by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Tamil National Alliance(TNA) regarded as the premier political representative organization of the Sri Lankan Tamils has been in the eye of a political storm for the past few weeks.
The TNA which contested the 2010 Parliamentary polls under the House symbol of the “Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi” (ITAK) has been mired in controversy over its recent decision of not going to Geneva in Switzerland where the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has been in progress since February 27th.
A wide view of the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. 2 March 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré
The controversy arose due to a dilemma faced by the TNA.The issue was about whether the TNA should go to Geneva for the UNHRC session or not. It was a case of ‘Vaa Vaa Geneva ” (come,come Geneva)on the one hand and “Po, Po Geneva” (Go,Go Geneva) on the other. A vacillating TNA oscillated between both options and chose not to go. This decision however caused an unprecedented controversy that threatened to tear the TNA’s fragile unity apart.
The controversy brought to light the deep divisions within the TNA as well as the larger Tamil polity. It also revealed the undue and disproportionate influence exerted by the Tamil Diaspora over matters concerning the Tamils living in the Island. More importantly it exposed the prevalent fault lines in Sri Lankan Tamil politics. It was indeed pathetic to see so-called political leaders and sections of the media emitting lots of hot air and ballooning a virtual non –issue into a major crisis.
It must be emphasized however that the conduct of the TNA was very much to blame in causing this crisis.Being a configuration of different political parties the TNA is plagued by inter-party differences.These are further aggravated by intra-party intrigues and petty rivalry of a personal nature.Despite enjoying the confidence and trust of the Tamil people in the Northern and Eastern provinces the TNA displays an unusual diffidence in dealing with vociferous ultra-nationalist sections of the Diaspora. It is also seemingly weak in countering its vocal warrior opponents and critics in Sri Lanka.
The inherent weakness of the TNA both structurally and functionally became manifestly transparent through the “Going to Geneva” crisis faced by the umbrella front.Through inept handling by the TNA,a minor problem assumed proportions of a major crisis. An issue that was essentially a case of “much ado about nothing” has been allowed to engulf the Tamil political landscape for the past few weeks. Although the floodwaters are now receding the final outcome in Geneva may very well unleash fresh torrents of turbulent waters again. Besides some of the cracks that have appeared may lead to greater splits of the TNA in the future.
What then is the nature of this Geneva –centered political storm that has exposed the fissures and personality clashes within the premier political formation of the Sri Lankan Tamils? What is the background to the current controversy surrounding the TNA?
TNA Parliamentarians at a recent meeting in Mullaitheevu-pic: Tamilwin
It all began early this year as the UNHRC geared up for its 19th session scheduled to be held from February 27th – March 23rd in Geneva.There was much speculation that a resolution on Sri Lanka was going to be presented in Geneva. Elements of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)and their fellow travellers in the Global Tamil Diaspora began working themselves up into a frenzy of excitement.
The expectation was that an adverse resolution with drastic implications for the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on the cards in Geneva.This viewpoint was projected aggressively in the media organs controlled or influenced by LTTE and pro –LTTE elements within the Tamil Diaspora.
A bizarre phenomenon in the aftermath of the LTTE military debacle of May 2009 is the transmogrification of tiger activists in the Diaspora as passionate champions of human rights and ardent advocates of transnational justice.In the perception of these sections, the forthcoming Geneva conclave was going to be a political waterloo for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The mainstream Tamil media in Sri Lanka that faithfully echoes the global Tamil media in many matters began reflecting this line of thought domestically.Thus extravagant hopes of an unrealistic nature about the scheduled Geneva UNHRC session were building up amidst sections of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad.
The Tiger and pro-Tiger sections of the Diaspora forged schemes of creating a spectacle in Geneva in a bid to impress their ”funding” constituency. The competition among rival segments in the Diaspora fuelled these plans further. Elaborate plans to stage demonstrations in Geneva with LTTE flags and Prabhakaran portrait placards were drawn up.
International Human rights organizations were shocked. They pleaded with these elements at a personal level to refrain from going to Geneva. They pointed out that the protests and demonstrations envisaged by Tamil activists had little impact on member states of the UNHRC.It was lobbying in the corridors of power that was crucial.Moreover visible identification with LTTE symbols could prove counterproductive, it was stated.
All these well-intentioned entreaties amounted to playing the violin to a deaf elephant or in this case the tiger. The Tamil Diaspora tiger elements were in no mood to keep away from Geneva. Tamil politics today has degenerated into empty showmanship and games of one upmanship. With prospects of a harsh resolution against Sri Lanka being in the air it was necessary for these outfits to mark a visible appearance in Geneva. That way they could claim a share of the credit and convert that advantage into garnering more funds from the Diaspora.
