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Representing an oppressed nation

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Against the many crises the Tamil people in Sri Lanka face today, perhaps the most grievous is lack of effective representation. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) continues to claim, implicitly and explicitly, the role of chief advocate, but in practice has instead left it to other Tamil and international actors, including those in the Diaspora, to articulate the Tamils’ urgent needs and difficulties.

The TNA’s reluctance to vigorously articulate Tamil grievances on a range of self-evident contemporary issues inevitably raises serious questions regarding their ability, indeed their willingness, to accurately and effectively represent the Tamil nation’s interests and aspirations in any wider discussion on a political settlement.

Since the end of the armed conflict, the Tamil people in Sri Lanka continue to suffer humanitarian deprivation and political and economic marginalisation in their homeland. The Tamils expected nothing else from the Sinhala-dominated state, but any electoral mandate granted the TNA was linked solely to expectations the party would speak for them on the global stage.

The TNA was the formed in 2001 as the result of a growing consensus amongst the larger Tamil parties that there was a need for a united voice to articulate Tamil interests and aspirations. It is worth recalling that in the late nineties some of its key constituent parties were partners with President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government – even as she unleashed another catastrophic military campaign on the Tamils in Jaffna, first, and then Vanni.

The Tamil people nonetheless embraced the TNA on the basis of its new principled position on the Tamil nation’s struggle  – set out clearly in their manifestos of 2001 and 2004, for example. Moreover, it was their preparedness to faithfully project the views of the Tamil people on the international stage that lent them their legitimacy – proved not only in general elections but in local ones too. Popular support did not come from securing crumbs from the Sinhala state, but from forcefully advocating Tamil grievances and aspirations on the international stage.

Yet since the end of the war, the TNA - except for some of its (more junior) MPs - has either been muted or feeble in its protests over the deprivations continuing to be visited by the Sinhala state on the Tamil people. Instead, the TNA is leaving it international human rights groups, Diaspora organisations and other local actors, such as religious figures and even some Sinhala voices, to keep the Tamils’ difficulties alive in the global conscience.

The on-going detention of Tamils held without charge, the state’s arbitrary restrictions on economic and social activity and the military’s continued refusal to allow resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Tamils in their properties are amongst issues on which the TNA was once forcefully vocal, but is now largely silent on. These are nonetheless being taken up by others, but the TNA seems content to limit itself to vague ‘discussions’ with the Sri Lankan state – something they know full well will ultimately prove futile.

Even amid the recent wave of paramilitary terror unleashed in the Jaffna peninsula, the TNA became active only after the main Sinhala opposition party, the UNP, had taken up the issue. Crucially, after the mass slaughter of Tamil civilians in 2009, what ought to be a key issue for Tamil representatives – accountability for war crimes – is explicitly being avoided.

There is no denying that Sri Lanka is dangerous place for those calling for accountability on war crimes, and TNA leaders have explained their silence on these terms, as the Wikileaked US cable of January 2010 shows. But if this issue, which is receiving growing global attention, is a no go area, it is difficult to comprehend how the TNA would effectively take up the political aspirations of the Tamil nation – the subject of over 60 years of strife in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the TNA is largely silent on the myriad day-to-day deprivations which the US cable quotes it as saying the Tamils in the Northeast are more concerned about.

Fear is understandable, but it cannot be an excuse for silence. Those who put themselves forward to speak for an oppressed people do so wilfully – aware not only of the risks, but the magnitude of responsibility such a role carries. The political history of the Tamil nation, and those of struggles across the world, is marked by those who have risen to that challenge. Amid repression, courage is sine qua non for legitimacy. The dangers of having no representation, meanwhile, are greatly surpassed by the consequences of having a passively submissive one.

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