In India there are not many foreign policy enthusiasts who follow the Sri Lankan situation beyond a retweet or two of links concerning the country. Perhaps this is why one can be forgiven for not realising the grave danger into which our island neighbor has very recently risked falling into. A few days ago a group of men dressed in army fatigues forcibly entered a Tamil National Alliance(TNA) party meeting near the northern town of Jaffna and assaulted the participants of the meeting including five members of Parliament elected from Tamil majority areas. Victims of the assault alleged that the assailants were SL Army personnel who had clearly done their bit of homework in visiting the site early in the day and ascertaining if the necessary permissions were obtained.
To those acquainted with the history of Sri Lanka the attack was quite an odious reminder of Sinhalese mobs attacking stalwart Tamil political leaders like Chelvanayagam and Amirthalingam right outside the Parliament house in Colombo. Nearly all of the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership had gathered for a satyagraha against the discriminative Sinhala Only Act 1956 passed by the then newly elected Solomon Bandaranaike government. More than the legislated discrimination against Tamil speaking citizens the wanton act of thuggery was perhaps what caused more distrust between the two largest communities of the country and from then on there has been no turning back in the deterioration of relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils.
During both these incidents it is the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) that occupied the treasury benches in the Sri Lankan Parliament. The attacks may be separated by more than five decades but are united in one objective of silencing and ridiculing the Tamil political leadership. If the unfortunate events of 1956 were a precursor to the great tragedy about to befall the people of the island last weeks attack will be but a small footnote, a post script to the near destruction of the Sri Lankan Tamil populace.
Ever since the end of the government military campaign against the LTTE President Mahinda Rajapakse has professed a desire to bring about a lasting settlement to the many issues affecting the Tamil community. However even the most optimistic observers are now beginning to question Rajapakses’ earnestness in achieving a political settlement. Responding to Indian pressure the President had promised to implement the 13th amendment, in fact reports suggested he was offering to go beyond the 13th amendment and help devolve power to provincial councils and to re-unite the north and eastern provinces.
Observers feel it is time Rajapakse elaborated on his proposals for a political settlement in the island country. They point out that much water has flown under the bridge ever since the SL Army completely destroyed the LTTE as a coherent fighting force and achieving notable success such as the arrest of elusive Selvarajah Pathmanathan.
President Rajapakse, however, has spent the whole of 2010 in both consolidating his political position by sidelining his main opponent General Fonseka who until a few weeks before swore loyalty to the very man he criticised bitterly in the run up to January 26th 2010 Presidential election. He had his celebrity General accused of ‘military offences’ and imprisoned for a period of two years.
During this period the Rajapakse administration also conducted elections towards constituting Sri Lankas’ 14th Parliament. With 14 seats to its credit TNA, which comprised of three Tamil parties; cemented its role and standing as the representative political leadership of Sri Lankas Tamil minorities. (The SLFP led alliance in the Northern and Eastern provinces won a similar number of seats in the same provinces.)
But when it came to dialogue with Tamil parties the President deployed excuses such as the need to ‘develop’ war ravaged areas and re-settlements of displaced civilians. Further he expressed a desire to hear opinions from all the constituents of his Parliament and pointed out lack of clarity as to what precisely the settlement being demanded was.
For its part the TNA unambiguously declared its intent on seeking a settlement within the premises of a united, but federal political arrangements that would give Tamil ethnic minorities considerable say over issues such as land, policing and other internal administration issues at the provincial levels. Having heard Rajapakse promise to go ‘beyond the 13th amendment’ it was but natural to expect an earnest dialogue concerning these demands. However, in what so far appears to be a throwback to the 1950s Rajapakse has conveyed to the TNA delegation his refusal to devolve powers concerning land and policing to the provincial councils. This was communicated during the 7th round of talks held last week between the government and TNA.
Further in what many see as an attempt to completely derail the structured dialogue process set in motion (and now into the 7th round) a trial balloon was floated by allegedly pro-Tamil leaders such as Douglas Devananda demanding the constitution of a Parliamentary Select Committee to discuss the issue of power devolution. President Rajapase appeared to be too eager to accede to his Ministers demand and last week a notification to the affect was made. Perhaps the demand was agreed to in such a hurry owing to the unflinching loyalty this Tamil minister has demonstrated to the Sri Lankan government for the last twenty years! We shall never know.
One cannot tell as to which direction the process of reconciliation will take from here on. Rajapakse makes magnanimous gestures when questioned by foreign press but has yet to prove himself a man of his words by producing tangible results. India having recently been elected as member of the United Nations Human Rights Council may yet find some leverage to convince or persuade Rajapakse of the need to reach a lasting settlement.
If and when the Union government attempts the above it might help if the narrative in Chennai is focused on obtaining a feasible settlement for SL Tamils. Many in the ultra-Tamil nationalist camp are now feeling emboldened by the crushing defeat handed to DMK-INC alliance in the recent legislative assembly polls. Whilst the Tamil populace must be absolutely disgusted with the charlatan manner in which both DMK & INC acted during the course of the war it must be remembered that the same populace has consistently refused to offer any serious political space to the constituency that today deifies LTTE Supremo Prabakaran.
Ever since the civil conflict in the island country started to escalate in the 1980s we have observed how extremely shrill and devoid of political maturity the narrative emanating from Tamil Nadu has been.What the SL Tamils need from their Tamil Nadu brethren today is serious, consistent and well articulated activism at all levels to pursue peace and political settlement in the island nation. A certain maturity in the narrative taking the place of belligerent statements and resolutions will do enormous good for the SL Tamils.
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