Still the Sri Lanka schism

As it goes to polls,the North has been forced to retreat into Tamil nationalism.

Published:September 21, 2013 2:22 am

As it goes to polls,the North has been forced to retreat into Tamil nationalism.

Aranya Rajasingam

Many Sinhala observers of the provincial elections in northern Sri Lanka had heralded the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) candidate,C.V. Wigneswaran,as someone who would forge a link between Tamil and Sinhala political discourse. But they have been largely disappointed with what would appear to be pro-LTTE revivalism sponsored by the TNA in the run up to the elections on September 21.

At a political meeting in Valvettithurai,the birthplace of Prabhakaran,Wigneswaran reportedly called the LTTE leader a great hero. The immediate reaction to this speech was the arrest of 40 youths campaigning for the TNA. While 36 have been released,it is unclear on what charges the other four are being held. A Sinhala newspaper also reported that the commanding officer of the Northern Province,General Mahinda Hathurusinghe,had asked for an increase of troops in the area,in response to what he termed a regrouping of former LTTE combatants. Moderate supporters of Wigneswaran see this as a blow to the demilitarisation of the North.

But are 40 young campaigners and a TNA candidate the sole reason for suggesting that military presence in the North be increased? It has become increasingly evident that if a free and fair election is successful in the North,the Tamils will,for lack of a better alternative perhaps,vote in the TNA. And this means the current government has to use other means to stay in control of the civilian administrative processes in the North. The military has increasingly taken over the implementation of civilian affairs,and military commanders have been stationed as civilian administrators in the North. This is an excuse to continue with that policy.

Sinhala expectations of a benign Tamil nationalism from Wigneswaran were dashed much earlier,with the TNA party manifesto. The South was quick to label it as extremist rhetoric for its own narrow political gains. The president said that it was a “clear attempt to divide the country” and that he did not think the TNA would have India’s support to carry it forward.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime need not wait for the Indian government to thwart such plans. Wigneswaran seems to be doing so himself. Indian support for a political solution that recognises Tamil aspirations to self-governance has primarily come from the state of Tamil Nadu and its politicians. Wigneswaran has reassured his southern well-wishers that the TNA is not part of a conspiracy to create a greater state for Tamil Nadu. He thinks that by denouncing Tamil Nadu’s politicians,he can win the trust of southern politicians,essential for a party that has long pursued broker-negotiation-politics. What he has done,instead,is bared and sharpened divisions within his party. The TNA is riven by internal disputes,not so much on what they want to achieve for the Tamil people as on how best to remain politically relevant to the Tamils. And this is the contradiction they are unable to resolve: how can they win favour with both the government and the Tamil people?

Former chief arms procurer for the LTTE,Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP),who is now a firm supporter of the Rajapaksa government,has said the only way forward for Tamils is to “work with the majority community”. This is in line with Rajapaksa’s estimation of his own successes after the war. The president felt ex-militants could be released successfully because their “inherent Hindu culture will help them adapt and assimilate into the culturally similar Buddhist mainstream”. Wigneswaran seems to have completely bought into this view — Tamils must be practical and survive. Given this consensus,what divides Wigneswaran and his party from their southern compatriots?

The hardening of Tamil sentiments in the North comes in the wake of information trickling out about what took place in the so-called “welfare camps”,increasing land grabs,sexual harassment,disappearances and arbitrary violence in the formerly war-torn areas of the North and East. And the situation doesn’t show signs of improving anytime soon. For the Tamils,the resurgence of Tamil nationalism is not simply a continuation of LTTE-era politics. It is their means of survival,the expression of their political will. And to win their support,the TNA must respond to that collective sense of bereavement and injustice. It is this fact that is lost in the rush to label the TNA and Tamil politicians extremist. The TNA is,after all,a minority political party that has to cater to the sentiments and demands of its voter base. The revival of Tamil nationalism wasn’t started by them. It is something they are being forced to contend with.

Taking place for the first time since 1988,these elections in the Northern Province are momentous. But a lot has happened in the last 25 years. The LTTE has been defeated and the North-East merger has been broken. Militarisation has a whole new definition in Sri Lanka now. The post-war province that the TNA is likely to inherit in these elections will be worlds apart from the province that went to polls in 1988.

The writer is with the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies,Colombo express@expressindia.com

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