The Presidential Election Must Trigger A Movement If It Is To Help Tamils Win Their Rights
n the surface, this election looks like one that Tamils just have to get past and then think about how to fight the decades old repression they face in Sri Lanka. But beneath the surface, the frustration with the failure of the Tamil parties to offer a way forward is leading to discussion and debate on what is needed. Lesser-evilism is all that the TNA can offer but that still means evil for Tamils – and for all those at the sharp end of government policy, from war to chauvinism to privatisation. Only a new approach, based on removing not just individuals but the whole gang at the top, is necessary.
Although seemingly an unusual event, the endorsement of the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the main Tamil party in Sri Lanka – did not come as a shock to anyone. It reflects the lack of a way forward in the fight for the rights of Tamil-speaking people of the TNA and all the Tamil parties. However, while the TNA are long-time allies of the UNP, (which is the main component of the UDF), the decision this time was less of a straightforward matter.
There was an attempt by other Tamil parties to make the TNA adopt a position where they would stand for the core demands of the Tamil-speaking people. All six main parties (1) came together for a discussion and agreed 13 key demands. These included the basic democratic demands over which the Tamils have been protesting for years, such as land rights, the release of political prisoners, answers to their questions about missing persons, and also the national rights of Tamils and a war crimes inquiry into the genocidal slaughter of 2009.
As on many occasions in the past, despite all the Tamil parties signing up to this agreement, the common position didn’t last even a day. The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) rejected the 13 demands on the basis that the proposed new constitution was not included. The other five parties signed up to the 13 demands and pledged that they would only support a presidential candidate who supported these demands. But soon after, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), which is the main component of the TNA, made a unilateral decision to support the UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa and announced it even before the other two parties that are part of the TNA – TELO, PLOTE – were ready with their public statement. Of course, these parties succumbed to the ITAK’s pressure and now the TNA as a whole has endorsed the pro-capitalist UNP candidate. It barely needs mentioning that Sajith Premadasa does not support any of these 13 demands.
The attempt to make the ITAK take a principled position failed again – as expected. It is now clear to many that if it was up to the ITAK leaders, the meeting to agree the 13 demands would not even have taken place. They took part in this meeting with the aim of channelling everyone towards supporting the UNP. The TNA’s self-imposed “theoretical” guru, Mr Sumanthiran, said that he asked the meeting: “Will you agree to vote for Gotabaya if he agrees to these demands?”(2). He explained the rationale behind this question with his usual Machiavellian arguments. He explained that Gotabaya could get away with agreeing to these demands but the UNP cannot – hence, there is a greater chance of Gotabaya agreeing to them. One cannot but wonder at his political shallowness. Of course, Gotabaya, in no time at all, not only rejected all these demands but also stated that he would not even bother to meet with Tamil leaders to discuss them. It is absolutely clear that neither Gotabaya nor Sajith, who compete to be the most credible “Sinhala Buddhist nationalist – pro military” candidate, will agree to these demands.
Getting this agreement, though, was not the ITAK’s aim, it seems. Sumanthiran claimed that the discussion was actually about choosing one of the “winnable” candidates (and from the start, by default, all rejected the question of a boycott). From their point of view, there is no way any Tamil leader can come out endorsing Gotabaya – so the obvious choice is to support Sajith. But their attempts at such covert manipulations were thwarted by some of the organisers of this meeting of the Tamil parties. The organisers, rather, hoped to pull the Tamil parties towards a principled stand, using the election as an opportunity. Their aim was to set the parties on a different path: towards mobilising, and building up a fight. As the plan of ITAK leaders to surreptitiously manipulate all Tamil parties into supporting Sajith was failing, they made a unilateral decision to stick with their original objective and overtly declared their support for him.
