by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The single –largest Sri Lankan Tamil political group in the dissolved Parliament was the conglomerate known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA which contested the April 2004 general elections under the “Veedu”(House) symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) obtained twenty-two seats including two nominated under the national list.
Tamil National Alliance poster in Kallady, Batticaloa ~ More election pictures
The TNA led by Rajavarothayam Sambandan the veteran politician from Trincomalee is once again contesting the 2010 Parliamentary elections under the House symbol of the ITAK. It has fielded candidates in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts of Jaffna,Wanni, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai (Digamadulla).
The TNA has refrained from contesting the Colombo district that has a substantial concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils. This is mainly due to an unwritten understanding with Mano Ganesan of the Democratic Peoples Front(DPF)to prevent fragmentation of opposition Tamil votes in “Kozhumbu” (Colombo).
There is also a school of thought within the TNA that feels the alliance should focus mainly on the traditional Tamil homeland in North and East.
The Parliamentary polls in 2010 are of crucial importance for the Sri Lankan Tamil polity. For over twenty-five years Tamil electoral politics took a backseat while the armed struggle espoused by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)called the shots both metaphorically and literally.Now the tigers who claimed to be the sole representatives of the Tamil have been virtually decimated in the Island.
The tigers may have gone but the ill- effects of tigerism linger. Velupillai Prabhakaran along with his followers, minions, sycophants and fellow-travelers has wrought great and possibly irreparable harm on the long –suffering Tamil people. The Tamils are a battered and shattered people without even a glimpse of a glimmer at the end of a deep,dark tunnel.
Against such a backdrop it is of paramount importance that a pragmatic and viable political force representing the Sri Lankan Tamils should emerge.This is the need of the hour!
Redressing Tamil grievances and achieving legitimate Tamil aspirations within a united but not necessarily a unitary Sri Lanka remain unfulfilled tasks still. The Sri Lankan Tamils require a credible “voice” to articulate their grievances and aspirations. Such a voice must be elected democratically and spurn separatism and violence. In that context the 2010 poll provides an appropriate opportunity for the election of a strong Tamil voice.
In Poonochchimunai ~ Propaganda banner for the independent candidate from Batticaloa District Shanthi Sachchithanandam-pic by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai~more Election 2010 pix
Given the fact that the TNA held 22 seats in the 2004 – 2010 Parliament it is but natural to assume that the alliance is the best bet out of available choices. Even if unable to replicate the 2004 result en toto the TNA seems capable of winning a fair number of seats at the present hustings too. It would however face stiff competition from a plethora of political parties and independent groups.
Apart from the Sinhala dominated “National” fronts like the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA), United National Front(UNF) and Democratic Peoples Alliance (DPA) there are also a number of ethnic and regional parties contesting in the North and East. Broadly these parties are either pro- State or anti-State in professed ideology. Some of these parties are either appendages of the government or apologists of the LTTE.
What the Sri Lankan Tamils require at this juncture is a representative political body that would be free of extreme positions. It must be able to act responsibly and co-operate with the government in restoring lost rights and remedying problems but not turn into acolytes of the ruling regime.
It must project the image of being advocates of a distinct Tamil identity without being perceived as pro-tiger or pro-Eelamist sympathisers or supporters. While mobilising mass support from the Tamil people itshould also be able to obtain endorsement and backing from the International community inclusive of India.
In such a situation the TNA would seem the acceptable choice among those available.Things however are not so simple. The TNA track record leaves much to be desired. To its eternal shame the TNA functioned as a slave of the LTTE in the past. Mao Ze Dong spoke of the “running dogs of imperialism”. In similar fashion the TNA was the “running dog of tiger hegemonism”.
If the LTTE imposed itself as the sole representative of the Tamil people, Douglas Devananda of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) portrays himself as the sole alternative. Douglas was fond of referring to the TNA derisively as “Tiger Nominated Agents” in the past. That label is not entirely devoid of merit.
The TNA members of Parliament from 2004-2010 consist of five categories. The 22 MP’s are from four political parties as well as non-party affiliation. The LTTE decided who should contest and where. The tigers played a big part in mobilising genuine support and vote rigging in 2004.
