By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The decision taken by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)to oppose the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on a matter of principle placed the party in an unenviable position of antagonising the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
The task of spearheading the Parliamentary opposition against the amendment should have been rightfully that of the United National Party (UNP). The hopelessly divided UNP abdicated its responsibility by opting to walk out of Parliament and engage in extra-parliamentary protest demonstrations.
One would have expected the chief opposition party to make its presence felt in Parliament by participating in the debate and voting against it in addition to organizing extra-parliamentary protests. But the party faced with the prospect of MP’s crossing over to the side of the Treasury benches during voting time beat a strategic retreat.
What made it worse was the three line whip issued by the party earlier instructing all MP’s to vote against the bill followed by the ignominious decision of boycotting the debate and vote. It was a classic illustration of the saying about beginning with a bang and ending in a whimper.
In the absence of the UNP, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and the Tamil National Alliance had to bear the brunt of arguing against the amendment. Both Anura Kumara Dissanayake of DNA and MA Sumanthiran of TNA delivered powerful speeches criticising the 18th amendment.
Interestingly Dissanayake’s speech made in Sinhala did not receive the attention it deserved in the international media. Sumanthiran’s speech in English received greater prominence. The legal arguments put forward also made greater impact.
The TNA national list MP’s objection on September 7th had apparently rattled govt ranks. This combined with the points raised by Sumanthiran in his speech made him the target of vicious attacks during debate proceedings on September 8th. The “rat pack” led by “you know who” engaged in cat calls and jeering.
M.A. Sumanthiran MP
What made it worse was the name calling. Sumanthiran was frequently referred to as Koti or tiger. Given its track record of association with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) the TNA would naturally be targeted for its perceived tiger links whenever the opportunity arose.
The irony was that of Sumanthiran being at the receiving end. Sumanthiran among the present crop of TNA Parliamentarians is one MP who does not have any tiger baggage. The human rights lawyer born and bred in Colombo had not engaged in TNA politics in the past and was placed on the national list for the 2010 polls. Yet it was Sumanthiran who was being called tiger.
Despite the boorish display by some Govt MP’s Sumanthiran went on to present cogent arguments against the 18th amendment in his parliamentary address. With TNA leader Sampanthan being indisposed in India it was Sumanthiran’s lot to revive nostalgic memories of the not so distant past when Tamil Parliamentarians made profound impressions through brilliant speeches on important issues of the day.
An immediate consequence felt by the TNA was the cross over of its Amparai district MP Podiappu Piyasena. Earlier during the course of his address the TNA’s Sumanthiran had claimed proudly that no member of his party had crossed over and would not do so .Little did he realise then that within hours one TNA Parliamentarian was going to desert the party and vote with the govt.
The cross over of Piyasena from the TNA to the Govt is a sad event for more reasons than one. Chief among them is the fact that Piyasena with a Sinhala father and Tamil mother is in his own way an icon of national integration. Piyasena’s father hailing from Devinuwara had married and settled down in Akkaraipatru in the east. Though bearing a Sinhala name Piyasena had studied in the Tamil medium and is married to a Tamil woman. All his children study in the Tamil medium.
M. Piyasena MP
Piyasena is a small businessman running a provision store and a chair rental business. As a student he was involved with Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) politics. He contested the Aalaiaddy Vembu Pradeshiya sabha elections on the TNA list and was made deputy chairman of the council.
When Piyasena was accommodated on the TNA nomination list for Amparai district this year, few expected him to win because there were two ex – MP’s Thomas Thangathurai and Chandranehru Chandrakanthan on the TNA list. The demography of the district provided for only a single Tamil MP winning.
Given the fact that Kumaraswamy Krishnakumar alias Iniyabharathy the right –hand man of Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Karuna was contesting on the UPFA list as the solitary Tamil candidate there was much concern that the Tamil vote would be split resulting in no Tamil getting elected.
On the other hand even if a Tamil was elected it was presumed that Thangathurai, Chandrakanthan or Kalmunai Municipal council opposition leader Henry Mahendran would be the winner. Piyasena himself had no illusions about winning and had only stipulated that he should be made chairman of the Pradeshiya sabha in return for contesting on the TNA list.