There are two main reasons for this decision that are cited by the key leaders of the TNA. While they aim to ride the mood of ‘lesser evilism’ that has developed among Tamils, they also argue that the Tamils will benefit from the new constitution proposed by the UNP. The UNP’s manifesto states that “devolution and the electoral systems begun by parliament will be completed without delay”. But contrary to the TNA’s claim that this is accepted by all parties in Sri Lanka, even the UNP could not come to an agreement on this in the last parliament. The Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have already rejected the proposals. The UNP manifesto also claims that devolution will protect the “unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence of our motherland” and that the final decision will be made via a referendum. Those who follow Sri Lankan politics will know well what that means. All the UNP-led changes to the constitution are aimed at securing their own voter base and setting the ground for further liberalisation of the economy in the interest of the big capital. And the so-called change in electoral system is a form of gerrymandering that has already been exposed by many. In addition, the UNP manifesto already stands for establishing more free economic zones – which are already proven to be areas of super-exploitation. Their so-called labour reforms are a cover for further curtailment of labour rights, including raising the pension age by three years.
Responding to the UNP’s not-so-new proposal, the Mahinda clan made its usual claims: “Like the draft constitution, the UNP presidential election manifesto also aims to turn Sri Lanka into a loose federation of virtually independent provincial units.” (4) While rejecting the UNP proposal, the SLPP manifesto says nothing new about the constitutional change that they are planning, except for re-stressing that the “unitary state” will be preserved and a “foremost place to Buddhism” will be given. The TNA’s full endorsement of the UNP proposal for the constitution led the TNPF to insist on its rejection as part of the 13 demands. However, it should be noted that both the TNPF and the TNA are disingenuous in their arguments. The TNPF knows well the position of the TNA and only concentrates on “nailing them” in the discussion. The TNA, in turn, knows well that a demand such as the right to self-determination stands in contradiction to what they openly endorse with the UNP. Neither want to reveal their true intention – which is to promote their own party’s position within the Tamil community.
Bizarrely, Mahinda Rajapaksa, writing on this issue of the constitution, claims that even the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, “rejected such devious and dishonest attempts to play around with words” in relation to the use of the term “unitary state”. But Wigneswaran rejected the UNP’s proposal for a totally different reason from that cited by Mahinda. C.V. Wigneswaran’s objection, despite being a former judge, is not about constitutional aspects but is an attempt to expose how the Tamils are being fooled, as no real benefit is being proposed.
Wigneswaran and his relatively new party, Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK), have taken the strong decision to reject all the main candidates standing in the election. The official statement released by the TMK identifies Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party as the only exception and welcome Jayasuriya’s acceptance of the 13 demands. While all other candidates rejected these demands, Siritunga Jayasuriya made clear in a press statement that these demands were already part of the USP’s manifesto and the political programme on which he is standing. He asked why Tamil party leaders have, so far, ignored this fact. Wigneswaran, considered to be the most popular politician in the North, did indeed recognise this.
However, the TMK statement will have left Tamil voters unclear on the question of who they should actually vote for. It asked the Tamil voters to choose, taking into consideration “objective and subjective factors”. While correctly pointing out that Tamils cannot vote for any of the main candidates, it fails to indicate what factors Tamil voters should consider. But this may change in the coming days. At the time of writing this article, further meetings between Siritunga Jayasuriya and the TMK and EPRLF are being organised. Apart from the TNA leadership, almost all the Tamil parties are in favour of voting for Siritunga Jayasuriya. Even Sivajilingam, the only Tamil candidate standing in the election who is in favour of Siritunga, has publicly stated that he voted for Siri in the past and that Siri is the Tamils’ best ally.
This is unprecedented in history. While this development may come as a shock to many, it is important to understand why this is taking place. Political representation for Tamils is supressed to the extent that it is virtually non-existent. As Siritunga himself put it, the election is all about the south – and about who is the real “Sinhala leader”. Gotabaya is reported to have said that he doesn’t need Tamil votes; that he can become president with the Sinhala vote alone. Tamils cannot bring themselves to vote, either for someone who is known as “the butcher of Tamils” – or for the other candidate, who is the son of a “murderer” and defends all that the Rajapaksa family did in the Tamil genocide.
