MIDWEEK REVIEW

Formation of TNA, post-war politics and Sumanthiran’s role

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MP Dhamalinham Siddharathan with President Wickremesinghe at the Nelum Piyasa Hall, Iranimadu, where land deeds were granted to the people (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Jaffna district parliamentarian Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran’s recent declaration supportive of the militarily defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) particularly captured the public attention.

Then soon after, MP Sumanthiran surprised all by appearing on stage with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in Jaffna, where the UNP leader bestowed land deeds on a selected group of people.

With them on stage were EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, MP, and Dharmalingam Siddharthan, MP, of PLOTE/TNA whose father, Visvanather Dharmalingam, MP (Jaffna District) was assassinated by TELO at the behest of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Sept 1985. (Siddharthan himself told the writer that his father and colleague Jaffna District MP Arumugam Murugesu Alalasundaram were abducted and killed in a Mafia-style TELO operation). Will deal with Sumanthiran’s Jaffna move later.

Issuing a statement ahead of Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day that was marked on May 18 around the world, Sumanthiran, PC, now in his third term as a lawmaker, said: “Although it is my personal belief that a just political liberation cannot be achieved at the point of a gun, I have repeatedly stated that we cannot today decry or judge the decision taken by the Tamil youth who saw no other option at a time when oppression and military….”

The Illankai Arasu Katchi (ITAK) MP went on to say: “I have also consistently emphasized that the commitment and sacrifices unselfishly made by those who took up arms on our behalf should be regarded very highly.”

Sumanthiran tweeted hours before he paid respects to those who perished in fighting and the civilians at the Mullivaikkal commemoration site. However, Sumanthiran attended another commemoration also on the same day organized at the Viharamahadevi Park by several groups, including the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), to remember “all victims of war over 30 years in the North and South.”

Some found fault with MP Sumanthiran for attending the Colombo event where organizers quite rightly refrained from making reference to any particular group or community. There hadn’t been a similar remembrance event in Colombo since the end of the war 15 years ago. The same group organized an inter-religious prayer event at the Vavuniya Town Hall grounds, also on the same day.

The GTF should be commended for taking a courageous stand in spite of criticism by those who still seek advantage of the LTTE’s crushing defeat.

Perhaps, the GTF-led group should have made reference to Sri Lankans killed overseas due to terrorism, Indian military deaths here (July 1987-March 1990) and former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 while campaigning during a general election by a brainwashed LTTE teenage suicide cadre.

The Tamil community shouldn’t confine the war dead commemoration to those who died during the last phase of the fighting with the focus on Mullivaikkal. Commemorations whether in the North, East or Colombo should be devoid of any petty racial connotation, for all were human beings. Such events shouldn’t be allowed to cause further divisions among the communities, under any circumstances. Those who make unnecessary interventions with a view to attracting media attention should be appropriately dealt with by law enforcement authorities.

We also like to ask self-proclaimed international do-gooders why they don’t show even an iota of interest in the unimaginable suffering undergoing by Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis, while they make a song and dance about imaginary genocide they claim to have happened here during the last phase of fighting.

The ITAK is the main constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that had been formed in late Oct 2001 in line with the community’s overall politico-military strategy to achieve Eelam. Against the backdrop of the worst-ever battlefield defeat that had been inflicted on the Army in April 2000, Eelam seemed achievable. Having defeated the 54 Division, deployed at the Elephant Pass sector then widely believed to be impregnable, thereafter the LTTE almost succeeded in overwhelming the Army in the rest of the peninsula.

Muslims’ dilemma

The Sinhalese and Tamils should also publicly repent the suffering experienced by the Muslim community. That community suffered untold hardships for being steadfastly taking a stand against separatism. Had they thrown their weight behind the LTTE, the country could have been overwhelmed and the 2009 absolute victory over the LTTE couldn’t have been achieved. So, do not hesitate to recognize the Muslims’ commitment as a whole to Sri Lanka’s unitary status. They paid a very heavy price for being always supportive of the government stand for a united Sri Lanka, whoever was in power.

The 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, carried out by a group of extremist misguided Muslims, shouldn’t in any way be used against the community. Officers and men of the Muslim and Tamil communities served in the armed forces and police with distinction and made quite a contribution to the overall success of the war.

Just five months after the LTTE resumed war in June 1990 in the wake of the IPKF withdrawal from the temporarily-merged North and East Provinces, the LTTE ordered the Muslims out of the Northern region, comprising Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaithivu and Vavuniya giving them a matter of hours to leave. The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government couldn’t do anything about it. The international community turned a blind eye. Tamil politicians remained silent. No one dared to challenge the LTTE’s inhumane and drastic move.

Twenty-one years later a deranged Norwegian Andres Breivik massacred 77 persons, mostly children in two attacks the attacker claimed was influenced by the LTTE’s eviction of the Muslim community from Northern Sri Lanka.

