By Vasanthi Nesarajan –
They speculated that TNA is likely to disintegrate as Mr Sampanthan hadn’t considered succession planning and that the infighting between the leaders and other sitting MPs of constituent parties of the TNA is likely to result in such disintegration.
Just over two years later since they wrote, it appears their predictions have been realised as fundamentally there is no more a TNA in existence as the remaining constituent parties, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), People Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) have started acting independently and separately, with regards to most matters. However, Mr Sampanthan still remains as leader of the TNA.
That speculation in 2021, when Mr Sampanthan was 88 years of age and he is now 90, and fast approaching his 91st birthday, on 5 February 2024. Mr Sampanthan has been the oldest serving member of parliament ever, for some time now.
Age and ill health has taken a toll in his ability to represent his own constituency in the parliament. Under Right to Information (RTI) gathered data shows that only 39 days out of the 288 days during the current parliament, Mr Sampanthan has attended parliament. And he hadn’t spoken on any matters of concern during these 39 days of attendance according to the Hansard records.
Mr Sampanthan, his age, his lack of attendance and the amount of tax payers’ money spent on someone who hasn’t represented the people of whom he should represent was one of the talking points on a talk show titled ‘Looking for corruption in all the wrong places” in one of the private TV channels in Sri Lanka, recently. Among the various panellists, Mr M.A. Sumanthiran, spokesperson for ITAK and Tamil parliamentarian was asked whether this particular spending of money, of over four million rupees on an aging Member of Parliament who has attended a mere 13% of the sitting sessions is another kind of corruption.
Mr Sumanthiran, cleverly avoiding answering the question of corruption said that it has been a great concern for his party and him personally for some time now that Mr Sampanthan has been unable to attend parliament due to his ill health and age. He said last year, as concerned members, some of the senior members of the ITAK including himself met with Mr Sampanthan and shared their concerns and even requested for him to retire from parliament. Unfortunately, Mr Sampanthan has refused to do so and explained that when the people of Trincomalee elected him at the 2020 elections, they knew of his health conditions and still elected him as the number one candidate in terms of votes gained. Therefore, he has no intentions of resigning or retiring from service.
This controversial decision of Mr Sampanthan to stay in parliament without really representing his constituent’s issues and concerns is likely to diminish his stature among the people not just Tamils but the wider Sri Lankans.
It is also a well-known fact that Mr Sampanthan and his family still occupy the house that was granted to him when he was the Opposition Leader during the 2015-2019 parliament. By overstaying in government quarters, Mr Sampanthan is in many ways abusing the system of privileges and patronage granted to senior members of parliament, like the opposition leader. The bills and maintenance of the house will cost over hundreds of thousands of rupees of tax payers’ money every year. Civil servants familiar with the matter also say that the two cars that he was entitled to during his tenure as Opposition Leader is still run for his and his family’s use.
Mr Sampanthan in 2020 initially told his party central committee and members of his constituency district offices that he will not stand at the 2020 general elections. As members persuaded him to stand, he agreed under two conditions, one, he will only serve one year and will resign for someone younger from his party to takeover and two, some named person from Trincomalee to be placed as the primary candidate in the list of nominations depending on the vote share. Neither condition has been satisfied to date. TNA gained only a single nominated MP position which was given to a member from Ampara and not Trincomalee. Mr Sampanthan himself has gone back on his word on resigning from the seat to let someone younger to complete the term.
Mr Sampanthan’s irresponsibleness and poor judgement was laid bare, when he, for his personal reasons asked the Indian Government to postpone a calendar date that was given for the TNA parliamentarians to meet with the Indian Prime Minister in Delhi back in December 2021. Nearly two years have passed and that meeting hasn’t materialised as yet. If the meeting had taken place, who knows what might have transpired for the Tamil people.
It is during Mr Sampanthan’s tenure as Leader, both Ceylon Tamil Congress (CTC) and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) as parties and Mr C.V. Wigneswaran as an individual exited the TNA.
Abandoning of Mr Sampanthan as leader of the TNA by its remaining constituent parties was played out in public when in the secret ballot of appointing the current president through a parliamentary vote, although as TNA, they collectively made it known that they will be supporting Mr Dullas Alahapperuma, it emerged that some of the constituent party Members of Parliament voted for the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He himself acknowledged at the initial meeting with the TNA as President on August 3, 2022 by saying, “I know some of you voted for me”.
