By Shamindra Ferdinando
An abortive attempt to assassinate Jaffna District Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran in January this year sent shock waves through the Tamil community.
The exposure of the reprehensible conspiracy, by a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), just before Christmas last year, led to the arrest of five LTTE personnel in separate raids in January.
The Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) carried out the arrests, in mid-January soon after a reluctant yahapalana government authorized further investigations into destabilisation project.
However, the government refrained from utilising the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to take the suspects into custody. The decision should be examined against the backdrop of the government being in the process of abolishing the PTA.
The government is seeking a consensus, as regards new national security mechanism, with those countries behind a spate of Geneva Resolutions directed at Sri Lanka since the conclusion of the conflict.
Police headquarters identified those who had been arrested in connection with the assassination attempt so far as rehabilitated LTTE cadres.
The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA welcomed the investigation. Having repeatedly categorized those who had been rehabilitated, and released, as well, as still in government custody, as political prisoners, a deeply embarrassed TNA grudgingly acknowledged the danger posed by the LTTE rump as well as extremist elements overseas.
Sumanthiran entered parliament on the TNA Tamil List, following the April 2010 general election. Perhaps one of the top constitutional lawyers, Sumanthiran wouldn’t have been accommodated on the National List had the TNA nominations were subject to LTTE approval. Inuvil, Jaffna born, Sumanthiran successfully contested the Jaffna district at the last general election in August, 2015. It would be pertinent to mention that Sumanthiran hadn’t been deeply involved with the ITAK/TNA at the time it had been involved with the LTTE.
At the general election, in late 2001, the LTTE threw its weight behind the TNA enabling the outfit to secure the lion’s share of the electoral seats available in the northern and eastern districts. At the April 2004 general election, the TNA contested the election, on behalf of the LTTE, at that time recognized by the ITAK-led TNA as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. The European Union Election Observation Mission directly accused the TNA of capturing most parliamentary seats, in the northern and eastern provinces, with the LTTE’s help. The TNA secured 22 seats.
The LTTE-TNA project extended further, at the Nov, 2005 presidential polls, when they ordered Tamils not to exercise their franchise in support of either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Mahinda Rajapaksa. The move was clearly meant to deprive Wickremesinghe of victory. Had the Tamils been given a free hand, they would have certainly ensured Wickremesinghe’s victory. Obviously, the LTTE-TNA grouping felt that having helped Rajapaksa to win, he could have been easily overwhelmed. The TNA subsequently backed war-winning Army Chief Sarath Fonseka against Rajapaksa, at the January 2010 presidential polls. Having failed in that endeavour, the TNA finally succeeded, at the January 2015 presidential polls, when it extended its support to Maithripala Sirisena.
The TNA comprised ITAK, TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) and EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front). Although, V. Anandasangaree’s Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), too, had been part of the outfit, at its beginning, the political veteran subsequently broke ranks. Today, Sangaree is the strongest critic of the TNA which once worked closely with the LTTE. In fact, they had been part of the LTTE until the combined armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009 by crushing the Tigers militarily.
The alleged involvement of a section of extremist Tamil diaspora, in the assassination plot had made the situation worse. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, the TNA, as well as Colombo-based Western embassies, reacted cautiously to the alleged diaspora move.
The conspiracy couldn’t have come to light at a far worse time for those wanting accountability mechanisms to address the grievances of the war weary Tamil community.
Vanni District TNA MP (PLOTE) Dharmlingham Siddarthan, whom the writer associated with since 1990, acknowledged that they kept quiet about the alleged attempt on MP Sumjanthiran’s life for about three weeks.
Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika, of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), alleged Norway-based Nediyawan faction of calling for attorney-at-law Sumanthiran’s assassination. Patali Champika quite rightly castigated war-winning President Malinda Rajapaksa of recklessly releasing nearly 12,000 LTTE personnel without conducting proper investigations. Patali Champika alleged that those who had been released by the then President Rajapaksa were responsible for the assassination bid. However, Patali Champika’s cabinet colleagues refrained from commenting on the assassination attempt. The media largely ignored the assassination attempt, and the last minute cancellation of last week’s post-cabinet media briefing denied the media an opportunity to raise the issue with cabinet spokesman Dr Rajitha Senaratne.
Lukewarm int’l reaction
British, US and Australian diplomatic missions declined to comment on the alleged involvement of Tamil diaspora in the assassination bid. The British asserted that the High Commission couldn’t comment on unsubstantiated media reports.
The British HC spokesperson told the writer “The British High Commission won’t be commenting on these unconfirmed reports.”
The US embassy spokesperson told the writer that they didn’t have anything else to be added to recent reports regarding the alleged assassination attempt.
The Australian High Commission explained to the writer that the HC didn’t comment on legal matters.
The Norwegian embassy refrained from responding to the writer for five days regarding the direct accusation made by Minister Patali Champika over a week ago. Finally the Norwegian embassy in Colombo posted its response on its website. A Norwegian diplomat informed the writer of the Norwegian response soon after the issue was raised again last Friday morning. The following is the full text of the Norwegian statement: “With reference to recent newspaper articles on the alleged assassination attempt on parliamentarian Sumanthiran. The Norwegian embassy has no other information on this than what is mentioned in the Sri Lankan newspapers. We consider this a legal matter which is handled by the Sri Lankan police. In general, if the Sri Lankan police initiate or request international cooperation, there are established international procedures for such cooperation. The embassy has no further comments.”
Most probably, the Norwegian embassy, or any other diplomatic mission in Colombo, wouldn’t have publicly commented on the assassination attempt. Had there been any threat on attorney-at-law Sumanthiran from any other party, Western diplomatic missions would have surely taken it up. The on-going TID investigation into the Tamil diaspora led assassination bid would place the Western diplomatic missions in an embarrassing position.
The five LTTE cadres are scheduled to be produced before the Kilinochchi District judge on Feb 13.
The assassination plot is widely believed to have the backing of extremist Tamil diaspora elements based in Malaysia, France, Australia and Norway.
In response to a query raised by the writer, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mahishini Colonne expressed the belief that the ministry could facilitate the investigation. Colonne assured her Ministry’s support for investigating agencies to reach foreign governments.
The TNA lawmaker was to be assassinated on the Soranpattu-Thaalayady road, on January 13. Had those who had been working at the behest of extremist elements within the diaspora, succeeded, the crime would have been certainly blamed on sections of the military hell-bent on reversing the January 2015 revolution. In fact, early last year, the government alleged those in the military (still loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa) of trying to bring him back to power. The accusation was made close on the heels of the Chavakachcheri police recovering explosives, including suicide jacket following the arrest of an LTTE cadre. MP Sumanthiran confirmed to this writer the alleged involvement of suspended youth wing leader of ITAK with those implicated in the Chavakachcheri explosives haul. The Island reportage of the Chavakachcheri recovery and related matters prompted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to castigate the writer. Both the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Colombo Crime Division (CCD) recorded lengthy statements from the writer regarding his assumption that the former members of the LTTE could cause mayhem.
MP Sumanthiran told the writer that diaspora links, too, should be investigated in respect of those arrested in connection with the plot to assassinate him. Referring to the alleged involvement of Malaysia-based diaspora elements in the plot, Sumanthiran asserted that Malaysia had always cooperated with Sri Lanka. The Jaffna district MP was referring to the seizure and handing over of LTTE front liner Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP and other elements to the previous government. Malaysia handed over Pathmanathan to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in early Aug 2009.
The President of Yuthukama Forum and front-line member of the National Joint Committee, Gevindu Cumaratunga said that various interested parties, including Western diplomatic missions, so-called foreign funded civil society groups and INGOs would have flooded the media with statements on the alleged assassination attempts if not for the involvement of LTTE cadres and the diaspora. Cumaratunga, who had been battling anti-national elements at various forums, asserted that those who had been propagating constitutional reforms as panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills would have realized their folly. Cumaratunga urged the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to thoroughly examine the situation without being deceived by false assurances given by interested parties.
Foreign threats, Norwegian example
India’s war against Sri Lanka, launched in the early 80s primarily due to Geo political reasons, wouldn’t have lasted so long had there been an effective plans to deprive massive Europe-US-Australia and Scandinavian countries based diaspora support. Indian project went awry, in Oct 1987, after New Delhi was forced to take on the LTTE. The LTTE assassinated wartime Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in May, 1991, over a year after the Indian Army quit Sri Lanka.
In Aug 1998 the then British High Commissioner here, David Tatham, during a visit to Jaffna, urged the Tamil community to stop funding the on-going war. Tatham knew what was going on. The British diplomat had the strength to publicly appeal for an end to diaspora funding. The appeal was made at a time the British allowed a free hand for the LTTE on their territory. The diaspora received direct orders from the north. They worked at the behest of the LTTE. Now that the LTTE leadership had been eradicated, some sections of the diaspora were making an attempt to use the LTTE rump. The alleged assassination bid on Sumanthiran is a case in point. Perhaps, one day, the diaspora may succeed in choosing one among them to take a target in Colombo. The possibility of a foreigner of Sri Lankan origin, coming back without any hindrance to cause mayhem can never be ruled out. Let me remind you of a suicide attack carried out by a Norwegian in Somalia in March 2014. The perpetrator was identified as Abdullahi Ahmed Abdulle, a Norwegian passport holder of Somali origin. The Norwegian caused heavy loss of life in an attack on a hotel at Buulo Burde, in southern Somalia. The AFP, in a Mogadishu datelined March 19, 2014 story, quoted Shebab (terrorist group) military spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, as having said: “The attacker of Buulo Burde was a 60-year-old man who came from Norway to fight the enemies of Allah. He paid the sacrifice in order to be close to Allah by killing his enemies. The event is showing us that there is no age limit for Jihad.”
