Veerasingham Anandasangaree, the present leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), emerged as one of the bravest dissident Tamil voices in Sri Lanka during the nearly three-decade civil war. He tirelessly advocated for a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka as a way to peacefully resolve the ethnic conflict, despite facing death threats from the separatist Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as well as enduring constant vilification from LTTE supporters abroad.
During a visit to Colombo, this writer had the opportunity to interview Veerasingham Anandasangaree at his office. On June 15th 2023, Anandasangaree will turn 90 years old. To honor Anandasangaree’s 90th birthday, the following excerpts from the discussion this writer had with him effectively captures the enduring political courage and visionary spirit that continues to inspire him to this day.
In the discussion, Anandasangaree talked about his repeated attempts to try to push for a federal solution during the ethnic conflict, how the TULF has been reduced to a shell of its former self, as well as his thoughts on some of the courageous dissident Tamil voices, like Neelan Tiruchelvam, who paid the ultimate price.
In an attempt to resuscitate peace talks with the LTTE, on August 3rd 1995, the Kumaratunga government released an outline of its constitutional reform proposals, widely known as the Union of Regions proposals. Upon its release, Sri Lankan academic Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu asserted that the proposals were “federalism in all but name.” At that point in time, the proposals were the most far reaching and progressive in Sri Lanka’s history. The Tamil separatist rebel leader Prabhakaran, however, refused to negotiate with those proposals.
Anandasangaree: You know, Prabhakaran never mentioned anything. He never said what he was supporting, what he was opposing. That is the curse. If [the LTTE] had been in touch with us [the TULF], they could have negotiated, they never came out to have discussion with us. Instead, they depended on the advice given by some ordinary fellows.
Pitasanna: When the Union of Region’s proposals came out, why didn’t the Tamil political parties, why didn’t they pressure Prabhakaran, why didn’t they tell him to look at these proposals?
Anandasangaree: Who is to pressure? The people who are now claiming to be members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), they are the people who should have done it. Most of them didn’t even see Prabhakaran—ever. Unfortunately, the biggest mistake the Tamil people made was to hand over the leadership to people who are incapable. When [the TULF] was there at the time, at least there were 10 lawyers in the team; now how many lawyers do they have in the team? Only Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. That is the problem. Our strength got reduced. People started supporting the LTTE. People supported the pro-LTTE elements. I was never a pro-LTTE man. I was pointing fault to Prabhakaran for certain things. Some people foolishly entertained grievances against me also.
I will give you one good example, I was advocating a federal solution, even without being a member of the parliament, you see. When the  presidential election took place, I wrote to the candidates Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mahindra Rajapaksa. I asked them to keep this issue outside the parliamentary politics and at one stage Ranil Wickremesinghe supported the federal solution…but what did the LTTE do? They asked the people to boycott [the elections], don’t vote, and the TNA members who supported the LTTE, you know, they campaigned and asked the people not to vote. See how foolish they were, they should have told Prabhakaran, this is the first time we are getting an opportunity, one candidate is offering a federal solution, Ranil Wickremesinghe offered a federal solution. Why do you want us to boycott this? That means they were only worried of their seats and not worried of the people.
Ranil Wickremesinghe offered federal solution. Rajapaksa was opposing a federal solution. People voted, Tamil people didn’t vote, Tamil people were threatened not to vote but will you believe that Ranil Wickremesinghe polled 49.7% for a federal solution. If the LTTE had remained silent or the TNA members had remained silent, we would have got it….That is the curse in this country, there’s no unity among us. We do not offer a united solution. We don’t agree on a common program and offer the people. We are at each other’s throat; I am not responsible for that. We are criticizing each other, trying to win over each other…If I had been a Member of Parliament, I would have gone and told Prabhakaran…look thambi (brother), we had an opportunity, why are you asking the people to boycott, the MPs who got elected, they never had the guts to open up and say something. So, the problem is in our own creation. Our own people have dug their own grave by supporting a party like the TNA.
Pitasanna: When the armed Tamil militancy movement started, there were five Tamil rebel groups, with TELO, LTTE, PLOTE, EPRLF, and EROS, India [under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi] played a role in training them, rivalry and infighting between the groups soon emerged—
Anandasangaree: You know if you ask me I will condemn everything. [The Tamil rebel groups] should have left it in the hands of the non-violent group committed to non-violence—Chelvanayakam who was treated with respect, who was committed to non-violence, who was even described as a local Gandhi—if they had left it with him, we would have found a solution.
