The Presidential election of January 2015 has passed, and Mahinda Rajapakse and family were dethroned, nominally by Ranil Wickremasinge with the help of Maithripala Sirisena. But to no surprise of Tamils, nothing has changed in Tamils' day to day lives, nor the island-wide discourse of Tamil rights & grievances, nor has the political structure changed much. Mahinda Rajapakse, to his credit, not only has not gone away timidly, but has inserted himself front-and-center in the recent election-dominated politics of the SL Freedom Party. Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance has delivered precious little on their promises of Tamil rights and upliftment since their election. Why is there so much movement, staying in one place, with no progress? (Beyond the obvious, correct, fundamental reason: the political structure needs fundamental change.) Let's decode what is going on in Southern Lanka, and take a look at the dynamics among Tamils in the Northeast.
Southern Lankan politics
As many will point out, the US and India have been fighting over Sri Lanka ever since the pro-US JR Jeyawardene became prime minster and created the position of overly-powerful president and made himself the first one. When he committed the anti-Tamil pogrom (genocide) in July 1983 -- Black July -- this was Indira Gandhi's moment to train Tamils to become militants and destabilise the pro-American, anti-Indian government in India's close neighbour. India was (and still is) close to the Soviet Union (now Russia) during this Cold War period. So domestic politics became split in 2 parts along Cold War lines. The Marxist Communist JVP had a huge resurgence and attempted a rebellion that GoSL brutally put down with an all-out massacre. And there were even attempts to fit domestic politics into the narratives that veiled global geopolitical divisions, such as GoSL falsely accusing the LTTE of being Communist, mimicking how the South African Apartheid regime had curried favour with the US in their brutal suppression of Blacks and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress by stating that the ANC were Communists.
So when the US inserted itself back in the affairs of the island during the 2000 unilateral ceasefire by the LTTE (via Norway, which is American's "handmaiden", as Sivaram says) and the 2001 peace process between the LTTE and GoSL, this was not so much of a renewal of the US-India competition for SL since the US never left! The only thing different was that China became economically and politically powerful enough to assert its interests in SL from 2005 onwards.
(Side note: The history of the back-and-forth between US and India has seen both of these countries view the LTTE as an unnecessary variable and a hindrance to their 'great game' of geopolitics. But time and time again, India has suffered from its short-sighted enmity of Tamils and the LTTE, and as we will mention below, the US is equally complicit in short-sighted destruction of Tamil civilians and the LTTE. The predictions by Tamils in 2009, including by Neelan Thiruchelvam's widow, that the absence of the LTTE will make the ethnic divisions and the plight of Tamils worse, not better, have proven to be absolutely correct.)
The politics of Ceylon/Sri Lanka has been dominated by Singalese, due to sheer numbers and bolstered by a paranoid, racist superiority complex ("Mahavamsa Mindset"). Amongst the Singalese, there are 2 main parties that are usually tied in popularity. One way to interpret a polity defined by neck-and-neck competition between 2 main parties is as akin to American politics. In fact, the United National Party (the party of Jeyawardene and his nephew Ranil Wickremasinge) has styled itself as a cousin to the modern day Republican Party of the US. The UNP represents business elite, is pro-West/America, stokes communal racism (for political success by converting the working-class victims of their economics into supporters), and its symbol is the elephant. When Jeyawardene visited Ronald Reagan and brought along a gift of a real, live elephant, the purpose wasn't to help out an American zoo by giving over an animal. The political symbolism was deeper than the fact that the UNP and Republicans share the same animal as their symbol -- it was a large, implied statement that the UNP is just like the Republicans. But the US-SL polity comparison breaks down quickly when we look at the SLFP, which was literally founded on the racist Sinhala-only campaign pledge, and which has flirted with nationalising industries. This is quite a bit more socialist than even leftist European parties, let alone the Democrat Party in the US. And the SLFP has proven itself to be "stronger" (more racist) than the UNP for the last few decades, except during Jayawardene's time.