The TNA electoral triumph of 2004 lost its sheen when the E.U . released is report condemning the election as not being free or fair in the North and East. This does not mean that all those who won on the TNA did so due to fraudulent means. Several of those elected did so in their own right but their majorities were enhanced through dubious means. But there were some who won entirely due to vote rigging.
Had the TNA contested without any LTTE support or backing in 2004 it may have got about 12-14 seats. The tiger factor helped it to sweep the polls and get 22 seats. It was however a Faustian bargain. The TNA was seen and depicted as a voice of the tigers rather than the Tamils. They had zero credibility in the eyes of the world and rest of Sri Lanka.
When the TNA was formed there were some who thought the alliance would be to the LTTE what the “Sinn Fein” was to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A few entertained hopes of the TNA playing a prominent role in the peace talks. This was not to be as the LTTE ruled a political role at peace talks for the TNA at the outset.
Furthermore the TNA took up the position that the LTTE should be the sole representatives of the Tamils at the talks and elsewhere. After abdicating its position the TNA disgraced itself further by functioning as members of Parliament and collecting all accompanying perks and privileges. In the words of Stanley Baldwin “power without responsibility has been the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” .
The LTTE also reduced the TNA to political servitude and ensured that such bondage was well publicised. The TNA was summoned frequently to Kilinochchi where the tiger political commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan would issue orders and instructions. At LTTE oriented functions some of these MP’s would wear LTTE badges and sing paeans of praise to Prabakharan and the tigers.
In Parliament the TNA was a pathetic lot. Apart from Sambandan few MP’s made any worthwhile contribution. Many of the TNA members acted abrasively and provocatively in the house. Notorious among them were MK Sivajilingam and Selvarajah Gajendran.
The cumulative effect of all this was an erosion of credibility and respect. When the TNA parliamentarians launched a “satyagraha” campaign within the House it was treated with supreme disdain. Neither the Government nor national opposition parties showed concern.
Rajavarothayam Sambandan-file pic~by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
Likewise the TNA was looked upon with contempt and scorn by members of the diplomatic community. Though the “motions of meetings” were followed there was practically no meeting of minds. This was particularly so with India. Though TNA delegations made customary pilgrimages to New Delhi scant regard was paid.
The TNA was seen as a tiger adjunct and nothing more. People like Sambandan who complained bitterly in private about his pathetic plight was shown some pity. The end result of all this was that the TNA despite having 22 seats in a house of 225 was unable to accomplish anything worthwhile either in Sri Lanka or abroad.
Instead the TNA role seemed to be that of attending Parliament, drawing salaries and emoluments and giving regular interviews to the various media organizations run by pro-tiger sections of the global Tamil Diaspora. Some MP’s would stay on in the Wanni while others would be in Colombo, India or the West. The hapless North-Eastern people who nominally elected them were effectively short-changed.
What was lamentable in this situation was the TNA’s miserable failure in speaking out to the LTTE on behalf of the Tamil people. The TNA would criticise the government for its acts of omission and commission against the Tamil people but would not dare utter a word against the LTTE for suppressing the Tamils in the name of liberation.
From ruthless taxation to brutal conscription the tigers exploited and oppressed the Tamil people but the “elected” Tamil representatives remained deaf,dumb and blind.
The TNA remained passive spectators as the LTTE ruined the golden opportunity for a just, negotiated settlement through the peace process facilitated by Oslo. The TNA collaborated with the LTTE in enforcing a boycott of the 2005 presidential poll that brought Mahinda Rajapaksa to power. The TNA remained silent as the LTTE laid the groundwork for eruption of war through attacks by a “peoples force” and through acts like the Maavilaaru incident.
The worst however was when the war escalated and the LTTE began retreating with the people in tow. The TNA protested at the aerial bombardment and artillery shelling causing destruction of civilian life,limb and property but failed to ask the LTTE to let the civilians free to reach safe areas.
The TNA demanded international intervention to stop the war when the LTTE was beleaguered but did not even make a token appeal to the tigers to let go of civilians who wanted to move out from tiger controlled areas to save themselves and their families.There was also no condemnation of the LTTE for detaining, torturing, killing and injuring civilians attempting to escape the war zone.