Piyasena on the campaign trail
Piyasena did not stage any public meetings. His campaigning style was unique and direct. Piyasena converted a three –wheeler into a vehicle with a mini-platform. The vehicle painted in blue had a driver and would proceed along the roads and lanes of the constituency. Piyasena standing atop the platform would address people through a megaphone and distribute handbills.He spoke fluent Tamil with a distinct Batticaloa accent.
Towards the end of the election campaign two candidates on the TNA list withdrew and declared their support to Piyasena. When the results were announced the underdog Piyasena had registered an upset victory. Garnering more than 11,000 preference votes Piyasena created history by becoming the first “Sinhalese” to be elected from a Tamil party. He was truly an example of national unity.
Things however were not so rosy for Piyasena. For one thing there were continuing threats and intimidation from Iniyabharathi’s thugs. Even as Piyasena was elected winner a gang of goons surrounded Piyasena’s house and attempted to chop down his door with an axe. TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan got in touch with President Rajapaksa immediately and special police protection was provided.
Piyasena however was becoming increasingly unhappy with pressure from different quarters. Sinhala sections of the UPFA in Amparai district appealed to him quietly to abandon a Tamil party and join the govt. Iniyabharathi’s goons were on the prowl harassing him but could not harm him due to the police protection.
On the other hand there was subtle pressure from within TNA ranks in the district. If Piyasena resigned others on the TNA list could get elected. Piyasena being a very simple and modest person was also uncomfortable within the TNA parliamentary group.
There was a general unease among many MP’s that the “Triple-S” trio of Sampanthan, Senathirajah and Suresh (Premachandran) ran the TNA like their fiefdom and that others particularly those from Amparai and Batticaloa were rendered insignificant.
Piyasena being in the opposition also found himself unable to be of great service to his voters and supporters. In that situation he yielded to “pressure” from supporters and thought of joining the govt. He sent a “secret” letter to President Rajapaksa some months ago saying he was willing to support the govt.The govt however was unwilling to encourage defections from the TNA at that time.
The TNA leadership got wind of Piyasena’s vacillation. A high-ranking TNA delegation went to Amparai district and met with Piyasena. All his concerns and grievances were discussed in detail. A TNA committee for the Amparai district was set up with both the ex-TNA MP’s in it. Full-fledged support and solidarity for Piyasena was pledged. The crisis seemed to be over.
The issue re-surfaced again when moves were afoot to introduce the 18th amendment. With President Rajapaksa requiring a two-thirds majority potential defectors from the opposition were approached. A Tamil MP regarded as being very close to the President began “cultivating” Piyasena on this matter.
With the govt being able to procure the support of the Muslim Congress and several Sinhala MP’s from the UNP a two-thirds majority was assured. The importance of Piyasena diminished. But when the TNA played an active and effective role in opposing the 18th amendment it was felt that the party should be given a knock and taught a lesson. “Operation Piyasena” was set in motion.
Other Parliamentarians of the TNA began suspecting Piyasena of defecting. The Parliamentary group met with Piyasena himself being present. The Amparai district MP was questioned directly about his plans. Piyasena swore upon a pantheon of deities that he would not cross over. He also emphasised that he had a Tamil mother and had drunk “Thamizh Paal” (Tamil milk) from her breasts.
The TNA parliamentary group was satisfied about Piyasena’s bona fides. When an emotional Piyasena requested that he be given five minutes to speak during the debate so that he could unambiguously express his opposition to the 18th amendment it was readily granted. Wanni district MP Vino Vinothaharahalingam and Batticaloa district MP Ariyanendran co-wrote a speech for Piyasena.It was gratefully accepted.
It was against this backdrop that Sumanthiran spoke proudly about the TNA standing unitedly against the 18th amendment. When Piyasena got up to speak he first had in his hands the speech written out by the two TNA MP’s. In an unexpected move Piyasena then brought out a copy of another speech and began reading out.
