* How genuine is Sumanthiran’s change of heart?
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 319
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) lawmaker, Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, PC, recently earned the wrath of a section of the Tamil political setup for rejecting the war, waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Some members of his own party lambasted Inuvil, Jaffna-born Sumanthiran, who represented the TNA in parliament twice, for condemning the LTTE. They demanded punitive disciplinary action against the TNA Jaffna District candidate widely considered TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s closest associate.
The controversial declaration was made by ex-lawmaker Sumanthiran, in an interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema’s widely watched and shared interview on social media. No less a person than Sampanthan defended Sumanthiran, amidst heavy attacks on the ex-lawmaker. UK based Suren Surendiran,of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), too, defended Sumanthiran. Surendiran efficiently discussed the Sumanthiran issue, in an article headlined ‘Is unqualified and uncritical support for the armed struggle of the past, a must, to play a leading role in Tamil politics today?’ published in The Island, on May 28, 2020. Surendiran questioned the interviewer’s motives, as well as those of a Tamil media organization, belonging to a close relative of a former UPFA National List member, representing the Jaffna District.
The TNA heavyweight’s condemnation of the LTTE is all the more surprising as he justified the Thowheed Jamaat 2019 terror attacks on Churches and hotels. Sumanthiran maintained that such attacks should be expected, if the government did not address the grievances of the minorities. A shocking warning was given at an event, at the BMICH, to mark the first anniversary of the political weekly ‘Anidda,’ held a few days after the Easter Sunday carnage, Among those present were the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Human Rights Commission Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama, twice President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and several lawmakers. No one found fault with the President’s Counsel for such an unfair statement. Sumanthiran, himself, targeted by some Diaspora Tamils, and ex-LTTE cadres, during the yahapalana administration, had no qualms in justifying violence. Perhaps, the former lawmaker had chosen to forget an attempt to carry out a claymore attack, on him, in the North.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end, on the morning of May 19, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the Mullaitivu district. Sumanthiran entered parliament about a year after the war, on the TNA National List.
Surendiran pointed out, in his piece, Sumanthiran’s declaration that he never accepted LTTE terrorism, had been the bone of contention. Perhaps, a decade after the eradication of the LTTE, Sumanthiran must have felt the need to change his strategy. Why did Sumanthiran abandon the LTTE, all of a sudden? Surendiran, who had been in touch with Sumanthiran, over the years, as the GTF-TNA, pursued a high profile international project, targeting Sri Lanka, asserted that the interviewer sought to cause a rift between Sinhala and Tamil communities, as well as within the latter, in the run up to the 2020 parliamentary polls. But, Surendiran’s most striking declaration is the reference to the commencement of preliminary discussions, between the TNA and the government. Surendiran, apparently, inadvertently revealed why a change of strategy was necessary. Let me reproduce what Surendiran said verbatim: "It is 11 years since the war ended, in Sri Lanka, and the conditions for resolving the Tamil problem have irreversibly changed. Without the support of most of the Sri Lankan people, achieving political and constitutional outcomes, that satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people, has become near impossible. It is crucial, therefore, the difficulties and aspirations of the Tamil people are unambiguously and diplomatically communicated to the Sinhala and Muslim communities, and Sumanthiran is the only Tamil Parliamentarian, from the North-East, who is attempting to do this, even in a limited manner."
Surendiran also made reference to the transformation of, what he called, local insurgency (we call it terrorism) to a fully-fledged civil war, conveniently leaving out Indian meddling, and even direct intervention. One-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, who later served as Indian Foreign Secretary, as well as the Defence Advisor, in his memoirs, titled Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha (Chapter 6 An Indo-centric Practitioner of Realpolitik), explained the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka. India cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for transforming the LTTE into a conventional fighting force, responsible for the deaths of over 1,300 Indian army officers and men, who were more or less forcibly inducted into Sri Lanka, as the Indian Peace Keeping Force, in 1987, to halt the successful Vadamarachchi operation, that was launched by the security forces to go after the Tigers, in a meaningful way, in their heartland, which included Velvettiturai, the hometown of Valupillai Prabhakaran.
TNA breaks ranks
The TNA has realized that its political goals cannot be achieved, with the help of the UNP. The TNA knows that the major split, in the UNP, has caused irreparable damage to its cause. Therefore, a change of political strategy cannot be delayed any further. The TNA made a strategic move by accepting Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s invitation to attend a meeting, chaired by him, at Temple Trees, on May 04. Many an eyebrow was raised when former lawmakers, TNA leader R. Sampanthan, M.A. Sumanthiran and Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) leader Mavai Senathirajah attended the meeting, though the TNA publicly declared that the Temple Trees meeting couldn’t address issues which should have been dealt by a reconvened parliament. The TNA participation at the Temple Trees meeting led to a private meeting with Premier Rajapaksa, at his official residence, on the night of May 4. SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris, was among those present. The presence of Prof. Peiris, one-time External Affairs Minister and SLPP National List nominee, suggested that it could be the beginning of a longer process.