Under these circumstances the TNA was seen as a shameless lackey of the LTTE.It had little respect or clout nationally and internationally. In fact some countries like Canada denied visas to TNA parliamentarians for being supportive of the LTTE branded as terrorist by the International community.
Mortgaging their souls to the LTTE may have helped the TNA to gain Parliamentary office but it also proved dangerous after a certain point of time.
Joseph Pararajasingham was shot dead after receiving communion from Bishop Kingsley Swampillai on Christmas Eve at the Batticaloa Cathedral. Nadarajah Raviraj was gunned down in a Colombo road while travelling in his official vehicle. Sinnaia Sivanesan fell victim to a landmine placed in Mallavi by the Army’s Deep penetration squad. Ex-TNA Parliamentarian Chandranehru Ariyanayagam was assassinated along with the LTTE’s eastern political commissar Kusalyan in Welikande. Ex-TULF MP Sivamaharajah was shot dead in Jaffna.
With the threat to their lives increasing some MP’s from the TNA took refuge in the Wanni. Some stayed put in Colombo confining themselves to official residences. Some spent time abroad returning briefly to Colombo to mark attendance in Parliament. Some stayed indefinitely in foreign countries. A few of these MP’s participated in activities organized by the Tamil Diaspora.
And then came Parliamentary elections 2010!
“Soo!Manthirakkaali!! As if some wizard had waved the magic wand most of these MPS returned home. Some who had breathed fire and brimstone at the Rajapaksa regime made clandestine deals with the powers that be to guarantee their safety and security and return. Once again they were “ready, able and willing” to become MP’s and “serve” their people. A few however opted to fade out of politics.
Given this dismal history prospects for the TNA would indeed seem to be bleak and dreary. An unrepentant, unreformed TNA would not be a logical choice for the Tamil people. But then in democracy one does not get to elect the ideal or best choice. One can only elect the best of what is available. Very often the choice is not the better party or candidate who but the less worse or lesser of the evils.
The Tamil people who suffered under the LTTE have no illusions about the tigers. They themselves had to silently stomach several indignities and injustice at the hands of the tigers and realise what the TNA was up against. As such they would not be too harsh or uncompromisingly judgemental on some of the TNA leaders.
Not all those who got elected in 2004 were puppets propped up by the LTTE alone. Quite a few have established political credentials and are capable of mustering support on their own. As such the TNA does have the ability and acumen to winn a reasonable number of seats if the elections in the north and east are really free and truly fair (Now that is a very big “IF”)
Moreover the more politically enlightened Tamils realise that the community is in dire straits. Despite defeating the tigers militarily the Rajapaksa regime has proved woefully inadequate in addressing the legitimate political concerns of the Tamil people. There are many tragic consequences of the war like displacement, detention that have to be alleviated. It is imperative that the Tamils acquire an effective political leadership at this crucial juncture.
Therefore substantial sections of the Tamil people seem amenable to a “renewed” TNA becoming the premier but certainly not their sole representatives. While some individuals will not be forgiven the TNA as an entity seemed to have gained a reprieve.
Two recent developments suggest that the TNA is not a spent force confined to the dustbin of history. At least not yet!
One is the creditable showing by the party at the Jaffna Municipal and Vavuniya Urban council polls. The other is the impressive “Tamil” turn out for Sarath Fonseka in the recent presidential elections. It must be remembered that the TNA extended support to the General instead of the incumbent president.
These developments along with the positive feedback from sections of the international community seem to have infused the TNA hierarchy with fresh confidence and optimism.
Triple “S” Trio
The TNA is currently led by the triple “S” triumvirate comprising Sambandan, Senathirajah and Suresh (Premachandran.)
This trio has been acting boldly and constructively in trying to re-structure, re-configure and re-furbish the TNA. Some destructive debris of the sordid past have been jettisoned. Some refreshing new talent has been enlisted in the form of university academics, school principals, lawyers, doctors, social workers and other professionals. People who remained with the people have been given pride of place. At the same time several sitting MP’s have also been given nominations.
