In a show of strength and solidarity, five Tamil parties in Sri Lanka recently came together and put down their expectations of presidential candidates seeking their support in the November 16 election.
The initiative, led by students of the University of Jaffna and the Eastern University in Batticaloa, culminated in a 13-point proposal.
Call for federal structure
The demands include evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a “separate sovereignty” status for the Tamils and their right to self-determination; conducting an international probe of war crimes; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; stopping Sinhala-Buddhist “colonisation” of the north and east; and enabling investments from Tamil diaspora to enhance development in the war-affected areas. Leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam — which are constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — along with two other groups signed the document.
The Tamil National People’s Front decided to stay out of the exercise. Its leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam accused India of backing the initiative in order pressure Mr. Gotabaya for its own interests in the island, in countering China’s. The TNPF also called for a boycott of polls, arguing that choosing a candidate solely to defeat Mr. Gotabaya weakens the Tamils’ bargaining power with little certainty that the alternative will deliver.
However, students who led the effort offered a different perspective. A decade after the war, the community is still struggling to move ahead and the Tamils ought not to stop engaging, in their view. “The demands reflect our collective aspirations. We felt it was important to articulate them in one voice. We first looked at individual proposals from the different parties and then combined them based on several rounds of discussion,” said S.P.S. Babilaraj of the Jaffna University Students’ Union.
Neither of the two main contestants — Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa — has so far agreed to engage on the demands that some, even among Tamils, deem unrealistic, given past experience. The position of the Tamil leadership, particularly the TNA — the main political formation representing Tamils of the North and East in Parliament — is being closely watched.
The TNA has so far not declared support for any candidate explicitly. According to its leader R. Sampanthan, the demands broadly reflect the contents of earlier, historic agreements on the national question signed by the Tamil leadership with popular Sinhalese leaders.
In 2015, the Tamil vote from Sri Lanka’s north and east, along with the Muslim and hill country Tamil votes, played a major role in dislodging then President Mahinda Rajapaksa by backing common candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
Today, the Tamil constituency and leadership are disillusioned. While acknowledging the incremental gains made in the last five years, they point to the many failed promises of the incumbent government. The average Tamil voter may yet not to be ready to cast her vote for a Rajapaksa but the other options do not seem particularly enticing either.
However, the Tamil vote — about 18 % — could make a difference. And that is why some worry that a boycott — like the one enforced by the LTTE in 2005 — would strengthen Mr. Gotabaya’s bid, much like it did his brother’s then.