Jaffna May Day: Chances taken and opportunities missed


The UNPs decision to hold its May Day rally in Jaffna was the subject of a number of taunts from its critics. The SLFP rightly claimed that this was made possible by the Government's achievement in defeating the LTTE. The UNP dissidents, in a 'cutting-the-nose-to-spite-the-face' type of exercise, attempted to undermine the event by efforts to elevate the Premadasa commemoration into a rival event which coincidentally falls on May Day, through distributing handbills in public places and other activities that would convert the usually simple remembrance of its former leader in to an event that would equal the scale of a May Day event.

Irrespective of whether the UNPs decision to hold its May Day in the North was prompted by altruistic reasons of signaling to the Tamil people that they were part of the Sri Lankan nation, or whether it was an easy way of using the TNAs ability to draw crowds in order to make the May Day a success, the event itself was a valuable step in the process of integrating a wounded community into the national fold.
Considering the event objectively in the National Interest, the following observations can be made.

The UNP May Day rally being held in Jaffna is a small but useful step towards building the confidence of the Tamil people in the Sri Lankan polity. But whether it was necessary to do so in partnership with the TNA is a moot point. Since the UNP has no political alliance with the TNA, from a National Reconciliation perspective, a national political party holding a May Day rally on its own and reaching out directly to the Tamil people would have inspired a greater deal of confidence, rather than joining together with a Tamil party to do so.

UNP May Day rally in Jaffna

The UNP could however take a great deal of satisfaction at the fact that they were able to provide the platform for the TNA, including its leader Mr. R.Sampanthan to be seen waving the National flag. This undoubtedly sends a strong and visible message to the Sinhalese people that the Tamils consider themselves a part of the Sri Lankan nation. In this context, the unconfirmed reports that some TNA members have condemned Mr. Sampanthan for waving the National flag, is disturbing.

It is this type of irrational opinion that makes the realization of a solution of an already difficult problem, even more daunting. How can one fight against discrimination and claim equal rights as a Sri Lankan citizen if one is reluctant to wave the Sri Lankan flag? Waving the National flag does not mean that everything is solved and settled in Sri Lanka, but is only an expression of loyalty to ones country.

Disapproval of waving the National flag is as unreasonable as not allowing the singing of the National anthem in Tamil. When one sings the National Anthem, what is at the forefront are the words and meaning which constitute an expression of allegiance to the country, while the languages it is sung in bear less significance. To ask the Tamil people to stop singing the National Anthem in Tamil will alienate the community further, given the fact that it has been sung in the Tamil language in the past. Such a step will only perpetuate the condition of keeping the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Community apart.

Mr. Sampanthan himself has told the Indian delegation that visited Sri Lanka that he is proud to be a Sri Lankan but this has not received adequate publicity in the Media, particularly the Sinhala media. Such a statement by the Tamil elder statesman is a measure of the man and should be taken note of by those who are concerned about the future of our country. Political leaders should also note that Mr. Sampanthan, who was very much on the LTTE hit list, is treading a difficult path, bravely struggling to moderate Tamil aspirations amidst heavy criticism from hardline Tamils, while attempting to negotiate a solution to this vexed problem.

The Government should realize that the best chance for a reasonable solution to the conflict is to engage with a leader such as Mr. Sampanthan, who is well placed to influence the Tamil people. The day Mr. Sampanthan ceases to hold the reins of leadership of the Tamils, it will become an even more herculean task to negotiate a solution. Together with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who enjoys the trust of the Sinhala people, Mr. Sampanthan is best positioned to negotiate and arrive at an acceptable solution to this problem on behalf of the Tamil community.

The UNP, however, missed the opportunity to spell out its policy on the solution to the ethnic problem on its May Day platform in Jaffna. Apart from a reference to the question in one of their resolutions, there was no detailed policy statement by the UNP. Such a step, in addition to giving confidence to the Tamils, would have helped the national discourse about possible solutions while influencing other political parties to come out with their own policy for solving the ethnic problem.

Today, the people are unaware of what the contours of the solution to the problem proposed by the two national parties are. Most politicians usually skirt around these issues without taking a stand, leaving the people confused. The national parties owe it to the country to take a stand and lead the country, so that minority communal parties are not allowed the opportunity to exercise undue influence, disproportionate to the size of their respective support bases.

It must be highlighted that there are, within the National Parties itself, men of goodwill and fair play, able to transcend narrow ethnic boundaries when speaking on national issues. The recent incidents in Dambulla provide a good example: the SLFP's Janaka Bandara Tennekoon did not fear to say that the mosque in question had been in existence since the time he was a schoolboy. The fact that most of his voters were Buddhists did not hold him back from stating the truth. His public statement played a very big part in taking the wind out of the sails of demonstrators, and helping to calm things down. It also proved that the National parties are better positioned when compared to minority parties, to take the lead in dealing with minority issues.

Since the end of the armed conflict, the Government has impressive achievements in the field of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the conflict areas. Yet this alone is not sufficient to realize the full benefits of the end of the war. The National parties must reach out to the Tamils and Muslims and provide a solution to their problems. They are not only well positioned but also duty bound to do so.

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