Protests of Sri Lankan Tamils must not be dismissed as extremism

By Dharsha Jegatheeswaran and Gajen Mahendra for

All pictures courtesy Tamil Guardian

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On Saturday September 24, Ezhuka Tamil, organised by the Tamil People’s Council, became the largest rally to happen since the end of the war in the North-East of Sri Lanka. Over 10,000 people took to the streets to demand an end to ongoing human rights violations, particularly militarisation and Sinhala-Buddhisisation of the North-East, reiterate their demand for genuine accountability and justice and voice their expectations regarding the ongoing political processes.

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The political elite in Colombo and their supporters elsewhere have however chosen to read Ezhuka Tamil as an expression of ‘Tamil extremism’. This response requires us to critically interrogate the nature of democratic spaces in post-war Sri Lanka available to the numerically smaller communities and more largely what our understanding of democracy is. This is very necessary if we believe in the need for public participation in the constitutional and transitional justice process currently underway.

Constitutional attempts to resolve the national question in the past have been largely elite bargaining exercises. If there is one lesson from these past failed processes that we should learn is the need for public participation in the process. Yet, the current process involving the National Unity Government and the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has, to date, remained an elite-bargaining process. Attempts were made at involving the people through the Public Representations Committee earlier this year. But it is our view that the PRC was a half-hearted process that did not honestly reflect the deep division along ethnic lines over institutional choices. The PRC as a result in its report has muted the overwhelming desire for deep-seeded state reform that arose from among those in the Tamil community that made submissions before it.

From a practical political perspective, there are obvious reasons why it would be strategically smart to conduct initial negotiations around the constitution within a closed circuit; so that politicians from differing sides could actually work together to iron out differences and forge compromises. However, 13 months after the new regime’s election, and 6 months after the first sitting of the Constitutional Assembly, this lack of transparency has gone on for too long. This is particularly in light of the rhetoric that has filled that empty space. Instead of hearing anything from the TNA, the Tamil people have been left to read news from senior members of the Government that Sri Lanka will remain a Sinhala-Buddhist unitary state. And in the South, that space is reportedly being occupied by Rajapaksa and his supporters who are setting the narrative for a vote against a constitutional referendum already.

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Adding to this is the fact that people in the North-East have not seen enough substantive changes to the human rights situation on the ground to maintain confidence in either the TNA or the central government. People continue to see the military entrench its presence and increasingly rapid Sinhala-Buddhisisation of the North-East, while the PTA continues to be in force and lands have yet to be released to hundreds of IDPs.

In many ways therefore, the huge numbers in attendance at Ezukha Tamil arose as a result of Tamil people’s frustration with the lack of transparency and consultation around ongoing constitutional and transitional justice processes and their consequent need to voice their rights and aspirations. In a democracy, in between elections, public civil demonstrations and rallies are often the only mode available to the average citizen in trying to hold their elected representatives accountable or influence their decisions.

The possible partisan political motives of some of those involved in the rally do not in any way negate the truth that over 10,000 people showed up to Ezhuka Tamil to demand their rights. Most of the people who came out for Ezhuka Tamil were not seeking to undermine the TNA, but similar to concerns raised by different sections of Tamil civil society, they wanted to hold their representatives accountable and ensure the current process succeeds. This in any context should be seen as welcome, particularly in a post-war society, as contributing to the deepening of democracy beyond electoral politics.

However, it has been very disappointing to see the Southern political and media reaction to such mass mobilisation. Rather than engage with the frustrations and legitimate demands underlying Ezhuka Tamil, prominent actors in the central government, the TNA and Colombo-based media have largely characterised the rally as voicing the concerns of “extremists”, “fringe” and “spoilers”. Last Friday, the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) hosted their own rally in response to Ezhuka Tamil appropriating much of the characterization by the Southern media of the Ezhuka Tamil rally as being “hardline” and “extremist”.

They even held up signs issuing death threats against Chief Minister Wigneswaran, despite the fact that in his remarks at the Ezhuka Tamil rally he clearly said the rally was not against the Sinhala people. But in response to this BBS rally, many of the reporters who quickly jumped to characterize Ezhuka Tamil as extremist have not pointed out the BBS’s racism or extremism, but rather painted the BBS’s response as an inevitable result of Ezhuka Tamil and the Chief Minister’s actions. Not only is this inaccurate, but also potentially putting the Chief Minister’s life at greater risk and overlooking the media’s own responsibility in portraying Ezhuka Tamil as an extremist movement. We would therefore like to address some of the main concerns underlying this response to Ezhuka Tamil directly.

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Mobilisation of the oppressed need not suit the oppressor

First, the argument being made by elements in Colombo is that the Ezhuka Tamil rally, or really any statements made by Tamils in the North-East stating the aspirations which are found in the TNA’s election manifesto, could antagonize nationalist elements in the South and undermine the entire constitutional reform process. The argument continues that therefore the people making those statements must be “spoilers” and according to some, aligned with the Rajapaksas.