A stunned TNA found Piyasena speaking out in favour of the govt and declaring that he would vote for it. Too late the TNA discovered that the “simple” MP from Akkaraipattru possessed ample native cunning. The TNA was down to thirteen from fourteen in Parliament.
The TNA parliamentary group hastily convened and a decision was taken to send mandatory official letters to Piyasena demanding an explanation for his action and also to show cause as to why he should not be expelled from the party.
Piyasena was unrepentant and defiant. He was harshly critical of the TNA leadership in media interviews. He accused the TNA of being Jaffna-centric and of ignoring the needs of eastern province Tamils. Piyasena pointed out that Tamils of the district had suffered immensely during the war and that support from the govt was necessary to rehabilitate and uplift them.
The Amparai district MP stated that he had not crossed over for any post. All that he requested was easy access to the ministers of the government. He would meet with them individually to obtain support for projects aimed at helping his people, Piyasena said. Once again he stressed that the Tamils who voted for him wanted him to join the govt and help them rather than languish in opposition.
in Sagamam – Amapara
Listening to Piyasena was an interesting experience. He spoke Tamil fluently with a Batticaloa accent. He spoke the Tamil idiom and cited home-grown examples. He quoted Tamil film songs. He referred to MGR and Rajnikanth. He called SJV Chelvanayagam “Thanthai” (father) and Velupillai Prabhakaran “Thesiya Thalaivr”(National leader). The tone and content of Piyasena’s utterances make it clear that rapprochement with TNA is impossible.
Apart from opposing and voting against the 18th amendment in Parliament the TNA also resolved as a party to refrain from participating in the Parliamentary council envisaged. The amendment replaced the Constitutional Council proposed by the 17th amendment with a five member Parliamentary council.
The Prime minister, Speaker, Opposition leader and two representatives nominated by the PM and opposition leader were to be members. The two nominees were to be from ethnicities other than those of the PM, Speaker and opposition leader. Since these three positions were currently held by Sinhalese it meant the two nominees would be Tamil and Muslim.
The TNA opined that having opposed the 18th amendment on several grounds including that of replacing the Constitutional council it would be improper to participate in the replacement namely the Parliamentary council. It also felt that the Parliamentary council(PC) was toothless and that no purpose would be served because the President was not obligated to act according to its recommendations. Besides there was also opportunity for the TNA party leader Sampanthan to submit suggestions or objections directly to the President.
In spite of this stance the TNA in general and Sumanthiran in particular were approached by both the govt and opposition. EPDP Parliamentarian from Jaffna, Chandrakumar a.k.a Ashok approached Sumanthiran first and stated that the Prime Minister DM Jayaratne wanted to appoint Sumanthiran to the PC as his nominee.
Ashok urged Sumanthiran to accept it in the interests of the Tamil people. Sumanthiran however informed Ashok of the party decision and said he could not accept it. Although there was no direct approach from the Prime minister the overture made by Ashok seemed to have his sanction. The delay by the Prime minister in nominating a person before the mandatory seven days is attributed to this move.
Meanwhile the UNP also approached the TNA wanting Sumanthiran to be the opposition leader’s nominee. Deputy –leader and Gampaha district MP Karu Jayasuriya discussed the issue in detail with Sumanthiran. The TNA national list MP told Jayasuriya of the party position.
Sumanthiran also explained his personal reasons. As a lawyer it was very likely that he would be involved in litigation questioning the legitimacy of the 18th amendment. As such he could not participate in a body created by the amendment.
Jayasuriya understood and accepted the TNA position.But UNP and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also spoke to Sumanthiran about the matter. Once again Sumanthiran outlined his reasons for refusal. Wickremesinghe seemed satisfied and gave no indication that he was going to propose Sumanthiran’s name notwithstanding his stated position.
Sumanthiran was in Jaffna when the news broke that he was the opposition leader’s nominee. The TNA parliamentarian refuted the news item and stated that he had not given his consent to Wickremesinghe to be nominated.Later Suresh Premachandran issued an official statement on behalf of the party saying the TNA wont participate in the PC. Subsequently Wickremesinghe nominated UNP national list MP DM Swaminathan to the PC.
