Recently, a discussion was held at the Thanthai Selva Kalaiyarangam in Jaffna to foster unity among Tamil political parties. It was organized by a North-East civil society group called the People’s Petition Committee. Two political analysts and a journalist presented their views there.
The former Vice-Chancellor of Jaffna University. Prof. Pon. Balasundarampillai, presided over the discussion where most of the audience were politicians and political and social activists. Leaders of important North-Eastern Tamil parties also attended and listened to the speeches. The forum gave an opportunity to convey the need for unity.
In the last few days, political observers expressed opinions in the media. Some Tamil newspapers commented on it editorially. But most Tamil politicians didn’t seem to have cared much about it. There is no news that they have made any comment in public about the discussion at Jaffna.
There have been various criticisms about the background of the concept. Some media even claimed that some embassies encouraged the civil society group to organize the debate. Be that as it may, what is the need to find fault with the civil society’s concern for reunification among Tamil parties?
On the one hand, there is the question of how practical it is to bring Tamil parties together in the current situation, while on the other hand, there is the question as to how essential unity is, in a situation where political parties are badly divided and scattered.
Political analysts, journalists and even politicians often say and write that the path to move the struggle for the political rights of the Tamil people to the next level in the post-war period should be sanely and soberly followed by learning proper lessons from past experiences and applying them to the contemporary domestic and international situation.
But most of the time, no one, especially politicians, can claim to have learnt lessons from past experience and acted accordingly. In fact, as the German philosopher Hegel said, the only lesson we learn from history is that no one learns from history.
Although it is the wish of the Tamil people that the leaders of the Tamil parties should work together to find a solution to their problems, the reason why it cannot emerge as a popular demand at the present moment is because they have largely lost faith in Tamil politicians and their activities.
Following the rejection of the legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil people by the First Republican Constitution (the 1972 constitution) brought into being during the United Front Government led by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, the leaders of the Tamil parties of that day forgot their party political differences and formed the Tamil United Liberation Front to carry forward the struggle for Tamil rights.
Never before in the political history of Sri Lankan Tamils have the Tamils seen such a passionate urge for unity among the Tamil parties. After a half a century, there is now talk of unity, when a large section of Tamils is still struggling to return to normal lives after experiencing great destruction and loss of life in the three-decade long civil war. And yet, 15 years have passed since the end of the Civil War and Tamil political unity remains a mirage.
Immediately after the end of the war there was no cohesive polity among the Tamils of the North and East. The main reason for this was the suppression of the activities of the moderate political forces during the armed conflict.
During the armed struggle there were no moderate Tamil political leaders with courage and tact to prevent the armed movements from dominating all aspects of the Tamil liberation struggle.
There were also armed movements in the African National Congress, which spearheaded the black liberation struggle that ended White apartheid rule in South Africa. But those armed movements were never able to bring the entire freedom struggle under their total control.
It is unfortunate that there was no such situation in the struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The formation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was the result of realizing the importance of the activities of the moderate political forces to present the political justifications of the struggle of the Tamils to the world at large.
The end of the war saw the leadership of the Tamils coming automatically to the TNA which was formed by uniting many Tamil parties during the war. The TNA had the historic responsibility to fill the political void that existed among the Tamils. The Tamil people had no choice but to participate in democratic political processes. The North-East Tamils had no choice but to vote for the TNA in the elections. That situation has continued till date.
What remains among the Tamils today is a fragmented polity. The leaders of the constituent parties have failed to build the TNA into a powerful political movement. They have failed to fulfil the responsibility that history cast on them.
Even Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, who has more than six decades of political experience, could not handle the role that Tamils expected him to play. Having the acceptance of all the member parties, he should have embraced everyone beyond party political machinations and protected the TNA as a stable political movement. But he has failed to do so.
Although it was nominally an alliance, TNA’s leaders always thought in terms of the interests of their individual parties and personal interests in parliamentary politics but did not think and act with the vision to build a movement that could guide the Tamil people on the right path in the difficult period after the war.
All these parties, including the Ilankai Thamizh Arasu Kadchi ( ITAK ) historically known as the Federal Party hoped to test its individual influence among the Tamil people in the local government elections. But there was no chance for that as local elections were postponed indefinitely.
All the Tamil parties are seeking a political solution to the ethnic problem based on the Federal system. Other than the Tamil National People Front (TNPF) led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam MP, all Tamil parties are demanding that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution be fully implemented and Provincial Council elections be held as an interim measure. A key strategy for these parties is to seek the support of the international community for this goal.
Apart from that goal, there are many issues agitating the Tamils such as land grabbing and Buddhistization of the Tamil areas spearheaded by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinist forces with the support of the government and the army . The aim is to change the demographic pattern of the Northern and Eastern provinces.
It is painful to see that the Sinhalese polity, despite its enormous contradictions, is together on what should not be given to Tamils, while the Tamil polity is unable to unite and demand what the Tamil people need.
Finally, it is imperative for Tamil political leaders to take into consideration the fact that the Tamil society of today in the North-East does not have characteristics that a society that has undergone unimaginable suffering for three decades of the liberation struggle should have.
What the Tamil people need today is a new vision for the future, not just approaches or activities that keep them emotionally tied to the past.