The TNA broke ranks with the UNP, and its powerful breakaway faction, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), as well as the JVP, to attend the Temple Trees meeting. The TNA is obviously in a dilemma over its future strategy. A careful assessment of the TNA strategy is required.
Sumanthiran’s declaration that he wouldn’t approve terrorism, under any circumstances, received Surendiran’s approval. Surendiran categorized the Tamil community into three segments (a) those who unreservedly backed the war, waged by the LTTE, but blamed the group’s defeat on external factors (b) the second group comprised Tamils who accepted the war, in its entirety, while finding fault with all stakeholders for not doing everything possible to save the LTTE (Surendiran called it …to prevent its catastrophic end) (c) and the last group opposed violence without exception.
Surendiran is of the opinion that regardless of the position one took in respect of the LTTE, he or she shouldn’t be deprived of the right to engage in politics.
Under which category did Surendiran place Sumanthiran among a, b or c? The writer believes that though Sumanthiran declared, in his interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema, he didn’t approve of terrorism, the former lawmaker, under any circumstance, can be accommodated in category ‘c’.
A lethal past
Sumanthiran certainly didn’t care about the LTTE’s despicable tactics, including the use of suicide cadres, forcible conscription of children, and political assassinations. If Sumanthiran had qualms as regards the LTTE strategy, he wouldn’t have accepted invitation from the LTTE proxy TNA to enter parliament, on its National List, at the 2010 parliamentary polls. Sumanthiran couldn’t have been unaware of the TNA’s sordid past, particularly its relationship with the LTTE, though he conveniently refrained from responding to the interviewer.
Perhaps, it would be pertinent to recollect the formation of the TNA, in Oct 2001, at the height of the conflict. Having overrun the strategic Elephant Pass base, in April 2001- the biggest ever defeat on the Army in the entire war - the LTTE had the upper hand in the northern theatre of operations at that time. The then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been under tremendous pressure, on the political front, too, with the LTTE succeeding in carrying out a devastating commando-style raid on the Bandaranaike International Airport, and the adjoining Katunayake Air Force base.
The LTTE formed the TNA as part of its overall strategy to promote separatist ideology, both in and outside parliament. The original grouping, having contested the Dec 2001 parliamentary polls, under the TULF symbol, secured 15 seats. The election was held a little over a year after the previous parliamentary polls, in Oct 2000. Let me stress that the ITAK hadn’t been part of the TNA, at that time.
President Kumaratunga was compelled to call for fresh elections due to an influential section of her People’s Alliance switching allegiance to the UNP. The formation of the TNA should be examined against the backdrop of a massive political turmoil, caused by over a dozen defections, defeat of the PA, at the Dec 2001 parliamentary polls, and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return as the Prime Minister.
The signing of the Norway-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) took place on Feb 21, 2002. By then, the TNA had shamelessly recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. The LTTE exploited the recognition received from the TNA. Then the TNA threw its weight behind the LTTE’s absurd demand for ISGA (Interim Self-Governing Authority) in the run-up to Prabhakaran walking out of the negotiating table. The LTTE quit tripartite negotiations, in late April 2003. The TNA played ball with the LTTE. They took a common stand. TULF leader, Veerasingham Anandasangree, quit the TNA as the LTTE-TNA bond grew stronger. But, the vast majority of Anandasangaree’s colleagues, including Sampanthan, reiterated support to the LTTE’s macabre cause. They resurrected the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), ahead of the 2004 parliamentary polls. The TNA swiftly reached an agreement, with the LTTE, to contest the parliamentary polls, on the ITAK ticket. Beleaguered Anandasangaree had no option but to go it alone at the crucial parliamentary polls. The veteran politician failed to enter parliament. In fact, none of Anandasangaree’s nominees could enter parliament. That was the end of Anandasangaree’s political career, whereas the TNA won 22 seats in the then temporarily–merged North-East Province.
A murderous partnership
The LTTE unleashed violence in the North East Province, in the run-up to parliamentary polls. The LTTE operation was meant to strengthen the TNA, at the expense of other political parties, including the ruling UNP. The European Union Election Observation Mission declared that the TNA achieved success at the 2004 parliamentary polls as a result of the LTTE unleashing violence. Local monitors refrained from commenting on the TNA-LTTE project. Parliament, and the international community, refrained from taking up this issue, for obvious reasons. The LTTE-TNA project received international blessings, even after the EU forthrightly condemned the LTTE-TNA relationship.
The TNA had been part of the LTTE operation, until the very end. As their relationship grew stronger, the TNA became sort of a strategic partner. The TNA revealed its real status, about a week before the 2005 presidential polls, when the grouping, on behalf of the LTTE, directed the Tamils to boycott the election. The move was meant to ensure UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat. The LTTE rejected the UNP’s plea not to interfere in the polls. The late CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman was one of those intermediaries, who failed an abortive bid to reach consensus on the election. The LTTE felt that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory would give them an excuse to launch an all-out war. The TNA certainly subscribed to the LTTE’s assessment. Within two weeks, after Mahinda Rajapaksa election as the President, the LTTE resumed claymore mine attacks, in the Jaffna peninsula, and expanded similar attacks to the Mannar region.
