Tamils should be vigilant of southern
By Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby
It is very revealing that the Sinhalese themselves have begun to
refer to political and other issues outside the northeast of Sri Lanka
– especially in relation to the Tamil question – as politics of the
south (dhakune deshapalanaya). Realising this polarisation is a very
important development in the political psychology of this country.
More than that, political developments in the south have assumed or
are assuming, a tone and texture of their own, incorporating all the
elements and aspects of Sinhala dominance. Muslim unity, which
was once politically alive, is no more a sine qua non, nor is the
Plantation Tamil community. They are now treated as buttresses
against Tamil nationalism to ensure domination of Sinhalaness. As
far as Sri Lanka’s party system goes, the Sinhalaness of the PA-
SLFP, UNP and JVP is widely acknowledged and accepted.
However, what manifests today as the primary threat to stability in
this country is not the confrontation between southern forces and a
threatening northeast element, but divisions within the south itself as
to who should be in power and how.
An attempt to analyse these divisions on the basis of ruling elites
could be a fruitless exercise. Except for the Bandaranaike family,
there does not appear to be the possibility of involving the traditional
ruling dynasties of southern Sri Lanka – the Senanayakes and the
Jayewardenes – in roles of leadership in mainstream politics today.
So the split – at least in the eyes of a non-Sinhalese – is between
the political coalitions that share power. The UNP symbolises one
coalition and the PA/SLFP the other. The only division between
them – at best – could be characterised as the latter being more
‘Sinhala’ than the other.
The arrival of the Sinhala Urumaya and its logical consequence, the
JHU, challenges the notion of power being exchanged between
these two political coalitions. With the emergence of the JHU,
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism comes to a very interesting stage of its
internal self-reproduction. What were first Sinhala, and later Sinhala-
Buddhist, is now Buddhist Bikkhu. The problem however is that the
Bikkhu as the representative of Sinhala-Buddhism finds himself in a
One does not need either a microscope or a stethoscope to
diagnose the malaise that has struck the Sinhala polity. Its heartbeat
is heard as powerfully as exploding grenades and the attacking are
microbes large enough to be visible to the naked eye. If evidence is
needed a look at the judiciary is more than enough.
What has created this split that seems to be running right down to
the very bowels of Sinhala society? The problem, as this writer views
it, is one of locating political power.
Parliamentary politics was fine as long as it was as unsophisticated
as a volleyball game with two sides, each divided from the other by a
net. Victory depended on who scored more points. But today things
have changed. For one, volleyball has been transformed into a
version of rugby. What is worse, the captain of one side is not
merely a player, but manager, coach and patron of the club. As in
rugby, players tackle each other and physically down the opponent.
However, though points in conventional rugby are scored when a
player runs the ball and places it on the try line, in this particular
version of the game, the player-manager-coach-patron provides the
ball, scores, and runs away with the ball.
To translate this into terms of parliamentary politics, Sri Lanka has a
system of government where the locus of real power (the ball) is
essentially outside parliament and lying with the presidency, but
where the president too is a major player in the politics that takes
place within the chamber of parliament. It is the president who sets
parliament’s agenda because he/she always has the ball, but is not
confined by parliament’s politics.
Though primary power located in the executive presidency,
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dilemma is quite visible. The incumbent
executive president does not want the office to fall into the hands of
the opposition, or sections of her own party, because if it does, the
new occupants of that office could be as abusive as she has been
for over a decade.The question therefore is this: after 10 years in
power what are the options open for the present president? Except
for the JVP, there are no identifiable anti-UNP forces. The SLFP,
though adversely affected by its alliance with the JVP, is unhappy
but takes comfort in knowing that the JVP’s rise to power in national
politics as a parliamentary party is bound to affect the fortunes of
the UNP sooner or later.
The situation has become very complex and uncertain. For instance
it was the JVP that profited most from the maiden budget presented
by sandanaya’s finance minister Sarath Amunugama who is an
SLFP stalwart. The ministries of agriculture, small and medium
industries and culture, all held by the JVP, now have a base from
which to work. Amunugama was coaxed into creating that structure
through which the JVP could retain its hold on all the social classes
that are conventionally categorised as sub-middle class in the class
Though the present government had devised plans to change the
constitution even before the last elections, things did not happen as
foreseen. Immediately after elections the government was
hamstrung by not having enough MPs to form a majority in
parliament. So much so, the speaker had to be elected from the
ranks of the main party in the opposition. Thus a game began
whereby the government tried to wean away members of the
opposition to strengthen the numbers it (government) had in
parliament. The SLMC began to face erosion in its ranks; the CWC
was only too keen to join the government because it had its own
power games to play in Hatton and Nuwara Eliya. And now the
sandanaya has begun to coerce the UNP too.
This type of pulling and pushing between parties creates tensions in
parliament. What befalls the mace, the symbol of authority of
parliament, is symbolic of which party is desperate for survival at
which point of time. Soon after the last election it was the
sandanaya, but now it is the UNP’s turn. So the mace is taken from
place to place without the sergeant-at-arms having to carry it!Having
spoken of the disunity in the south, it is now time to raise a more
important question: what is going to happen to the so-called national
question. Relations between the government and the LTTE are
regulated by the ceasefire agreement (MOU). There is no question
of peace today – there is only an absence of war. Under these
circumstances, what could the Tamils expect from the government?
Conversely, how is the government going to tackle the Tamil
Looking back at the answers it has provided so far, the government
may be permitted to wear a satisfied smirk. There are two reasons
First, the government has portrayed through its biased mainstream
media organs, especially with the expertise of Hudson
Samarasinghe and the SLBC, the national question as not a Tamil
question at all. It is something, which only one organisation called
the LTTE is trying to promote. At the same time, the LTTE has
problems with India and treated as persona non grata both in the UK
and US. So by calling the Tamil issue an LTTE issue, government
propaganda gives it a partisan colour.
Second, the no-war situation is being used against the LTTE to
create problems within it. This is a very clever move because if it
succeeds, internal strife could weaken the Tigers. Then the
government could say it does not only have to negotiate only with
the LTTE but with ‘other’ Tamil politico-military groups as well. (The
‘others’ have already established themselves as clients of the
government)State finances, especially aid from foreign countries,
affect the way the Tamil question is addressed. Earlier it was
possible to use these funds for rehabilitation outside the northeast.
It does not remain a possibility any more. Further, governments
being governments create suitable new alliances. Due to deft
diplomacy Sri Lanka has US $ 100 million provided by the Indian
government, US $ 20 million given by Pakistan and some more by
Malaysia. There is a possibility of offers from China and US too.
With foreign aid secured the end result is the ‘realisation’ that the
Tamil problem can wait. That seems to be the thinking of the
presidential secretariat. The JVP’s thinking however is that there
should be no talks with the LTTE, full stop. In fact in the eyes of the
JVP there is no Tamil problem in this country.
The decision facing the president at this point is whether she
responds positively to the JVP and keeps the government together,
or appeases the Tamils and the LTTE. There is little doubt the
president will be keener to respond to the needs of the JVP at this
point than to the Tamils.’ And she will play this game till either she
finds a way of continuing in power as the executive president or
destroys the executive presidency in such a manner that it cannot
be used by anybody – neither Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP,
nor an aspirant from her own party.
This narrative throws up a problem for the Tamils. What is to be
done? How do they deal with a situation where the military is waging
war without actually fighting one? The present moment is therefore
crucial for everyone in this country. There is a famous political
dictum: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In today’s context it
applies to the Tamils, the Sinhalese and Muslims equally.