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Sivajilingam: The wildcard Tamil candidate – Island

[MISC, Monday, 28 December 2009 11:59 No Comment]

TNA parliamentarian, K. Sivajilingam, will probably come third, and if he succeeds in attracting a fair proportion of the TNA’s base he may receive more than three hundred thousand votes. However if the TNA and other Tamil leaders undercut him he will fall below 100,000. My reasoning is as follows. The Tamils of the N&E number 10-12% of the population, and 10% of the 14 million registered voters is 1.4 million – I prefer the lower percentage because of demographic uncertainties of Tamil population movement and migration. Usually we expect over 70% poll in an exciting election, however massive numbers are unregistered or displaced and since the TNA is not officially contesting there will be abstentions. We have to opt for a much lower percentage; at a guess 50% (700,00) N&E bred Tamil voters, wherever they live, may turn out, if encouraged by their leaders.

Douglas, Sritharan and possibly Pillayan will root for Rajapakse till they are hoarse, some Tamils will pick Fonseka directly, and the Left candidates – especially Bahu – will attract Tamil votes. After these allowances, would it be unreasonable to guess that 300,000 will pick Sivaji? If, however, jealous Tamil leaders undermine him, which is quite possible, this number will fall precipitately.

This kind of pie in the sky arithmetic may turn out to be silly; we will know in 30 days. But the ballpark numbers make the Sivaji phenomenon interesting for three reasons; in the absence of a landslide in the Sinhalese vote it may cause both major candidates to fall short of a 50% poll. Second, if it goes to recount Sivaji’s voters’ second preferences will decide the outcome. Third, and very important, a large Tamil turnout (for Sivaji or for others) will revitalize Tamil politics at home and throw up new leaders. It will also debunk the boycott-craze of numskull sections in the post-LTTE Tamil diaspora and in the TNA.

If the Bahu- Shivaji linkup becomes strong, long-lasting and is built on mutual trust it could lay the foundations for an important and long awaited trend reversing the decline that started at the fateful 1964 LSSP Party Conference.

Who is this Sivajilingam?

Sivaji is not known in the South so some brief bio may be useful. He is one of the early pioneers of Tamil resistance from the Thangathurai-Kuttimani, pre-Prabakaran era and is probably the only pioneer militant who is still active in Tamil resistance today. He has been identified with emancipation and social justice campaigns on behalf of socially oppressed Tamils and when in the Federal Party, Sivaji campaigned against his uncle Mothilal Nehru in support of oppressed caste candidates.

He was a bridge between the old and new political trends in Tamil nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s. There is an anecdote, which I cannot confirm, that when Prabakharan was stuck in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, he turned in desperation to Sivaji who arranged a boat to India for VP and his mates. Nevertheless, many of Sivaji’s contemporaries were killed in the LTTE-TELO fratricidal war of 1986.

Troubled TNA waters

The TNA is sliced like a pizza; the three slices are of about equal significance. A leadership group including Sampanthan wishes to support Fonseka and opposes posting a TNA candidate. Another section, dinosaurs that have not been reincarnated from their cringing-before-LTTE previous life, cry boycott. The third slice was determined to put forward a Tamil candidate, refused to pull back and nominated Sivaji, but offered to withdraw if there was an official TNA nominee. Now they have forced a campaign dilemma on the leadership: Dare the TNA sabotage a Tamil parliamentarian and support an erstwhile Tiger hunter and recently retired Rajapakse trooper, Fonseka?

Sampanthan and the TNA are caught by the short and curlies. How can they traverse the North and East campaigning for LTTE vanquisher Fonseka against one of their own? Nor can they refrain from campaigning all together; that would be a walkover –point, set and match – to Douglas! Foist by its own petard the TNA may still do the only thing it can, and accidentally turn it into a shrewd move. It could, for appearances, support Sivaji, but slip in the second preference for Fonseka recommendation in the campaign, thus hanging on to both baby and bathwater. If the TNA gets semi-officially into tow, the Tamil poll may increase substantially and Fonseka’s eventual gain could be large.

