What can Tamil people and Tamil Political Parties, do to resolve Tamil question?

“Where does this conclusion leave the Tamil people in the matter of resolving the Tamil question? Is the path of armed resistance adopted by the LTTE the only course open to them? No. There are in my view two insuperable and inevitable objections to the militarism advocated by the LTTE. Firstly, it is out of date. The world unfortunately for Mr. Prabhakaran does not look favourable on totalitarianism, especially where it is in tandem with terrorism.”

by E. A. V. Naganathan

(March 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I refer to a Tamil question, firstly, because it is a question that concerns the Tamil people primarily, and, secondly, because it arises from a self-image projected by them. It is the Tamil majority areas in the North and East that have been the scene of military conflict between the state and the guerilla forces of the LTTE. Again, it is the claim of the Tamils of the North and the East, where they are a majority, to recognition of their separate nationality, with its corollary of the right to statehood in their areas of traditional historical inhabitation and its denial by the Sinhalese, who are a majority in the rest of the country and an overall majority countrywide, that is the cause and origin of the Tamil question.
It is, also, a Tamil question because the burden of substantiating it has been borne by them by a rare demographic displacement. An estimated population of 2.6 million are split today into 0.8 million refugees living abroad, 0.8 m internally displaced and living in other parts of the country, or in refugee camps in the "cleared" parts of the Tamil majority areas, controlled by Government, with the remaining 1.0m distributed in the ratio of 0.7 million residing in the cleared, and 0.3 m residing in the "uncleared" parts of the Tamil majority areas, controlled by the LTTE. All figures are estimates. They do not include the estimated 61,000 Tamil civilians and estimated 15,000 belligerents who have died in the twenty-six year conflict, dating from the incident of 10th January 1974 with the meeting of the International Association of Tamil Research at the Weerasingham Hall and the deaths of 9 Tamil youth by electrocution. It is, finally, a Tamil question because to the average Tamil the bottom line, politically speaking, is sufficiently expressed by the Thimpu Principles of 8th July 1985, which in summary form state that the Tamil people are a nation, entitled to self-determination and to recognition of the North and East as an undivided homeland of the Tamil people, and to citizenship rights in Sri Lanka, unexceptionally.

It is within the framework of the above positions that the Tamil people and political parties, and the LTTE, would be expected to resolve the Tamil question. Let us begin with the Tamil people. No one can deny that the experience of the Tamil people with the Sri Lankan state since Independence (1948) has been a disappointment. Let me explain. How different would the country, let alone the Tamil, situation be today if there had been no exclusionary Citizenship Act, no disputable flag or anthem, no mono-lingual Official Language Act, the delimitation as provided in the 1948 Constitution had been left alone, there had been no ‘schools take-over’ no ‘standardization’ no state colonization in the North and the East, no "nationalization", no discrimination in the matter of public spending, resource allocation and development, public service and employment and security had not become, selectively, a form of state violence?

This provides the general background. Then there is, also, the passage of the two Constitutional Reform Acts of 1972 and 1978, unilaterally, by the two major Sinhala parties, respectively, without any reference to the Tamil minority. The net result of these constitutional revisions were that the reasonably effective system of checks and balance provided by the 1948 Constitution, including the supremacy of the Constitution, judicial review of legislation, access to the Privy Council, Section 22B, and the Second Chamber, which protected and enhanced minority participation in the law-making process and acted as a buffer against majority power, were struck down. I should not fail to refer at this juncture to the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution of November 1987, which was the result of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987. Ironically, the Provincial Councils set up under its aegis, with three sets of powers i.e., those devolved List No. 1, those reserved - List No. 2 and those concurrent - List No. 3 - have thrived in the other seven provinces located in the Sinhalese majority areas of the country. The North-East P.C., however, has had only a brief respite from November 1988 - March 1990 under the EPRLF led by Varatharaja Perumal with IPKF backing, before it collapsed, with the IPKF withdrawal under attack from the LTTE, with the logistical support and military expertise provided by the Government under President R. Premadasa, who took office in December 1988. Since then it has been under direct Presidential rule, with the administration run by Secretaries and a Governor, presently an army Brigadier. It is in this scenario that the Tamil people have today to decide on what course of action to take as to the Tamil question.

