TNA’s dilemma in the wake of UNP split, Wignesewaran’s challenge

(Courtesy of  the Island)

The unprecedented split in the UNP has compelled the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to change its political strategy. Having jointly engineered, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential polls, the TNA worked closely with the UNP, since 2010, till the last presidential polls.

The TNA threw its weight behind the UNP picked presidential candidates, General Sarath Fonseka, Maithripala Sirisena and Sajith Premadasa, at the 2010 January, 2015 January, and 2019 November presidential polls. In a recent interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema, in ‘Truth with Chamuditha,’ TNA spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, acknowledged that as the UNP couldn’t settle its internal crisis, the UNP, and its breakaway faction, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), would go their separate ways.

Widely recognized as the go-between the TNA and the UNP, Sumanthiran was referring to members of a divided former UNP parliamentary group handing over nominations to contest the 2020 parliamentary polls, under the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Telephone’ symbols.

The UNP, under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, maintained a strong political relationship with the TNA, over a 10-year period. The highlight of their often-controversial partnership had been thwarting war-winning twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa from securing a third term.

Last minute turncoat Maithripala Sirisena’s victory, at the January 2015 presidential election, and the formation of the UNP-SLFP coalition, following the parliamentary polls, eight months later, gave the TNA a higher status in parliament. In spite of having just 16 members, in parliament, the TNA received the Opposition Leader’s position, at the expense of the Joint Opposition (JO), with a far larger parliamentary group, simply due to political intrigue acceded to by the parliament. TNA leader Trincomalee District lawmaker R. Sampanthan received privileged status.

Opposition in tatters

The UNP-TNA partnership seemed unbreakable, even after the UNP plunged the government into crisis by engaging in its first Treasury bond scam, just 50 days after the presidential polls victory. Between the first and second Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in January 2015, and March 2016, the TNA secured, what it demanded, the betrayal of the armed forces, at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

In spite of not being part of the cabinet, the TNA always stood by the UNP, until the very end of its administration, in November 2019, when their candidate, Sajith Premadasa, suffered a humiliating defeat. It would be pertinent to mention that the TNA delivered all electoral districts, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, at the 2010, 2015 and 2019 presidential polls, with an overwhelming majority, though the project succeeded only in 2015.

Five years later, the UNP-led political grouping is in tatters. Of the 106 (plus one SLMC) lawmakers, who had represented the UNP, in the last parliament, about 80 are contesting the coming general election, on the SJB ticket, 15 on the UNP ticket, while 12 opted out of the forthcoming polls. The split in the UNP obviously placed the TNA in an extremely difficult situation. One-time LTTE proxy is unable to advance its project without the support of a major political party. Against the backdrop of the UNP split, the grouping has been forced to explore ways and means of reaching a consensus with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

In addition to the break-up of the UNP, the challenge coming from former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, too, appears to have influenced the TNA decision.

The TNA fielded retired Supreme Court judge Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate at the first-ever Northern Provincial Council, polls in 2013. Colombo-educated Wigneswaran secured over 80 per cent of the Northern Province vote. Following a spate of clashes, between renegade Wigneswaran and the TNA, during his tenure as the Chief Minister, the former top judge formed the Thamizhi Makkal Tesiya Kootani, or the Tamil People’s National Alliance, this year.

Wigneswaran, whose two sons are married to Sinhalese, pretends his stand on Tamil nationalism is tougher, vis-a-vis the TNA.

One-time TNA lawmaker Mahalingam Kanagalingam Shivajilingam (Jaffna District) recently told the Jaffna-based media, the TNA was much weaker, in the North, and was unlikely to dominate the Northern Province, at the forthcoming polls. Wigneswaran’s political outfit received the backing of EPRLF Leader Suresh Premachandran, an original member of the TNA grouping, that was formed in 2001.

Last week, the writer dealt with the TNA’s moves, in an article headlined ‘How genuine is Sumanthiran’s change of heart? With strap line ‘Ex-lawmaker’s comments reflect TNA turning into a chameleon’

PM told how to win int’l recognition

The TNA seems determined to go ahead with the controversial strategy meant to explore the possibility of an understanding with the SLPP who are certain to win the forthcoming parliamentary polls. Clearly, the top TNA leadership is of the opinion that moves to reach a consensus, with the SLPP, may be beneficial for their coalition.