The other way we can interpret SL's polity is as a tussle between the world powers of US, India, and now, including China. The UNP has been pro-America/West for at least a generation, while the SLFP has been pro-India, and recently, also pro-China. And the history of these parties correlates well with the ebb and flow of the influence of their respective superpower nation backers, as well as the foreign coverage of events even in very recent times. Chandrika Kumaratunga, an SLFP member and former 2-time president, tried to blame the West for her predicament in the Tamil conflict, during which she got slammed in response, and Ranil W. was elected as prime minister within 3 months and led the 2001 peace process. Not happy with her diminished influence as the peace process progressed, CBK publicly called the Norwegian mediators "salmon-eating busybodies". We can even see evidence of the alignment in the way that various media, especially Western/American media, covered the January 2015 Presidential election. It was stylised as a regime change (sounds like Iraq War/Arab Spring rhetoric), but always in the same breath, it was mentioned as a success for democracy and good governance. It's as if America shot their wad (spent all of its money) on engineering the Sirisena revolt within the SLFP so as to bring Ranil back to power as they did in 2001, and after their pent-up fantasies of defeating Mahinda Rajapakse became real, they were glowing in the copious media coverage and shot their wad again. Even in the analysis in Western media of the Rajapakse resurgence and the upcoming 2015 parliamentary elections in 15 days, we can take an example and replace the myriad instances of the words of "democracy", "freedom", etc. with "West"/"America"/"not India, not China" and it would come across just as clearly.
So if we see the UNP and SLFP as representing the 2 sides of the long standing proxy struggle of the Cold War and its re-emerged form, what else can we infer? With Southern Lankan politics as a reflection of international politics as it is, the notion that Sri Lanka is sovereign and is too dignified to always oblige the wishes of foreign entities is patently baseless. It is laughable to read arguments that a bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka would "heavily damage the territorial integrity" of Sri Lanka.
To Rajapakse's credit, his 'bold' mix of shrewd strategy, dictatorial politics, extreme anti-Tamil racism, and shameless selling out to the highest-bidding country (China) has given him a legacy that is keeping him relevant. There are also hints and accusations that Chinese support is also keeping him around. What remains to be seen is how Rajapakse and the SLFP will do compared to Ranil and the UNP. But given that President Sirisena has committed himself to supporting Ranil's agenda since declaring his presidential candidacy, even if Rajapakse's party gets a plurality or even a majority of votes, Sirisena may utllise a technicality in reading the SL constitution that says that the President appoints the person whom he deems most fit to lead as the prime minister. But would the Singalese accept Ranil as the prime minster? If not Rajapakse, then whom would they accept? It will be interesting to see what happens and what the consequences are.
This election cycle is seeing a little more diversity of parties in the Tamil political spectrum vying for the Tamil vote who are worth some consideration. The reason that the Tamil political scene is more interesting now is not because there is an increase in compelling ideas, but rather, that the Tamil National Alliance is running out of excuses and time-buying tactics that cover their complete lack of effort and results. The TNA is led by a coterie of very few individuals, including R. Sampanthan, and M.A. Sumanthiran, and a couple of others. Sumanthiran was appointed through Sampantha's influence as an (unelected) TNA MP through the "national list" mechanism in the SL election process. Sumanthiran quickly worked his way into a position of influence behind Sampanthan. The TNA leadership participates in secret meetings with international bodies, a fact that they brag about to Tamils and use to justify their worth. Some Tamils believe that the TNA leaders sometimes visit foreign governments to receive instructions on exactly what to do. Since 2010, the first elections after May 2009, the Tamil people have voted in large numbers for the TNA. The reasons for this voting is that Tamils no longer had their long-time vanguard of Tamil resistance, so the only leaders that Tamils were left with were the TNA. Furthermore, since the formation of the TNA in 2001, the TNA had accepted the LTTE as their sole representatives in their official election manifesto every time. The TNA served as the strongest link back to the Tigers to fill the void left in the hearts of Tamils by the absence of the LTTE.
The TNA leadership spent more than a year in 17 or so rounds of talks with GoSL on a political solution, to no avail. The TNA leadership kept insisting that Tamils should afford them patience and trust. During the 2013 Northern Provincial Council elections, the TNA election campaign was not garnering much support until the official party magazine ran an issue whose front cover had a picture of Prabakaran in military fatigues with a title with Tamil nationalist innuendo. Tamil nationalist innuendo is another trick of the TNA in order to flip-flop in the future, and the trick is being used for the current 2015 elections by the UNP candidates' Jaffna district leader. By the time of the 2013 elections, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam had created the Tamil Nationalist People's Front party since India had told him to leave the TNA because Gajendrakumar was too pro-Tamil, articulate, and vocal for India's liking. Gajendrakumar and the TNPF campaigned during 2013, but the TNA convinced Tamils to vote for the TNA exclusively by claiming that voting for TNPF would split the Tamil vote and diminish their numbers in the NPC elections. The symbolism of the TNA rout in the elections as an affirmation of Tamil nationalism was perceived strongly. And furthermore, most of the Jaffna newspapers, almost as if by coordination, did not publish any coverage of Gajendarkumar's electionneering. There are also reports that the TNA manipulated the NPC vote count so that Ananthy Sasitharan, the wife of Trincomalee area LTTE political leader who went missing, didn't come first in the vote count list. At this point, one individual (whom I will call "TNA Leader #1") began to relax more in his 2nd home in India that RAW must be keeping clean for him, while another individual (whom I will call "TNA Leader #2") began to take more control of the secret decision-making. TNA Leader #2 began making several promises that all were either ignored completely or were insincere.
