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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Sri Lanka: Tamil party vows to work with Sinhalese, Muslims | M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 11 May 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy


A Sri Lankan Tamil party that has paid a heavy price for consistently opposing Tamil Tiger politics has pledged to work with all communities in the island nation while resisting racists and supremacists from all sections of society.

The Social Democratic Party of Tamils (SDPT), the successor to the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (ERPLF), has called for a full and proper implementation of the India-backed 13th amendment to the constitution that devolves powers to all provinces in Sri Lanka. It also wants appropriate devolution to Muslims and the Tamils of Indian origin employed in the tea estates.

These are among the decisions the SDPT took at a two-day Congress held in April in Jaffna. The meeting was attending by many long-time members of the ERPLF including those whose family members were killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) before the latter was militarily crushed in 2009.

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka remains badly divided politically since the destruction of the LTTE. Some sections, while publicly refraining from talking about an independent Tamil state, remain glued to the LTTE’s nihilistic politics. There are others who pay lip service to the LTTE and its founder leader Velupillai Prabhakaran but are firm members of the Sri Lankan political system. And there are others who have never had any love for the LTTE – and continue to be so. The SDPT comes in the third category.

The SDPT has vowed to engage in united actions with all progressive and democratic parties working among the Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim as well as Upcountry communities (so-called Indian Tamils) with a view to strengthen provincial governance, ensuring social and democratic rights of all, and to oppose efforts that undermine the rights of the minority communities by the government as well as Sinhala and Tamil chauvinist parties.

The SDPT’s decision marks a welcome public departure from the narrow-minded politics the LTTE pursued for long, alienating both the Sinhalese and Muslims in particular, and deepening the ethnic divisions in the country. The LTTE not only killed anyone even within the Tamil community who did not agree with its militaristic outlook but also killed non-combatant Sinhalese and Muslims simply because they were not Tamils. It is this indiscriminate murderous politics that finally contributed to the ultimate destruction of the LTTE.

The LTTE’s annihilation has not done away with the Tamil-Sinhalese divide. This was so very apparent when Tamils largely stayed away from the mass movement called “Aragalaya” that toppled then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022. The widespread thinking among the Tamils in the north and east of the island was that they had for decades suffered from shortages of vital necessities (the main issue which brought people to the streets in Sri Lanka) due to the government’s blockade of LTTE territory but the Sinhalese never bothered about it. Surprisingly, many Sinhalese in Colombo felt that the nationwide shortages was the outcome of their “karma” because they had never paid heed to the Tamil suffering all through the war.

The Tamil community today remains divided over the 13th amendment. Those who lean towards the LTTE’s way of thinking believe it does not provide answers to the problems faced by the Tamils while more and more people are taking the stand that the 13th amendment can be a good starting point to enjoy devolution within a united Sri Lanka. The SDPT’s thinking mirrors this view.

One of the SDPT programme outlines the current situation in Sri Lanka well: “Sri Lankan people were divided by the racist political forces from all communities. (The) 30-year civil war further damaged the ethnic harmony. Since the end of the war, there has not been any serious effort made to strengthen understanding among the communities or establish equality for all communities. In recent times, there is also an effort by some sections from all communities to instigate religious conflicts. To combat this continuing trend, all progressive forces and those who are committed to social equality should work together unitedly.”

A SDPT member explained that the party has always maintained cordial relations with traditional Sri Lankan Left parties including the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). The SDPT will also deepen its relations with other Tamil parties, both in the north and east as well as the tea estates, besides Muslim groups and the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), Sri Lanka’s most influential leftist party whose appeal has spread hugely since the 2022 “Aragalaya”.

Sri Lanka is expected to have a presidential election most probably in October this year. This will be followed by parliamentary elections. But the SDPT strongly believes that genuine devolution to the Tamils and other minorities will only arise out of provincial and local body elections. These latter elections alone will devolve powers to the local communities. In the northern province (which is made up of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaitivu districts), this will dominantly mean Tamils; in the multi-racial east (Amparai, Trincomalee and Batticaloa) this will benefit Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese, in that order. Today, only Batticaloa is a Tamil-dominated district in the east; in the other two, Muslims (who while speaking Tamil constitute a separate group in Sri Lanka) form the single largest group.

The SDPT saluted the “Aragayala” uprising which it said was a movement that arose primarily due to corruption, nepotism in the ruling elite and the economic hardships faced the mass of people. “Despite its limited success, the same corrupt ruling political classes retained the reins of the government. If corruption and misuse of powers of the rulers continue, it will be inevitable that there is be (another) uprising again.” Incidentally, this mirrors the stand of the JVP.

The SDPT also touched upon the continued militarization of the northern and eastern provinces (earlier known as the traditional homeland of the Tamils) and the military’s refusal to give up large areas of land belonging to the Tamils that were taken over for security reasons during the war.

Finally, among other things, the SDPT has come out strongly against the rampant bottom trawling and other methods of unlawful fishing practices by fishermen from Tamil Nadu that has led to tensions vis-à-vis the fishing communities of northern Sri Lanka. The issue has also generated tensions between Sri Lanka and India, with sections of the Tamil Nadu political leadership not acknowledging the mistakes of the fishers from the state and refusing to stop bottom trawling which is destroying the marine resources of Sri Lanka and in the international waters.

The ERPLF was one of the earliest of Tamil militant groups that was born in response to increasing Sinhalese majoritarianism in Sri Lanka. At one point it worked with the LTTE but the relationship was short-lived. The ERPFL ran a government in Sri Lanka’s northeastern province when the Indian Army was deployed in that country in the 1980s. The LTTE massacred the EPRLF leadership, including its founder leader K Pathmanabha (who incidentally was an admirer and friend of the late Nikhil Chakravartty) in Chennai in 1990. Later, one section of the EPRLF sided with the LTTE while the other section remained resolutely independent and called itself the ERPFL Pathmanabha. It is this group that later transformed into the SDPT.

A small section of the delegates to the Congress demanded that the party drop the “Tamil” at the end of its name since vast sections of the Muslims will feel uneasy joining hands with it. No decision has been taken on that point as of now.

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