President Rajapaksa’s begrudging announcement of a Northern Provincial Council election in September has sparked an utterly predictable melee of impassioned responses to the 13th Amendment. The government is presenting an urgent bill to parliament, a minister is demanding a referendum to guarantee abolition, the TNA is aghast, a party of Buddhist monks is on the warpath, and an alarmed New Delhi is summoning the TNA for talks. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s main opposition, the UNP, is attempting to position itself as defender of ‘minority’ rights. This circus is a farce. Neither the 13th Amendment, nor the provincial council election, is of any consequence to the Tamil question. The 13th Amendment cannot address the immediate needs of the Tamil people in the North-East, or the political aspirations of the nation. Its presence, absence and anything in between is of absolute insignificance and irrelevance. That Tamils are compelled to reiterate this 26 years on, is testament to the dismaying lack of progress on resolving the conflict.
Four years into ‘peace’, that the only democratic choice available to Tamils is to participate in (and thereby endorse) this impotent charade, or ignore it and risk a pro-government or paramilitary Chief Minister, is deplorable. Being forced to seemingly choose between the lesser of two evils has been a recurring theme since the end of the armed conflict, and on each occasion, the TNA has felt compelled to oblige. Fear of exposing the Tamil people to increased oppression is understandable. Indeed, the predicament of Tamil political parties within a Sinhala ethnocracy is an unenviably, impossible one. Nonetheless, the TNA’s recent outcry against ‘dilution’ or repeal of the 13th Amendment, and its pledge to seek ‘maximum exercise of power’ should it lead the Northern Province is both misleading and misses the point - and as such, is reprehensible. The raison d'être of an oppressed nation’s representation must be to articulate and expose the oppression faced, not to be blinkered by its fig leaf. The TNA should actively engage with suggestions of alternative approaches to countering the challenges faced, and together with Tamil polity and civil society at large, form a collective, non-partisan strategy.
In line with previous deliberations on matters of inconsequence, what is telling is not the substance, but the various responses to it. Whilst the Tamil polity is arguing over the degrees of irrelevancy of the 13th Amendment to a final solution, the Sinhala polity is wringing its hands over the potential dangers of relevancy. Indeed, what the Tamil nation has consistently rejected as any answer to its political aspirations, the Sinhala nation has consistently refused to implement fearing that it may form a potential starting point. The UNP is no different. Its market-friendly, liberal persona, belies a consistent policy of trying to outstrip its rival on Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist credentials. The Sinhala Only act of 1956, the pogroms of ’77, ’79, ’81 and ‘83, and the nomination of the military commander General Sarath Fonseka, as 2010 presidential candidate, are cases in point. Since independence ‘competitive Sinhala chauvinism’ or ‘ethnic-outbidding’ has been the only way to win the Sinhala vote. The UNP, for all its liberal rhetoric, understands this dynamic only too well.
The current furore illustrates the irreconcilable contradiction which inhibits any possibility that a lasting, political solution to the island’s ethnic conflict will be achieved from within. The central driving force of Sri Lanka’s politics, even before 1948, is Sinhala nationalism’s desire to create a Sinhala-Buddhist bastion on the island. As such, the Tamil nation – long before it resorted to taking up arms - was always viewed as the principal threat, and thus any sharing of power with the Tamils or disruption to the integrity of a unitary state, however meaningless or insignificant to the Tamils, is to be resisted. On this, the Sinhala nation has always been ultimately united. By contrast, Eelam Tamil nationalism was formed as a response to the discrimination, oppression and genocide it faced. To this day, the Tamil nation’s political aspirations are fuelled by a need to protect it from the Sri Lankan state; not power for power’s sake. What this latest circus illustrates once again, is this unchanging reality at the very heart of the ethnic conflict. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’s drive to secure its supremacy across the entirety of the island will not change from within - and nor too will the Tamil nation’s resolve to resist this and ensure the lasting security of its people and homeland.