Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 09, 2017
'Ethnic frost' staring at Sri Lankan tamils

With the three-day Constitutional Assembly session recently ending without any breakthrough, Sri Lanka seems heading for yet another era of ‘ethnic chill’ leading to a possible frost. The ‘long-ago exit’ of the LTTE may be a saving grace as the much-delayed, nation-wide local government (LG) polls, set for January, can challenge the pyrrhic stability at the Centre, carefully managed over near-three years of the Sirisena-Ranil government’s five-year term, ending 2020.

At the Constitutional Assembly session and outside, political stake-holders and their civil society backers have been reiterating their decades-old positions with boring repetition and practised ease. Even the timing of each move, starting with the promise of a new Constitution ahead of the historic presidential polls of January 2015, was well choreographed, as if by a hidden hand, as the various players were daggers drawn, both on the large stage for public-viewing and the small green-rooms where they respectively belonged.

The crescendo was again reached when the majority Sinhala-Buddhists’ Maha Sangha declared that the nation had to prioritise corruption, price rise and larger economic issues over a new Constitution. It was all well known that the prelates and other Buddhists monks held the key to any major decision on power-sharing with the minority Tamils, and that they would hit when, and only when, the iron was hot.

It is anybody’s guess if the dual leadership of SLFP President Maithiripala Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ever thought that even genuine efforts at ethnic peace-building would succeed without retaliatory politics by the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity and society.


Confidence from the past that they could count on the latter to hit and halt any progress made on the ethnic front that seemed to have encouraged to commit themselves to a new constitutional formulation that was not to be, almost from the start.


For the long years he has been in politics, observers of the Sri Lankan scene have known Sirisena only as a ‘silent torpedo’ ready to burst at the right time. Like on other issues en route to becoming President and afterwards, he has been waiting for the (Sinhala) public mood to set in, before striking back.

Even while going along with majority-partner UNP in the Government of which he is the head, President Sirisena has been having his last laugh on all matters administration after the Ranil camp had pushed itself to a corner. The ‘Central Bank bond scam’ and the ‘Hambantota equity-swap’ are only two of the more prominent ones.

On the very eve of the Constitutional Assembly session, called to discuss and debate draft proposals of the steering committee, Sirisena talked about setting up an all-party committee to go into the issues and concerns flagged, especially by the Maha Sangha. PM Ranil’s on-floor commitment to talk to the prelates and the rest before finalising the draft Constitution could not restore credibility and seriousness to the debate, which anyway was absent even without Sirisena’s declaration.

Through the past years since coming to share power, the Sirisena faction of the SLFP and the unified UNP have been indulging in a great game of shadow-boxing, trying to outsmart the other at every turn, even as they proclaim unity against the strong common enemy in the name of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The two are declared to contesting the LG polls on their own, with the UNP hoping to show the Sirisena faction its place in the nation’s electoral scheme, and re-negotiate the unsettled political terms of the past from a position of proven strength.

Sirisena is still smarting under the loss of SLFP / ‘Sinhala nationalist’ vote-base that is still with predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had defeated in the presidential polls of January 2015.


Without being able to delay it beyond now, the Government side has handed over to Rajapaksa, the Constitution issue, where he excels for reasons of contemporary history and traditional imagery.

During his post-war term as President, Rajapaksa delineated contested issues like primacy of Buddism, ‘Unitary State’ and ‘Executive Presidency’ and directed political negotiations with the Tamil groups, exclusively on attainable goals on the ethnic front. By promising a new Constitution even before coming to power, the present leadership bit more than the nation could chew, and deliberately so, with the result, the ethnic issue has also been allowed to be lost in the melee.

Tamil predicament?

Western sympathisers of the post-war Tamil community and political leadership may not have understood the in-built scenario-building already on in the majority Sinhala arena, all along. They also did not provide for the vertical split in the TNA leadership post-LTTE, though it was/is an elementary rule in politics that a strong leadership has to find its opposition only from within.

On the one hand thus, the TNA leadership in Parliament, where R Sampanthan is the Leader of the Opposition, is battling for the Tamil rights, both within the Constitutional Assembly and outside. Inside the party and the community, they are busier, trying to stave off the hard-liner challenge spearheaded Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, identified and promoted by the Sampanthan leadership.

On the national scene, the moderate TNA leadership has lost out to the tri-angular shadow-boxing among the Sinhala players. Within the Tamil community, the TNA came to acknowledge the hard-liners’ larger say, when Sampanthan was forced to cancel plans to formally accompany President Sirisena to the Tamil North, recently.


