The Tamil polity must learn from its Muslim counterpart – Dr. Jehan Perera 

Recently, there were demonstrations against the appointment of a Muslim politician – M. L. A. M. Hizbullah – as Governor of the Eastern Province.

The concern articulated by Tamil protesters was that they would be further marginalised in the east as a result of this appointment.

Prior to his appointment, Hizbullah was an MP and a former minister in the same province of which he is now governor. The Tamil concern is that he will be partisan in decision making on issues where the interests of Tamils and Muslims diverge.

The east is a part of the country where the ‘ethnicisation’ of politics remains a dominant factor. Its main road runs through Tamil and Muslim settlements, which are often consecutive with a Tamil majority area followed by a Muslim majority and vice versa.

As a result, differences in the levels of physical development of these towns and villages become more evident; one set is bustling and energetic, and the streets and shops are well lit at night while the other is less so.

The relative success of the Muslim community in the east may be attributed at least in part to the willingness of its political parties to join governments as partners. Other reasons include the language capabilities of Muslim politicians who are usually fluent in all three languages –  unlike their Sinhalese and Tamil counterparts who are often monolingual.

Another reason for the neglect of the Tamil community is that the main Tamil parties have not been prepared to join coalition governments. The last time they did so was in the late 1960s – and even then, the alliance was short-lived as the government failed to deliver on the political reforms sought by the Tamil polity.

As a result of joining governments, Muslim political parties have secured ministerial positions – and thus enjoyed political patronage and state resources, in addition to gaining a share of development activity and employment for their constituencies.

In contrast, Tamil political parties have remained in the opposition. Their priority has been to safeguard or gain the political rights of the Tamil community.

The continuing political and economic marginalisation of the Tamil polity should induce a rethinking of traditional positions, in regard to abstaining from joining governments and engaging in coalition politics. It needs to look at the relative success of the Muslim community due to the efforts of its political leaders.

Most recently, the Tamil polity suffered a blow with the loss of the position of leader of the opposition, which Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan enjoyed for over three years until the political crisis that followed President Maithripala Sirisena’s withdrawal from the national unity government.

The leader of the opposition is a prestigious position. It gave the TNA official status both within and outside the country, and its leader became one of the most prominent in Sri Lanka’s political pantheon. It wasn’t merely a symbolic honour for the TNA and the Tamil community that voted for it.

There was also a practical reason why the opposition leader’s position was important to the TNA.

As it is high in the state hierarchy, the leader of the opposition can get more things done than an ordinary MP or even the leader of a political party. A request by the leader of the opposition would carry more weight especially in dealings with the state bureaucracy and even the military.

Instead of leading the opposition, a more positive option for the TNA may be to join the government.

The unwillingness to join governments caters to a nationalist mindset that says there must be a vindication of the political rights of the Tamil people beforehand. But as a result, the Tamil polity is marginalised and this leads to the neglect of communities at the grassroots. The people do not have access to economic and development resources, which others who join government succeed in bringing to their towns and villages.

In these circumstances, the Tamil polity must reconsider its unwillingness to engage in coalition politics.

With Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe taking over the portfolio of northern development, the TNA could ask to play a role in it even without joining the government. There could be supervisory executive committees that the TNA could join or even lead to develop the north and east if it negotiates hard enough with the government.