TNA Leader #1's favourite diversionary tactic is to promise everything to everybody, but in private, and carefully, so that he can continue to lie to everyone and use technicalities and language/wording to justify previous deceit. For TNA Leader #1, the preferred tactic is to ask people to wait for just another year or two and he will deliver "a just political solution for all Tamils", because he and TNA Leader #2 "have contacts with powerful people in the International Community and foreign governments". In reality, TNA Leader #1 is in bed with India, and he has been for more at least more than a decade. It's not clear who TNA Leader #2 is working for, besides himself, but my best guess is that he has been picked by the US to represent their interests when the right time comes along. Until then, Tamil people are astute and can infer all of the above themselves, which means that TNA Leader #2's supreme arrogance and know-it-all attitude have rightly alienated him from the Tamil people, the people he ostensibly is representing. TNA Leader #2 is not even close to being a statesman, and even as a politician, he is doing a piss-poor job. He is someone who is not fully trustworthy. It is like dealing with Southern Lanka -- at your own risk, but you get what you pay for.
If the US were to support TNA Leader #2 now or in the future, they would risk the ire of the Tamil people. As Tamil and Tamils become a strong and critical part of the shifting landscape of the Indian Ocean, that would be yet another a short-sighted strategy play. There are other Tamil leaders who are capable of commanding the trust of the Tamil people now and over the long-term, and who can work for both Western liberal values and Tamil interests. It is no secret that Tamils have long ago lost faith in all of the world's major powers, including the international bodies that the West still bears a majority influence over, as exemplified by the comments of this Tamil's interview:
MCCARTHY: Anthony Quinn lost his home to the Sri Lankan army at age 17. He's now 45. He badly limps in injury from shelling during the long war that ended with the government forces crushing the separatist Tamil Tigers. Ever since the military seized his family's house near the airport of Jaffna, the provincial capital of the north where the fighting raged, Quinn has lived in assorted crude encampments - no privacy, no sanitation. In this one with its barking dogs and corrugated tin walls, he raised four children.India has invested in supporting the TNA because it ultimately takes direction from a fellow who is clearly in the pro-India camp, and India uses the TNA as a proxy for its own agenda, including blunting pro-Tamil sentiments. For the future of TNA Leader #2's political relevance, the writing is on the wall, and for the future of TNA Leader #1, well, the writing is in the actuarial tables.
QUINN: And they're asking me, papa, why we are staying here? We don't have our own land. We don't have our own place. We don't have our own house. We hate that place. We hate it.
MCCARTHY: He hates the squalor he and 685 other families in his camp have endured since being displaced inside their own country.
QUINN: Shame on our politician. Shame on our country. Shame on the United Nation also.
During the 2015 election campaign, TNPF activists have been getting arrested by the police on false charges and released the same or next day, as a clear intimidation tactic. The police also filed a case against the TNPF recently in a similar vein. The TNPF is by far the strongest opposition to the TNA. Their pro-Tamil stance has been vindicated clearly, so the actors who stand to benefit most in hindering the TNPF are: TNA, Southern Lanka, and India. Coverage of TNPF on the most popular Tamil news websites is also conspicuously absent, while there is frequent coverage of the TNA. The same is still true of Jaffna-based Tamil-language newspapers. But these built-in pro-TNA biases are not enough to save the TNA entirely from their past promises and from their recent deceits coming to light.
