In politics or war, one should not give ammunition to the enemies. But Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran who is also the Spokesman of the Tamil coalition has given not just a little ammunition, but an ammunition dump, to his opponents in the North, which the latter seem to be using against him these days, liberally.
The Tamil political parties rival to the TNA are gunning for Sumanthiran after he made a conciliatory statement on the resolution of the ethnic problem through the proposed new Constitution at a meeting held in Sinhalese dominated Galleon August 30.
Responding to a question by a participant of the meeting whether Tamils needed only Federalism, the TNA Spokesman had replied in the negative but explained what they stood for which in fact was Federalism, in essence.
The question posed to him at the meeting might definitely have landed him in a Catch-22 situation.
In a mainly Sinhalese audience, had he answered the question in the affirmative he would have faced a barrage of hostile questions.
On the other hand, he would have to face the wrath of his Tamil opponents and rivals, in the event he said ‘no’ to the question.
The UNP and the SLFP, which faced a humiliating defeat at the February 10 Local Government elections are not likely to take a risk at the next national elections by giving into the TNA demands, in their effort to resolve the ethnic problem
Thus, he seems to have chosen not to give an emphatic yes or no answer, but to explain his party’s stance, with a slight pacific slant towards the audience.
“We need not a solution in the form of a Federal set up. Neither do we demand a separate State, which we have abandoned in order to live in an indivisible country.
Therefore, it would be sufficient to make amendments to the Provincial Council system that would provide for the devolution of power in a manner that all communities would live with equal rights,” he had explained, according to Thinakkural.
The event was a seminar organized to create awareness on the progress of the Constitution-making process under the current regime and the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that was to be presented then, in Parliament by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It was the seventh in a series of such meetings.
Two days later, on September 1, Tamil newspapers went public with the story with a headline “We don’t want a Federal solution – Sumanthiran says in Galle.”
The news item with this headline was carried in Tamil newspapers at a time when Sumanthiran had become a thorn in the flesh of the opponents of the TNA, owing mainly to the fact that he was the one who countered most of their criticisms.
Besides, he is always in the news due to his relatively media friendly and conciliatory approach, apart from his knowledge in all three national languages.
The story might have been treated as a stroke of luck, especially by C.V.Wigneswaran, the Northern Province Chief Minister and Suresh Premachandran, the leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), which broke away from TNA coalition last November.
They portrayed the statement as a betrayal of Tamils and questioned whether it was the official stand of the TNA.
They were joined by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the leader of the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF), which also had severed links with the coalition sometimes ago.
Besides, Prabha Ganesan, who is not representing either the North or the East, also had stated that Sumanthiran was planning to annihilate the Tamil Nation systematically.
The Northern rivals of the TNA took this as an opportunity to pit the other constituent parties of the TNA, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) against the main party of the coalition the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK).
They questioned as to what the response was of those two parties to Sumanthiran’s statement, forcing them too to disown it.
On the same day newspapers published Sumanthiran’s statement, he clarified his position at a meeting with the northern journalists at his office in Point Pedro.
He denied that he renounced Federalism, as the headlines of the Tamil newspapers had claimed.
“Replying to a question I said, as usual, that we don’t need the Federalism in the signboard or in wordings which have been distorted to say that I renounced Federalism. I never said and would never say that we do not need Federalism.”
The TNA has been attacked on the same issue – compromising the Federal demand- though not with the same vehemence, since last October when the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly was submitted in Parliament by the Committee Chairman and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The Steering Committee had compiled this report after perusing the reports presented in November 2016 by the six subcommittees that had been appointed by the Constitutional Assembly to recommend Constitutional amendments on various sectors.
The Steering Committee report is not a final document but one for public discourse, it was said.
On the nature of the State, the report had recommended using the term Aekeeya Rajayaya in Sinhala and Orumiththa Nadu in Tamil and both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists and extremists agitated against it.
Tamils said despite the fact that the Tamil term proposed was ambiguous the Sinhala term clearly represented the Unitary State.
The Sinhalese were up in arms claiming that the term Orumiththa Nadu was a subtle usage of words to hide the Federal form of governance, in spite of the Sinhala term denoting Unitary State.
The drafters of the Steering Committee report seem to have attempted to pacify both the extreme forces in the south and the north but the conflicting meanings of the Sinhala and Tamil terms provoked both the groups.
However, TNA leader R. Sampanthan accepted the formula saying that he was satisfied with the Tamil term Orumiththa Nadu and it was a victory on the part of the Tamils to call Sri Lanka an Orumiththa Nadu.
From then on the TNA leadership was of the opinion that tags and labels used to describe the nature of the State were not important if the new Constitution provided for the adequate devolution of powers to the Tamils.
It was on this basis that Sumanthiran seems to have made his statement in Galle, but his blunt usage of words backfired.
He has been still defending the statement at various meetings. This incident points as to what an ordeal the moderate politics has to undergo in the face of its respective extremism.
When it comes to the ethnic problem and Constitution-making, the Governments – present as well as past – also have been facing the same fate, as both parties of a problem have to compromise their stances if they are to come to a just and durable agreement.
As an exception, President J.R. Jayewardene had to bulldoze through the Opposition, when he introduced the Provincial Council system, the only Constitutional change that was made in respect of the ethnic problem.
The TNA would have a further tough time ahead as the term of the Northern Provincial Council expires next month and the Government is preparing for the next Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.
NPC Chief Minister Wigneswaran is most unlikely to contest under the TNA at the next provincial council election in the light of the conflicts between him and the TNA leadership. This might push Wigneswaran further towards Tamil extremists.
On the other hand, the UNP, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of President Maithripala Sirisena which faced a humiliating defeat at the February 10 Local Government elections are not likely to take a risk at the next national elections by giving into the TNA demands, in their effort to resolve the ethnic problem.
Then, it would further strengthen the hands of the rivals of the TNA.