Pitasanna: Chelvanayakam passed the Vaddukoddai Resolution. It was Chelvanayakam…
Anandasangaree: Chelvanayakam backed it. But, you know, he never wanted anybody to take up arms.
Pitasanna: When Tamil Member of Parliament C Suntharalingam first mooted the idea of Tamil Eelam in the 1950s, he received less than a handful of votes. In the 1950s, the Tamil community regarded Tamil Eelam as a joke, the eccentricities of an elderly but much loved Tamil politician. Though the ideas of Tamil separatism existed, no one took them seriously.
Anandasangaree: The people weren’t supporting him.
Pitasanna: Right, and then 20 years later SJV Chelvanayakam, he resigned his seat and then he contested on a platform of a separate state. He received more than 70% of the vote. So, talk about from 1956 to 1976, why Tamil opinion had changed
Anandasangaree: Because of the foolishness of the Government. The Government was tightening their laws and making things difficult for the Tamil people to live peacefully. They changed.
Pitasanna: The 1982 national referendum resulted in the life of Parliament being extended by six years and the TULF was strongly opposed to that.
Anandasangaree: When the term of Parliament was extended for six years by a  referendum, there was a lot of fraud in that referendum also, by that time I had joined the TULF, and we were all members of the TULF, in 1977 all those who were elected were from the [Tamil] Congress and the Federal Party merged to form the TULF. So, we all decided to boycott Parliament for the extended period of six years. Very foolish thing now, I regret. One of the most foolish things the TULF did was to boycott Parliament—for one or two months I can understand—but for a full term of six years we were out of Parliament. All of us. That went to the advantage of the government, they then introduced the Sixth Amendment, and the Sixth Amendment provision was that everyone would have to take an oath that they will not support separation or fight for separation or speak about separation—al that was included. We refused to take that oath also, and for six years, although we were entitled to be in Parliament, like others members, all the Tamil MPs of the TULF were kept out. So, after that then the trouble started. Amirthalingam was assassinated and things like that. So, things were going from bad to worse. So, most of us went and lived in India. We were having talks with the Indian government to find a solution to our problem and the Indian government did its best, we had several meetings in India with government officials but at that time all of us were in India except one or two.
Pitasanna: The issue of merging the Northern and the Eastern Province has long been a contentious issue between the Tamils and the Muslims
Anandasangaree: One day the only solution for the ethnic problem maybe union of regions because the Muslims don’t want East to be merged with the North, the Tamils want East to be merged with the North, but it will never succeed because there are three communities living there, 30% – 40% from each community, three different communities live in the Eastern Province. So, merging is not that easy, you know, getting the consent of the people is not that easy.
Everybody wants a merger but everyone knows that it is not possible, and you have three communities, unless all these three communities agree. What will happen when the [North and East] merges? Earlier it was merger but that was because of the compelling circumstances—the talks with the Indian government [during the period of the Indo-Lanka accord]. But what did the President say at that time? JR Jayewardene said we will go for a referendum. If we go for a referendum we will lose [because] the Sinhalese and Muslims will get together.
Pitasanna: During the height of its power, the TULF was a leading political voice in the country advocating for a federal solution to the ethnic conflict. The TULF is now a shell of its former self.
Anandasangaree: The TULF has not changed its views. It is the TNA that is dancing to the tune of somebody. The TNA deliberately got the TULF out. When we had fourteen Members in Parliament and when we faced an election, TNA got the support of a few LTTE boys and prevented all others from contesting, prevented all others from canvassing, prevented all others from even casting their vote. That is how I lost. So the fault is ours.
We are greedy for power. Some of us are greedy for power. So we are not leaving any stone unturned to find it useful for us to retain our seats.