This notion that mobilization of peoples being oppressed must be tailored to suit the politics of the oppressor is highly problematic. Legitimate Tamil grievances cannot be silenced or moderated in order to placate a dominant majoritarian Sinhala mindset, if the aim is to resolve the ethnic issue and find sustainable peace. Is this the kind of democracy Sri Lanka wants to build? Where Tamils in the North-East are not permitted to critique and engage with their politicians if they subscribe to different ideologies and strategic viewpoints because of fear that it will antagonize the nationalists in the South? The Colombo political elite should be careful about choosing their own preferred voices from the Tamil community and brushing all the rest as extremists.

The Constitution is not the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and cannot be slyly passed through parliament to attempt to avoid confrontation with the South. The measure of this constitution’s success cannot just be whether it gets passed in a referendum through tactical political alliances. It needs to be owned by the people. As mentioned earlier, if people don’t own the constitution the possibility of sustainable political change will remain slim. And to do that, Sinhala nationalism cannot be repeatedly avoided and shunted to a corner until it rears its head during the referendum. It must be tackled head on confidently by the central government.

The second critique that has been made of Ezhuka Tamil is that it was so politicized that the people who showed up were simply supporters of either the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) or the Eelam People’s Democratic Part (EPDP), and did not represent the true Tamil population or victims therein.

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That simply isn’t true. In the first place the EPDP supporters did not turn up to the rally and there is actually concrete evidence that the EPDP actively tried to turn away people from the rally. Yes the involvement of the EPRLF and TNPF meant that the mobilisation was politically motivated, as most mobilisations are. But many of the people who came out actually voted for the TNA in the last election and were coming out because they were frustrated with what they were or more accurately, weren’t seeing. And if you walked past the political leaders and their supporters who were at the front of the rally, you would see the sight of thousands of people from various civil society and victims’ organizations. Ezhuka Tamil provided them with a space to come together to voice their demands and concerns in a way they hoped would be listened to. Should their voices be dismissed simply because they were organised and not “organic” enough? If so, then who would like to explain that to the National Movement for Political Prisoners, to the families of the disappeared or to the displaced people of Valikamam North?

They came because they saw this as an opportunity to have a platform to voice their frustrations with the fact that the government still hasn’t addressed their grievances whether it be releasing political prisoners, land or building a credible OMP. We know it’s convenient for those in power to characterise the frustrations coming out of the North-East as belonging to the “fringe”, but it does a great disservice to the risks that victims and their representatives take to come out to these kinds of events and engage in political spaces to struggle for their rights.

The third critique that has come out about Ezhuka Tamil is with regards to its inclusivity vis a vis gender, caste and Muslims. This we agree is a valid critique to make and one we make ourselves. We encourage the organizers of Ezhuka Tamil, and generally Tamil politicians and civil society in general to work harder to adopt a more inclusive approach in such spaces. We are not asking those who support a Tamil nationalist ideology to reject that ideology, we just call on them to make the spaces they operate in more welcoming of diversity. We won’t go into detail here, but we are actively looking for ways to structure such dialogues in the North-East and there are many other actors occupying Tamil nationalist space who are similarly interested.

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Ultimately, Ezhuka Tamil was a legitimate demand by the Tamil people of the North-East for recognition of their rights and an expression of their frustration with being left out of the conversation on constitutional and transitional justice processes. The people of the North-East elected the TNA to represent them and to negotiate this new constitution. This doesn’t give the TNA a blind pass and it is critical that the TNA begins to honestly communicate with its constituents. Similarly, the central government should be doing the same with the South as the lack of transparency is felt acutely across the country everywhere except for Colombo. The rhetoric employed by those in Colombo circles casting out anyone who voices critique against the current process is unhealthy for building a democracy, and will limit the ability of the people of this country to take ownership over this process and ensure its long-term success, beyond a referendum or any particular regime.

Labeling Ezhuka Tamil as ‘extremist’ is we believe part of a larger attempt to tarnish and sideline the legitimate expressions of the Tamil people that create discomfort for the ways and means of Colombo’s political elite. It is an attempt to stilfe dissent through labels and a refusal to engage with the intellectual substance of the important points of dissent. Fear has governed Sri Lanka for over 50 years, and in many parts of the North-East continues to govern. But fear cannot and should not be allowed to govern the constitutional and transitional justice processes, otherwise we will simply be falling into a trap of political history. It is thus urgent and imperative that the process is made open and transparent to succeed in providing a sustainable political solution that finally gives the Tamil people their political aspirations and rights.

Dharsha Jegatheeswaran and Gajen Mahendra are Senior Researchers at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, a Jaffna-based Think Tank that commenced operations in September 2016