The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) performed exceptionally well in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election on August 17. But as it prepares to negotiate with the new government on behalf of its Tamil electorate on a political settlement, accountability and demilitarisation, it is up to the Tamil public, civil society and the Tamil diaspora to keep tabs to ensure the TNA remains true to the mandate given by the voters.
Elections to parliament followed a presidential election on January 8, which saw the shock defeat of the corrupt and violent presidency of Mahinda Rajapakse. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who came at the head of a coalition which the TNA helped place in power, pledged to work towards restoring democracy and good governance through a 100-day programme. Last week’s parliamentary election was a referendum on the 100-day reform programme.
However, the focus of parties contesting Tamil-dominated northern and eastern Sri Lanka was in stark contrast to party interest in the Sinhala-dominated parts of the country. In the Northern and Eastern provinces, the main campaign debate was between the TNA and the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF). It concentrated on a federal constitution based on the right to self-determination for a political settlement, and for accountability for mass atrocities against Tamil civilians during the civil war that ended in May 2009.
The contest in the Sinhala south was mainly between Rajapakse’s United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. While both the UNFGG and UPFA had many differences, they categorically rejected the TNA and TNPF’s demands for both a federal constitution and international accountability.
Thus it was a deeply divided Sri Lankan polity with entrenched prejudices that went to the polls. Of the 225 parliamentary seats up for grabs, the UNFGG secured 106 (just short of a simple majority, but expected to form the government), the UPFA 95 and the TNA was third with 16, with other parties taking the residue.
While Tamils demonstrated their support to the TNA at the election, its failure to deliver on many needs of the Tamil electorate during the seven months of the Sirisena government has left its electorate worried. This is visible in at least three important areas of Tamil life.
First are the families of the disappeared. Disappearances of Tamil civilians had been taking place even before large-scale armed combat war began in the 1980s: some were abducted by unknown people, while others were arrested by the police and military. None of them were seen by their families again.
But disappearances following arrest crossed a threshold in May 2009. As hostilities wound down in the country’s civil war, around 300,000 people crossed from LTTE-controlled areas into government territory. Some of them were LTTE cadres others were civilians. They had to all register with the Sri Lanka military after crossing. In the weeks and months that followed an unknown number – said to be in the thousands – disappeared. They were taken by the military ostensibly for questioning. When they did not return, their families believed they were being held incommunicado in Sri Lankan prisons. In the following months these families began a mostly futile search for their loved ones.
Families searching for their missing loved ones hoped that the Sirisena government that was placed in office by Tamil votes mobilised by the TNA would help bring their children back. But they were sorely disappointed. The indifference of the government to the disappeared is summed up in the words of Wickremesinghe, who told a New York Times interviewer, “‘there are people who are missing whose names are not found anywhere,’ which, he said, means they either “are not among the living, or they left the country. That’s all.’”
Some families of the disappeared at least have got the message that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government does not care. But unable to avenge themselves on the government, they expressed their outrage at the Tamil parties, including the TNA. On the eve of the election at a protest, they said, “[t]hat they would not vote for anyone in this election or in any election until their missing loved ones were returned to them or they received news about them, the protesters condemned both the previous government and the present government.”
The second group of Tamils who have been disappointed with the TNA are those who believed that despite the TNA helping Sirisena to become president, it had failed to protect them from continuing human rights abuses. Their expectation of this from a political party and not the police is understandable because in the past the police have been a force of oppression of the Tamils, rather than an agency to enforce law and order.
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), headed the South African jurist Yasmin Sooka, details many harrowing cases in its July 2015 report . The report said, “organised abductions, torture and sexual violence by the security forces have continued long after the change of government and as recently as July 2015.”
The third group that entertains disappointment with the TNA is those who demand an international investigation for what the United Nations terms war crimes and crimes against humanity. The demand for an international investigation and trial before an international tribunal seemed possible when the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in May 2014 for a report one year later. While the presentation of the report has been now postponed to September, media organisations highlighted a leaked document where the UN’s Office in New York pre-empts action in September and outlines plans to set up a purely domestic inquiry into human rights violations.
Tamils – especially the victims – have consistently rejected anything other than a full-fledged international mechanism for the investigation and trial of the perpetrators. A survey by the British NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Truth and Justice of the survivors that had outlined the merits/demerits of different models for seeking justice for war crimes concluded that there was “clear support for an international and clear understanding that this mechanism had to be established by the United Nations.”
In the face of this, the TNA manifesto’s ambivalence on supporting an international mechanism to deliver justice for the victims provoked much irritation within the Tamil polity. The manifesto asked for “[a]scertainment of the truth … Truth, justice, reparation and the guarantee of non-recurrence … being comprehensively addressed so as to ensure permanent and genuine reconciliation between the different peoples on the basis of justice and equality.”
The uproar this statement provoked had the TNA scrambling to reassure the voters that it stood unreservedly for an international investigation.
In the light of these developments, it is now up to the Tamil voters, Tamil civil society – especially organisations such as the Tamil Civil Society Forum – and the Tamil diaspora to keep the TNA accountable and not deviate from its policy statements declared before elections. There are at least two areas where they should be vigilant.
The TNA has had a tendency to act in the past as a gatekeeper between the Tamil people and the world outside – be it with Sri Lanka’s central government institutions or the international community. As such, it sees its role as keeping the northern and eastern Sri Lanka stable and quiet, while procuring for the Tamil public its needs.
For instance, it is only a few TNA parliamentarians and provincial councillors who have been personally involved in grassroots-level organisation around issues such as returning private land occupied by the military in northern Sri Lanka while other leaders (unless canvassing for votes) remain aloof.
When it comes to protests on disappearances, the TNA generally leaves civil society organisations to support the families of missing persons. A well-documented example of this was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Jaffna during the November 2013 Commonwealth Summit. Rather than take Cameron to the place where families of the disappeared were gathered, thereby giving the survivors an opportunity to air their grievances to a powerful actor who could take their message to the international community, the TNA leadership chose to escort him away – a move that was later criticised by commentators.
The Tamil public and civil society have to temper the TNA’s tendency to have a patron-client relationship with its voters and keep reminding the party that it derives its power and legitimacy only from the people it represents.
The Tamil public has to also hold the TNA to the promise of pursuing international justice for mass atrocities. There are persuasive arguments that have been put forward that models other than an international investigation will be more expedient to establish. However, in the face of mounting criticism from its electorate the TNA pledged before the election to support an international mechanism and going back on it would be a horrendous betrayal.
What the Tamils expected from the TNA after May 2009 was unique. While legally it had to function as a political party within the Sri Lankan system, the Tamils expected the TNA to also negotiate with the Sri Lanka government as an elected representative of a people – of a nation if you may. Up to now the TNA has not played that role well. But with the TNA’s remarkable electoral victory emasculating other Tamil political parties, it is now left to the Tamil public, civil society and diaspora to be check on the TNA to compel it to stay on the straight and narrow.