If you’re Tamil and your question is ‘can I have more equal rights and opportunities under this government’ the answer is a qualified yes. It’s possible but we’ll all have to work for it. If your question is ‘can we have a separate racially based state’, the answer is no. There’s no Eelam here, but there is a more inclusive Sri Lankan government.
Changes In The Electorate
Maithripala was elected by a diverse coalition of Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils. His coalition includes the main ethnic parties (with the exception of Thondaman’s upcountry Tamil fief) and his voters are from all over the island. Though 84% of his vote base is in the south, Maithripala polled way higher than Rajapaksa in the North and East. Some people have said that this means he’s somehow running a separatist government, which is nuts. It actually just means that he represents all Sri Lankans.
Maithripala’s electorate is mostly Sinhalese and, indeed, it could have been support from the Sinhala nationalist JHU that pushed him over the top. However, he definitely courted and got support from the minorities and they are true stakeholders in his administration.
Tamil voters are a part of the system now
During the war years (basically since 1988), Northern Tamils didn’t vote. The LTTE was violently undemocratic, plus many people truly did have zero faith in the Sri Lankan state. Not voting, however, it mean that northern Tamils didn’t really count, at least not in political terms.
Paradoxically, Mahinda’s creation of a strong unitary state has made it (mathematically) less Sinhala. There are simply more Tamil voters online, around a million more. Now parties have to address Tamil concerns if they want to win, and politicians more than anything want to win. It’s actually a very good incentive system, just not one that worked in Mahinda’s favor.
This election, Tamil voter turnout was high. As a result, their political power has increased. You could say they just voted against Mahinda, but turnout was low against Fonseka in 2010. This time – in Maithripala and Ranil – they actually had something to vote for and they showed up in numbers.
At the same time, the Sinhala population was less baited by messages of racism and fear. Around 49% of the South (not the North and East) voted for Maithripala. His message of good governance vs. Mahinda’s message of ‘trust me’ really did resonate with the broader Sri Lankan population.
Change In Government
Tamils voters being stakeholders in the new government has meant that their issues have more attention and people devoted to them.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first portfolio is the Ministry of Reconciliation, something that didn’t exist before. Resettlement and Reconstruction is also a Cabinet-level Ministry, and it’s held by a Tamil – D.M. Swaminathan. While the TNA is not in the cabinet (by their choice), I do hope that they’ll sit on the upcoming (and already overdue) National Advisory Council.
In the Northern Province this government has removed former military Governor Chandrasiri and replaced him with H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, former UN Ambassador and member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This is still one step removed from having an actual Tamil Governor, but hopefully it does mean that the simple recommendations of the LLRC will be implemented. This government is also more inclined to work with the Northern Provincial Council, led by Chief Minister Vigneswaran.
Beyond this, Maithripala’s 100 Day Plan proposes setting up various Constitutional Councils to overlook the police, elections, etc, and those councils have built-in representation for minorities. All of these changes, big and small, give Tamil, minorities and Sri Lankans in general a much bigger say in (and protection from) their government.
Tamil Nationalism, Not So Much
This government is a balancing act between many communities in Sri Lanka. As such, no one group is going to get everything that they went, especially nationalists within that group.
While hardcore Sinhala nationalists won’t be happy with the consideration given to minorities, they should remember that Tamil nationalists are definitely not happy with the continued unitary state, rejection of international prosecution and military presence in the north.
It needs to be understood that all types of racial nationalism are rejected by the government. It’s a Sri Lankan government. There are some things that just aren’t going to happen. And shouldn’t, IMHO.
A separate state based on race? Just no. If you’re looking for Eelam, this isn’t it. This is Sri Lanka.
Giving up the military and political leaders that won the war? Sending Mahinda to the Hague. Not going to happen. Hopefully the internal LLRC recommendations will be implemented, but there’s no appetitive for punitive measures against the people that won the war.
On this issue I hope that they do give back a lot more land and reduce the military presence, but six years since the end of a debilitating war, it still makes sense to have a strong military presence in the North and East.
Devolution, Not So Much
There is also the bigger issue of devolution of powers to the provincial/regional level. This government doesn’t touch on that, at least not in its 100 Day Plan. It distributes power significantly at the national level (to Parliament, to an Advisory Council, to Constitutional Councils, etc) but it does not discuss devolving power to the smaller units.
Practically, I think this is realistic. We’re not a huge country and power is naturally concentrated at the center. We have passed devolution legislation and created Provincial Councils, but power still remains at the center. Maithri’s reforms concern sharing power where it actually is.
If you’re looking for significant police and land powers in the North or Hambantota or wherever you are, it’s not a priority of this government. We will, however, get shared control of the things that matter at the national level.
For the majority of Tamils that are looking for better representation and more fairness and opportunity in their daily lives, I think this government offers a lot. For people that still want Eelam or punishment for the war, I don’t think it offers much, nor should it.
Anyone looking for a Tamil Nationalist or International Crisis Group approved government here is going to be sorely disappointed, and I’m glad cause I don’t agree with any of those groups. I’m looking at you MIA, Channel 4, and anyone that’s been consistently negative and pessimistic about Sri Lanka’s ability to govern itself. When they or even straight LTTErs like Rudrakumaran say that Maithripala is ‘more of the same’ they’re being disingenuous. It’s not the government they want, but it is a very different. Obviously.
What you have here is a democratic government that balances the needs of many different people, including the Sinhalese. This won’t please absolutists (especially those abroad), but I think it really will make for a better country to live in. For all of us.