Colombo Telegraph

Tamil Politics, Sumanthiran & Wigneswaran

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) emerged as the chief political entity representing the Tamil community in Sri Lanka with the downfall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Despite the lack of meaningful political achievements in the last six years, the party seems to be gaining more acceptance within the Tamil community. This is evident from the fact that in the last general election, the party managed to increase its parliamentary representation by two more seats. Therefore, the developments and/or issues within the party have the capacity to impact the interest of the Tamil community. This article looks at a possible leadership struggle within the TNA.

Sambandan’s Leadership

Rajavarothayam Sambandan, as the leader of the party, was in an unenviable position after 2009, due primarily to three reasons. One, the party lacked decision making experience as the LTTE made all decisions, and the TNA was expected to simply carry out those decisions. The party did its best to implement LTTE’s political decisions. Two, during the war, the party did not operate in a normal political environment, which damaged its capacity to develop a culture of inclusiveness and democratic decision making. At the operational level as well as the decision making level, it is in fact a party of few individuals. Three, it is a coalition of Tamil political parties, which compelled the leadership to focus more on party cohesiveness rather than socio-political issues of the community.

Presently, Sambandan is pretty elderly and he may probably retire from active politics sooner rather than later. His pace is already too slow. Sambandan’s retirement would force the TNA and the Tamil community to search for a new leadership from within the next generation (not in terms of age) of Tamil politicians. This is where the focus could turn to Canagasabapathy Wigneswaran and Mathiaparanam Sumanthiran. Both have been creating controversies and have been at loggerheads. Perhaps, the war has already been started between the two. The cold-war between Wigneswaran and Sumanthiran is certainly on.

Wigneswaran’s Politics

Wigneswaran’s nomination for the chief minister position of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) raised many eyebrows. He was an outsider and lacked political experience. These two elements, probably contributed to Wigneswaran’s politics as the Chief Minister. Wigneswaran’s politics in the last two years point to two clear trends: (1) he has been radicalized, and (2) his actions are divisive.

Wigneswaran probably was the most moderate Tamil chief ministerial candidate the South could yearn for in 2013. For example, Wigneswaran, in the run up to the Northern Provincial election, accused political parties in Tamil Nadu for unnecessarily interfering and taking advantage of the Sinhala-Tamil issue, which he insisted was an internal affair. He also wanted the Tamil Nadu parties to stay away from the Sri Lankan conflict so that the Sinhala and Tamil people could find a solution on their own without outside involvement.

This was exactly the Sinhala position vis-à-vis the conflict. Tamils traditionally refused to accept the “internal problem” argument and were hell-bent on internationalizing the conflict. Since, Wigneswaran’s position went against Tamil nationalist views, the TNA had to claim that this was Wigneswaran’s personal opinion; not of the party. This was in 2013.

Today, Wigneswaran certainly is one of the most assertive personalities within the Tamil polity. He calls the violence committed on the Tamil people during the last phase of the war “genocide” and wants international community to intervene to punish perpetrators of violence and to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. Recently, for example, during a meeting with Samantha Power, Wigneswaran emphasized the need to pressure the Sri Lankan government to address grievances of the Tamil people. He no longer believes that issues could be resolved bilaterally.

An interesting question is, why did Wigneswaran transform into a radical warrior suddenly? Perhaps, there are several reasons including the fact that the government is slow in finding solutions to Tamil issues. However, a notable feature is that he became really tough after the collapse of the Rajapaksa government. For example, he resisted the Sivajilingam sponsored “genocide” resolution in 2014. Reports indicate that Wigneswaran was “skeptical” of the use of the word “genocide” in the resolution. In 2015, Wigneswaran himself tabled the genocide resolution of the NPC.

This probably allows him to lead a hardline faction of the TNA and the Tamil community. However, he is engaged in radical politics while alienating the TNA as a party. After winning the chief ministers position with the assistance of TNA votes, Wigneswaran decided to be “neutral” in the last parliamentary election. However, he indirectly asked the Tamil people to vote for the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). Was there an ethical problem in asking (indirectly) the Tamil voters not to vote for the party while continuing with the position secured with the TNA votes? Wigneswaran did not think so.

Wigneswaran’s attitude certainly created a rift within the TNA, with Sumanthiran taking the charge against the Chief Minister. It would be interesting to see, if the “neutral” Wigneswaran will seek the TNA sponsorship in the next provincial council election or lead his own group. In fact, Wigneswaran presently maintains that he is not a member of the TNA and he does not have to be loyal to the party. The TNA obviously, is struggling to effectively deal with Wigneswaran’s revolt.

Sumanthiran’s Theories

Wigneswaran’s recent politics should have made Sumanthiran’s cause relatively easy. However, the new politician has been making statements that has created resentment against him within the Tamil community. First, Sumanthiran went to Switzerland and claimed that what happened during the last phase of the war, according to internationally accepted definitions, was not “genocide.” It sounded like Sumanthiran was arguing in the International Court of Justice, of course representing the offender.

He also called Wigneswaran’s genocide resolution “foolish.” The Tamils were upset and blamed Sumanthiran for serving the agenda of external forces. Sumanthiran missed the points that the Tamils have been using the term genocide to mean that serious acts of violence were committed on their community and the genocide case will not go to an international court.

Adding to the Tamil frustration, Sumanthiran recently demanded that the NPC pass a resolution calling the Muslim expulsion from the North by the LTTE an act of “ethnic cleansing.” Remarkably, Sumanthiran claimed that if the NPC does not pass such a resolution, the world will not take their claims of genocide, seriously. There are two important factors here. One, Sumanthiran did not explain how an NPC resolution on Muslim expulsion would change the international attitude on the question of genocide. Two, if this is such an easy task, why did he not approach his party to sponsor a resolution in the NPC. After all, the NPC is controlled by the TNA.

Instead, he went public. Obviously, he was taking advantage of the opportunity to criticize Wigneswaran. Sumanthiran is also leading a demand for the ouster of Wigneswaran from the Party. Sumanthiran has been criticized heavily within the Tamil community for his recent attitude and according to reports from the North,even posters have come up against him.

Obviously, there has been a cold-war between the two most prominent next generation leaders of the TNA. Both obviously are leading factions loyal to them while being delegitimized among others. This could lead to an imminent crisis within the TNA, especially in the post-Sambandan era. One has to wait and see how the party will respond to this emerging challenge.

*Dr. S.I.Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. 

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