The TNA Chief Sampanthan, in a one-page letter, titled ‘TRIBUTE TO HON. MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA ON COMPLETION OF FIFTY (50) YEARS IN POLITICS’ revealed their aspirations. Attorney-at-law Sampanthan paid a glowing tribute to the war-winning leader, while urging him to bring the stalled new constitution making process to a successful conclusion.

The following is the full text of veteran politician’s letter, originating from his home, at No. 176, Customs Road, Trincomalee, and B 12, Mahagamasekara Mawatha, Colombo 7:

“I am extremely glad to pay tribute and extend my warm greetings to Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the completion of the fiftieth (50) year of his political career. During this period, he has served Sri Lanka in every possible capacity, as a politician, as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister, as the Leader of the Opposition, as the Prime Minister, and as the President of the Country. He distinguished himself in every one of these positions, that he held, and has earned for himself the affection and confidence of the people of the country. He was essentially a Leader of the ordinary people, who trusted him and who were willing to be guided by him.

“He was essentially a Man of the People, in whatever position he held. The People respected him and he, in turn, respected the People. He was a great source of strength to the people, and the people in turn were the source of his immense strength. This is, perhaps, the strongest quality of any Political Leader and Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoyed this quality in abundant measure. This was the key to his political success, and this must be acknowledged.

“On behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, particularly the Tamil people whom I represented in Parliament, I extend to him our warmest greetings and best wishes for an ever more successful political future.

“Sri Lanka, as a Country, faces serious unresolved problems. The country direly needs a new Constitution, the supreme Law of the country. The people, in Sri Lanka, have, in their national democratic verdicts over the past several decades, mandated the formulation of a new constitution, incorporating changes that has been in contemplation for a long period of time, and around which there is substantial consensus.

“A strong Leader, with the support of the people, is required to fulfill this urgent and compulsory need. Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa is undoubtedly in that position. Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa should rise to greater heights by undertaking and accomplishing that task. This should raise him to the level of a Statesman and give him, not merely national, but international recognition and stature. He can be assured of our fullest support in this matter. He would earn for himself a niche in Sri Lankan history as the Leader who brought about genuine and permanent peace in Sri Lanka on the basis of justice, equality and dignity. With my warmest best wishes to Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa and family.”

A drastic change in GTF strategy

The TNA leader’s letter is certainly in line with their new strategy. The TNA unveiled its project, meant to reach an understanding with the SLPP (read the Rajapaksas) recently. The TNA attended a meeting on May 4, at Temple Trees, on the invitation of Premier Rajapaksa, met the Premier at his official residence, at Wijerama Mawatha, on the night of the same day, and then declared LTTE terrorism was not acceptable, under any circumstances (TNA called it armed struggle). The UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson, Suren Surendiran, endorsed the TNA’s stand. Interestingly, Surendiran, in a piece that defended former lawmaker Sumanthiran, referred to preliminary discussions between the TNA leadership, and the government,’ in the run-up to parliamentary polls.

The TNA-GTF backed Sajith Premadasa, at the last presidential poll. In a statement, headlined ‘Tamils should freely exercise their franchise’ at the presidential election, issued from London, less than a week before the Nov 16, 2019 polls, the GTF threw its weight behind Sajith Premadasa.

“Sajith Premadasa’s election manifesto is progressive on furthering democratic reforms, which includes key Tamil considerations, such as: continuation of the constitutional reform process, power-sharing and reconciliation commitments, and respecting international treaties and resolutions. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto, on the other hand, has strong national security focus, but no serious commitment to expand the fledgling democratic space,” the GTF asserted.

The GTF attacked SLPP presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa: “We are also conscious of the appalling human rights, governance and rule of law record when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary – wanton violence and enforced disappearances, threats to media personnel and intimidation and violence against Tamil, Muslim and Christian communities. Return to such an era, coupled with isolationist international policies, is the nightmarish scenario feared under a Rajapaksa Presidency.”

Post-prez poll scenario

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, last November, proved presidential polls could be comfortably won, even without securing the support of the predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In spite of having the support of the SLMC, ACMC as well as the TNA, in addition to the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), Sajith Premadasa suffered an unforgettable defeat, in the South, at the presidential poll. Rajapaksa won more than 6.9 million votes, 1.3 million votes more than his closest rival, then Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. Rajapaksa’s percentage of the vote was 52.25%, well above the 50% plus one vote needed for victory. The TPA, comprising the Democratic People’s Front (DPF), National Union of Workers (NUW) and the Up-Country People’s Front (UCPF), was formed a few months after the 2015 presidential polls

Defeated UNP struggled to cope up with the situation. Sajith Premadasa faction went to the extent of accusing the party of sabotaging their man’s campaign. Premadasa’s camp was told the party delivered the northern vote as promised, though the campaign that he spearheaded failed in the South. The UNP appeared to have failed to comprehend the simple fact that its relationship with the TNA weakened the party in the South. The TNA never apologized for promoting and protecting terrorism, at the expense of the Tamil community. Instead of ‘politically’ taking on the TNA, the UNP played ‘pandu’ with the grouping, since its inception in 2001.

