New Trends in Tamil Politics
Posted on August 14th, 2020

By Sumanasiri Liyanage Courtesy Ceylon Today

A Gazette revealing 196 new members of the Parliament who have been elected at the Parliamentary Election held on August 5 is out. We have to wait to know the names of the rest of the parliamentarians until respective parties announce their national list members.

Election results show a new trend in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. The so-called Sri Lankan Tamil parties contested only in two provinces, Northern and Eastern that they claimed as their ‘traditional homeland’. What do the Election results signify? How should we read them?

Results of the Northern and Eastern Provinces 

Although Sri Lanka is divided into 25 administrative districts, when it comes to the Elections it has only 22 electoral districts. Just have a look at the relevant 4 districts, Jaffna, the Vanni, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. 

On the basis of these results, Tamil National Alliance (ITAK) is entitled to get 10 seats including one on the national list. 

Most notable result is that the TNA stalwart Mavai Senathirajah failed to win in Jaffna District. And more interestingly, it lost its traditional position as D B S Jeyraj noted ‘the accredited premier political 

configuration of the Northern and Eastern province Tamils’. How do we read this electoral failure of the TNA? The TNA was closely associated with the Yahapalana  Government between 2015- 2019 and the main factor that mobilised the support for the UNP-led front at the Presidential Elections in 2015 and 2019. TNA and its conciliatory policies were strongly questioned by C.V. Wigneswaran of the TMTK and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of the ACTC. 

These two parties represented in the Election as a radical Tamil alternative to the TNA that has failed miserably to either win constitutional reforms on a federal framework or obtain from the Colombo Government an adequate package of welfare and social development to Tamil people. It appears that Tamils were tired of their rhetoric that they firmly reiterate that they stand for Tamil rights, to eliminate their grievances and to fulfil their aspirations. 

Most interestingly, in the last five years, they equally defend wittingly or unwittingly economic policies based on the fundamentalist version of neoliberalism advocated and implemented by the Yahapalana regime. Hence, the people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces naturally shared the same disappointment and discontent as the people, especially poor people, in other districts about the policies of the last Government. Therefore, the Election results should not be read in isolation since island-wide economic downturn had affected people irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. 

The disappointment and discontent with the TNA and its association with the UNP seem to have generated in the parliamentary sphere two new trends in Tamil politics breaking the TNA’s almost monopoly position in Tamil politics after the defeat of the LTTE. 

The first trend that is represented by C. V. Wigneswaran and Gajendran Ponnambalam appears to stand for a separate state and eventually they will seek an internationally supervised referendum among the Tamils to decide if Tamils decide to stay in Sri Lanka or to leave it. They may also strive to drag the Sri Lankan Government to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In this respect they would closely work with the Tamil diaspora in Western countries. Moreover, they would try to pressurise the Indian Union Government by linking with radical groups in Tamil Nadu.

The most interesting developments in Tamil politics that was reflected in the Election results has been the emergence of a significant trend that is supposed to work with the Sri Lankan Government seeking economic development, employment and increased social welfare. This pro- Government section is represented by Douglas Devananda and Kulasingham Dileepan – Eelam People’s Democratic Party; Angajan Ramanathan – Sri Lanka Freedom Party; Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan- Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal and Sadasivam Vyalendran – Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. Initially, we have this kind of Tamil politics had been very much isolated from the Tamil people. 

It may be too early to come to a definite conclusion on the issue of strengthening of this conciliatory political tendency and what would be its future. One may attribute this development to policies of former president Maithripala Sirisena who adopted conciliatory policies especially on the issue of land by handing over Government occupied land back to the people although the issue has not yet been completely resolved. Similarly, his choice for the post of Northern Governor a Tamil speaking person might have facilitated the Government’s contact with the people. What would be the policies of the new Government towards Tamils and the social and economic developments of their traditional habitats may be crucial as far as the future of these three tendencies is concerned. 

TNA spokesperson, M.A. Sumanthiran’s appeal to other Tamil representatives to work together for uniform Tamil cause may not work immediately as pro- Government tendency would try to strengthen their line of approach through compromise and consultation. So far, an extreme version of identity politics has dominated in the traditional habitats of Tamils with almost no positive results. The Election results of 2020 seem to have raised an issue if the economistic politics can take the lead over identity politics. It may be too early to answer this question as the outcome depends on multiple factors.     (The writer is a retired teacher of political economy at the University of Peradeniya. E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com)

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