Addressing Sri Lanka’s Tamil national question is imperative for the island nation’s recovery from the crushing economic crisis it is facing, veteran Tamil leader R Sampanthan said, contending the unresolved issue had proved a major impediment for the country’s economic progress since Independence.
Speaking to The Hindu recently, the 89-year-old Parliamentarian recounted the many historic opportunities that Sri Lankan leadership missed, allowing the ethnic conflict to fester, and push the country into a protracted civil war. While corruption, misgovernance, and skewed priorities have led to Sri Lanka’s current economic collapse, years of strife amid unfulfilled demands of the Tamil people impaired the country’s economic progress, he observed, drawing links between the island nation’s worsening economic crisis and its long-pending political question.
An economic crisis brewing over the last couple of years aggravated in 2022, with Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves dwindling amid a balance of payments crisis. The island nation has opted for a preemptive default on its nearly $50 billion foreign debt to cope, while citizens struggle to access essentials amid crippling shortages and record food inflation — 57.4 per cent in May — only expected to get worse. Protesting citizens have blamed the ruling Rajapaksa administration for failing to arrest the rapid decline of an economy that was already fragile.
Referring to a longer arc of the island’s history, Sampanthan said: “The unresolved Tamil question was the ground for the war that went on for about 30 years…colossal sums were spent on it. If not for the war, the country’s economy would not have got to this situation.”
Addressing the long-pending demand of Tamils for self-determination will allow Sri Lanka to project a new image internationally, he further said.
“We can then show the world that we are a united country, where the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims—all communities can work together and build the country, through a constitution the enables all the peoples of the country to exercise their sovereignty,” Sampanthan said, adding: “I don’t see how our economy can improve without our conflict being resolved.”
The civil war itself may have ended in 2009, but the conflict that led to it remains unresolved, he pointed out.
“The reason for the war to occur has not been resolved in all these years.” In fact, there are new reasons for concern. “It is a matter of utmost concern that the Sri Lankan government has been able to change the demographics of the north and east by settling Sinhalese families in areas traditionally inhabited by the Tamils. The Tamils are being weakened,” he said.
In March this year, a delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that Sampanthan leads — it is the largest parliamentary group representing Tamils of the north and east — met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss Tamils’ concerns and prospects of a political solution through a constitutional settlement.
Sampanthan, in a detailed letter to the President ahead of the meeting, had emphasised the need for a political solution, tracing several past attempts and agreements that Sri Lanka’s southern leaders had committed to, but failed to implement.
But the President’s meeting, twice postponed and held on March 25, focussed on four other areas that he said would be promptly addressed. He promised to look into the release of long-term detainees under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), prevent land grabs in the north and east by different state agencies, probe cases of enforced disappearances and establish special development fund for the north and east.
The TNA awaits action on all four areas. “At that time, Foreign Minister GL Peiris told us that the draft (constitution) would be ready in two weeks. I have serious doubts if it will ever come,” Sampanthan said.
Prior to that, the TNA submitted its proposals for a new constitution, and even met with an experts’ committee tasked with drafting a new constitution.
On President Gotabaya’s position on the issue, he said: “I don’t think the President is unwilling to do the right thing. Even if he is willing to do the right thing, it appears that others are preventing him from doing it. Sometimes I have asked myself if President Gotabaya is impeded by some sources close to him from moving forward…I have not come to a conclusion, but I wonder if the clergy and army could be involved [in that].”
All the same, whether President Gotabaya and his government will come up with a new constitution “remains a matter of great doubt”, the Tamil leader said, adding: “which means that the country’s main problem that started over 70 years ago, continues.”
India’s ‘special duty’
Against this backdrop, India has a “special duty,” Sampanthan noted. The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was signed in July 1987, about 35 years ago and is “yet to be fully implemented”. The Prime Minister of India offered India’s good offices in 1983 and has been involved ever since then. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Sri Lankan parliament and spoke of his belief in “cooperative federalism”, Sampanthan recalled.
“We should all come together and resolve the Tamil question. It will be in the best interests of Sri Lanka and India,” Sri Lanka’s senior most politician said.
Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s correspondent in Colombo