Against this backdrop there were many overtures to the TNA that the party should attend the Geneva UNHRC sessions. Almost every TNA Parliamentarian maintains some level of contact with Diaspora organizations and influential individuals. It was at this personal level that approaches were made to the TNA.It must be noted that the invitations extended were unofficial. There was no official invitation to the TNA from circles that mattered.
The Diaspora invitations had an ulterior agenda. Despite all the sound and fury most Tamil Diaspora organizations and groups have very little clout in International fora.Their access and contacts are rather limited. Government officials of Western nations and accredited office-bearers of International organizations prefer to deal with elected Tamil politicians from Sri Lanka as opposed to self-styled community leaders of the Diaspora.
In this situation enticing the TNA into undertaking a trip to Geneva would provide the Diaspora organizations involved in the exercise a thin veneer of respectability. By associating with the TNA in lobbying at international fora such as the UNHRC conclave the Diaspora organizations could bask in reflected glory.Thus the Tamil Diaspora organizations strove diligently to get the TNA visit Geneva in a bid to enhance their credibility.
Not that the TNA required much wooing in this regard. It is now a standing joke among Tamil circles that Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders cannot resist a foreign trip if the expenses are paid for by other sources.Like their counterparts in Tamil Nadu who support the LTTE these politicians are ever ready to go on an overseas trip under the pretext of promoting the Tamil cause.
There was also another motivating compulsion. With the USA initiating efforts directly the chances of a resolution on Sri Lanka seemed inevitable.So like Diaspora elements some members of the TNA also wanted to claim or share credit for it. For that a physical presence in Geneva was essential. It was basically a playing to the gallery scenario. Showing off was the name of the game and many MP’s of the TNA were ready to play it.
The TNA parliamentary group consisting of thirteen MP’s met in Colombo on February 9th. The idea of going to Geneva was mooted and discussed. To his credit senior Parliamentarian Somasundaram Senathirajah also known as “Maavai” Senathirajah dismissed the suggestion saying ” what can we achieve by going to Geneva?”Senathirajah’s observation was a candid assessment of the actual situation as there was really no constructive role for the TNA or any Tamil political party to play in Geneva. This was why no Tamil political party had in the past gone to Geneva.
Senathirajah’s position had a mixed reception. While some agreed others disagreed. Many advanced reasons in favour of going to Geneva while some put forward arguments to the contrary.The meeting concluded without any firm decision being taken.It was expected that a final decision would be reached in another meeting.
The TNA’s official spokesperson Kandiah Premachandran however had a different tale to tell the media.Premachandran known as Suresh the nom de guerre he gained as a militant of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF)was quoted by the media on the 10th that the TNA would be going to Geneva although the decision was yet to be confirmed. News reports also stated that a five member TNA delegation to Geneva would be finalized.
“Suresh” Premachandran’s official version was incorrect and did not reflect the actual situation.It may well have become true subsequently and the TNA could have gone to Geneva but the position was not so at the time it was stated. In fairness to Premachandran it must be said that some other TNA leaders also began speaking of going to Geneva but it was the official spokesperson’s announcement that carried weight.
The TNA hierarchy did not correct the wrong information released by Suresh Premachandran. This has been the case in earlier instances too particularly regarding the talks with the Govt. Although there is a deadlock at present there is no denying that significant progress had been made in many matters in the past. But the TNA official spokesperson would tell the media no progress had been made and undermine the importance of talks. The TNA has failed to check this irresponsible tendency on the part of Premachandran.
News reports stating the TNA would be going to Geneva aroused the ire of Government circles. Media reports critical of the TNA began appearing. Chief among them was one which said the TNA links to LTTE terrorism would be disclosed by the Govt in Geneva.With orchestrated protests mounting in Sri Lanka against the proposed resolution in Geneva the TNA announcement of going to Geneva added further fuel to the fire.
It was at this juncture that two key officials from the US state department arrived in Colombo. They were Marie Otero, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the State Department for Central and South Asian Affairs.
Maria Otero, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, spoke at the 19th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland March 2, 2012. U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers
Otero and Blake met TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and National list Parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran on February 12th. Many matters were discussed. At one stage the question of the TNA going to Geneva came up. Both Otero and Blake were not in favour of such a move. They said no useful purpose could be served by the TNA going to Geneva and urged the party to seek ways and means of resuming the stalled dialogue on Constitutional reform with the Government.
