The presidential election must trigger a movement if it can help Tamils win rights

-TU Senan

Thanks to Colombotelegraph

On the surface this election looks like one that Tamils just have to get past and then think about how to fight the decades old repression they face in Sri Lanka. But beneath the surface the frustration with the failure of the Tamil parties to offer a way forward is leading to discussion and debate on what is needed. Lesser-evilism is all that the TNA can offer but that still means evil for Tamils – and for all those at the sharp end of government policy from war to chauvinism to privatisation. Only a new approach, based on removing not just individuals but the whole gang at the top, is necessary.

Although seemingly unusual event, the endorsement of the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the main Tamil party in Sri Lanka – did not come as a shock to anyone. It reflects the lack of a way forward in the fight for the rights of Tamil-speaking people of the TNA and all the Tamil parties. However, while the TNA are long-time allies of the UNP, (which is the main component of the UDF), this time the decision was not a straightforward matter.

There was an attempt by other Tamil parties to trap the TNA in a position of standing on the core demands of the Tamil-speaking people. All six main parties (1) came together for a discussion to agree 13 key demands. These included the basic democratic demands over which the Tamils have been protesting for years such as land rights, the release of political prisoners, an answer to their questions about missing persons, and also the national rights of Tamils and a war crimes inquiry into the genocidal slaughter of 2009.

As on many occasions in the past, despite all the Tamil parties signing up to an agreement, the common position didn’t even last a day. The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) rejected the 13 demands on the basis that the proposed new constitution was not included. The other five parties signed the 13 demands and pledged that they will only support a presidential candidate who supports these demands. But soon after the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), which is the main component of the TNA, made a unilateral decision to support the UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa and announced it, even before the other two parties that are part of TNA – TELO, PLOTE – were ready to come out with their public statement. Of course these parties succumbed to the ITAK’s pressure and now the TNA as a whole has endorsed the pro-capitalist UNP candidate.

The attempt to ensnare the ITAK in a principled position failed again – as expected. It is now clear to many that if it was up to the ITAK leaders, the meeting to agree the 13 demands(2) would not even have taken place. They took part in this meeting with the aim of channelling everyone towards supporting the UNP. The TNA’s self-imposed “theoretical” guru Mr Sumanthiran said he asked the meeting “will you agree to vote for Gotabaya if he agrees to this demand?”. He explained the rationale behind this question with his usual Machiavellian argument. He explains that Gotabaya could get away with agreeing to these demands and the UNP cannot – hence there is a greater chance of Gotabaya agreeing. One cannot but wonder at his political shallowness. Of course Gotabaya took no time in not only rejecting all these demands but also stated that he will not even bother to meet with Tamil leaders to discuss these demands. There is absolutely no question that neither Gotabaya nor Sajith, who compete to be the most credible “Sinhala Budhist nationalist – pro military” candidate, will agree to these demands.

Getting their agreement was not the aim it seems. Some of the organisers of this meeting of the Tamil parties hoped to pull the Tamil parties into a principled stand, using the election as an opportunity. Their aim was to set them on a different path of mobilising and building up a fight. But Sumanthiran & Co had a different plan. He claimed that the discussion was about choosing one of the “winnable” candidates and from the start by default all rejected the question of a boycott. From their point of view there is no way any Tamil leader can come out endorsing Gotabaya – so the obvious choice will be to end up supporting Sajith. As this plan of ITAK leaders failed, they made a unilateral decision to stick with their original decision.

There are two main reasons for this decision that are cited by the key leaders of the TNA. While they aim to ride the mood of ‘lesser evilism’ that has developed among Tamils, they also argue that the Tamils will benefit from the new constitution proposed by the UNP. The UNP’s manifesto states that the “devolution and the electoral systems begun by the parliament will be completed without delay”. Unlike the TNA’s false claim that it is accepted by all parties in Sri Lanka, even the UNP could not come to an agreement on this in the last parliament. The Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) already rejected the proposals. The UNP manifesto also claims that the devolution will protect the “unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence of our motherland”. And that the final decision will be made via referendum. Those who follow Sri Lankan politics will know well what that means. All the UNP-led changes to the constitution are aimed at securing their own vote base and more liberalisation of the economy in the interest of the big bosses. So-called change in electoral system is a form of gerrymandering that has already been exposed by many. In addition, the UNP manifesto already stands for establishing more free economic zones – which are already proven to be areas of super-exploitation. Their so-called labour reforms are a cover for a further curtailment of labour rights – including an increase in the pension age to three years.

Responding to the UNP’s not-so-new proposal, the Mahinda clan puts up its usual twits and claims, “Like the draft constitution, the UNP presidential election manifesto also aims to turn Sri Lanka into a loose federation of virtually independent provincial units.” (4) While rejecting the UNP proposal the SLPP manifesto says nothing new about the constitutional change that they are planning except that it re-stressed that the “unitary state” will be preserved and a “foremost place to Buddhism” will be given. The TNA’s full endorsement of the UNP proposal of a constitution is what made the TNPF adamant to include the rejection of it as part of the 13 demands. However it should be noted that both the TNPF and the TNA are disingenuous in their arguments. The TNPF knows well the position of the TNA and only concentrates in “nailing them” in the discussion – and the TNA in turn knows well that the demand such as the right to self-determination stands in contradiction to that of whatever they openly endorse with the UNP. Both did not want to reveal their true intention – which is to promote their own party position within the Tamil community.

Bizarrely Mahinda Rajapaksa writing on this issue of constitution, claims even Former Chief Minister of Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran, “rejected such devious and dishonest attempts to play around with words” in relation to the usage of the term “unitary state”. But Wigneswaran rejected the UNP’s proposal for a totally different reason to that Mahinda is citing. C.V. Wigneswaran’s objection, despite being a former judge, is not about constitutional aspects but an attempt to expose how the Tamils are being fooled with no real benefit being proposed.

Wigneswaran and his relatively new party Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK) have taken a strong decision to reject all the main candidates standing in the election. In the official statement released by the TMK they identify Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party as the only exception and welcome Jayasuriya’s acceptance of the 13 demands. While all the candidates have rejected these demands Siritunga Jayasuriya made a statement to the press that these demands were already part of the USP’s manifesto and the political programme that he is standing on. He asked why the Tamil party leaders have so far ignored this fact. Wigneswaran, who is considered to be the most popular politician in the North, did not fail to recognise this.

However the TMK statement will have left Tamil voters unclear on the question of who they should actually vote for. It asked the Tamil voters to choose, taking into consideration “objective and subjective factors”. While correctly pointing out that Tamils cannot vote for any of the main candidates, it fails to indicate what factors Tamil voters should consider. But this may change in the coming days. At the time of writing this article, further meetings between Siritunga Jayasuriya, and TMK and EPRLF are being organised. Apart from the TNA leadership, almost all the Tamil parties are in favour of voting for Siritunga Jayasuriya. Even Sivajilingam, the only Tamil candidate standing in the election who is in favour of Siritinga, publicly stated that he had voted for Siri in the past and he is their best ally.

This is unprecedented in the history. While this development may come as a shock to many, it is important to understand why this is taking place. The political representation for Tamils is supressed to the extent that it is virtually nonexistent. As Siritunga himself put it, the election is all about the south – and who is the real “Sinhala leader”. Gotabaya is reported to have said that he doesn’t need Tamil votes and that he can become president with Sinhala vote alone. Tamils cannot bring themselves to vote for someone who is known as “the butcher of Tamils” – or the other candidate who is the son of “murderer” and defends all that the Mahinda Family did in relation to the Tamil genocide.

This is not to claim that the Tamils have all turned to socialist policies, but they have been pushed into a corner and therefore forced to examine their strategy and perspective and ask how can they advance their interests. Siritunga and his party, the United Socialist Party, have an unshakable history of standing firm for the rights of Tamils. The recent book that they have published, ‘The Tamil Eelam People’s Struggle – A Marxist View,’ had a shock effect among those who read it. It is a collection of Tamil translations of articles written in Sinhala over the past three decades at every crucial historical juncture. The uncompromising position that has been put forward by the USP, has won enormous respect not just among Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also in Tamil Nadu and in the Diaspora. It is important to note that this has not been done on the basis of compromising any of the rights of oppressed Sinhala population. Siritunga strongly rejects the idea that the whole population in the south are inherently racist as some of the hard nationalists claim. Instead he explains how the tops of the Buddhist clergy and the capitalist politicians whip up Sinhala nationalism to establish their own support base. They have no road to better living conditions to offer ordinary workers and young people. But while standing firm on all the rights of oppressed sections in all communities, Siritunga has shown it is also possible to stand firm on for all democratic rights of Tamils, including their national rights. This is the position – and a lesson that the “left” in general had so far ignored and fail to adopt. The USP is the only party that attracts activists from all communities in Sri Lanka.

But this process should not stop with the election period. The TNA does not enjoy mass support as was the case between 2009- to 2013 period. Its leaders no longer can walk in the streets of Jaffna unprotected. The hatred that exists against Gotabaya may push significant numbers of Tamil voters to register their protest with Sajith. But Tamils choosing the lesser evil does not mean a direct endorsement of the TNA leadership. Only the brutality and repression by the Sri Lankan Sinhala nationalist government since the war has allowed the TNA to maintain its support on the electoral plane. They do not command real support. This is for a good reason. The majority of the Tamil workers and youth now understand the lies and bogus political nature of TNA leadership. The TNA’s close collaboration with the UNP has helped to expose their class nature ie whose interests do they really represent. Most Tamils – particularly the politically active layer – are in search of a better alternative, a search that will lead them to an uncompromising fight for their rights. This is driving them towards a better perspective and strategy.

Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917 which saw the power to run society in the interests of all not just the elite taken into the hands of the working class for the first time in history. He recognised that the fight for national rights had to be linked to the fight for the rights of all oppressed workers and young people and explained that “nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. This outer shell needs to be broken to embrace a real strategy to advance all demands of Tamils rights.

What Tamils demand now may look “utopian” to the eyes of those who consider themselves “practical thinkers”. But it is not practical for Tamil-speaking people to live a life of repression and exploitation with the future of their young people in jeopardy. It is of course “unachievable” while the Sri Lankan state is maintained in the interest of the richest in society on the basis of pandering to “Sinhala Buddhist nationalism”. Without breaking the capitalist Sri Lankan state no advancement in Tamil rights is possible. Wining Tamil’s rights and breaking with capitalism are intertwined – an understanding that is not a new wisdom in the Tamil struggle. Almost all the militant organisations formed during the late 60s and 70s put forward this position in one way or other. However this was not developed into a clear strategy with a far-sighted and internationalist perspective – and the price that the Tamil youth pay for it is too high. To achieve what now looks impractical and unachievable, we must come together to strengthen our struggle with a clear programme and strategy. A campaign to build a mass organisation of all workers, youth, farmers, Tamils and oppressed sections must be initiated without delay. We must appeal to the trade unions, to the members especially, to take up a clear class struggle position. Despite their past history, the unions that is increasingly taking a militant direction is the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU). Student unions, fishing workers and farmers, workers in free trade zones, and all those who have been waging a brave battle against privatisation and horrendous conditions, should come together as one force.  A mass organisation democratically organised with a federal approach, would mean allowing all organisations that agree on a basic programme of struggle to come together in one platform. It is this alternative that will provide a real choice of all oppressed in Sri Lanka.


  1. Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK), TNPF (Tamil National People’s Front), Eelam’s People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF),People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO).
  2. 1. Recognise the individuality of the Tamils and grant a Federal Constitution2. Proper investigation must take place through ICC and allied organizations with regard to war crimes, human rights’ violations and genocide carried out at the concluding stages of the War3. Abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act

    4. Release all Tamil political prisoners

    5. Enforced disappearances – Justice to be found through International mechanism

    6. Resettlement of our People on Private and State Lands after evicting the Forces

    7. To stop immediately Sinhalisation, Buddhistisation and Sinhala Colonisation in the North and East taking place with State connivance

    8. Jurisdiction of Mahaweli Authority and the application of the provisions of Mahaweli Development Scheme in the North and East must be terminated forthwith

    9. Moragaskande Irrigation Scheme and its recent programme of Sinhala Colonisation of the Vanni must be stopped

    10. Expropriation of People’s lands and illegal construction of areas of worship

    11. Legal obstacles placed on our youth and others receiving help from diaspora and elsewhere must be removed

    12. Priority to locals in obtaining jobs

    13. To proclaim North and East as war affected areas and set up an Independent development mechanism under the supervision of Elected Representatives of the People