What next in Sri Lanka for the Tamil National Alliance?

Sri Lanka is made up of multi-ethnic societies ruled by a Sinhala Buddhist majority, with the past rulers failing to understand that there is a clear distinction between citizenship and nationality, to confuse the majority community. For a Sri Lankan is first a citizen of Sri Lanka and his or her loyalty should be to the Sri Lankan state and every ruler anticipate this from the ruled no matter if he or she is a Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or any other. The second pertains to nationality, which includes cultural moorings; for example a Tamil, will follow Tamil culture, practice his or her religion and basic education through the Tamil language, but ultimately the norm is to be a loyal citizen of Sri Lanka. Because the old political system embraced by past rulers provided insufficient space for multiple identities to co-exist harmoniously; lack of tolerance caused tensions between communities to develop fissures in nation building over a period of seven decades.

Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism “The greatness of a nation, depends upon how secure the minorities feel in that country” and earlier in 1927 visiting Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, expressed the hope that the people of Ceylon “who have inherited and adopted the teachings of the Great Master (Gautama Buddha) do better than the children of the Motherland”. Unfortunately, with independence in 1948 there was in Sri Lanka a wide divergence between theory and practice of Buddhism.  These threats are still in their mind, comes from the old political system embraced by past Sinhalese rulers with a perception that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist state and the minorities have to adjust themselves to Sinhalese supremacy, which provided insufficient space for multiple identities to co-exist harmoniously; the lack of tolerance caused tensions to develop fissures in nation building over a period of seven decades.

The new President, during his recent visit to India has emphatically maintained that development is the answer to all the ills of the minorities and said that his government would create the environment for every citizen to live as a Sri Lankan, to get an education and a good job to live in dignity, further the President made it clear that police powers will not be devolved to the provinces. With the composition of an upper house to protect the interests of the provincial units a forgotten chapter, with bureaucracy still dominated by the Sinhalese and the armed forces are predominantly Sinhalese and the job opportunities created as a result of development activities is grabbed by the Sinhalese is certainly a concern of the Tamil speaking minorities living in Sri Lanka.

Whereas, after the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the 13th Amendment to the constitution provided in substance a form of federalism in a unitary state. A review of developments since 1987 clearly illustrates that the limited devolution to the provinces with a half-baked devolution package is being progressively undone by successive governments. The merger of the North and the East, has been undone by a judicial pronouncement. Whereas, these were viewed by the Tamil speaking minority communities in particular those living in North and East provinces with fear and trepidation, made worse by their representatives in parliament filling opposition benches and without an elected provincial governments in the two provinces. Time has come to review to put the provincial council system right; otherwise it would continue to be a white elephant costing heavily on the citizen. A fact well understood by the new President.

Thus the Tamil speaking minorities are hopeful that the President will end the old system of rule and as T S Eliot wrote years ago “What we call the beginning is often the end”; begin with a new system of rule with a clear distinction between citizenship and nationality. To this end the president must hold talks with all representatives of minorities in parliament to resolve devolution related matters, includes permanent solutions to police and land powers to provinces and other issues. This would enable the ruled to be a loyal to the State and follow his or her culture, practice his or her religion and get basic education through his or her first language to live in harmony to take the country out of its present mess to prosperity.

As the largest party of Tamil speaking minorities in parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) without looking for help from other nations, in particular India, who will insist on full implementation of the 13th amendment to help Sri Lanka to emerge a harmonious nation. For the President has said there are issues that has prevented full implementation, that needs to be addressed on the half-baked amendment rushed through parliament in 1987. The TNA leadership must accept the bitter truth that people voted not out of love, but to show solidarity with the objectives of resolving their fundamental issues that are their basic rights. These people are getting fatigued with the TNA leadership and who would not hesitate to dump the leadership into to the wilds.

The best course of action left for TNA leadership is to deal direct with the President; first put their alliance in order to bring all member parties staying out at present; if needed with change of leadership, before dealing direct with the President to resolve all issues of the Tamil speaking people. Also the TNA should take the initiative to converse with other political parties of the Tamil speaking minorities in parliament to arrive with a common agenda. That would help TNA to get resolution of all related matters issues, including reservations expressed by the President on devolving police and land powers to the provinces.

A major challenge remains for the TNA to make a long overdue effort with the representatives of the majority community to explain in the language they understand to get support for the resolutions of all issues faced by the Tamil speaking minorities. Possible only if TNA leadership accept the reality that under democracy the majority holds power and that for coexistence the present half-baked provincial council system needs refining before implementation. A meaningful devolution of powers to the periphery accepted by all would certainly create a peaceful climate enabling all communities to live in harmony.