After the American duo left Sri Lankan shores the TNA leader Sampanthan aided by Sumanthiran exchanged views with some diplomats stationed in Sri Lanka on the issue of going to Geneva. These were officials from European and Asian nations. They too were of the opinion that the TNA should keep away from Geneva.
The Sampanthan-Sumanthiran duo continued with the task of seeking further advice on the issue from other knowledgeable circles including human rights activists, NGO officials,academics and media personnel familiar with the UN environment in Geneva. Their intention was to obtain as much information as possible before arriving at an informed decision.
After obtaining this input Sampanthan decided that there was no need for the TNA to go to Geneva at that point of time. This did not mean that the TNA had no legitimate basis for going to Geneva.It was Sampanthan’s position that the TNA being the democratically elected premier representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil people had every right to be present at all venues or occasions where issues concerning the Tamils were being discussed.
The veteran Parliamentarian from Trincomalee district with decades of experience in negotiations and canvassing was also of the view that the TNA had every right to participate in Geneva sessions concerning the human rights situation in Sri Lanka just as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and cabinet minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara had done so in the past during the rule of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
The reason that Sampanthan was not in favour of going to Geneva was because he could see that there was no worthwhile task for the party to accomplish there. He was opposed to the optical gimmick of being in Geneva without any worthwhile role to play
Sampanthan drafted a statement announcing that the TNA would not be going to Geneva. He intended convening the TNA parliamentary group and seeking its endorsement of the draft embodying the decision of not going to Geneva. There was however was a practical problem as the MP’s were scattered in the Island and abroad.
Finding it difficult to get all MP’s to meet in Colombo , the TNA leader resolved to communicate with them individually and seek their consent.So TNA leader Sampanthan assisted by Sumanthiran began contacting their parliamentary colleagues one by one in terms of seniority.
The senior most MP Senathirajah was not telephoned as he was then receiving medical treatmentat a Trichy hospital in Tamil Nadu.Besides the Jaffna district MP had already indicated his opposition to the idea of going to Geneva.The next to be contacted was Suresh Premachandran also in Tamil Nadu at that time.
When Sumanthiran called Suresh in the presence of Sampanthan and conveyed the decision about not going to Geneva, the EPRLF leader was taken aback. Since he had jumped the gun and prematurely announced that the TNA was going to Geneva his personal credibility was at stake.Suresh said that he felt the TNA should go to Geneva and asked Sumanthiran to seek the consent of other MP’s on the matter.
Suresh Premachandran also said that there was no need to issue a statement at that point of time. He pointed out that the UNHRC session would continue till March 23rd and that there would be adequate time to convene a Parliamentary group meeting and take a final decision. Suresh requested that the decision not be announced until the MP’s met in person and decided.
Sumanthiran then contacted Wanni district MP and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO)leader Adaikkalanathan alias Selvam who was also in Tamil Nadu at that time and informed him of the decision. Selvam Adaikkalanathan then spoke directly to Sampanthan.The TELO leader was in agreement with the decision but wanted it endorsed by all other TNA Parliamentarians.
Sampanthan and Sumanthiran then contacted the other MP’s one by one.The MP’s were told that there was no direct invitation to the party to address the UNHRC. The only way for an MP to address the UNHRC was to represent an accredited NGO that is given given an opportunity to address the council.Even if that were possible the MP’s could not represent the TNA but only the NGO concerned.Even then the time limit to speak was only three minutes.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake answering questions via Twitter on Feb 28, 2012
So there was no useful role for the TNA to play except perhaps participate in discussions organized as side events.Other than that the TNA could only hang out in the UN Corridors or warm seats and palates in the cafetrias , the MP”s were told.
The TNA parliamentarians were also told of the viewpoints of diplomats and officials including Otero and Blake that the TNA should not go to Geneva.
The situation in Sri Lanka was also discussed. All the MP’s agreed that the situation was becoming volatile as organized protests over Geneva were being widely held. In such a tense climate there was no urgent necessity to go to Geneva and possibly worsen the situation further.
Thus through a series of telephone discussions the opinion of all MP’s were obtained. Twelve of thirteen MP’s including Senathirajah were of the same mind in not going to Geneva for the UNHRC session. Attempts were made to contact Premachandran but the MP busy with a schedule of meeting state level opposition leaders from the CPI (Marxist) CPI and Bharatiya Janata Party could not be reached immediately.