At issue was the demand for the immediate release of around 200 Tamil prisoners, retained from among the 12,000 ‘LTTE cadres’ taken into custody when ‘Eelam War IV’ concluded in May 2009. Truth be acknowledged, through the post-war years, the hard-liners, operating mostly as legitimate citizens in the West, have carefully repositioned themselves as the extra-constitutional authority back home, by adding on more recipes to their political fare to the international community.

It had started with the launch of the ‘trans-national government of Tamil Eelam’ (TGTE) only weeks after the conclusion of the war, sending jitters down the spine of the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala polity, and confusing the moderate TNA leadership even more after the exit of the LTTE. When the TNA and the Rajapaksa leadership began shedding mutual suspicions and were focussing on substantial issues in their negotiations, came the demand for ‘war-crimes probe’.

More recently, the Tamil concerns were focussed on ‘missing persons’, about which the present Government promised much to the international community but did precious little (as was only to have been gauged, given the complexities involved). The international community that backed the present team when in the Opposition, blaming the Rajapaksa regime for ‘shifting the goal-posts’ constantly either has not understood the present happenings or does not want to acknowledge it, as yet.

'Nimitz' parallel

The options before the international community are even more limited. It would look as if the Ranil leadership has got the West where he wanted, rather than the other way round. Should the dual-leadership experiment fail the nation ultimately, none of the stake-holders involved would have a place to go. Besides the international community, this includes the moderate TNA leadership, whose campaign for the Tamil vote against Rajapaksa alone got the present leadership to power.

If nothing else, citing economy and foreign debt as the reason, the Ranil leadership agreed to China’s debt-for-equity swap on Hambantota Port. Sirisena could project himself as the ‘saviour of the Sri Lankan cause’ in public but could not deny the Chinese their due, he having been part of the Team Rajapaksa that had entertained them in the first place.

Understanding the Government’s predicament and the internal divisions even more, sections within the JO have drawn a parallel to the Indian concerns over the Rajapaksa regime offering berthing facilities for Chinese nuclear submarines and the neighbour’s purported silence over the recent port-call by US nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier group under ‘USS Nimitz’. Some defence experts have also chipped in their views, which can have consequences in political, electoral and strategic terms, all over again.

LG polls and after

For now, the nation is tuning for the LG polls, with the Constitution-making taking a deliberate back-seat all over again, though it cannot be avoided as an electoral issue. The Ranil camp seems wanting it this way, as if to reverse the current drift in governance and head a coalition on their terms or fashion another one in its place. They hope that the continued SLFP-split will put them on the top in the LG polls and that which follow.

The Rajapaksa camp has set down conditions for working with the Sirisena SLFP, the long and short of it being snapping ties with the UNP, after blaming the latter for larger corruption than under their regime, state of the economy and even law and order situation. The Sirisena camp continues to be confused, hoping for yet another miracle to save the day.

The Rajapaksa camp also seems going by the numbers from the twin polls of 2015, when they got 47 per cent for the presidency and 45 for Parliament. They calculate that even with the Muslim votes but without the overwhelming Tamil backing, the rivals cannot win back the presidency.

In turn, Ranil’s strategy is to keep the Tamils too on his side, by retaining the traditional UNP vote-share in the Sinhala areas, and retain the overwhelming Muslim and Tamil vote-shares from the presidential polls of 2015. While the Muslims are less than enthused than in 2015, Rajapaksa is still not their choice. But the internally combustible Tamils can upset Ranil’s apple-cart.


Within the Tamil community, the hard-liners met with unprecedented post-war success on their call for boycotting Sirisena during his Northern sojourn. This has since been followed by the mercurial Jaffna University students returning to their old ways, this time over the ‘Tamil prisoners issue’, leading to an indefinite shut-down that has since been lifted.

In all these, the Constitution-making and power-sharing were never ever the issue. Instead, Catalonia-like referendum in the future in the Tamil areas could well assume the centre-stage, both in the Tamil and Sinhala communities, with the Muslims left in the lurch and hardening their own stand on the re-merger of the North and the East, all over again.

In between, horse-trading for power at the Centre could take the centre-stage, post-LG polls, with no one still talking about the need for an anti-defection law, a la the Indian neighbour. Leave aside the international community’s ‘growing concerns’ about the ethnic issue, and past promises of this Government on the war-crimes probe and the like, they may not even know whom to talk, and make sense out of it all.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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