Most recently, it came to light that the UN, through its NYC-based Under-Secretary General's office, had secretly worked on an agreement with the SL govt to make the process for investigating 2009 war crimes, which is expected to follow the September release of the OISL report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for HR, an entirely domestic process. Dubiously, the UN agreement with GoSL included the Northern Provincial Council, even though the plan was never shared with the NPC Chief Minister. Sources on the ground indicate that the real story of the agreement is that TNA Leader #2 had been secretly consulted by the UNP based government on a completely domestic mechanism for war crimes investigation and development funding disbursement. It would isolate Tamils from the international community and make them dependent on Colombo entirely. Because Colombo has been blocking reasonable efforts by the NPC to get funding for development projects and to demilitarise for the purposes of carrying out those projects, the NPC Chief Minister sought money from international institutions such that funding would come directly to the NPC without going through Colombo and its manipulations. Upon hearing this request, the Resident UN Coordinator for SL updated the secret UN plan to include the Northern Provincial Council. It would allow TNA Leader #2 to borrow the social credibility that the NPC and its Chief Minster C.V. Wigneswaran have built up, and when Tamils become unhappy once they know about the domestic process in the future, TNA Leader #2 could blame Wigneswaran. Because TNA Leader #2's secret domestic deal is an insult to Tamil people and would exacerbate the injustice they face, and that it goes against what Wigneswaran stands for, he publicly raised a red flag that he did not want to touch that plan with a 100 ft. pole. Meanwhile, because everything is in secret, TNA Leader #2 can get away with claiming that he has nothing to do with the plan. TNA Leader #2, if he were motivated enough, would even consider showing up to a meeting of NE Tamils agreeing that an international investigation of 2009 war crimes is essential just to be able to use that fact in his defense among Tamils in the future.
Many Tamils compare TNA Leader #2 to Amirthalingam, and the comparison is apt. Amirthalignam inherited the leadership of the TULF after Chelvanayagam passed away, and through strange electoral politics, the TULF became the opposition in parliament. Amirthalingam got caught up in playing politics instead of carrying out the TULF policy enshrined in its manifesto of the year before in rejecting the political structure of GoSL. Amirthalingam squandered a good opportunity in Tamil history to democratically assert Tamil grievances. The TNA leadership, too, has come through the backdoor to his position of influence -- they were the only group that had any claim to be recognised as leaders among Tamils. TNA Leader #2 continues to work solely within the boundaries set by his Colombo-based Singala politician friends through deals that he keeps secret from the Tamil people of the Northeast. The difference between Amirthalingam and TNA Leader #2 in squandering the Tamil political strength is that TNA Leader #2 is supremely arrogant about his ignorance, but Amirthalingam wasn't at all. Their fate in history will be similar, though -- a footnote reserved for people who weren't even good politicians, let alone true statesmen. TNA Leader #2 will be judged more harshly, as is fitting. It takes someone with a head as big as his to not be tired from the constant mental gymnastics he does.
A new development during this electoral cycle is the introduction of a party led by former Uthayan editor N. Vidhyatharan that is comprised entirely of former LTTE cadres, called Crusaders for Democracy. The more candid Tamil activists who have commented on this development have said that Vidhyatharan is naive and is being propped up by people working behind the scenes. Many have pointed out that Tamils are politically astute, and will not endorse this party even if they endorse the goals and dedication of the LTTE. Tamils have historically been able to separate electoral politics of people with LTTE affiliations from what the LTTE symbolise to the people. If and when this Crusaders for Democracy party gets soundly rejected by the Tamil voters, the party will receive the majority of its media attention as a sign that the Tamil people reject the LTTE. It is argued that this is the real reason that people are interested in propping up this party. Any party or organization whose name or motto contains the words "democracy", "good governance", etc., it is a good sign that such a party has strong backing from the US. It is very well possible that Crusaders for Democracy has Western backing. And if that were the case, it would backfire, since Tamils would recognize the duplicity and think even more negatively of the West and international institutions which continue to fail them and prop up the perpetrators of anti-Tamil genocide. After all, reports indicate that the US government was well aware of the intent to kill Tamil civilians wholesale much earlier than we thought, which means that whatever Robert O. Blake admitted to BBC Sinhala about his culpability is just scratching the surface. These injustices need to be redressed for true peace to prevail in the region.
If the US is behind Crusaders for Democracy, as well as the renaming of the UNP-led coalition from UNF to "UNF for Good Governance", it is an interesting attempt to introduce concepts to their respective vote bases that have fallen by the wayside. For Tamils, the LTTE was run undemocratically, albeit with a sense of progressiveness in the direction of Western liberalism, in a way, similar to the late Lee Kuan Yew. Meanwhile, Southern Lanka has a party with "good governance" in its name, and Southern Lanka, since its independence, has been an illiberal and backwards nation whose genocidal racism drive itself poorer, more violent, and more paranoid. Curing Southern Lanka of racism is a much harder task than convincing Tamils to vote (which they already do).
But I believe that the US ultimately can and will be a force for good in the region in the long run. The US will make win-win positive changes if, and only if, it sincerely addresses the Tamil national aspirations that is guaranteed within an appropriate political structure for the island. Until meaningful progress is made and conveyed, Tamil patience for poor leadership -- TNA or otherwise -- will rapidly dwindle, Tamil cynicism will reach new heights, and India will continue to be an obstacle on the road to progress.