State of parliamentary politics of the Tamils today

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By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

Four Tamil Members of Parliament are making waves in the legislative body with their debating skills that have captured everyone’s attention. The members represent different political parties from the North, but their impassioned performance has gained substantial traction with the Tamil community and outside, irrespective of electoral perspectives or alliances.

Best known among the four is perhaps Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Jaffna District Member Mathiyaparanam Abraham Sumanthiran who has been a member of the House for the past 10 years. But the others are no lightweights.  They included Tamil Congress leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, a member of the House 10 years earlier; retired Supreme Court Justice and former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran and Batticaloa district TNA MP Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam, both first timers in Parliament.

The fact that the four MP are fluent in the English language and use it effectively in debate and discourse has garnered them a following among Sinhala MPs who do not understand Tamil. The Tamil community, for their part, is happy that a few members who are able to make strong arguments on their behalf have entered Parliament after a long gap.

Wigneswaran, in his own style, reads out pre-prepared speeches, which at times, make him sound monotonous. Facing away from the House camera and focusing his attention on the prepared speech in hand, those following him on television or YouTube are often at a loss to make out the import of the contents of his discourse. However, his speeches arouse Tamil ethnic sentiments and provoke the members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and their opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) counterparts with common Sinhala background, though to his credit, he has mastered the art of ignoring their interference.

Sumanthiran has been performing well in Parliament for the 10 years he has been a member.

Sampanthan, leader of the (TNA), who talked Sumanthiran, and Wigneswaran, into entering post-war Tamil politics, has great trust and confidence in him.  Sumanthiran is a constitutional lawyer and was actively involved in the drafting process of the new constitution undertaken during the previous regime, though the draft did not see light of day for a variety of factors.

Sumanthiran entered Parliament in the post-war period, at a time when the international community became involved in the Tamil issue. His mastery of the English language, his ability to comprehend the nuances of international law and UN-UNHRC conventions, made him a crucial cog in the TNA’s make-up.  Although his strategies drew the ire of hard-line ‘Tamil nationalist’ forces, he approached the ethnic issue in ways he believed were feasible.

Owing to the controversies to which his detractors from within the TNA and the larger Tamil polity/community have dragged him repeatedly, Sumanthiran has become a central-figure in Tamil politics. Recent events indicate the MP is disliked by many top leaders of the TNA, and the major IIlankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) component, of which he is a signed member. On paper, they resent his lack of war-time political/militant experience. In reality, they are upset by his importance in party affairs and his international role.

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam meanwhile is heir of a traditional political family with his political lineage including his grandfather, G. G. Ponnambalam, a doyen of Tamil politics in his time, and his father, Kumar Ponnambalam, a parliamentarian. Gajendrakumar is a barrister with great debating skills.

Even though he failed to get elected to Parliament for 10 years, his return to the legislative body has seen him easily gain the admiration of the Tamil people with his oratory skills and proficiency in the English language.  While long-time Sinhala MPs on both sides of the aisle relish his formidable debating skills, the younger generation is beginning to admire his ability to keep the House under control when on his feet.

The adeptness shown by Ponnambalam in disregarding those who interrupt him during debates appears to be that of an experienced leader with long parliamentary experience. Some political observers say he has the potential to become a leader in his own right in the North, if he puts aside his extremist political stance and ideological obstinacy – which has been his undoing during the post-war years. The parliamentary polls too have shown that new-generation Tamil voters want their political leaderships to put livelihood issues ahead of ingrained rights, or at least on the same platform.

At 30, Shanakiyan is much younger than Sumanthiran and Ponnambalam, and is the grandson of the late S. M. Rasamanikkam, a leader of the Tamil Arasu Katchi and Member of Parliament from Pattiruppu constituency in the East. However, his fluency in all three languages and ability to switch from one to another with ease and grace has attracted the attention of fellow-members cutting across party lines. His speeches are very animated and harshly critical of the government. In his trilingual speeches, Shanakiyan doesn’t hesitate to criticize fellow Tamil-speaking Muslim political leaders, earning him accolades from the Muslim community, who have appeared rudderless in the past year and more so,  after the ‘Easter blasts’ last year.

Many believe if Shanakiyan continues to operate with the same skill and courage, he will be able to fill the current leadership vacuum in Tamil politics in the East in time to come.

There was a time when Tamil parliamentarians were eminent legal experts and learned persons. Although they were all excellent debaters, the problems of the Tamil people were not solved. There is no need to interpret the ideas presented here as an argument that the Tamil issue can be resolved through parliamentary politics and impressive speeches in English – but the freshness of the emerging approach need not be discounted either. When the only way for the Tamil community to move forward is democratic politics, don’t we need the younger generation to have the required skill to make better use of parliamentary politics, which is an important component of democratic existence of nations?

– Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is a senior journalist and Consultant Editor, Express Newspapers Ltd

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