There was considerable political excitement some days ago when a meeting was scheduled between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). This was to be the first formal discussion between the President and the TNA after Gota was sworn in as President 19 months ago. This aroused great expectations.The meeting however was called off suddenly. It was said that a new date for the meeting would be announced soon. The reasons for the postponement was not known. This in turn led to much speculation among political observers. This column therefore intends to focus on the postponed meeting and its aftermath this week.
When the campaign to launch Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a candidate for the 2019 Presidential elections commenced there were two grey areas of doubt. The first was whether he could renounce his US citizenship and lose his dual citizenship status to be eligible to contest polls. The second was whether he could garner adequate support from the Tamil and Muslim voters to ensure his victory. Although the majority of voters in Sri Lanka are Sinhala(75%), the minority community votes (25%) could influence the result in a tight race. Even as Gotabaya expedited the process of relinquishing his US citizenship on the one hand, the prospective presidential candidate also began examining avenues of obtaining electoral support from Tamils and Muslims on the other.
A significant step in this direction was the initiative to open an unofficial low key channel of communication with the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). The TNA is the premier political configuration representing the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Moreover the TNA had played a crucial role in canvassing support for Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls. Given Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s politico-military background, it was widely expected that he would be contesting on a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform. Nevertheless there was always the possibility of getting limited support at least from sections of the ethnic minorities.
Gotabaya and Sumanthiran
Initially talks of an exploratory nature were held between former Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and TNA Jaffna district MP and spokesperson Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran. As stated earlier the talks were strictly unofficial and were more or less personal meetings to discuss the prevailing political situation.. Senior members of the Rajapaksa family as well as key personalities in the TNA hierarchy knew of the meetings.Sumanthiran kept TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan informed of what had transpired at the talks.
Three meetings were held between Gotabaya and Sumanthiran. Though the talks were very cordial, three facts became blatantly obvious during the discussions. Firstly in Gota’s perception there was no ethnic problem, only economic disparity related issues. Secondly there was very little chance of the TNA agreeing to support Gotabaya’s candidacy in the presidential poll. Thirdly Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not prepared to commit himself personally on devolution or power sharing issues. However when the third meeting ended, Gotabaya said that he would get his brothers Mahinda and Basil also to participate at the next meeting where power sharing issues could be discussed.
The proposed meeting never materialized. When Gotabaya had exploratory talks with Sumanthiran, he had neither been nominated as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) candidate nor proclaimed his candidacy publicly. But things changed soon after. On April 26th 2019 – five days after the Easter Sunday bombings – Gotabaya Rajapaksa through a Reuters interview declared his intention of contesting Presidential elections. On August 11th 2019, SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa formally announced Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the party’s presidential candidate.
Gotabaya’s electoral strategy too changed. Earlier during “Viyathmga” and “Eliya” events, he had focused on his vision of economic prosperity. In the aftermath of the Easter bombings Gota began emphasizing national security forcefully. The election campaign primarily targeted the Sinhala majority both Buddhist and Christian. Only lukewarm attention was paid to the Tamil and Muslim constituencies. When the election campaign was underway in 2019, a key individual in the Rajapaksa camp told me that it was pointless canvassing the Tamil and Muslim vote as it would not be forthcoming in great quantity for Gota. He opined that Tamils would not vote in large numbers for the Rajapalsas.
Tamil and Muslim voters
The 2019 presidential poll concluded with Gota romping home the winner but it was Sajith Premadasa of the United Naional Party(UNP) who got the bulk of the Tamil and Muslim votes. “Gotaphobia”played a huge role in making Tamil and Muslim voters shun Gotabaya. He got less “minority” votes than what Mahinda got in 2015. Furthermore the Tamil and Muslim political parties supporting Sajith Premadasa had been scathingly critical of Gota during the election campaign. In his speech at Ruwanweliseya after being sworn in as President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasized that he would be the President of all the Sri Lankan people including those who did not vote for him.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s substance and style of governance left much to be desired. The challenge of administration got aggravated by the spread of the COVID pandemic. Since the objective of this article is not critiquing the Governance of the Rajapaksa regime, I shall not focus on those matters in detail. However it must be said that several acts of omission and commission by the Gotabaya Govt troubled and alienated the Tamil people further. There was also the fear that the Gotabaya regime would undermine or abolish the few progressive political gains of the past like the Provincial Councils.
The 2020 Parliamentary elections saw fresh friction erupt between the Gota Govt and the TNA. The SLPP and aligned political parties conducted the election campaign in the North and East on a platform promising employment and economic upliftment. The TNA relied on its staple political ingredient namely Tamil nationalism. The SLPP and aligned parties did make some headway among Tamils in the North and East at the poll. Five Tamil MP’s -Three from North and two from East- were elected from the pro – Govt political bloc. The TNA that obtained 16 seats in the 2015 poll fared badly with only 10 MP’s. Govt MP’s began trumpeting that the Tamils were moving away from nationalism to economic development. Nevertheless the TNA continued to remain the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Govt and TNA Gulf
The gulf between the Govt and TNA appeared to have widened after the election. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa interacted amiably with the TNA whenever he met them in Parliament.On one occasion he had a lengthy one on one conversation with TNA leader Sampanthan. On another occasion he chatted with a group of TNA parliamentarians amicably. Gota stated during those meetings that he was always prepared to meet the TNA and discuss issues concerning development. The unsaid message was something like this – you can approach me over any development related matter but not over “other” matters.
