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What Gotabaya’s Presidency will mean for Tamil politics and development in Sri Lanka

Writing for The Wire India, Mario Arulthas, Advocacy Director for PEARL, and Dr Madura Rasaratnam, professor of Comparative Politics at the City University of London, rebuke the argument that parliamentary elections indicate “a complete overhaul” of the political system with turn away from “Tamil nationalist politics and towards development”; instead they provide a more nuanced analysis that highlights that the “fundamentals of Sri Lanka’s politics will likely remain unchanged”.


2020 elections

During the 2020 parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka witnessed a shift in its electoral makeup with the Rajapaksa clan effectively gaining a two-third majority whilst the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the dominant Tamil nationalist party experienced losses in key districts.

The Rajapaksa campaign had focused on “castigating the previous administration’s economic failures, evident in mounting debt and the rising cost of living” whilst also depicting the administration as “treasonous” for its “somewhat feeble attempts to address the Tamil question via constitutional reforms and accountability”.

The core message of their campaign was “a tough-minded and uncompromising national security approach to the Tamils, as well as economic policies to support livelihoods”. This message gained strong support amongst the Sinhala electorate but also appears to have traction in the North-East, the traditional Tamil homeland.


Economic development in Sri Lanka

In describing Gotabya’s vision for the economy, the authors note that it draws inspiration from “East Asian style authoritarianism and economic success that has long fascinated Sri Lankan leaders”. However, they also note that unlike East Asia, Sri Lanka has “persistently the mix of elements that have propelled sustained economic growth”.

The East Asian model is described by the authors as:

“A network of state-society relations in which a competent and development orientated state mobilises resources and directs them to targeted sectors including infrastructure and other public goods whilst key private sector actors work co-operatively with state agencies to capture export markets and enhance productivity”.

In contrast to East Asia, Sri Lanka continues to suffer in terms of economic productivity and development. This is attributed to “the same mix of competitive rent and patronage seeking activities by politicians, bureaucrats and private sector actors”. The author’s further note that “these practices have persisted through successive administrations whether they pursued market-led or state-led strategies”.

Commenting on the economic issues plaguing Sri Lanka, the authors highlight a key concern being commercial debt repayments. The debt itself, they note, is a symptom of “Sri Lanka’s inability to generate sufficient income through competent, fair and systematic taxation that can be used to fund investment and meet expenditures on public services as well as the growing weight of military expenditure”.

In the past, this issue was overcome by development aid from western states as well as Japan. However, since the end of the Cold War, these funds have significantly reduced. In turn, the Rajapaksa administration turned to commercial markets.

Sri Lanka’s economic woes have been further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic which has “curtailed tourism and critical remittance income from the Middle East”. The flagship policy of the administration; a scheme to “offer jobs to 100,000 people from the most deprived families as well as to employ 50,000 graduates”; appears to only perpetuate a system of patronage which “will reward loyalists and build up a party base but will not generate widespread prosperity”.


Economic development for Tamils and Muslims              

In analysing the election results, the authors note that the binary between nationalism and economic development is ill-suited as “Nationalism and development are too closely connected”.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, they note “is not just about flags, militarisation and Buddhist statues – it is also about economic predominance”. The growth of Tamil nationalism is tied to a history of “successive Sinhala nationalist government’s policies of first excluding Tamils from the public sector”. During the late 1970s and early    1980s, Tamil businesses and properties were targeted during anti-Tamil pogroms. In more recent years, Muslim businesses “have become the target of Sinhala nationalist ire”, this will continue the authors state “if economic conditions do not improve”.

The Tamil nationalist demand for autonomy, therefore, may be seen as “a means to development on the basis that Sinhala majoritarian rule was intentionally impoverishing the Tamil-speaking peoples”. It is notable that “the government [have] already excluded Tamil areas from the scheme to provide employment to deprived families and unemployed graduates”.


Understanding the results in the Tamil homeland

In analysing the recent electoral results it would be wrong to accept the premise that there has been a turn away from Tamil nationalism as all the parties, even those aligned with the government, “all accepted the legitimacy of Tamil nationalist grievances but pledged that cooperation with the state would result in economic benefits”. Some further argued that these economic benefits would “be a precursor to a resolution of the political conflict”.

The fact that pro-government parties did not reject Tamil nationalism as evidenced by the fact that the successful Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate in Jaffna, Ankajan Ramanathan, even played LTTE songs at a past election rally. Another SLFP candidate in Jaffna,  Paranirupasingham Varatharajasingham, claimed that he would get justice for his party’s “direct involvement” in the “wiping out of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)” and “nullification of the [Tamil] freedom struggle”.

Read more here:SLFP candidate claims he joined party to ‘demand justice for their role in destruction of LTTE and Tamil freedom struggle’

The electoral success of government-aligned Tamil paramilitary groups such as Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) may be explained via their access to patronage. In the past the EPDP used “their access to donor funding to build up their base” but “when this dried up, they turned to violence and extortion”. In the East, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) a similar pattern of patronage, violence and extortion.

Both the EPDP and TMVP will return to parliament this year, with Devananda being granted the important fisheries ministry; however, the authors cast doubt on these parties abilities to make tangible improvements to the economic livelihoods of their constituents. Instead, they maintain that “there is a real risk that these groups will again be encouraged by their political masters to use extortion to fund their operations”.


Explaining the TNA’s losses

As opposed to the TNA’s losses being indicative of a turn away from Tamil nationalism, the authors instead maintain that it is “more likely to be explained by growing frustrations with their leadership than a popular turn away from the issues of accountability and justice that have been core to Tamil nationalist politics since the end of the war”.

They note that the concessionary approach adopted by the TNA failed to “gain reciprocity from Sinhala leadership” and that party infighting “leaders strained the loyalty and support of even its core base”. Instead, there was increased support for “more consistent Tamil nationalist parties, such as the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and the Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK)”.


The future of Tamil nationalist politics

Commenting on the future of Tamil nationalist politics, the authors highlight that the “main channels of post-war Tamil mobilisation for accountability and justice have been through an alliance of grass-roots organisations in the North-East and the Tamil diaspora”.

These channels operated independently of the TNA and were unaffected by electoral politics. Rather than seeing a decline in this politics, the reinforcement of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, as well as increased military repression and surveillance in the North-East, may be further emboldened.

The Rajapaksa administration has already discussed the establishment of “a special inquiry into Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) who he claims are “spreading slander against the government”. Furthermore, numerous human rights organisations have spoken out against the government’s crackdown on journalists, lawyers, and civil society actors. The government’s conduct is aimed at stifling dissent however the there remains defiance and protests “particularly women-led demonstrations about enforced disappearances [which] are continuing”.

Indeed with Tamil advocacy groups strengthening their networks and relationships with international policy actors, the authors note that; “if international constellations adjust again, there is every possibility that the Tamil question can become an international issue once more”.

Read the full piece at The Wire. In

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