The Tamil people are at present divided into two broad categories. This bifurcation is reflected in the line-up of Tamil parties as well. The first category place their trust in one or the other of the two major Sinhala political parties represented in Parliament - the Government constituted by the PA under President Kumaratunga and the Opposition led by the UNP under Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Among the Tamil parties, the EPDP has thrown in its lot with the Government and taken up a Ministry under its leader, Devananda. The others i.e., PLOTE, TELO, ACTC, TULF and EPRLF sit in opposition, keeping their options open as to which side to back on a case-by-case basis. All the Tamil parties subscribe, however, in principle, to the 4 Thimpu Principles. The second category of Tamils will have no luck with either of the major Sinhala political parties and place no trust in the parliamentary process. They favour the militancy espoused by the LTTE. The first category expect from the two major Sinhala political parties, further devolution of power in terms of the 13th Amendment. This, in effect, would do away with the Concurrent list No. 3 and considerably dilute the reserved list No. 2, as were, indeed, embodied in the Constitutional Reform Bill, tabled by President Kumaratunga in Parliament on 3rd September. They are prepared to accept a N-E P.C., equipped with the powers provided under the above constitutional reform proposals, as a first step towards attainment of the final goal of the Thimpu Principles. A preliminary Interim Council has been suggested. The second category place their hopes on the armed struggle launched by the LTTE and will not consider any political goal other than self-determination. The majority among the latter category belong to the Tamil diaspora, settled abroad, where they are comfortable and well off. Broadly speaking these are the two alternatives under consideration by the Tamil people, with the political parties falling into position on either side.

My observations on the first alternative are based on the opposition to the Constitutional Reform Bill, when it was presented on 3rd September, both on the part of the Opposition, without whose support the 2/3rd majority needed for its passage in Parliament cannot be mustered as well as sections of the influential Buddhist clergy and Sinhala intelligentsia, plus the new factor in Sri Lankan politics, the JVP who made their debut in Parliament at the General Elections of 10th October, with 10 seats. As a result the LTTE to be put on hold, where it remains to date. This occurrence is linked to the Government’s previous, abortive attempt to enact the Equal Opportunities Bill of October 1999. The opposition to that Bill, by both the Opposition in parliament, as well as the Ultras led by the present Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, within the SLFP, was a pointer to the unacceptability to Sinhala opinion-makers, by and large, of the premise that in Sri Lanka all people are equal.

The withdrawal of the Equal Opportunities Bill on 20th October, 1999 and the placing on hold of the Constitutional Reform Bill on 3rd September, are a symptom of the majoritarianism which has been the operative instrument by which the Tamil position within the united Sri Lankan state structure has been progressively eroded. In Sri Lanka, majoritarianism has expressed itself by the Sinhala representatives in parliament, who constitute a permanent demographic majority dividing irrespective of party affiliations on ethnic lines on any issue that is seen by them to concern the hegemony of the Sinhalese people, which they believe is their right and proper due. Its exhibition in the case of the Equal Opportunities Bill in October 1999, and its demonstration on the occasion of President Kumaratunga’s tabling of the Constitutional Reform Bill on 3rd September are, I am afraid, very unfavourable to the expectations of a settlement of the Tamil question, even in part or stages, through the constitutional process by a consensus of the Government and the Opposition. The President’s political instincts served her rightly, when, as I read it, she went in for the Presidential Elections on 21st December 1999, and for the General Elections on 10th October. She went back, in each case, to the people for a fresh mandate hoping to strengthen her hand. However, she has had to compromise. The appointment, hot on the heels of the incidents of 3rd September, of Mr. Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Leader of the SLFP Ultras as Prime Minister is to my mind, symbolic of a shift in the SLFP towards a hard line on the Tamil Question.

Where does this conclusion leave the Tamil people in the matter of resolving the Tamil question? Is the path of armed resistance adopted by the LTTE the only course open to them? No. There are in my view two insuperable and inevitable objections to the militarism advocated by the LTTE. Firstly, it is out of date. The world unfortunately for Mr. Prabhakaran does not look favourable on totalitarianism, especially where it is in tandem with terrorism. The trend increasingly is towards democracy. Maybe, because of a growing conviction that even the worst-run democracy is usually more just, more peaceful, and even more prosperous than the best-run dictatorship. So there can be no quarrel between Tamil rights of nationality and democracy, because, as a part of the great whole of humanity, the Tamils have a claim on democracy, and the LTTE and all its works, just does not fit into this wider and futuristic framework. Secondly, the LTTE methodology of militancy is proving far too expensive in terms of Tamil lives and resources. The question has been asked whether any other strategy could have coped with the violence of the Sri Lankan state practiced on the Tamils since 1956. The answer is that violent militancy, too, has failed to deliver, instead devastating the North and East and stalking the Tamils with displacement and death.

