This report argues that the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace.
The administration, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mahinda Rajapaksa, has refused to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), broken promises to world leaders and not implemented constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east. Militarisation and discriminatory economic development in Tamil and Muslim areas are breeding anger and increasing pressure on moderate Tamil leaders. Tamil political parties need to remain patient and keep to their moderate course, while reaching out more directly to Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and Sinhalese. International actors should press the government more effectively for speedy establishment of an elected provincial council and full restoration of civilian government in the north, while insisting that it commence serious negotiations with elected Tamil representatives from the north and east.
Many believed that the end of the war and elimination of the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) would open space for greater political debate and moderation among Tamils, while encouraging the government to abandon the hardline Sinhalese nationalism it had cultivated to support its war efforts and agree to devolve meaningful power to the majority Tamil-speaking northern and eastern provinces. While there has been an increase in democratic and moderate voices among Tamils, the government has failed to respond in kind.
Instead, it has adopted a policy of promising negotiations and expanded devolution in discussions with India, the U.S., and the UN Secretary-General, while denying these same things when addressing its Sinhala voting base. It has refused to negotiate seriously with TNA representatives, repeatedly failing to honour promises and ultimately breaking off talks in January 2012. Since then it has demanded that the TNA join the government’s preferred vehicle, a parliamentary select committee (PSC), a process clearly designed to dilute responsibility and buy time. Three-and-a-half years after the end of the war, President Rajapaksa continues to delay the long-promised election to the northern provincial council – elections the TNA would be nearly certain to win. Despite repeated public promises, the president has refused to grant even the limited powers ostensibly given to provincial councils under the constitution’s thirteenth amendment. Instead, he and other senior officials have begun to discuss the amendment’s possible repeal or replacement by even weaker forms of devolution.
Even as the government refuses to respond to longstanding demands for power sharing, Tamil political power and identity are under sustained assault in the north and east. While Tamil leaders and nationalist intellectuals base their demands for political autonomy on the idea that these regions are the traditional areas of Tamil habitation, government figures, including the president’s powerful brother and defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, follow a long line of Sinhala nationalist thinking and explicitly reject that the north has any privileged Tamil character. Military and economic policies have been institutionalising this ideological position with vigour.
The de facto military occupation of the northern province and biased economic development policies appear designed to undermine Tamils’ ability to claim the north and east as their homeland. For many Tamils, this confirms their long-held belief that it was only the LTTE’s guns that placed their concerns and need for power sharing on the political agenda. In the face of the government’s resistance to a fair and negotiated settlement, TNA leaders have come under increasing pressure from their constituencies to adopt more confrontational language and tactics. Growing demands for the right to self-determination for the Tamil nation and hints that separatist goals have not been permanently abandoned have, in turn, provoked harsh reactions and expressions of distrust from Sinhala leaders.
The situation is likely to remain difficult, with major negotiating breakthroughs unlikely in the near term. Nonetheless, the international community – especially India and the U.S. – should increase pressure on President Rajapaksa to significantly reduce the numbers and influence of the military in the north and hold credible northern provincial council elections in advance of the March 2013 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The president should also be pressed to agree to the TNA’s reasonable terms for joining the PSC and begin implementing the thirteenth amendment meaningfully. Effective and lasting power sharing will almost certainly require forms of devolution that go beyond the current unitary definition of the state. Yet if skilfully handled, the current political conjuncture, both domestic and international, holds out possibilities to convince the government to concede greater space and ratchet back some of the worst abuses.
For the TNA to improve Tamils’ chances of receiving a fair deal from the state and, ultimately, some significant degree of power sharing, it will need to articulate grievances and the value of devolved powers more clearly and in ways that larger numbers of the other main communities – in particular Sinhalese and Muslims – can understand and accept as reasonable. In particular, the demand for autonomy needs to be framed in ways that can reassure at least some large minority of Sinhalese that the threat of secession is no longer there. It is also important for Tamil political leaders of all parties to begin mending relations with Muslims, so badly damaged by LTTE killings and the expulsion of all Muslims from the northern province in 1990. The TNA should insist that Muslim representatives be given a central role in negotiations on expanded devolution of power.
Finally, the Tamil leadership needs to find both practical and rhetorical ways of building links between its struggle for rights and power sharing and the growing unease among Sinhalese at the corruption and abuse of power characteristic of the Rajapaksa government. The Tamil struggle for rights and freedom is likely to succeed only when the broader national struggle for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, including the depoliticisation of the judiciary and the police, has made substantial progress. Joining together efforts to solve the two different forms of the “national question” should become an imperative part of the struggle for Tamil rights.