests and civil disobedience campaigns carried out by the Tamil public to recover private land now occupied by the Sri Lanka military in Keppapilavu and Pilakudiyiruppu, and families of the disappeared for truth and justice for their missing loved ones. Protests erupted in early 2017 when victims finding both the Sri Lanka government and their elected representatives – TNA – unresponsive to their requests and resorted to direct action. 

Protests for land began on 31 January 2017 when landowners of Keppapilavu who had been promised by the military that their land would be returned were informed of a new delay. Inflamed that they were being double-crossed, the villagers pitched makeshift tents before a Sri Lanka Air Force camp and wowed not to return until they were allowed to resettle in their land.

The path ahead

After almost a year of confrontation, the military has agreed to return 133 acres of the larger land it has occupied. The contours of the confrontation assumed many shapes and part of the settlement was the payment of at least Rupees 148 million to the military by the Ministry of Resettlement. Although at the time of writing there are still blocks for the families to resettle, it appears the remaining obstacles can be overcome. Although landowners have tried to cajole and humour the military into leaving Keppapilvu and other areas before, one important factor that turned the tide in this instance, was the constant presence of the victims and the relentless direct action they undertook.

Similarly, families of the disappeared have been protesting in Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu from February asking for the information of their loved ones. Although their demands are yet to be met, their struggle has caught the eye of the international media and the international community. In his report on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions in September this year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zaid Hussein said “In the North, protests by victims indicate their growing frustration over the slow pace of reforms.” Direct action by families of the disappeared was also able to force meetings with President Maithripala Sirisena in the past six months. Following the last meeting Kankaranjini Yogarasa a leader of the protests addressing the media said “Today we lost faith that this government, which preaches Buddhist values, will give us back our children … but we will continue our unremitting struggle for our loved ones.”

As such, the families of the disappeared are campaigning for international intervention through the UN Human Rights Council pressing for the implementation of Resolution 30/1 and for an effective Office of Missing Persons and hybrid court with a robust international participation.

In all three instances – putting together a viable opposition to the TNA at the local council elections, voting in a referendum if the new constitution is passed, and continuing protests for accountability and justice will need direct political participation of the Tamil people. It will most certainly meet opposition and possibly even violence, which nobody wishes for. But that is the path the current politics in North and East Sri Lanka is compelling the people to take.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.