Tamil Parties Need To Get Their Act Together

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 9 2021
Columns Tamil Parties Need To Get Their Act Together

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The fact the six-nation Core Group has modified the Sri Lanka resolution draft weeks before the UNHRC vote could well mean that they are still short of the required numbers. Negotiations and compromise(s) are what it takes for winning a vote in the international fora, yes, but in this case, either the West are lagging in the numbers or want to make a stouter plea than thus far. Either way, it is becoming increasingly acrimonious, and equally personalised – against the ruling Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, that is.

Nearer home, TNA chief R Sampanthan has reportedly issued a statement backing the new draft. The statement, going by some Tamil Media reports from the North, also carry purported attestation by the leaders of the three political parties constituting the TNA (Tamil National Alliance). However, Selvam Adaikalanathan, veteran parliamentarian and president of the TELO constituent of the Alliance, has reportedly distanced himself from the TNA commitment or attestation. 

Going again by Tamil Media reports, Selvam and his party want to stick by the original demands, made jointly by three separate Tamil alliances last month. Apart from TNA, the TNPF (Tamil Nationalist People’s Front) led by ACTC leader Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam and Tamil People’s National Alliance (TPNA) leader, C V Wigneswaran, comprise the three-party grouping. They all had affixed their signatures to a common draft letter, and met with envoys of many UNHRC member-nations in capital Colombo.

Call it a letter, memorandum or what, the three alliances together wanted the UNHRC to take Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC), impose sanctions, etc, etc. These were the possibilities that sections of the international NGOs had propagated in the weeks prior to the UNHRC session. They had also found their way to the Tamil social Media, and seemingly captured the imagination of a certain section of the community, nearer home and overseas. 

However, even as the memorandum was being finalised, issues did crop up, both over the form and content, not only on what (all) should go into the document and how. There were seeming ego clashes, too, otherwise dubbed ‘principled protests’ not only over the first draft, but even over what was conveyed through emails among the peers who were supposed to be talking over their differences in ideas and wording. They promptly found their way to the nation’s over-active Tamil Media even before the contentious issues at hand got publicised.

It is inevitable that such differences should crop up. That is in-built into any democratic polity, which Sri Lanka has been. But wantonly ‘leaking’ selective portions of the same to the local Media is not democracy, but mischief. If the forgotten post-war talks between the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister, and the TNA failed at the time, it also owed possibly to selective and wanton leakage of the proceedings to those outside, by a few on either side of the ethnic divide. 

Thank God, there was no social Media at the time. But newspaper websites, both inside the country and outside, carried updates on what was happening, but selectively so. This was among the causes for the failure of the talks. All this at a time when both sides had purportedly agreed not to talk about the progress of the negotiations and also the contents until they had wrapped them up.


Negotiations are all about give-and-take. Selective leaking of parts of negotiations can create a wrong impression about the calibre and even the credibility of the negotiation team among the stake-holders. At the end of the day, the negotiators represent only the stake-holders. Their personal stakes are limited to their being a part of the stake-holder community. 

Suffice is to point out that during those talks between the Mahinda leadership and the TNA, rather afterwards, came a time when the so-called Tamil civil society took over the job of dictating terms to the TNA negotiating team, in what was all but a public exchange of views. Sampanthan and his team members were summoned to Mannar by the local Catholic Bishop, and were held to account for the negotiations that were still inching forward. 

They were told in no uncertain terms that they could not move forward without specific clearances from the civil society on specific issues. Translated, the course that the TNA had to adopted would have meant that they would have to convey the stage of negotiations to Mannar every half hour if not more frequently from the Colombo venue, and Mannar in turn would tom-tom it, among the North, East and Colombo Tamils. 

They may have been spared the job of keeping the multiple Diaspora groups updated. Someone or the other from within the negotiations team was/were believed to have been doing so from the venue itself. Ditto it seemed to have been from the Government end, too. Someone was likewise keeping hard-liner Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups updated. This was beyond what the head of the Government team might have been expected to do vis-à-vis the President or his pointsman from outside the negotiations team and venue.