Given these circumstances where the TNA opposed the 18th amendment, refused to participate in the Parliamentary council and the government engineered the defection of Piyasena, relations between the Govt and the party were naturally expected to sour. The rapport that had developed earlier was not expected to last.
The TNA however was in for a pleasant surprise when it received an official letter from the Presidential secretariat dated September 9th. The letter informed the TNA that the list of seven MP’s proposed by the TNA to be on the joint mechanism to oversee rehabilitation, resettlement and development activity in the North and East had been accepted.
Since the letter was dated after the acrimonious 18th amendment debate the TNA was appreciative of the president. The seven TNA Parliamentarians on the joint Govt-TNA committee are R.Sampanthan, S. Senathirajah, K.Premachandran, S. Sreetharan, A.Adaikkalanathan, P. Selvarajah and MA Sumanthiran. The committee is yet to convene formally.
In a welcome development the TNA was also invited to attend district development meetings held at respective district secretariats. Sampanthan was invited for a Trincomalee district meeting but could not attend as he was indisposed in India. Pon. Selvarajah attended the Batticaloa district meeting that he was invited for.
In Jaffna a special district meeting was held on September 13th to delve into the havoc caused by recent floods. Disaster management minister AHM Fowzie and Traditional industries and small enterprise development minister Douglas Devananda chaired the meeting jointly.Jaffna district TNA parliamentarians K.Premachandran and E.Saravanabavan attended the meeting.
This was followed by an invitation to attend another Jaffna District development meeting on September 15th to be chaired by Economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa. There was however a mysterious telephone call from the Jaffna Kachcheri to the TNA informing the party that it need not attend the meeting chaired by Basil Rajapaksa.
The TNA smelled a rat and E. Saravanabavan undertook the task of ferreting out the “truth” about the meeting. Saravanabavan the managing director of “Uthayan” and “Sudar Oli” newspapers had earlier described himself as an “oodahap Porali” (media militant) during the election campaign. Putting his investigative skills to full use the media militant uncovered the truth that certain EPDP elements were responsible for the mischievous phone call.
So when Basil Rajapaksa turned up for the meeting in Jaffna he was visibly delighted to see TNA Parliamentarians Premachandran, Saravanabavan and Sumanthiran present. While Devananda displayed no emotion at the meeting conducted mainly in English, the presidential sibling Basil Rajapakse welcomed and thanked the TNA twice for participating at the meeting during his opening and closing remarks.
The govt –TNA bonhomie took a turn for the worse in October. President Rajapaksa was to chair a conference reviewing rehabilitation and development activity progress for the Eastern province on October 4th. The meeting held at Trincomalee naval headquarters premises was attended by several ministers,officials and elected representatives. TNA parliamentarians from the province were conspicuous absentees. Batticaloa district TNA parliamentarian Selvarajah told the media that he did not attend because the party was not invited.
The TNA lament about not being invited for the conference chaired by President Rajapaksa evoked an indirect response from Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the President. An excerpt from the “Sunday Observer “stated as follows:
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s open invitation to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to meet him still stands. Therefore, party leaders should take an initiative to meet President Rajapaksa to discuss matters relating to the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and development projects for them instead of expressing misgivings over the non-receipt of a written invitation” Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga told the Sunday Observer.
When this column solicited the opinion of a TNA parliamentarian about Lalith Weeratunga’s newspaper statement the response was “What Lalith says is true generally, but we cannot barge into a specific meeting to which we had not been invited by design. The Eastern development review meeting was one such meeting”
In a further development or non –development the TNA found itself uninvited for another meeting to be chaired by President Rajapaksa. The Northern Province Development committee is scheduled to meet on October 19th at the Army headquarters premises in Vavuniya. The TNA has not received an official invitation for the meeting chaired by the President himself.
Instead of “sulking in their tents” like Achilles of ancient Greece, the TNA this time is planning to contact the government directly and explore the issue. Such an exploration is bound to reveal to the TNA where it stands vis a vis the government. If indeed the lack of invitation is a genuine act of omission or “mistake” then the situation can be rectified. If on the other hand the omission was deliberate then efforts should be taken to mend fences with the government.
