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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Tamils in Sri Lanka: Losing Relevance

Monday 18 February 2013, by Apratim Mukarji


Sri Lankan Tamils were the least surprised and shocked when President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his Independence Day address on February 4 quite bluntly ruled out granting any kind of political autonomy for the Northern Province.

This also marked his quietly reneging on his oft-repeated assurance to the Tamils and the international community that he remained fully committed to facilitating the “13th Amendment plus” approach to solving the ethnic issue. The 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978, introduced in the aftermath of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, is a provision to provide regional autonomy to the country’s tightly-held unitary system of governance. It is regarded as an acknowledgement of the political aspirations of the Tamils of north-eastern Sri Lanka. The “13th Amendment plus” was Rajapaksa’s way of conveying that he would go beyond the constitutional provision to satisfy the Tamils’ aspirations.

The very first indication that the President’s real intentions were quite contrary to his public posture was available on January 30, 2012 when he bluntly denied that he had ever promised to go beyond the 13th Amendment and said that the Parliamentary Select Committee would have to suggest a solution to the issue.

This was followed by the President’s brother and all-powerful Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, calling for a repeal of the 13th Amendment, further clarifying the government’s true intent as far as the Tamil aspirations were concerned. The government also undid the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and twice held elections to the Eastern Province, thereby installing a government of its choice.

However, its efforts to repeat the exercise in the Northern Province have so far failed, for the overall purpose of neutralising the Tamil National Alliance, which remains independent of Colombo’s influence, through an election to the Northern Provincial Council cannot yet be successfully fulfilled.

Interestingly, however, after the rout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, Rajapaksa elaborated on his promise, saying on various occasions since then that he would reveal at an appropriate time his solution for the Tamils’ aspirations. On February 4 last, he revealed his solution: it would involve “equal rights to all communities”. He added that it was not practical for Sri Lanka to have “different administrations based on ethnicity. The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities.” Obviously, nothing special for the Tamils was ever in his reckoning.

By finally being honest about his policy, Rajapaksa has merely reaffirmed the majority Sinhala community’s aversion to the 13th Amendment, historically looked upon in Sri Lanka as an Indian diktat despite its obvious untruthfulness. This was the principal reason why it was never implemented in the case of the north-east, at the time peopled principally by the Tamils. Following the Accord, a Tamil-dominated Provincial Government was set up but it was never allowed to function normally by the LTTE and its various militant Tamil opponent groups. Its premature death was ensured by the fierce war between the Indian Peace Keeping Force and LTTE that ended with the departure of the IPKF in mid-1990 and the resumption of the war with the Sri Lankan armed forces.

During this writer’s recent visit to Sri Lanka, it was made adequately clear to him that the Tamils in the Northern Province were not at all expecting the President to honour his commit-ment. Instead, they were looking up to the United States and India to continue to pressure the Sri Lankan Government in the matter.

Suresh Premachandran of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) sounded completely helpless in the situation that Rajapaksa had quite skillfully created in the aftermath of May 2009. “The Jaffna peninsula remains a virtual occupied country under the Sri Lankan forces,” he said. “The LTTE camps have been taken over by the Army which says that these are now theirs. Army cantonments are being set up all over the peninsula. While roads and other infrastructure are being built all over the territory, these are principally to facilitate Army movement. No industry is being set up. No plans are being implemented to generate employment, which is the crying need of the war-ravaged, completely devastated peninsiula. When international banks and big Sri Lankan banks came to open branches in Jaffna, everybody thought that at least credit would be available to resume agriculture and trade. But within four years the banks have virtually retreated. On the other hand, canton-ments are being set up primarily on fertile land, further constricting the scope for reviving farming.”

D. Siddharthan of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) provided an interesting insight into the situation. He said that the President had “given up” on the Tamils and was totally with the majority community. “He is not a racist per se but an out and out politician and, therefore, a good manipulator.” Echoing the phrase “occupied territory” in describing today’s Jaffna peninsula, he said that Tamils there were under constant surveillance. The Army was everywhere and had to be invited even to family functions, not to speak of functions and programmes in schools and colleges. Any gathering of Tamils was automatically suspect and must, therefore, be under the physical scrutiny of the Army.

Throughout the post-May 2009 period, a quietly executed demographic change is taking place in the province. Tamil properties, long abandoned during the ethnic war, are being allocated to Sinhala settlers. Buddhist temples are coming up in the peninsula to facilitate Buddhists to offer prayers there. Even internally displaced persons, now wishing to return to their homes, are at times being told that they can no longer get their properties back as these have been taken over for security purposes. The Tamils’ common allegation is that these are actually being handed over to Sinhala settlers.

The mainstream Sri Lankan media scarcely reflect the Tamil aspirations, and it is rare, virtually impossible, to see any reference to the still unresolved question of facilitating political autonomy to the largest minority community. Now with the President coming out clean over demolishing all Tamil hopes of a fair deal, the question will perhaps lose all relevance. So will the Sri Lankan Tamil community as well, finally rendered irrelevant in the political discourse of the country. “Young Tamils living in the peninsula want to go to the West,” said Siddharthan. “The so-called boat people are increasing in numbers. Emigration is going on at a faster pace. The young do not see any hope for themselves in this country.”

The author is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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