During the heyday of the LTTE, the political demands of the Tamil polity which sought to realise the equality between the communities in constitutional form had the best chance of being realized through a negotiated political settlement. Through its military power on the ground the LTTE made up for what the Tamil polity lacked in terms of numbers as a national minority. It had bargaining power that came from achieving military parity. During the negotiations that took place during the period of war, the LTTE demanded parity of status at the negotiating table. There was a time when government agencies themselves began to create public awareness about the need for a federal or semi-federal arrangement that could bring an end to the war. There was recognition then, as there needs to be now, that any negotiated solution to the conflict had to be embedded in the constitution. A solution that is grounded in the constitution is needed so that it would not be subject to politically motivated changes following changes of government.
However, after the military defeat of the LTTE the Tamil polity no longer has the bargaining strength it had during the war. The TNA’s political manifesto can be seen more in the nature of a symbolic assertion of long standing Tamil aspiration to be considered as an equal community within the Sri Lankan polity. The reason it can only be symbolic is that at the present time the TNA faces a government and ruling party that has been propelled to power by the force of ethnic majority nationalism and may therefore be constrained in its ability to accept their demands as legitimate. Soon after his victory at the presidential election in November last year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that his government would not be looking for solutions in terms of the devolution of power, but rather in economic development. But until the issue of inter-ethnic power sharing and equity is resolved through a negotiated solution, the ethnic conflict will not be resolved and will continue to destabilize the country and blight its prospects for development.
The entire thrust of the government’s election campaign is to ask the electorate for a 2/3 majority to engage in constitutional change. The vision is to centralise power and not to share power. The failure of the last government to govern effectively is blamed on the constitution which had a system of checks and balances. The main reason for its failure was not the constitution, but the stubborn unwillingness of the two main parties in the government alliance, and their leaders, to work together. The constitution expected the principle of consultation and consensus to be followed rather than giving to one arm of the government the power to steamroll over the others. The 19th Amendment to the constitution, which is seen by the present government leadership as a problem, shared executive powers between the president and parliament and sought to insulate public institutions, such as the courts of law and the police, from political interference.
In seeking the repeal of the 19th Amendment the government is seeking to recentralize power in the hands of a single political authority. Little is realized that the removal of the 19th amendment concentrates the power in a single individual as against the parliament which is not be the best formula for good governance over time. The TNA’s election manifesto will be at variance with that of the government in its emphasis on the devolution and sharing of political power. However, with the government and its supporters confident of victory at the forthcoming general elections, the TNA (and other minority parties) need to find a second position to which they can fall back if their first position is rejected. This can be to demand equality of citizenship which is not limited to members of one community but extends to members of all communities. There is a need to build constituencies on the basis of equality of opportunity and equal rights.
In this regard it is worth noting that government leaders have been prepared to affirm their support to the concept of equal citizenship, at least symbolically so far. As witnessed in the United States, where the campaign that “Black lives matter” has taken the centre stage, there needs to be a recognition by the members of the permanent ethnic majority towards those who are permanent ethnic minorities. In his inaugural address President Gotabaya Rajapaksa observed that he had been elected by the votes of the ethnic and religious majority and the voters of the minority communities had not voted for him. Even so, the president pledged to be the president of all Sri Lankans, even of those who had not voted for him. In a like manner, when he announced the government’s withdrawal from being a co-signatory to UNHRC Resolution 30/1 on achieving reconciliation in Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka.” These are public pledges and commitments to which government leaders can and need to be held.
Last week I spent three days in the Jaffna peninsula with my colleagues from the National Peace Council to attend three meetings with different civil society groups. The looming general election was not on their minds and speculations about the outcomes and consequences of the victory of one party or the other did not figure in any of the discussions. Traveling on the road and by ferry to one of the Jaffna islands was no different and brought no sign of an ongoing election campaign. This may reflect the reality that the people of Jaffna have no great expectations from the elections and those who may get elected. They may be feeling that their lives will not change whichever party governs the country. Therefore, they are not much enthused by the ongoing election campaign. Their desultory sentiments regarding elections may also be fed by what they have perceived over the past 70 years of independence. However, it was also clear that the Tamils as well as the other minority groups desire to live as citizens in Sri Lanka as brothers and sisters in a land where all enjoy equal rights and opportunities, in an inclusive, harmonious society of a united and peaceful Sri Lanka.
One of the noteworthy and less positive features of the forthcoming elections is that none of the major political parties has had much to say about how they propose to address the protracted ethnic conflict. This is the main national question that has dogged post-independence Sri Lanka for the past seven decades and led to war and destruction and to human rights violations that continue to take a prominent place in the international human rights discourse. In the face of elections, the national political parties appear unwilling to address the challenge of community rights posed by the TNA. In the alternative, they should at least address the issue of equal citizenship posed by the people of the North. Unfortunately, the current election campaigns that are being conducted in the North by a variety of political groups are more divisive and the outcome would mean a fragmented mandate that would potentially undermine attempts to negotiate with the government from a position of electoral strength.
In all the meetings we had in Jaffna, the issue of equal citizenship came up. The community groups we met with spoke of the problems they faced due to shortage and ramshackle state of the ferries and buses that served them, of the lack of fresh water due to the problem of over extraction of water resources by outside parties, of Indian and southern fishermen who had privileged access to fisheries resources and sand mining by vested interests. They wanted the law and the government to give them what they believed it gave people in the rest of the country, and to protect them equally. It behooves the national political parties contesting the elections to guarantee equal citizenship to all as the basic and fundamental commitment in the government they hope to form. Considering how Sri Lanka has slipped internationally in terms of development, governance and human rights considering our top position in 1948 when we received our independence after four and half centuries of colonial rule, every political party and their leaders need to take this responsibility upon themselves.