This is not to claim that the Tamils have all turned to socialist policies, but they have been pushed into a corner and therefore forced to examine their strategies and perspectives and to ask how they can advance their interests. Siritunga and his party, the United Socialist Party, have an unshakable history of standing firm for the rights of Tamils. Their recently-published book, “The Tamil Eelam People’s Struggle – A Marxist View”, had a shock effect upon those who read it. It is a collection of Tamil translations of articles written in Sinhala, over the past three decades, at every crucial historical juncture. The uncompromising position put forward by the USP has won enormous respect not just from Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also in Tamil Nadu and in the international diaspora. It is important to note that this position does not compromise on any of the rights of the oppressed Sinhala population. Siritunga strongly rejects the idea that the whole population in the south are inherently racist, as some of the hard nationalists claim. Instead, he explains how the leaders of the Buddhist clergy and capitalist politicians whip up Sinhala nationalism to establish and embed their own support base. They are offering no road to better living conditions for ordinary workers and youth. But while standing firm on the rights of all oppressed peoples in all communities, Siritunga shows it is also possible to stand firm on the democratic rights of Tamils, including their national rights. This is their position – and their lesson, which the “left” in general has so far ignored and failed to adopt. The USP is the only party that attracts activists from all communities in Sri Lanka.
This process – the gradual shift in political positioning – should not stop with the election. The TNA does not enjoy the mass support that it did between 2009 and 2013. Its leaders can no longer walk in the streets of Jaffna unprotected. The hatred that exists for Gotabaya may push significant numbers of Tamil voters to register their protest by standing with Sajith. But Tamils choosing the lesser evil does not equate to a direct endorsement of the TNA leadership. It is only the brutality and repression of the Sri Lankan Sinhala nationalist government since the war that has allowed the TNA to maintain its support on the electoral plane. They do not command real support. This is for good reasons. The majority of Tamil workers and youth now understand the lies and bogus political nature of the TNA leadership. The TNA’s close collaboration with the UNP has helped to expose their class nature, i.e. the interests that they really represent. Most Tamils – particularly the politically active layer of society – are in search of a better alternative, a search that will lead them to an uncompromising fight for their rights. This is driving them towards a more progressive perspective and strategy.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 saw the power to run society in the interests of all not just the elite taken into the hands of the working class for the first time in history. Leon Trotsky, one of its leaders, recognised that the fight for national rights had to be linked to the fight for the rights of all oppressed workers and young people and explained that “nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. This outer shell needs to be broken so that the people can embrace a real strategy to advance all demands for Tamil rights.
What Tamils demand now may look ‘utopian’ in the eyes of those who consider themselves ‘practical thinkers’. But it is not practical for Tamil-speaking people to live a life of repression and exploitation with the future of their young people in jeopardy. It is, of course, ‘unachievable’ while the Sri Lankan state is maintained in the interests of the richest in society and on the basis of pandering to ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’. Without breaking the capitalist Sri Lankan state, no advancement in Tamil rights is possible. Wining Tamils’ rights and breaking with capitalism are intertwined – an understanding that is not new wisdom in the Tamil struggle. Almost all the militant organisations formed during the late ‘60s and ‘70s put forward this position in one way or other. However, the position was not developed into a clear strategy with a far-sighted and internationalist perspective – and the price that the Tamil youth paid for it was too high. To achieve what now looks impractical and unachievable, we must come together to strengthen our struggle with a clear programme and strategy. A campaign to build a mass organisation of all workers, youth, farmers, Tamils and all oppressed sections of society must be initiated without delay. We must appeal to the trade unions, to the members especially, to take up a clear position of class struggle. Despite its history, the union that is increasingly taking a militant direction is the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU). Student unions, fishing community organisations, farmers, workers in free trade zones, and all those who have been waging a brave battle against privatisation and horrendous conditions, should come together as one force. A mass organisation, democratically organised, with a federal approach, would enable all organisations that agree on a basic programme of struggle to come together on one platform. It is this alternative that will provide a real choice for all those oppressed in Sri Lanka.