War crimes investigations

Sivaji’s two-point manifesto has my endorsement: Federalism as the solution to the national question and a demand for an internationally credible investigation of war crimes. Fonseka, in a newspaper interview, asserted that he had information that persons coming forward to surrender with white flags raised were shot dead, in cold blood, by the army, pursuant to a premeditated decision by government leaders. The next day he tried his darndest to backtrack since there was a storm of protest; "You are a traitor letting the side down by exposing these things" was the gist of the protests – apparently even war crimes are military secrets! In his capitulation he went on to say that that there was no violation of international law and that as the then army commander he would take full responsibility for the behaviour of his legions.

Let us take this matter in two distinct steps. Is the assertion of cold-blooded murder true or false? This and this alone is the primary factual issue that overrides everything else in importance. The conflict between Fonseka and the Rajapakse brothers, electioneering, these are ethically and legally irrelevant; the truth or falsity of the alleged cold-blooded shooting is of primary import. It is so serious a matter and emotions are in overdrive, so there has to be an investigation with international participation. Presidential Commissions have become such shams that only unimpeachably respected international participation can restore a modicum of credibility.

The second step follows after that. Fonseka’s opinion that no international law was violated is tendentious; his personal involvement is implicit and he has an interest in the outcome. Once an independent investigation is completed, if it is found that there is prima facie evidence of indictable offences, there must be prosecutions. None of this should be prejudged, that would be wrong. All persons, if any, held indictable must be prosecuted – Generals, Defence Secretaries, even Heads of State; there is no indemnity for war crimes.

The terms of reference of the investigation must include a probe of alleged LTTE war crimes; it must not be confined to a probe of the state. This may seem pointless if possible offenders are deceased; not so, moral responsibility must to be assigned, even posthumously. Let us take a cool-headed, mature, unemotional approach to alleged war crimes, whichever political party or presidential candidate one supports or what community one belongs to. There is no alternative if we want to be a civilised nation. Sivaji could not be more right than to demand a probe, on behalf of his people, into this and allegedly 50,000 other deaths, but he needs to extend the scope of his demand to include alleged war crimes by both sides.


Mucking around with the 13th Amendment, plus minus or zilch is getting nowhere; 13A has become contentious for the way in which it was enacted as much as for what it says. A new constitution needs to be written making 13A, in its locale as an amendment, irrelevant. Why should the national question be confined to an amendment? Decentralisation in general, and the devolution of power to address minority concerns, are aspects of the balance of power between centre, regions and minorities; they are central to, and must be located in, the heart and body of the constitution. There is near universal agreement that the executive presidency must be abolished or muzzled, that the existing proportional representation system must be discarded, the 17th Amendment enforced and a slew of other changes made. Clearly, a wholly new constitution, bottom up, has to be drafted incorporating a new structure of power with the national question uppermost but not the only issue to be addressed.

I am in agreement with Sivaji that the federal option is the best. A group at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) led by Rohan Edirisinha and Asanga Welikala has done essential theoretical groundwork and the material is accessible in books and scholarly papers. Without detracting from the quality of this work I raise two concerns, the number of federal units, and asymmetrical rather than symmetrical devolution. The CPA group has retained a putative eight-unit federal model (one Tamil unit plus seven others) based on Sri Lanka’s nine provinces. I understand but do not agree with their reasoning, which is that to try to change units, merge provinces, or shift districts around will end in dispute and failure. But, federalism envisages substantial autonomy and an eight way split of so much autonomy in a small country will be a mad-hatters tea party. There has to be just one Tamil unit consisting of the whole of the North and still to be demarcated portions of the East. A new delineation of the rest of the country, limited to just two, or maybe three at most federal units needs to be worked out.

Asymmetrical devolution

In conversations, the CPA group concedes the logic of an asymmetrical relationship; that is the centre relates to the Tamil unit differently from its relationship to other units – be they three or eight. Asymmetry in inter-unit relationships, in so far as the Tamil unit is concerned, is also necessary. However the CPA group is reluctant to formally support the concept of asymmetry. They opine, "It is too complicated to sell; the devil is in the details; there will be so much opposition to an asymmetrical package from stakeholders that the exercise will flounder". My view is that the political relationship between a putative Tamil unit and the centre, and the relationship between this unit and the other ("Sinhalese") units, will need to be different, from the relationship between these units and the centre, and the relationship among these units themselves. The UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) arrangement is radically asymmetrical and the EU is also a supra-scale asymmetrical relationship between confederate states; all to accommodate diversity. Sri Lanka must construct its own asymmetrical model sui generis, but learn from elsewhere as need be.

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