In these matters it does not behove the TNA to play the slighted Prima Donna with the govt even if that party is indeed in the right. The Tamils are today a battered and shattered people due to the wrong, misguided “leadership” provided by the LTTE. The TNA that functioned as a shameless minion of the tigers has to share the blame for this situation.
In that context the TNA must act more responsibly and maturely. Instead of demanding things as a matter of right and entitlement the TNA should swallow its pride and evolve better relations with the govt. If the TNA could prostrate itself unconditionally to the LTTE there is no reason as to why the party cannot bend its head slightly towards the govt in the interests of the Tamil people.
This does not mean that the TNA gives up all dignity and self-respect as a political party representing the Sri Lankan Tamil people. It also does not mean that the government is right in all what it does and that the TNA has to simply toe its line without question.
What it means is that the TNA as a responsible party representing a badly affected community needs to be flexible and constructive in its approach. It has to deal diplomatically and judiciously with a head swollen regime riding the crest of a triumphant wave with the belief that might is right.
in Thirukovil ~ Ampara
As far as the Tamil people are concerned there are two crucial issues needing immediate attention. Firstly there is the imperative need to rehabilitate and resettle all displaced persons. Along with that are the related requisites of reconstruction, development, economic revival, enhancement of employment and improvement of education. There is also the need to secure the speedy release of all detained persons and re-integrate them into society.
Secondly there is the need to redress genuine grievances and accommodate legitimate political aspirations. For this to happen there must be a willingness and readiness to focus on the attainable rather than hanker after the desirable however attractive it may be. Given current realities what is feasible is to obtain full implementation of the provisions provided through the 13th and 16th amendments to the Constitution albeit with some modification. Greater devolution to the North and East and full fledged official language status for Tamil should be the goals.
For the TNA to achieve these goals it needs to work with the government in a spirit of cooperation and not confrontation. Pressure exerted by India and other Western nations on Colombo can be helpful but can only play a supplementary role.
Experience should teach the Tamil parties that “rights” obtained through external intervention will not be realised on ground if the Sinhala polity resents it. What is workable is for the Tamil political representatives to interact with the ruling regime and work in partnership. Politics is the art of the possible!
On the other hand the Rajapaksa regime too should reflect and revise its approach towards the Tamil and Muslim people. At present the government may be right on top and Mahinda Rajapaksa may feel that he is king of the world.
The political parties representing minority communities have lost all bargaining clout and are virtually powerless. This does not mean that the government should ignore the minorities and roll on like a juggernaut while mouthing meaningless platitudes that there is no majority or minority.
In the case of the Tamil people the Rajapaksa regime needs to arrive at some form of understanding with their premier political representatives. Whatever the disgraceful pro-tiger past of the TNA there is no denying that the alliance performed creditably in the 2010 elections without any tiger support and won the most number of seats in the Tamil majority regions.
Instead of trying to promote other “replacements” or encourage defections the Rajapaksa regime would do well to forge a working relationship at least with the Tamil national alliance.
It does seem crystal clear that the government intends introducing further Constitutional amendments in the future. At least one of these (19th or 20th) would relate to devolution as provided through the Provincial councils. Although the government has the necessary Parliamentary majority to push through these amendments without TNA support, it would be better to have the TNA on board.
Children in Ampara – Thirukovil resettlement ~ pics: Drs. Sarajevo
The prestige of the government would rise high if it can win over the TNA and pass the required amendments with its support. Such an amendment would be durable and doable. Likewise the TNA would achieve lasting success if it can work together with the government and play a constructive role in catering to the economic, social, cultural and political needs of the Tamil people.
If this ideal state of affairs is to evolve both the govt and TNA have to end the current stalemate. It is not for both sides to wait for the other side to stretch out hands and then grasp it. It is for both sides to reach out to each other. For this a greater sense of political maturity and statesmanship is required.
Rapprochement between the Government and Tamil National Alliance is the need of the hour. Both sides must realise that time is of the essence.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org