It appears that the TNA would like to gradually disown its pro-tiger past and re-invent itself as a fresh avatar. The new look TNA has to be remain steadfast to basic principles and policies while being pragmatically flexible. While garnering wide-spread support from the Tamil people it must also cleanse itself from the vestiges of tigerism and regain legitimate acceptability in the eyes of the Sri Lankan polity, India and the western nations.
The 2010 elections could provide the opening for this TNA transition and the party leadership seems to be gearing up for this by doing well at the hustings.
Unfortunately politics by itself is a vibrant dynamic that does not often progress according to plan in a linear direction. This is the nature of politics. Attempts by the triple “S” trio to re-invent the TNA has resulted in inevitable convulsions.
If the evaluating criterion is the role and positions taken by the “lame duck” Parliamentarians then the TNA has certainly fragmented. The monolithic unity of the TNA has shattered and how!
Several sitting MP’s are contesting again on behalf of the TNA but some MP’s are contesting under the betel symbol of the UPFA. Some MP’s are contesting under the cycle symbol of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress. Some MP’s are contesting under the umbrella symbol of the left front. While some MP’s were denied nomination a few have voluntarily refrained from contesting again. A few of these are actively supporting the election campaign while others are opposing the current leadership. A few remain aloof and detached.
A simple explanation for the TNA disintegration would be the absence of the LTTE. It was the tiger whip (or gun) that brought together held the motley crew known as the TNA together. Now that the tigers are no more the fissiparous tendencies are rising. This explanation does possess a great deal of validity but the reasons for the current crisis are far more complex.
To understand the currents, countercurrents, undercurrents and crosscurrents within the TNA waters, a brief examination of its evolution and growth is necessary. Contrary to popular belief the TNA at the beginning was not a tiger creation. It was formed independently with cautious indirect backing by the LTTE. Thereafter the LTTE took it over and controlled it.
Oct 10th 2000 Elections
The origins of the Tamil National Alliance lie in the East. The factor that triggered it off was the October 10th 2000 Parliamentary election. The results in the North-East sent shock waves to the Tamils in general and some Tamil parties in particular.
No Tamil was elected in the politically sensitive Trincomalee district. In Batticaloa only two Tamils from the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) were elected. Another Tamil won from the ruling Peoples Alliance (PA)In Amparai district a Tamil Independent backed by the EPDP was elected.
The Wanni district with six seats saw Two Sinhala(from PA and UNP) and one Muslim MP being elected. Three Tamil MP’s from the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and one from the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) were elected.
Jaffna with nine seats saw the EPDP getting four including the bonus seat. The TULF got three. The Tamil Congress got one.The United National Party got one. The UNP won in Jaffna after 48 years. In 1952 Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s son in law Suppiapillai Nadesan had won. Now Thiyagarajah Maheswaran was returned.
No Tamil party got enough votes entitling it to a national list seat. 2000 saw the Tamils being under represented in the North-East. Moreover Sinhala dominated National parties and Tamil parties like the Govt affiliated EPDP had done well. One reason for the non-governmental Tamil political party debacle was disunity, fragmentation of Tamil votes and the lack of an imaginative or inspiring political agenda.
The seriousness of the situation was acutely felt in the ethnically heterogenous East rather than the near homogenous North. A seminar analysing the situation was held at the Eastern University. It was chaired by former “Daily Mirror” columnist Dharmalingam Sivaram alias Taraki. Several academics, journalists, teachers, professionals, social workers, undergraduates and political representatives participated.
It was resolved at this conference that the different Tamil political parties in the opposition should unite under an umbrella organization to prevent fragmentation of votes. It was also felt that such an organization should be broadly supportive of the LTTE. It was also decided that the LTTE’s approval for the move be obtained steering committee with three joint chairs was formed to coordinate the implementation of this task.
This consisted of three aspects. Firstly the approval and implicit support of the LTTE. This required guarantees of safety and security by the LTTE that it would not assassinate Tamil politicians in the opposition. In return these Tamil parties had to acknowledge the pre-eminence of the LTTE and endorse it as the sole representative of the Tamils in any negotiations.
Secondly the political parties with a militant history like the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) PLOTE and TELO had to declare that they would lay down arms and not collaborate with the state in hunting the LTTE. They also had to sever links with para-military outfits linked to them like the Razeek group (EPRLF)Mohan group (PLOTE) and Ranjan group (TELO). All were in the East.