There is an alternative that I support and that is Non-Violent Direct Action, exemplified several decades ago by the Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King in the USA, and in our own times by the Falun Gong Movement in China, which are very practical alternative techniques to militancy-cum-terrorism. I see several features in this strategy which are positive and relevant to the Tamil people everywhere.

Firstly, it will involve large masses, if not all, of the Tamil people. No longer will the lucky ones, who managed to get or stay away and are currently marketing their brains or brawn aboard or in the non-combatant zone in the country, be able to get the vicarious satisfaction of participating in the "struggle" by simply opening their purses from time to time, leaving it to the rustic inhabitants of the "uncleared" area of the North and East to face the reality in all its nastiness. Secondly, it will preclude the enormous waste of resources in the purchase of arms, presently finding its way into the pockets of the global merchants of death, which could be far better spent in rehabilitating the N. and E., presently lying in ruins. Personally, I find the spectacle of 3rd party Tamils gloating over the conflict on their TV screens or in the headlines of newspapers, deplorable. The alternative I support provides a less unethical, less immoral and certainly less mortal route to the same experience of involvement - and it is open to every Tamil.

In line with this thinking I suggest that all Tamil parties should establish their permanent headquarters in the North and the East. So, also, the Tamil social service organizations or humanitarian agencies. All the foreign NGOs have already done so. The Hindu cultural and religious organizations should follow suit. The Tamil people everywhere else should consider it their bounden duty to look after their less-fortunate brethren in the N. and E. as a priority, live soberly, and demonstrate to the rest of the world that they take their responsibilities as a people, seriously and ethically Non-violence with Direct Action is not naive, but a rough factor for ‘real politic’ based on careful study of human psychology. There is the Tamils evolution in the revolutionary tactics of non-violence to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Thondaman’s prayer campaigns were a case in point. It will enable the Tamils and the parties to appeal with confidence to the conscience of the international community, as expressed in international law, world opinion and international institutions. It will realistically facilitate an UN-sponsored armistice and UN-supervised referendum that will hand back the Tamil land to the Tamil people.

I believe that it is for the Tamil people in the North and East to decide how they wish to settle the Tamil question - to plagiarize Al Gore, "Let the people have their say". There has been no properly elected civilian representation in the N. and E. since 1977 - a period of 23 years in which a whole generation has grown to maturity without experiencing democracy in action. The Tamil peoples’ will can only be vindicated after this lapse of 23 years, if they have an opportunity of expressing that will at free and fair elections. This is not possible, regrettably, under the present dispensation, whether it be the present Government or the Opposition that is in power. It can only be feasible under the auspices of an UN-sponsored Election Monitoring Team.

The peace groups, which include the Norwegians and now the British, seem to have no role in their act for the Tamil people. All current peace initiatives seem directed towards one end - talks with LTTE. I am sorry, but I do not see that as an equation that is ipse facto, true. Does the LTTE, or for that matter any of the Tamil parties, have a mandate from the Tamil people? The peace groups, the Government, the Opposition, the Norwegians, the British seem to accept this as an axiom. No one has, however, cared to test it with the Tamil people. That is why I say that it is time that Tamil people everywhere, whether in the "cleared", or "uncleared" areas, or in the rest of the country, or abroad, demand their right to an open forum in which to have their say. How create the conditions for the Tamil people to exercise their right to enter the debate and negotiate the final answer to the Tamil question that concerns them most? My suggestion is, in the context of the inability or unwillingness of all these parties concerned to keep the peace in the North and East, that a UN Elections Monitoring Team be called in to install a properly elected, civilian government, freely chosen and clothed with power and responsibility. This is the rationale for UN intervention. For one thing, it will yoke all the Tamil parties, including the LTTE, into agreements and arrangements that explicitly provide for democracy and human rights safeguards. In addition, life in the N. and E. will return to normal. What that means can, perhaps, best be expressed in terms of the reverse of all the abnormal, aberrant behaviourism that have been observed in that land in recent times.

Every opportunity should be grasped by the Tamil people and parties alike to establish links with groups of enlightened Sinhalese opinion that perceive the good of all implicit in breaking the hold of the present Sinhala ruling class over the affairs of the country, defeating majoritarianism and replacing the present unitarianism and centrist structure of government by a new confederative structure or consociation of nationalities. This, in a plural society such as ours, is the only suitable vehicle for democracy, according parity, equality and tolerance at all levels of government and society and culture and liberating the down-trodden and oppressed, whether Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malaya or Burgher or other, so that they may live in peace, dignity and concord, without either class or ethnic bias and where there is scope for all without the one subsuming the other.

- Sri Lanka Guardian