Although it had been agreed that party leader Sampanthan would issue a statement on behalf of the TNA announcing the decision on Geneva,there was a delay as Premachandran was yet to be contacted. Events however began overtaking.
In a breach of party discipline Batticaloa district parliamentarian P.Ariyanenthiran fired off like a loose cannon. He told an FM Radio that the TNA would not be going to Geneva and that all MP”s subscribed to this party decision.
With Ariyanenthiran’s premature announcement the TNA hierarchy was constrained to issue an official statement on the matter before consulting Premachandran a second time. This Sampanthan did on February 25th in a short concise statement that laid emphasis on potential violence occurring as the primary reason for not going to Geneva.. This is what the statement said in this regard–
“The Tamil National Alliance genuinely fears that if the present unstable situation continues, violence could recur and the civilian population could again be the victims.The Tamil National Alliance considers it imperative that in the present situation calm should be maintained, and that nothing should be done which could exacerbate tensions.In these circumstances The Tamil National Alliance has decided not to be present in Geneva”.
The TNA statement that it would not be going to Geneva had a mixed response with some welcoming it and others criticizing it. The biggest bombshell however came from Suresh Premachandran its official spokesperson.
Premachandran in Tamil Nadu told the BBC Tamil service “Thamizhosai” that he did not agree with the decision. He said that the TNA MP’s had not been consulted on the matter and openly accused Sampanthan and Sumanthiran of arriving at this decision without party approval.He said he would take up this issue after returning to Sri Lanka in due course.
The significance in Suresh Premachandran’s statement to the BBC Tamil service was that for the first time the EPRLF leader had come out in the open and reprimanded the TNA leader Sampanthan. It was an open revolt.Suresh Premachandran’s open criticism sent shock waves down the TNA rank and file and also its overseas support base.
The internal divide within the TNA became more apparent when the Jaffna based “Uthayan” and Colombo based “Sudar Oli” ran simultaneous editorials chiding the TNA for not going to Geneva. Both newspapers are owned by TNA Jaffna District MP E.Saravanabavan.
TNA leader Sampanthan at a meeting in Vavuniya-Feb 2012
TNA leader Sampanthan had earlier come under severe criticism for nominating Saravanabavan on the TNA list as the latter had incurred a bad reputation through his connections to the now defunct Sabra organization. Sampanthan had deflected the criticism by pointing out the benefits to the party in getting support from the local “press baron”.
Contrary to Sampanthan’s expectation ,Saravanabavan’s newspapers have been systematically and shamelessly promoting their owner throughout the electoral campaign and after. The TNA as a party received very little support thougfh a few favourites of Saravanabavan had coverage.Now it was obvious from the “Uthayan” and “Sudar Oli” editorials that the local “Lord Beaverbrook”had a hidden agenda of his own.
An overseas media attack was also launched against Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. It was initially spearheaded by a Tamil website close to Premachandran.Many of the TNA Parliamentarians have links to Tamil websites operated by activists in the Diaspora. These sites are used to promote some TNA leaders and denigrate others depending upon the partiality of the websites.So several websites started criticizing Sampanthan and Sumanthiran.
In a separate development ,Batticaloa district MP Ariyanenthiran who had said earlier that the party MP’s had resolved not to go to Geneva changed his stance and became critical of the decision. He contradicted his earlier statement to the FM radio and said the MP’s had not been consulted by the TNA leadership.In typical doublespeak Ariyanenthiran also said he was confident that the TNA leader would not commit mistakes.
TNA national list Parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran was now interviewed by the BBC Tamil service.He refuted Suresh Premachandran’s accusations and stated that the TNA decision was not taken unilaterally and that TNA parliamentarians had been consulted and had endorsed the decision.Despite Sumanthiran’s explanation the attacks against him and Sampanthan continued.
Government circles welcomed the TNA decision of not going to Geneva.Cabinet minister Mahinda Samarasinghe in Geneva interpreted the TNA stance as a vindication of Sri Lanka’s position. Douglas Devananda chipped in with his own contribution.
The Govt response evoked a predictable reaction amidst Tamil opponents and critics of the TNA. The premier Tamil party was now vilified as betraying Tamil interests and working on the sly to bail out the Rajapaksa regime in Geneva. As usual the vocal warriors of the Tamil Diaspora began blaming India as being responsible for the shift in the TNA stance.
Tamil politicians who plugged a shameless pro-LTTE line at the 2010 Parliamentary polls and thoroughly trounced are now trying to make a comeback by adopting a hawkish stance on issues and berating the TNA for toeing a comparatively moderate line. Likewise certain self- styled civil society activists are also ganging up against the TNA with an entirely different agenda. Extremist elements in the Diaspora are also opposed to the TNA for its soft political approach and want it to adopt a confrontational strategy with Colombo.