Shebab mounted a car bomb attack in response to a large scale military operation launched by African Union forces. The Norwegian, of Somali origin, was perhaps the oldest person to carry out a suicide mission. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the circumstances under which the Shebab terrorist had entered Norway, secured citizenship and subsequently returned to Somalia to launch a suicide mission on March 18, 2014. Did the Norwegian Foreign Service have had any hand in helping the Shebab terrorist leave Somalia clandestinely? Sri Lanka should study such cases. In fact, Sri Lanka should seek information from Somalia, through relevant agencies, as a country affected by terrorism. The government shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what was happening in other parts of the world. Had the Shebab killer received political asylum in Norway? Had he been involved in terrorism or engaged in activities against the state at the time he entered Norway? Commonwealth member state Kenya was another country badly threatened by foreign terrorists of Kenyan origin. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka had never realized the need to examine similar threats faced by other countries.
A post-war clandestine Norwegian project
Sri Lanka should take up with Norway the contentious issue of Norwegians, of Sri Lankan origin. Norway cannot remain mum especially in the wake of one of its citizens being accused of planning to assassinate TNA lawmaker Sumanthiran. A substantial number of Sri Lankans, including members of the LTTE, had received Norwegian citizenship – hence the freedom to travel in Europe, as well as the Scandinavian region, without any hassle. Had some of them been given new identities or in special cases changed ethnicity? Although Sri Lanka summoned the then Norwegian ambassador, Hilde Haraldstad, over a secret project to help Sri Lankans leave the country, the previous government never really pursued the case. The then Foreign Secretary, Karunathilake Amunugama, raised the issue on behalf of External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris (Helping 12 persons out of Sri Lanka: Government summons Norwegian envoy-The Island March 20, 2011). Denying any wrongdoing on Norway’s part, Haraldstad insisted she was not at liberty to discuss individual cases. The External Affairs Ministry never pursued the clandestine Norwegian project.
The Norwegian envoy was summoned in the wake of Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, in its May 12, 2011, edition revealing Norwegian diplomatic mission in Colombo buying air tickets for 12 would be Sri Lankan asylum seekers deemed to be at risk in Sri Lanka. Aftenposten quoted one-time Norwegian peace envoy in Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, as having endorsed the project undertaken by the Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo. Solheim also accused Sri Lanka of extra-judicial measures, including killings during the last phase of the conflict. Haraldsrad said that she couldn’t confirm the figure given by Aftenposten with regard to the number of Sri Lankans given political asylum in Norway. Although the number of Norwegians, of Sri Lankan origin, is relatively smaller when compared with communities in Canada or the UK, the Norwegian grouping is one of the most influential among pro-separatist Diaspora.
Sumanthiran’s close relationship with the GTF, too, wouldn’t have been to the liking of some sections of the diaspora as well as politicians here.
Recent terrorist attacks in Europe revealed those who had received citizenship of various EU countries were the perpetrators of these unprecedented assaults. European countries had allowed undesirable elements, including known terrorists, to enter their countries. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, several thousands of Sri Lankan terrorists live overseas. Those who had been trained by Indians in India in the early 80s, as well as in Sri Lanka, are among foreign nationals of Sri Lankan origin today. The diaspora wielded immense power due to organized vote bank that can be utilized handily at elections. Major British, Canadian and Norwegian political parties had been bending backwards over the years to appease the diaspora. Some political parties cannot forgo their relationship with Tamil diaspora. The British approach is a glaring example of playing politics at the expense of a smaller nation that had been part of the British Empire once. UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) had its inauguration in the House of Commons several months after the then Labour Government failed in its highly publicized attempt to save the LTTE, in early 2009. Had the wartime President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa given into Western demands and reached an understanding with the sinking LTTE, the likes of Sumanthiran wouldn’t have been in parliament. Sri Lanka would have been a different place. In fact, had Prabhakaran survived thanks to the Rajapaksas, twice president Mahinda Rajapaksa would have comfortably won a third term. In fact, the TNA would have urged Tamils to vote for Rajapaksa. The TNA, in January 2010, underscored its readiness to do anything to achieve political objectives when it backed General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the presidential polls. The much touted allegations pertaining to massacre of Tamils during the last phase of the offensive by Gen. Fonseka’s army didn’t discourage the TNA though it was initially sceptical. Wiki Leaks cables, originating from the US embassy in Colombo during the previous administration, revealed how the then US Ambassador here Patricia Butenis believed both Rajapaksa and Fonseka committed war crimes, though the world’s solitary superpower pushed the TNA to help in a regime change in Sri Lanka.
Sumanthiran hadn’t been dear to some sections of his own community, both here and overseas. They had set ablaze his effigy after the change of government, in January, 2015. They resented Sumanthiran’s rapid rise due to his ability to work with all stakeholders. The attempt to assassinate the top lawyer should prompt those genuinely interested in a lasting solution to the national issue to review every aspect of the process before it is too late.