The disarray within the TNA has been in public display even more since.
TELO, PLOTE (who are from the “current” TNA) plus EPRLF (who were part of TNA until 2015 elections) and Tamil National Party (TNP) by forming a party with a title of Democratic TNA with a logo and all formally distanced them from the official TNA. This action left the ITAK to stand alone.
The dTNA as a registered party went further and submitted formal nominations for the not yet held local government elections. They issued press statements and faced interviews as dTNA.
At one of those interviews, Mr Selvam Adaikalanathan, Leader of TELO, said that there is no more a grouping called the TNA. Mr Sampanthan cannot call himself as Leader of the TNA and should refer to him as the Leader of ITAK, if he wants.
Mr Sumanthiran who used to be the official spokesperson for the TNA, now refers to him as Spokesperson for the ITAK and NOT TNA.
Recently, a Tamil diaspora leader said, “Leaving the rights and wrongs to aside, Mr Prabakaran as leader of the LTTE, commanded the Tamil struggle for equality as a visionary and his legacy could be that he placed the Tamils struggle for equality in the international agenda.” Comparing Mr Sampanthan’s leadership he said, “The latter had no charisma or vision and was never able to muster the support of majority of his people. In the past 14 years since end of armed hostilities, Mr Sampanthan’s leadership has been at best reactionary and never held the tempo against our adversaries. His legacy will be that, once a relatively successful political coalition which at its best, held over 20 seats in parliament was reduced to 10 over the time and finally saw its demise due to lack of leadership.”
It hasn’t been an easy task for Mr Sampanthan to keep the TNA together. Out of the three remaining constituent parties, two of them are led by former militants who are believed to be, still on the payroll of local and foreign intelligence agencies. The leader of the ITAK has long passed his retirement age and that party itself needs restructuring by including youth and women into leadership.
Mr Sampanthan also draws sharp criticism from many in the wider local communities and internationally. As a Leader of the Opposition, he did not resolve and/or influence any major national issues that impacted all communities. People accused him of playing second fiddle to the then ruling alliance, during the Yahapalana government.
To have been one of the driving forces behind the scenes to build a national coalition of opposition parties and a common candidate whom removed the then powerful president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, Mr Sampanthan couldn’t extract a solution for the Tamils demands out of the Yahapalana regime. With hindsight perhaps Mr Sampanthan realises that he should have bargained more assertively and even threatened to bringing down the government prematurely by voting against the budget for example, to achieve his parties goals. Instead, his passive approach got the Tamil people nothing at the end. Four years later, the lack of strategy and tactic was blatantly obvious. Tamil people punished the TNA severely at the 2020 elections.
Some say, Mr Sampanthan is a very poor judge of character. It was his choice to nominate former Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran for the Chief Minister post in the Northern Provincial Council against strong opposition within the TNA. This ended up as a disastrous choice not just for the Provincial Council, but also for TNA’s reputation and popularity within the community and outside too.
His inability to take decisive action to maintain discipline within the party was blatant when he refused to sack Mr Wigneswaran even after he issued statements publicly supporting an opposing party in the general elections of 2015. This has weakened the TNA in the eyes of the voters.
Whilst being able to influence the international community to a greater extent to be sympathetic to the Tamil concerns in Sri Lanka, especially post May 2009, by and large he has been unable to rally the Tamil grassroots behind the TNA. Since 2004, when the TNA won 22 seats in the Parliament, with ups and downs but the trajectory has been downwards leading up to only securing 10 seats in the current Parliament.
Under Sampanthan’s leadership, the TNA failed to focus on schemes that would have helped the economic development and sustainability of the Tamil community, especially when the Indian Government was forthcoming with financial assistance. This also paved the way for the loss in the vote share to the national parties in the North and East.
Some observers say, the time has come for the current leadership, the old guard, to gracefully relinquish from active service and encourage younger generations including women to take over the mantle sooner rather than later.
Just as the Aragalaya was calling for wider system change, perhaps the Tamils of north and east too may have to have their own version of Aragalaya to force change in the Tamil polity.
*Vasanthi Nesarajan, former medical professional, born and bred in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.