The TNA backed the LTTE decision to quit the negotiating table, in April 2003. Having contested the December 2001 parliamentary polls, on the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) ticket, the TNA, then comprising the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELO) and the TULF obtained 15 seats. The TNA worked closely with the LTTE. Their combined strategy posed a growing threat, as the LTTE stepped up preparations for Eelam War IV. The People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) joined the TNA-led grouping later. The PLOTE contested the 2014 April parliamentary polls, under the TNA.

The LTTE quitting the Norway-arranged negotiations, in April 2003, resulted in the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country. The LTTE stepped up forcible the recruitment of children. Some members of the TNA participated in ‘passing out’ parades. The LTTE consolidated its positions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces with the deployment of strong formations, on the northern frontline. The TNA really believed the LTTE was capable of bringing the war to a successful conclusion. The TNA remained solidly with the LTTE, even after abortive attempts were made, in late April 2005 and early Oct 2006, to assassinate Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, respectively. Had Prabhakaran succeeded in eliminating one of them, the war could have gone, either way. That is the undeniable truth.

In fact, the LTTE-TNA strategy helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the November 2005 presidential polls by depriving Ranil Wickremesinghe the votes of the Northern electorate, which would have gone his way overwhelmingly if not for their boycott call. Their strategy was simple. Engineer Wickremesinghe’s defeat so that an all-out war can be resumed on the basis a warmonger is in the Office of the President. In fact, that was the line adopted by the so-called independent Western media to repeatedly call him ‘Sinhala hardliner,’ even in the run up to the election. The LTTE resumed claymore mine attacks, in the Jaffna peninsula, two weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa took oaths as the President. A few weeks later, the LTTE carried out a suicide attack on a Fast Attack Craft off Trincomalee.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a second term by beating UNP leader Wickremesinghe, by obtaining 186,000 more votes than his rival. A cocky LTTE leadership launched Eelam War IV, in spite of President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreeing for direct talks with the group, at overseas venues, contrary to a much-touted election promise.

Plight of the civil society,dilemma for Western powers

Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the response of the civil society, and Western embassies, to the TNA’s move? The TNA approach is certainly exciting. Having lost the once-feared military clout, the TNA, a decade after the war, wants to reach out to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, through his brother Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa. Unquestionably, an unprecedented tactic in the TNA’s arsenal. Western powers, and a section of the civil society, worked overtime to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa an opportunity to contest the last presidential poll. The attempt should be examined in the backdrop of how the parliament enacted the 19th Amendment, in early 2015, to prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa contesting the crucial polls. The TNA played a significant role in the overall operation. Western powers, and India, to a certain extent, backed the project as they feared the growing Chinese influence. Some civil society groups received overseas funding for various projects meant to influence the electorate. That was the final objective. In spite of the LTTE’s eradication, in May 2009, those civil society groups backed negotiated settlement continue to target the Rajapaksas. However, the whole project seemed to be in a flux in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s triumph at the last presidential poll that caused disintegration of the formidable UNP-led coalition. After arrogantly having threatened to teach unforgettable lessons to Rajapaksas, the TNA has ended up praising Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, credited with giving political leadership to bringing the war to a successful conclusion, undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s biggest post-independence achievement. The TNA should perhaps thank Premier Rajapaksa for rescuing them from the LTTE bondage. The TNA had no option but to back the LTTE or face the consequences. Unfortunately, the group lacked the courage to admit the truth, even after the end of the conflict. Had it done so, post-war reconciliation could have been achieved. But, the TNA became part of the despicable post-war strategy, aimed at demonizing Sri Lanka, and create a situation conducive to introduce a new Constitution, to do away with the country’s unitary status, to please a local minority and the overall geopolitical agenda of the powerful West, of which New Delhi should be weary of despite whatever window dressing; for West’s originally Eelam project’s ultimate goal was the breakup of India. At the time Pakistan was their darling!

By Shamindra Ferdinando

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