Did the late LTTE theoretician and ideologue Anton Balasingham approve of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s plan to force Muslims out of the Northern Province? Balasingham, the one-time British High Commission employee in Colombo, passed away in the UK, in Dec 2006, of kidney failure, a couple of months before the LTTE lost control of the Eastern Province.

Far right Breivik, then 32, a few hours before he went on the rampage on July 22, 2011, made reference to the LTTE’s eviction of the Muslim community from the Northern Province, in his so-called manifesto posted online. The following are the references (1) Pro-Sri Lanka (supports the deportation of all Muslims from Sri Lanka) (Page 1235) and (2) Fourth Generation War is normally characterized by a ‘stateless’ entity fighting a state or regime (the EUSSR). Fighting can be physical such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to use a modern example. (Page 1479).

Perhaps, Sri Lanka should have asked those who had been demanding international inquiry to include the Norwegian massacre in their agenda. One of Sri Lanka’s foremost diplomats, the late Jayantha Dhanapala, appearing before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010, stressed on the need for accountability on the part of foreign governments. The then Mahinda Rajapaksa government, probably blinded by unfathomable victory, was not bothered. It only saw immediate political advantage out of the developments even forgetting the long term ramifications for the country.

Focus on Sumanthiran

Sumanthiran on his knees before the Mullaivaikkal monument
(pic courtesy Tamil Guardian)

Maybe MP Sumanthiran should have recognized the LTTE as the group that continued the war until the very end. The parliamentarian shouldn’t have hesitated to do so though terrorism cannot be justified under any circumstances. The LTTE, however, proved its conventional capabilities throughout the war. The casualties, and the losses the group inflicted on the Indian Army underscored its fighting capabilities.

As Sumanthiran entered Parliament at the 2010 General Election, perhaps he hadn’t been affected by the LTTE’s wartime strategies and unprecedented developments that characterized the conflict, with him comfortably settled down in Wellawatte.

The writer first met Sumanthiran at A.J.M. Muzammil’s (incumbent Governor of the Uva Province) residence at No 07, Alfred House Road, Colombo 03 in June 2011. Muzammil, who had been a UNP member of the Western Provincial Council (WPC), arranged the writer to interview former Tamil Nadu State Assembly Congress I member Hasanali Kuddus at his residence. The new entrant to the Parliament Attorney-at-Law Sumanthiran, too, was there on that occasion and the writer had an opportunity to seek his opinion on some contentious matters.

Naturally, matters raised herein included the recognition of the LTTE by the TNA as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people ahead of the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (Feb 2002), LTTE-TNA joint boycott of 2005 presidential poll that cost UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe victory (the writer wouldn’t humiliate the defunct LTTE by repeating allegation that the Rajapaksas bribed the LTTE to order the boycott. The LTTE may have accepted money but the boycott was not certainly inspired by that) and still unbelievable was the TNA backing for the war-winning Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 Presidential Poll. The TNA ensured a comfortable victory for Fonseka in the entire then merged North-East Province though he lost badly in the rest of the country. Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a second term by obtaining 1.8 mn votes more than Fonseka. A silly claim of computer “jilmaart” by Fonseka’s camp made his defeat even worse.

Kuddus, in an exclusive interview with The Island, strongly defended the eradication of the LTTE though concerns remained of atrocities allegedly committed by the military. Declaring that Sri Lanka couldn’t be punished on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, Kuddus said that no country would be safe if legitimate governments were deprived of the opportunity to neutralize threats posed by terrorism. If Sri Lanka could be questioned over its right to hit back hard at the LTTE, what would be the position of the Indian military battling those who had taken up arms? (Congress I member Hasanali speaks out, The Island, June 16, 2011 edition)

At the April 2010 General Glection, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 14 seats. Thirteen were elected while the party secured just one of the 29 National List slots. The TNA picked Sumanthiran as its NL member. It would be pertinent to mention that the TNA was placed third in terms of the number of seats won at that election. The UPFA secured a staggering 144 seats, including 17 NL slots whereas the UNP-led United National Front obtained 60 seats. Nine NL MPs were among them.

The TNA tally drastically dropped due to the eradication of the LTTE. At the previous general election conducted in April 2004, close on the heels of the devastating split in the group, the TNA won a record 22 seats, including two NL slots. The European Union Election Observation Mission, in its report found fault with the TNA for being the beneficiary of poll violence unleashed by the Tigers to stuff ballot boxes in TNA’s favour. That was the best outcome for the TNA at a general election.

At the last General Election, the TNA tally was reduced to 10 MPs. It is a pity that Sumanthiran couldn’t gain the leadership of the ITAK at a keenly contested election in January this year. Jaffna District lawmaker Sivagnanam Sritharan secured 184 votes while M.A. Sumanthiran obtained 137 votes.

