THERE is a lot of churning going on in Sri Lanka. More than three decades later, a Tamil has become the Leader of Opposition in the island nation’s Parliament. Of course, R Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the third largest party – won the Leader of Opposition office not by virtue of numbers but owing to the decision of the first and second largest parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a consensus government. However, the very fact that TNA is the main opposition party in the 225-member Parliament and a politician of Tamil origin the Leader of Opposition evokes a lot of significance for postwar reconciliation of the Sinhala-dominated island nation with its largest religious and ethnic minority, the Tamils. The Tamils of Sri Lanka fought a war for a separate nation for decades under the banner of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the wounds the Sri Lankan military inflicted on the collective pride of the Tamils by decimating the LTTE and killing its main leader Prabhakharan are far from healed.
Sinhala political leaders of Sri Lanka never tire of saying that the war the Sri Lankan military fought was not against the Tamils but “a brutal terrorist outfit,” the LTTE. However, the sentiments among the Tamils are quite contrary. They nurse a deep sense of hurt and they want to see retribution as a means of restoring their lost pride. The Tamils are looking up to the TNA and Leader of Opposition R Sampanthan to fight for issues that the Tamils feel have been brushed aside by the other political parties. The TNA had the backing of LTTE and was accused of being their mouthpiece in Parliament. However, since the defeat of LTTE, the TNA has renounced separatism and expressed its willingness to accept regional autonomy based on a federal model. Nevertheless, as the TNA fights for regional autonomy, it is also expected to accentuate the pitch for the demand of the Tamils for an international probe into the last phase of the military conflict with the LTTE which ended five years ago, resulting in the Tigers’ crushing defeat.
The TNA has been asking the Sri Lankan government to allow an international commission of inquiry for which a US-sponsored resolution was adopted in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva with 24 countries voting in favour and India abstaining. The TNA held that the Tamils were victims of “grave abuses” committed during and after the war. It is highly unlikely that the new Sri Lankan government of consensus would allow an international commission of inquiry. The previous Sri Lankan government led by Rajapaksha had rejected the UNHRC resolution for international probe, saying that it was willing to engage international community on other issues of national reconciliation. It remains to be seen if the TNA restricts itself to making political statements demanding an international probe or goes further to lobby with the international community for putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to allow inquiry.
Where the TNA might achieve some success is outstanding issues pertaining to regional autonomy, such as real devolution to power to the regions of the country dominated by Tamils. The new government has sounded more accommodative than the past government. President Sirisena has taken a number of steps, including releasing military-occupied private lands to their owners in the Tamil-majority north and moving the military out of police and administrative functions, to promote reconciliation. He has promised to bring amendments to the Constitution by which the country will change to a parliamentary form of democracy from a presidential form. The Tamils would expect the TNA to fight for the reversal of the government attempts to change the demographic composition of the Northern and Eastern provinces and debasing the cultural and linguistic identities of these areas.
The Tamils have often been victims of prejudices of the Sinhala-dominated military and police. In the past, the LTTE would avenge “injustices” against Tamils, but now the TNA has to fight it through democratic means. Tamil women in the northern and eastern parts of the country have been highly vulnerable to sexual violence. The Tamils would expect TNA to put pressure on the new government to end the culture of impunity for those who attack the island’s religious minorities. That could promote reconciliation and generate a feeling of security among Tamils. The country has gone through a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people. Strong bridges need to be built between the Sinhalese and Tamils for the healing of wounds and establishing religious and social harmony. Violence of any kind must therefore find no place in the politics or society of the island nation