All thes elements now commenced a bitter onslaught against the TNA.Influential sections of the Tamil media within and outside Sri Lanka began to mount a campaign against Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. It was indeed pathetic to see the lack of political knowledge or analytical thinking in the criticism levelled. A lamentable ignorance of international relations and the mechanics of International bodies like the UN HRC was blatantly visible. The underlying theme of this anti-TNA tirade was that the TNA by keeping away from Geneva had scuttled chances of an anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC.
The tone and content of the anti-TNA criticism provides a fascinating insight into the lack of pragmatism and rational thinking in dominant strands of Tamil political discourse. The proponents of the politics of confrontation that culminated in the debacle of Mullivaaikkaal now seem to be trying to perpetuate Tamil agony further by adopting hawkish approaches.
The TNA leadership was further rattled by several representations made at a personal level from prominent Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad. They wanted the TNA to revise its position and go to Geneva.Diaspora Tamils were stridently critical of the TNA.
An immense volume of electronic mails were exchanged among Diasora Tamils comdemning the TNA.As is usual many of these mails alleged that Sampanthan had been bought over by the Government.
The sustained criticism against it compelled the TNA leadership to publicize the contents of a letter it had sent to all 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Council. The letter signed by R Sampanthan on behalf of the TNA urged support for the envisaged resolution on Sri Lanka.The letter concluded with these salient paragraphs –
“We observe that at the upcoming 19th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a Resolution will be tabled that will declare that the government of Sri Lanka has not yet done enough to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, and will comprehensively address the issue of accountability.
You are aware that the Sri Lankan government has consistently failed to abide by its commitments and to implement recommendations made by Commissions appointed by the government.
This Resolution will provide an opportunity for the fulfillment of the commitments repeatedly made by the government of Sri Lanka, and now contained in the recommendations of the LLRC, and thereby for the realization of the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people”.
The publication of the letter sent to member states of the UNHRC helped to reduce the venomous criticism against the TNA to some extent. The criticism however continued.MA Sumanthiran regarded as the rising star of the TNA was also singled out as a target and described as a Tamil traitor..In a crude manifestation of the anti-Sumanthiran trend,an effigy of the National list MP was hung within the premises of the Jaffna university.
Apparently a motley crew consisting of a Professor emeritus, Jaffna dist MP, goons of a half-democratic party and some members of an anti-TNA students organization had been responsible. Diverse sections had combined to “hang Sumanthiran high”.
With the return of Suresh Premachandran to Sri Lanka the Tamil grapevine began to hum with tales of an impending split in the TNA. Premachandran himself began to contact fellow MP’s and canvass support for a trip to Geneva.
A story began circulating that Premachandran would defy party diktat and go to Geneva in the company of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader Veerasingham Anandasangaree and Peoples Liberation organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan.
Meanwhile “Mavai” Senathirajah and Selvam Adaikkalanathan also returned to Sri Lanka. Together with Jaffna district MP Sivagnanam Sreetharan, Mavai Senathirajah began to head a counter campaign in support of Sampanthan. While several MP’s adopted eel like postures,showing their heads to the snake and tails to the fish , both Senathirajah and Sreetharan firmly and openly supported the party decision of not going to Geneva.
It was in such a tense political atmosphere that the TNA parliamentary group met on March 2nd at the party office in Bambalapitiya. All 13 MP’s of the TNA were present. The meeting began at 2.30 pm and went on for six hours till 8.30 pm.There was much speculation that the fateful parliamentary group meeting would result in a fragmentation of the Tamil National Alliance.
The terse press release issued by the TNA did not divulge any information about the schisms and differences of opinion within the party.Instead it simply stated the following-
“The Parliamentary group of the Tamil National Alliance met today. All members if Parliament of the TNA were present. There was a free and full exchange of views.
The parliamentary group of the TNA unanimously resolved to monitor all developments at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting at Geneva and will continue to take all such action as will be necessary in the interests of the Tamil people.
We request the Tamil people to continue to repose their confidence in us”.
If the TNA press communiqué was to be believed the current controversy was of no account and amounted to a mere tempest in a tea cup. Despite the understandable efforts by the TNA leadership to gloss over recent developments and patch up prickly issues in a bid to maintain party unity the reality was starkly different
NEXT: Troubles of the Tamil National Alliance
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org