Let us get back to MP Sumanthiran’s appearance on stage in Jaffna with President Wickremesinghe last week. During his brief statement, the President’s Counsel made reference to the LTTE-TNA boycott of the 2005 Presidential Poll that caused Wickremesinghe’s defeat, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election and the unthinkable annihilation of the LTTE. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) quoted Sumanthiran as having told the gathering: “It is possible that the challenges in the North may have impeded your journey in 2005, a fact that I believe is now regretfully acknowledged by the people of the region.”

In the wake of a minor commotion over MP Sumanthiran’s appearance on stage with Wickremesinghe, the PC tweeted that his attendance at the state functions in his electorate shouldn’t be considered as an endorsement of the UNP leader’s candidature at the forthcoming Presidential Poll. The Jaffna District MP’s tweet is irrelevant. His declaration pertaining to the 2005 Presidential Poll clearly meant his support for Wickremesinghe.

The bottom line is that if not for that strategic mistake made by the LTTE and TNA in 2005, they could have achieved military superiority in the North after the then expected UNP victory as Wickremesinghe hardly making even a whimper against the LTTE. MP Sumanthiran’s politically charged statement in Jaffna should be examined also taking into consideration two key developments-in April 2003 (LTTE quit negotiating table) and January 2010 (backed General Fonseka).

The TNA could have used the opportunity to reach a consensus with President Rajapaksa if the party at least adopted a neutral stance. Instead, the TNA joined with the UNP and the JVP to defeat President Rajapaksa, thereby causing a lot of hostility. Backing Fonseka also dealt a severe blow to the TNA’s credibility in the backdrop of war crimes accusations directed at the Army.

GR meets Sampanthan at India House

Sumanthiran cannot be unaware of an attempt made by India in 2011 to work out an arrangement between President Rajapaksa’s government and the LTTE.

TNA leader R. Sampanthan has been keen to normalize relations between his party and the government. The veteran politician appeared to have felt that such an arrangement could have helped his community and sought Indian intervention. But a section of the party sabotaged that effort, thereby undermining reconciliatory moves.

Following an incident at Alaveddi that had been staged by the group opposed to Sampanthan’s bid, an angry Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the writer of a hitherto unreported meeting between him and Sampanthan at India House on June 08, 2011. The meeting that had taken place in the presence of the then Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha could have facilitated post-war reconciliation.

Pointing out that the June 16 incident at Alaveddi was meant to harm reconciliatory moves, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that unwarranted interventions made by various interested parties, including the US, caused complications (GR alleges TNA split over Sampanthan’s reconciliation move with strapline ‘TNA pressured US State Department, several diplomatic missions to take up Alaveddi issue’ in the June 20, 2011 edition of The Island.

Recently SJB MP Mano Ganesan attacked TNA over what he called its post-war honeymoon with the government. A comprehensive post-war examination of political developments, commencing with the formation of the TNA at the behest of the LTTE, is necessary to comprehend the situation today.

The arrest of four persons in February 2017 during the Yahapalana administration, over an alleged attempt on Sumanthiran’s life, underscores the need for a wider examination of developments. The suspects held under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) were granted bail in Oct 2022.

During that administration, the TNA played quite an important role with Sampanthan receiving the Opposition Leader’s post though his party had only 16 seats, including two NL slots whereas the breakaway UPFA faction comprised over 50 MPs. But, Yahapalana bosses decided in favour of TNA. In return, the TNA helped thwart President Maithripala Sirisena’s bid to form a new government under the premiership of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Formed in late Oct 2018, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa effort collapsed in 52 days. Sumanthiran played a significant role in the counter attack in support of ousted Wickremesinghe, who continued to insist he was the Premier regardless of the appointment made by Sirisena. Finally, the SC ruled in favour of Wickremesinghe. The rest is history. However, in the wake of 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, MP Sumanthiran said something which he shouldn’t have said under any circumstances. Addressing the first anniversary event of the political weekly ‘Annidha’ on April 29, 2019 at the BMICH, the TNA spokesman justified the heinous crime. He warned of dire consequences unless the government addressed the grievances of the minorities.

Sumanthiran is best remembered for his role in working out a tripartite agreement on a hybrid war crimes court as announced in Washington in June 2016.

Political parties need to make a genuine effort to move forward. The post-war reconciliation wouldn’t be realistic until parties represented in Parliament stopped playing politics with the war. The Tamil community should accept the LTTE had ample opportunities to reach consensus with the Sinhala leadership, particularly Ranil Wickremesinghe, who pursued a strategy even at the expense of his political life. The LTTE’s cardinal sin or serious error of judgment was the April 2003 withdrawal from the Norway-led peace effort. That was meant to create an environment conducive for full scale war that the group felt could have been brought to a successful conclusion by it. The LTTE was certainly ready for war in August 2005. If not, Prabhakaran wouldn’t have ordered Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination. Full scale war commenced exactly a year later and what was widely believed to be an invincible force collapsed within two years and 10 months. Had the military not taken the civilian factor into consideration, the LTTE could have been wiped out much earlier. The ICRC said so as revealed by WikiLeaks.

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