The TNA was not inclined to speak of development with the President in a situation where his Govt was creating new problems aaffecting Tamils. The TNA also continued to oppose the Gota Govt over perceived anti-Tamil activity. TNA parliamentarians played a pivotal role in organizing the successful “Pottuvil to Poligaandy”protest. The TNA also interacted closely with key players in the international community over issues affecting the community. The Govt indicated its displeasure over the TNA’s conduct by unilaterally removing the STF protection given to TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara did so within weeks of informing the Jaffna district MP that threats to his life had increased according to intelligence reports. The Govt was irritated with Sumanthiran for participating in the “P2P‘ march and also interacting with the International community.
Meanwhile the Gotabaya Govt got further enmeshed in problems in the foreign relations sphere. It’s grandstanding display of unilaterally withdrawing from the UNHRC resolution it had co-sponsored and the confrontational attitude shown towards the UN Human Rights Chief and core group of countries in the UNHRC relating to Sri Lanka resulted in a fresh resolution with far reaching consequences being passed against Lanka in Geneva. While the west exerts Human Rights pressure,India emphasizes full implementation of the 13th Amendment provisions.Colombo’s abrasive dealings and diplomatic mishanding of issues with countries like the USA,India and Japan have complicated matters further. The pronounced tilt towards China is paving the way for a monumental disaster in international relations. The latest resolution passed by the European Parliament is an economic sword of Damocles. If this situation is to be remedied an urgent course correction is required.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was also concerned over the hiatus between the TNA and the Govt. Mahinda had an intensive conversation with TNA leader Sampanthan and spokesperson Sumanthiran at a conference organized by the PM last year. The premier agreed then to favourably consider the speedy release of Tamils imprisoned for alleged LTTE related activity. In response to Mahinda’s request, the TNA spokesman Sumanthiran met the Premier subsequently and submitted a detailed dossier regarding those detained described as “ Tamil political prisoners”.
Tamil Political Prisoners
Sadly there was no forward movement on that front thereafter. It must be noted that the TNA definition of Tamil political prisoners refers only to those LTTE suspects who were arrested before May 2009 or arrested later for alleged offences committed in that period. The rationale is that they were allegedly committed in pursuance of a political objective namely a separate state during the war which had ended in 2009. Furthermore most of these prisoners have been in detained for long periods of time. Also the political prisoners term does not cover those who have been convicted for serious crimes affecting the civilan public or assassinating political leaders.
Mahinda Rajapaksa also tried to foster a dialogue between his younger brother the President and the TNA. On one occasion Prime Minister Rajapaksa engaged TNA spokesman Sumanthiran in conversation within Parliament precincts until President Rajapaksa also joined them. Mahinda then suggested that there was a need to talk to the TNA about the political situaion. The President smiled and replied that he had already talked to the TNA. He was presumably referring to the talks he had with Sumanthiran before elections. Gota’s response indicated that he was in no mood to talk to the TNA about political issues.
The frosty relationship prevailing between the President of Sri Lanka and the chief Tamil opposition party was a troubling factor to many persons concerned about the well-being of Sri Lanka and her people. Viewed against the backdrop of growing estrangement with the west and increasing international isolation the improvement of relations between President Rajapaksa and the TNA was seen as an urgent necessity. A few influential well-intentioned persons maintaining good relations with the Rajapaksas began talking about current political matters with some TNA stalwarts.
In a conversation an intermediary had with Sumanthiran, the TNA spokesman focused on the Tamil prisoner issue. The Jaffna MP related all what he had done on behalf of the TNA to resolve this issue from the time he entered Parliament in 2010. Sumanthiran described in detail the various measures undertaken by him in the past. He said about 125 persons had been released in stages between 2015 to 2019 during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt. This was because of a policy decision by that Govt to fast- track cases. There were about a 100 still in detention stated Sumanthiran. The Jaffna MP who is also a President’s counsel pointed out that almost every official whom he met in this regard accepted that a great injustice was being done and appreciated that the release of Tamil political prisoners was a just cause. Yet they were still languishing in prison lamented Sumanthiran.
At that point, the unofficial emissary suggested that the TNA should meet the President and talk about all these outstanding issues including the Tamil prisoners matter. Sumanthiran re-iterated the TNA position of being amenable to talks if the President was willing.The “emissary” had then communicated with President Rajapaksa about the TNA talks. The response was seemingly positive. The emissary then told Sumanthiran that the President would respond favourably if the TNA requested a meeting. Sumanthiran had dutifully conveyed this to TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. The veteran Trincomalee district MP then wrote officially to President Rajapaksa on behalf of the TNA.