More nuanced

If this is the fate of domestic talks of a highly sensitive kind, international negotiations are much more nuanced. As newspapers have been reporting every time a contested resolution on the nation came up before the Council for vote, there is even an UNHRC procedure for a line by line reading, amendment and alterations. Invariably, consensus evolved earlier between the chief movers of the resolution and a new group of nations not unwilling to commit themselves, is sought to be introduced at this stage.

Alternatively, the nation that is the target, and/or its supporters and their Permanent Representatives (PR) – better still, the latter’s deputies, with instructions from the respective Home Office bosses – challenge almost everyone of the lines in the draft text, come to a consensus conclusion, or continue to contest the same, as the case may be. Every challenged portion or procedure is voted upon, then and there, without waiting for the final vote.

Then only comes the final vote towards the closing days of the session concerned. Then again, more amendments added on. Barring possibly the title, or at times even the title, might have been changed by then. Such is the tooth-comb approach that the international community uses to debate and dilate on every resolution draft before voting upon the same.

Tamil dichotomy

The problem within the Tamil polity and community is this. Some want to appeal to the international interlocutors as being knowledgeable. They are not always popular with the local constituency. There are others who are popular with the constituency, or want to remain popular. The international community or their representatives do not have time for them.

There are such other third and fourth classes within the Sri Lankan Tamil polity. The third one bothers only about what sections of the Diaspora had to say and hear. In a way, they are a mouth-piece, or possibly a postman, a telephone. The other is unconcerned about who is the speaker and who is the listener. They keep saying what they think is the right thing. Their problem is that they always think that they alone are right. 

No marks for guessing. The larger problem however is that these worthies have remained glued to the chairs for years and decades. New generations of Tamil voters and youth have cropped up under their very nose. New situations have emerged, post-war. Whether you want a pacific political solution or a provocative confrontation with the State structure and the majority Sinhala community, these worthies keep mouthing only the same old tale, starting from Donoughmore Constitution, circa 1931. Bringing them to the real world of the LTTE and Velupillai Prabhakaran, and the war’s end – and up to the present day and moment, comes with its own cost, in terms of time, energy and lost focus. This has also been among the multiple causes for successive failure of the Tamil efforts at convincing the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity nearer home, on the one hand – and the international community, since.

Ideology, approach

At present, as always, the Tamil polity continues to be divided, in terms of ideology and approach, understanding and achievable goals. This has meant that they need to manipulate some, and get manipulated by others. In this case, the manipulation of the Tamil polity comes from overseas – both the Diaspora and the international community. Manipulation by the Tamil polity is targeted at the larger community of Tamil voters, war victims included.

That is also the crux of the Tamil predicament, almost from Day One. The late S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, after losing the post-Independence parliamentary poll from the Northern Province in 1949, sought to create the North-East merger cause. Then and since, whenever attempts are made to look at both as a common entity, it is not just the Sinhala South and the Sri Lankan State that feel wary. Their apprehensions flowed only since the commencement of the ethnic wars, much later.

But both before the SJV to LTTE times (no comparisons or links need be made), the Tamils of the North have always looked down upon those from the East. The Jaffna Tamils, rather the Jaffna Vellalars want to be seen and acknowledged as the sole custodian of the Tamil ethnic identity and cultural inheritance. 

They cannot, then and since, share the honours with even other Tamil-Vellalars, the land-owning class. That includes even those Vellalar Tamils from the islands off Jaffna. So, the question of their accepting anything said by an Eastern Tamil does not arise. So much so, even the recent P2P, the successful Tamil unity walk – or, the unity walk of Tamil-speaking people, comprising all religious identities and denominations, had an anti-climax of an end. The suppressed North-East division cropped up after a point, leading up to embarrassing situations and avoidable skirmishes. Who then can blame the Sinhala polity and Sri Lankan State on the re-merger issue?

Sad, but true.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 9 2021

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