The recent regime change in Sri Lanka is hailed as a success story from various hold: from former peace envoys and heads of regional and international establishments, to Sinhala leaders from the left and right. The international media has also accordingly projected the electoral victory of Maithripala Sirisena as a ray of hope for the island in terms of national reconciliation. It is even being referred to as a model for democracy, by which we are told how a ‘reformist elite’ and the ‘fed up people’ can be rid of dictators.
All these representations have the deafening exemption of the Eelam Tamils and their national aspirations and grievances in common. The victory of Maithripala is a virtue from the perspective of external stakeholders, comprising of international and regional powers. On the strategically significant island, it effectuated the removal of the Rajapakse regime which had hitherto facilitated Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, destabilizing both U.S. and Indian geo-political interests.
In reality the new regime is supported by the ultra-nationalist JVP and constituted by the Sinhala hardliners from the zealous JHU, the center-left SLFP and center-right UNP; it is ostensibly a coalition government inclusive of all the major nationalist forces in the Sinhala polity. Nonetheless the fact that it is a broad coalition prompted the former Norwegian chief peace-mediator and western government officials to garland the new regime as an unprecedented and historic achievement for and by the ‘people of Sri Lanka’. The new regime, emboldened by the international laud, have repeatedly stated that they will not compromise on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of the Sri Lankan state by accommodating even the moderate Tamil claim of federalism and equal share of power.
The 6th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution effectively criminalizes Tamil national aspiration which articulates nationhood, self-determination and the recognition of a traditional Tamil homeland; the very principles of Tamil national democratic will and sovereignty, corroborated at various historical junctions including the Vaddukottai resolution of 1977. The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulation(ER) laws enforced upon the Tamils since 1979 and 1983 are still in place which provide the state with a legal mechanism to employ arbitrary arrests, torture and murder of Tamils in the name of national security. The military occupation in the Tamil North-East is hegemonic with an intimidating intelligence system in place to monitor the Tamil population. The post-war situation leaves little space for articulation of the political demands of the Tamil people as freedom of speech, assembly and association are systematically silenced.
All the political resolutions adopted by the Tamil people identify the unitary constitution and the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state as sources of national oppression, as it continually labels their national aspirations ‘criminal’ and ‘terrorist’. Therefore the Tamil people have consistently upheld their national sovereignty by rejecting Colombo’s claimed sovereignty over the Tamil homeland and by boycotting the Sri Lankan Independence Day with the hoisting of black flags. In a similar spirit following the conclusion of the presidential election, on 10th February the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), the only available politico-judicial body representing the Tamils unanimously passed a historic resolution. The resolution demands the international community to conduct an international investigation into the ‘historical and recent genocide’ of Tamils committed by successive governments of Sri Lanka (1). Such a resolution reflects the democratic will of the battered Tamils and is evidently in response to the intransigence of Sinhala regimes in addressing and accommodating Tamil grievances and interests.
The aftermath of the elections is marked by the disposal of the Rajapakse family from state power and the alleged restoring of independence to individual institutions, yet there is no meaningful institutional ‘reform’ for Tamils as the oppressive unitary constitution stays effectively intact.
The electoral contest itself was grounded in the discontent of the Sinhala people and colored by Sinhala nationalist-chauvinist rhetoric, and fought between two camps led by various sections of the Sinhala political elites. Despite the rivalry all pledge to preserve the unitary nation-state in crisis. In fact, the presidential election and its aftermath revolved mainly around two ‘external’ objectives, none reflective of the interests of Tamils: 1) Restoring legitimacy to the unitary Sri Lankan state, challenged through the international pressure concerning Tamil genocide and national question 2) Realigning the government of the Sri Lankan state with the geo-strategic interests of international and regional establishments i.e. U.S., India or China. The two objectives are interdependent. The triumph of Maithripala proves a formula for the symbiosis between external powers and the ‘liberal elite’ of Sri Lanka. Going to the extent of naming it a model for democracy is oblique as it obfuscates and denies instead of accommodating Tamil self-determination and nationhood- the pillars upon which the basic democratic expectations of the Tamil people is constituted.
Sri Lankan state sovereignty
Being undemocratically unified by British colonial rulers in 1833, the unitary state administration of the modern Sri Lankan state was established. In 1948, the British handed rule over to the English educated Sinhala elite. Citing state sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Sinhala elite extolled Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy and anti-Tamil racism among the Sinhala electoral to consolidate political power. This dynamic between the state, Sinhala chauvinism, anti-Tamil racism and elections would prove devastating, turning the island into the locus of national oppression. State propaganda promoted Sinhala narratives extracted from the 6th century Pali Mahavamsa canon and syncretized it with the Sinhala-chauvinist nationalist politics of the 20th century. Thus the conceptualization of the island’s history, the nation-state, and Tamil nationhood among the Sinhala people in the present remains strongly informed by Mahavamsa logic. It further ensures that the Tamil national question is denied in the name of Sri Lankan sovereignty and presented as a threat to the ‘nation’s’ territorial integrity and unity. The Sinhala elites have throughout 60 years of statecraft made it indisputable that the nation in concern in Sri Lanka is the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the state their natural inheritance. They and not the Tamils are the ‘sons of the soil’.
All the major Tamil political forces, including the LTTE upheld a position firm in the conviction that neither they nor anyone could secure Tamil sovereignty by remaining within the framework of the Sri Lankan state.
Despite Colombo’s clamor to principle of state sovereignty, the material conditions of reality during the armed resistance of the Tamils spoke otherwise. The very existence of a de-facto Tamil state within the island effectively invalidated the imaginary claims of Colombo. The Tamil self-rule was mobilized amidst over two decades of economic and medicine embargo perpetuated by Colombo. That Tamils practiced their sovereignty establishes the fact they are at present a beleaguered and occupied people bereaved of their self-determination, and the facilities to reclaim it.