The TNA leader has in the post-war period laid great emphasis on trying to secure a durable political settlement through Constitutional reform. (The plus and minus points of this stance will not be delved into in this article). The TNA had in December 2020 sent its proposals for Constitutional reform to the expert committee on drafting a new Constitution headed by Romesh de Silva PC. In February this year a TNA delegation led by Sampanthan had met the committee and articulated their position. As such Sampanthan in his letter stated that the TNA would like to further discuss the process of Constitutional reform with the President if his excellency so desired.
President Rajapaksa was willing to mee the TNA. The presidential secretariat informed TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan on June 8th that a one hour meeting had been scheduled for June 16th at 4 PM. It sought details of the TNA delegation and also inquired about the issues the TNA proposed to take up with the President at the meeting. The secretariat was informed that the TNA delegation would comprise R. Sampanthan, “Maavai” Senathirajah, Selvam Adaikkalanathan, D. Siddharthan and MA Sumanthiran. Sampanthan also wrote an eight- page letter outlining what the TNA wanted to discuss.
First Official Meeting
In the meantime sections of the media got wind of the envisaged meeting and began to make inquiries from the TNA. There was also much speculation about the meeting in the social media. TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthirab therefore issued a press release on June 15th morning with the consent of the Presidential secretariat. The release said the TNA was meeting the President on June 16, to discuss ways of taking forward the process of constitutional reform.“The TNA sent its proposals for constitutional reform to the experts’ committee appointed by the President last December, and thereafter met the committee at their invitation in February this year,” it further stated. This announcement caused much political excitement as the envisaged meeting was the first official discussion to take place between the TNA and President Rajapaksa after he assumed office in November 2019.
However in a sudden turn of events the meeting was called off. The Presidential secretariat informed the TNA that the meeting was postponed and that a new date and time would be given in due course. The inconvenience caused was regretted. The TNA said in a statement issued on the night of June 15th .It said — “The meeting that was scheduled to be held between the delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (T.N.A.) and HE the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa tomorrow at the Presidential secretariat has been postponed. The new date and time of the said meeting will be notified in due course.”
What caused the abrupt postponement of the scheduled meeting ? The TNA is seemingly in the dark about this. Although the exact reason for the postponement is yet unknown, some information gleaned by this writer from informed sources close to the President provided some insight.
According to these sources TNA leader Sampanthan had in his lengthy letter to the President outlined a short history of earlier negotiations on devolution and listed pledges given by past Presidents that were more honoured in the breach than in the observance. This apparently caused a dilemma for President Rajapaksa. Firstly the President wanted to commence talks with the TNA from a fresh perspective and not be bound by any commitments made by past leaders. Secondly he was rather uncomfortable about conversations on Constitutional affairs because that was not his forte. Thirdly the tentative agenda proposed by the TNA required some hours for detailed discussions but the President was constrained for time on that day due to a busy schedule. He did not want to appear rude in ending the meeting early. Fourthly and most importantly the President was reluctant to make a commitment that he could not fulfil. President Rajapaksa takes pride in being a man of his word and is wary of making promises that he could not implemwnt.
These then were some of the reasons for the President to call off the meeting with the TNA on the 16th say, these informed circles. Gota is however determined to meet the TNA on another suitable date. According to these sources President Rajapaksa is very likely to include his brother Basil Rajapaksa and a few others in the talks with the TNA. Basil was in the US on June 16.Since Basil Rajapaksa has now returned from the USA, a new date for talks may be fixed very soon.
Though the talks with the TNA were not held, President Rajapaksa decided to demonstrate his sincerity in trying to resolve a few outstanding issues of concern to the Tamil people like the release of Tamil prisoners. He instructed Justice Minister Ali Sabry to expedite matters in this regard. Initially those imprisoned or detained for alleged involvement in lesser offences would be released in stages. Accordingly the first batch of 16 Tamil political prisoners were pardoned and released on Poson day along with 77 other prisoners. Fifteen had been held in Anuradhapura and one in Jaffna. More releases are likely to follow in the near future. A new date for talks with TNA will also be announced.
Interestingly enough Rajapaksa scion and Youth Affairs/Sports minister Namal Rajapaksa speaking in Parliament a few days before the release of prisoners made a fervent plea that Tamil prisoners being held under the PTA be released. Justice Minister Ali Sabry responded positively while MA Sumanthiran welcomed Namal’s intervention and thanked him. This was seen as a prelude to the Prisoner release. Subsequently State minister for Prison Management Lohan Ratwatte told the media that 16 Tamil prisoners would be released on Poson Poya.
Small yet Significant Start
Later when the 16 prisoners were released the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) welcomed the release “This is a small yet significant start which we hope will soon be completed with the release of all political prisoners, including those against whom cases are still pending. Some cases have dragged for more than 10 years, with no end in sight,” TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran told the media.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an updated version of an article appearing in the “Daily Mirror” of June 26th 2021.It can be accessed here: