By Lorenzo Fiorito and Sowjeya Joseph
An abundance of caution has led us backwards. This is the time for prudent, bold leadership – to bring the Tamil people’s aspirations forward.
“There was the armed militant movement to totally free India from British rule….The others were promoted as moderates and liberals who were prepared to advocate… independence without jeopardizing British national security interests in India….So you promote moderates…who will talk with the state, never press for radical restructuring….By the way, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was a strategy to erase this divide – a strategy out of my own thinking.” – Dharmeratnam P. Sivaram in Mark Whitaker, Learning Politics from Sivaram p. 152
The upcoming Sri Lankan Parliamentary election marks a potential crossroads for the Tamil nation. The TNPF (Tamil National People’s Front) and TMTK (Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kootani or Tamil People’s National Alliance) now credibly contest the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to represent the North-East region. The primary question of the election is: which party is the most trustworthy to advance the Tamil people’s political aspirations? While 2020’s elections are unlikely to provide a resounding victory to any single party, Tamils’ political trust in a long-term national vision will decide the North-East’s electoral direction.
1. Political Failure of TNA Leadership and its Strategy of Stalling
An over-cautious political strategy since 2009, mainly associated with the TNA, has clearly failed. In 2015, this attitude provided Tamil backing for UNHRC Resolution 30/1. The cardinal features of 30/1’s “reconciliation” narrative included allowing Sri Lanka to investigate itself, and recommending that Sri Lanka voluntarily establish a hybrid court to prosecute its own war crimes – all while refusing to mention the word “Tamil” even once.
This strategy also abandoned prosecutions for genocide, together with the exercise of the right of self-determination – attempting to mark these as politically “taboo.” Tamil Diaspora groups with close connection to the TNA advanced their narratives within these predetermined limits. Today, calls for genocide prosecutions and Tamil self-determination are mainstream – but they were sidelined at the crucial time of negotiating the Resolutions.
Calls for a hybrid court led to setting up no court at all. Resolution 30/1’s extension in 2017, under Resolution 34/1, has merely resulted in Sri Lanka’s abandonment of the UN process.
Today, the TNA has little to no political leverage within the Sri Lankan parliamentary system, being reduced to the status of a mere spectator. Furthermore, it works unscrupulously with the very Sri Lankan politicians who are accused of war crimes.
The feeling prevails that leading figures of the TNA use the Tamil people’s plight for their own political careers. The question of the Tamil people’s aspirations remains: and this will determine how the electoral process develops. The Tamil people, through whatever means available to them, repeatedly endorse the principles of the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution.
“The Tamil National Alliance has been made out to be more than what it actually is. If not for a variety of external pressures, it would have imploded at inception. Contrary to the chief myth about the TNA, that it is managed by the Liberation Tigers, some of its leading politicians have had no scruples in running with the hare and hunting with the hound. They have no scruples in smartly exploiting the LTTE for their own political advantage. If you ask me, some of them wouldn’t even care two hoots for the struggles and aspirations of the Tamil people.” – Sivaram, ‘Tamil Parties Cannot Play Coy in a Corner’ Daily Mirror 2 Nov 2004.
2. Sri Lanka as a Failing State: The Opportunity to Renegotiate Tamil Political Status
These elections have a unique geoeconomic backdrop. Sri Lanka has recently issued record levels of unsustainable sovereign debt. Within the last few months, all three main ratings agencies (Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch) downgraded Sri Lanka’s credit ratings. Additionally, COVID-19 has added heavily to Sri Lanka’s debt troubles.
A sustainable debt-to-GDP ratio is often listed at 40% for developing countries. The IMF estimates current public debt for Sri Lanka at well over double that ratio – finding nearly 90% in early 2020, with about 62% of GDP going to external payments. Even while trying to portray Sri Lankan bonds attractively towards potential buyers, Bloomberg’s Quint added on May 18, 2020:
“The South Asian nation was downgraded deeper into junk territory in April by Fitch Ratings, which said the pandemic will worsen its already-rising debt sustainability challenges. Sri Lanka in March joined emerging-market nations whose debt is in distressed territory. Its dollar bonds have lost about 48% this year, more than any other country in Asia.”
Previously, such extreme debt levels prompted bailouts from China; today, they predict severe recession for the first time since at least 2001. An economic downturn, combined with slow recovery in tourism due to Covid-19, means less job opportunities. In such dire economic distress, any state relief will naturally favour the majority population. The disparity between development levels for Tamil and Sinhala regions on the island will deepen.
Tamil-speaking Muslims cannot expect equal treatment to Sinhalese people either. Especially since the Easter attacks, the religious community suffers official discrimination under the Sri Lankan government’s pro-Buddhist policies. The emerging failure of Sri Lanka as a state only worsens the status of the Muslim minority population. These voters may reassess their priorities under such conditions.
Sri Lanka exists because of a tacit founding principle – described as a “pre-constitutional agreement” – that Tamil and Sinhalese nations would coexist under the same government. The Soulbury Constitution marked the first attempt at such an agreement; while the Vaddukoddai Resolution marked the end of Tamils’ consent to that arrangement. Political leaders could capture the imagination of the Tamil people, by expressing their plans to renegotiate this pre-constitutional agreement – invoking the Thimpu Principles in the spirit of 1976.
In this light, proposals for a Global Tamil Advisory Committee to coordinate the Diaspora and the homeland, to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and to conduct an internationally monitored referendum to ascertain the Tamil people’s political will, take on renewed meaning and urgency. Sri Lanka’s membership at the UN should be reviewed; its threat to withdraw from UN mechanisms is evidence of growing pariah status.
Into August’s elections and beyond, the Tamil Diaspora may continue its role as a strong partner to renegotiate Tamil political status, rather than enabling opportunistic politicians and maintaining the status quo. Inspirational, determined, and tactically astute political leadership can leverage Sri Lanka’s current crisis to foster the Tamil people’s aspirations and improve their livelihoods – free from oppression and violence.
Lorenzo Fiorito (LL.M) studies international dispute resolution, with a focus on investment arbitration and sovereign debt. Sowjeya Joseph (LL.M) is a German-qualified lawyer working with a leading investment bank. Both authors are members of the Tamil Diaspora. They are based in London.