November 5, 2019
The Tamil question has plagued national politics in Sri Lanka for years.
The election campaign of Sajith Premadasa received a boost with the endorsement he received from the Tamil National Alliance. There was a possibility of the TNA opting to remain publicly neutral and giving the Tamil people the advice that they could either vote for any candidate or abstain, as advocated by some Tamil politicians. There is anger within the Tamil community about the lack of progress in finding missing persons, returning civilian land and in moving towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict. There has also been anger within sections of the Tamil polity that the two main presidential candidates have not been willing to directly respond to the 13 point demand put forward by a collection of five Tamil political parties, including the TNA. But a look at their manifestos will reveal a response that has proved to be decisive.
The Illangai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Tamil People’s Council (TPC) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) signed a memorandum highlighting the key demands of the Tamil people. The memorandum contains 13 demands including a demand for a federal political solution and abolishing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the acceptance of the political aspirations of the Tamil Nation, recognition of the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces as the historical habitat and the traditional homelands of the Tamil Nation, acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Tamil Nation and realisation of the fact that the Tamil People under the provisions of International Law are entitled to the right of self-determination. Many of these are highly controversial demands especially in the context of a closely fought election in which the votes of the ethnic majority Sinhalese will be decisive.
In arriving at their decision regarding which candidate to support the TNA would have had two criteria to utilise. The first would be to assess the past actions of the candidates who are most likely to win the elections. The actions and thought frames of the past are likely to be determinative of what happens in the future. The second would be to look at the election campaigns of those leading candidates and their promises especially in what matters to inter-ethnic relations.
During the past five years, the government of which Sajith Premadasa has been a cabinet minister promised much in terms of national reconciliation, including a new constitution which would address the causes of the war and would resolve the ethnic conflict in a mutually acceptable manner. The government also promised an accounting for the past and compensation for the losses suffered by the victims. However, the government’s performance was less than hoped for with the result that the TNA, which had played a supportive role to the government, became less popular with the Tamil people. However, during the past five years, the level of fear of the government diminished significantly among the Tamil people even as it did in the rest of the country.
By comparison, the government of which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Defence Secretary was compelled to wage a war that was fought primarily in the Tamil areas and caused much destruction there. At the end of the war, the government of that time took the position that economic development should be prioritized over political rights within an overarching framework of national security. As a result there was strong military involvement in governance and the fear and resentment that invariably accompanies it. The question for the TNA would be the extent to which this past would influence the future. The bridge between the past and future would be seen in the election campaigns of the two contenders and in particular in their manifestos, which ought to reflect their considered opinions and judgments about the past, present and future.
It is significant that the TNA’s endorsement of Sajith Premadasa’s candidacy came shortly after the release of his election manifesto which goes into considerable detail about what will be necessary to achieve harmonious relations in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. One of the phrases in the manifesto is that “Our constitution must reflect the multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and pluralistic nature of our country and must unite us not only in law, but also in our hearts.” The ruling party candidate pledged to bring in a new constitution which will build a strong nation, to create a democratic pluralistic society and to devolve maximum power to provinces within a united and indivisible country building on proposals made under Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He also pledged to set up a second chamber of parliament to ensure power sharing at the centre, which will comprise of provincial council representatives.
In addition, the Sajith Premadasa manifesto pledged to strengthen institutional safeguards that could protect human rights and the rights of minorities, instead of making them subservient to the interests of the political majority. “A strong nation requires the judiciary to be independent of government. To ensure this, the new constitution will create an independent public prosecutor, appointed by the Constitutional Council. We will move the judicial interpretation of the constitution away from the Supreme Court to a new constitutional court which will also adjudicate disputes among different levels of government, among provinces and the central government, and among the provinces themselves,” it said while also promising a 25 per cent quota for women in provincial councils and parliament.
By way of contrast, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto states that “My main task would be to ensure that our motherland which is once again under threat from terrorist and extremist elements is safe and protected. National security is of paramount importance. We have to ensure that the peace that was won with much sacrifice is maintained. We must once again ensure that people of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, and other communities of this country are able to live together harmoniously, with honour and dignity in an undivided country, under one law. The principle that “no-one is above the law” will have to be implemented with rigour so that all citizens are treated as equals before the law. I have clearly understood that what you expect from me. Above everything else, is national security. Once we establish national security, achieving economic development will not be an insurmountable challenge. The other important task will be to create a progressive national economy and a pluralistic society.”
Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto differs from that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto which is also a well written and conceptualized document but which gives its priority to national security. The latter manifesto is a difficult sell to ethnic and religious minorities as national security is seen as primarily directed at controlling them rather than empowering them. It also does not cater sufficiently to their need to be seen, and safeguarded, as constituent parts of the polity as ethnic and religious communities. The problem of appealing to the ethnic and religious minorities is heightened by the fact that during the 10 years he was Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to deal with fighting a war, the final stages of the war and the immediate post-war context in which issues of human rights violations necessarily loomed large. Dissociating from the past while analyzing the present and making convincing promises for the future about what matters to each section of an ethnically and religiously polarized polity is the challenge.