Those who still propagate the lie that the LTTE ordered the polls boycott, having received money from the Rajapaksas, should ask TNA leader R. Sampanthan, and ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah, whether Prabhakaran was bribed by the Rajapaksa brothers. Having announced the polls boycott/ban, in Kilinochchi,i following consultations with the LTTE leadership, the TNA cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for setting the stage for Eelam War IV. There is no point in seeking an explanation from Sumanthiran, as regards the wartime TNA-LTTE partnership, as he joined the TNA parliamentary group, after the demise of the LTTE. But, Sumanthiran, who received recognition as a President’s Counsel, in 2017, knew the TNA’s wretched past. Having joined the TNA parliamentary group, in 2010, he spearheaded a high profile international campaign to haul up Sri Lanka before hybrid war crimes investigation mechanism. In fact, no one has done so much for their cause since the eradication of the LTTE. However, if the LTTE somehow survived the final onslaught on the Vanni east front, Sumanthiran wouldn’t have received an invitation from the TNA to join its parliamentary group. The elimination of the LTTE, automatically gave the TNA an opportunity to take control of the situation. Gradually, Sumanthiran became the most influential person, among the parliamentary group. Sumanthiran maintained excellent relations with the top UNP leadership, and Western diplomatic missions, in Colombo. Sumanthiran never found fault with the LTTE. The TNA, right throughout the Eelam War (August 2006-May 2009), stood steadfastly with the LTTE. The TNA never bothered at least to request the LTTE not to use innocent civilians, as human shields, as the Army slowly cornered them in its one-time Mullaitivu bastion. On the morning of May 19, the Army brought the war to an end.
Those who reacted angrily to Sumanthiran’s condemnation of the LTTE should explain their stand on the TNA backing war-winning Army Commander, the then General Sarath Fonseka, at the 2010 presidential poll. Surendiran made a reference to the heroic struggle, waged by "Tamil militants," and their status in Tamil history in Sri Lanka. Surendiran’s GTF received recognition in the UK parliament, in early 2010, several months after the LTTE’s defeat. GTF, too, wouldn’t have had a role to play today, if not for the demise of the LTTE’s conventional fighting power. Both the TNA and the GTF would have been in the same boat.
The demise of the LTTE allowed the TNA to charter its own course. At an early stage, the TNA reached consensus with the UNP, on a common political programme. Both parties wanted to see the back of war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sumanthiran played a significant role in shaping of the TNA strategy, since entering parliament, in April 2010. However, the TNA adopted an unprecedented strategy, at the January 2010 presidential poll. TNA’s decision to back General Sarath Fonseka proved the grouping’s readiness to do whatever necessary to achieve their overall political objectives. The UNP-led political alliance, which backed Fonseka, included the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC and the ACMC. The same grouping backed Maithripala Sirisena, at the January 2015 presidential polls. Although the project failed, in 2010, in spite of the TNA ensuring Fonseka’s victory, at all northern electorates, and making a significant contribution in the East, the former Army Chief lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa, by a staggering 1.8 mn votes.
Sumanthiran played an extremely important role, both in and outside parliament, during the 2015-2019 period. Sumanthiran’s role, in the Geneva project, is in the public domain. Having entered parliament, as Jaffna District MP, the attorney-at-law represented the party in talks with Western bloc, sympathetic to their cause, and was responsible for tripartite agreement on foreign judges in hybrid judicial mechanism. In other words, Sumanthiran represented the TNA in negotiations that finally led to the betrayal of our armed forces in Geneva.
Sumanthian earned the respect of the UNP leadership for standing by the party in the wake of the Oct 2018 constitutional coup. Sumanthiran’s role should be examined against the backdrop of TNA leader R.Sampanthan receiving recognition as the Opposition Leader, though the TNA group comprised just 16 lawmakers, whereas the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition had more than 50 members. The TNA had been an integral part of the post-LTTE UNP-led political project. In line with this strategy, the TNA backed Sajith Premadasa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential poll.
Now that he UNP had suffered irreparable damage, as a result of the unprecedented split, the TNA facing northern electoral challenge seems to be seeking consensus with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. Having backed General Sarath Fonseka, at the 2010 presidential polls, reaching consensus with the Rajapaksas seemed to be not too difficult a task. So distancing from the LTTE seemed to be quite a sensible move, politically. Let me end this piece with what Sumanthiran told Padma Rao Sundarji (Sri Lanka: The New Country) on the eve of the January 08, 2015 presidential polls. Responding to Rao’s query on the difficulty in securing the support of the JVP, and the JHU, to obtain maximum autonomy for Tamils, Sumanthiran said: "We are not entertaining too many hopes but we are not ruling anything out either. Most urgently, we need to break from Rajapaksa. The electorate knows fully well that if he returns to power, there’ll be no change; whereas a change of regime may bring fresh winds."
Five years later, the TNA is negotiating with the Rajapaksas, ahead of parliamentary polls that may give the ruling coalition a comfortable win and mark an end to the constitutional process, launched by the previous yahapalana administration.