Thirdly the non-militant parties like the TULF and Tamil Congress had to agree to work together in a common front with the ex-militant groups. Both parties were reluctant as they felt the ex-militant groups hands were tainted with blood. Besides the TULF stood for an “unarmed democracy”. There was also the long ,embittered history of rivalry between the Tamil Congress and the FP-TULF.
The TULF was also wary because of its 1989 experience. Pressure by New Delhi had resulted in militant organizations like the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) TELO and EPRLF contesting under the aegis of the TULF sun symbol along with TULF candidates. However none of the original TULF candidates won. Only Appapillai Amirthalingam got in through the national list(he had lost in Batticaloa)
The LTTE in the Wanni was not directly involved in the negotiating process. But Karikalan the former tiger political commissar for Batticaloa-Amparai was supportive and directly involved. Even as the talks were on the LTTE assassinated “Robert” the TELO head of Aaraiyampathy pradeshiya Sabha (this Robert is different to the EPRLF “Robert” killed by the LTTE in Jaffna in 2002). The assassination was a major setback as the TELO wanted to pull out of unity talks as a result.
The committee however persisted in its efforts and appealed to the LTTE’s military leadership of the East. The eastern regional military commander then was none other than Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias “Col” Karuna. The LTTE “explained” the assassination as a “mistake” due to a communication gap between the intelligence division and political wing.
Subsequently leading personalities from the TELO and EPRLF met with Karikalan in secret and discussed matters. Assurances were obtained.Likewise some TULF personalities’s also met with LTTE leaders and had discussions.
There were two hitches. The PLOTE led by Dharmalingam Siddharthan was willing for unity but the PLOTE cadres in Vavuniya (Plote stronghold) were unwilling to align with the TELO (also strong in Vavuniya) Likewise the TELO hierarchy was also reluctant to unite with the PLOTE as it feared erosion of support in the Wanni. Finally the PLOTE or its political party the Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF) opted out.
The second was the long standing antipathy of the Tamil Congress towards the Federal Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi) and its successor the TULF. The Tamil Congress wanted all parties to unite under the Tamil Congress symbol of cycle and contest instead of the TULF’s sun.
Dr. Yogalakshmi Ponnambalam was then the dominant personality in the Tamil Congress as her husband Kumar Ponnambalam had been killed on January 2000.After protracted discussions held at her residence she consented to unite and contest under the sun symbol.
Similarly some stalwarts in the TULF were also reluctant to unite with the Congress and other ex-militant groups but gradually they were won over or reduced to silence.
Even as these discussions continued two parallel courses of action were also on. One was the sudden phenomenon of leaflets and statements to the press by hitherto unheard of organizations like Sankiliyan padai, Kulakkottan padai and Pandara Vanniyan padai.
While “padai” means force the other references were to regional rulers like King Sankili of Jaffna, Kulallottan monarch of Trincomalee and chieftain Pandaravanniyan of Adankapatru. All these leaflets and statements urged Tamil unity and threatened those not cooperating with punitive action. They were given wide publicity in Tamil newspapers.
The other parallel course of action was the well-meaning efforts of some Colombo based prominent Tamils to bring about overall Tamil unity. These Tamils comprised leading businessmen, professionals and social workers. Some of them were involved in discussions with counterparts in Batticaloa striving for unity. The efforts of these “Colombo” based Tamils also played a major role in unity talks.
At the penultimate stages the LTTE in the Wanni got directly involved. Some leaders of the TULF, Tamil Congress, TELO and EPRLF were contacted by telephone and urged to unite and contest under the TULF “Sun” symbol. The LTTE factor galvanised the negotiating parties into concluding talks successfully
A working agreement among the TULF,ACTC, EPRLF and TELO was reached to form a coalition known as the “Thamizh Thesieeya Kootamaippu” or Tamil National Alliance . The TNA would contest under the TULF symbol. A scheme apportioning candidates to each party in the different electoral istricts was also agreed upon.
The formation of the Tamil National Alliance was announced through a press communiqué dated October 22nd 2001.The TNA was born!
(TO BE CONTINUED)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org