The TULF had already decided on a proposal to accept the Indian model. That was the stand we had taken, the TULF. The Indian model, there is some support. I am the one who started the Indian model, developed the [campaign for] the Indian model [in Sri Lanka]. It has really good support among the Sinhalese also. So because they are very allergic to the term, federalism, but with all that at the 2005 Presidential Election, 47.7% voted for the Federal Solution. Whose mistake is this, why didn’t we get it? Our mistake, our leadership. The leadership. I fought with Sampanthan fully for that. He should have gone, talked to Prabahakaran, and said look, things are going from bad to worse. We at least now agree for this, agree for a Federal Solution. If only they had remained silent, the Sinhalese would have voted for the Federal Solution, now even 5% won’t vote for the Federal solution. So, due to wrong leadership, we have missed so many chances.
Pitasanna: Talk about what Sri Lanka lost as a result of Dr. Tiruchelvam’s death
Anandasangaree: Neelan first came into Sri Lankan politics as a nominated member to fill the vacancy created by the death of Member of Parliament T. Thirunavukarasu who represented Vaddukoddai, when he died in 1982, Tiruchelvam was nominated to fill the vacancy and he took very active interest, especially in the legal field. We, as members of parliament, we entered into social work and things like that but his assignment was different. He was specially brought in as a member because of his eminence in constitutional law. So, [the TULF] thought he will be more useful as a constitutional lawyer to advise, we were fighting for a new constitution, so we thought better to have him in Parliament.
Tiruchelvam had to come look after the party [when the TULF members fled to India after their refusal to take the oath to the Sixth Amendment in 1983]. So, he was acting as secretary of the party. Doing all the work, he was in charge, he did his job well.
Neelan Tiruchelvam’s efforts [for constitutional reform] started bearing fruit. Unfortunately, then everything came [to an end] with the assassination of Neelan, all efforts taken up to that time, all the drafts you see, several drafts, all got shelved. Neelan’s efforts also came to an end. And we [TULF] became weak. Neelan was no longer in Parliament. Our seats were usurped by some militant organizations. After Appapillai Amirthalingam’s assassination, Neelan was there, Neelan was the only practicing lawyer at the time—I am also a lawyer—but he was a practicing lawyer at the time. He was [an expert] in constitutional law. So our strength got reduced, also our membership in Parliament got considerably reduced, so the matters came to an end.
At the time of [Neelan’s assassination] I was in Germany. I came back to attend his funeral. That was a sorry sight to see. It was not a coffin that he came in. It was a small box. The body was reduced to chunks. So we all attended the funeral. Then his vacancy got empty. It was my turn, I could have nominated myself or got myself nominated as MP to succeed Neelan, but due to the pressure from some others, you see, we nominated [Mavai] Senathirajah
Neelan Tiruchelvam made a big sacrifice but what do the people, how do they show the gratitude? Once a year they have a memorial lecture. Some people attend, some people don’t attend. That’s all.
Pitasanna: You were repeatedly vilified as a traitor, a throgi, by the LTTE
Anandasangaree: It is not the LTTE who did it. The people who were holding a belief to the LTTE had done that. For the LTTE, anyone who don’t agree with them, they brand them as traitor. More than the LTTE, the people who pretend to be supporting LTTE are the ones who should be held responsible. I was a throgi, Neelan was a throgi and then he was killed because they concerned him as a throgi. Anyone talking about them or against [the LTTE] is a throgi. So, don’t take that seriously.
Pitasanna: Why did the UNP ultimately reject the proposals Neelan sacrificed his life to help formulate?
Anandasangaree: All these people are politicians, don’t forget that. It is the same Ranil Wickremesinghe, he was the man who burnt the  draft constitution in Parliament and put it on the desk, the Parliament desk. So don’t take these people seriously. They will do anything to come to power. At that time Neelan’s proposals was there, the present [President] lighting the draft bill and dropping it on the table. He should have been charged for treason for that in Parliament. He didn’t do it in the outside. So, don’t take these people seriously, only thing is… I don’t know what I can say. The people’s mistake was, and the mistake of their leaders at that time was, rejecting the TULF. We were the people talking some sense. We were the people to whom [Sri Lankans] liked to talk with, not them.
The discussion this writer had with Anandasangaree shows that the bloody end to the civil war was not only the fault of the rivalry between the two dominant Sri Lankan political parties, the SLFP and the UNP, but also the fault of the LTTE and the Tamil political leadership which repeatedly shot down opportunities to form a national consensus on a federal solution to the ethnic conflict. With the deaths of thousands of Tamils, and with the LTTE defeated, it is now abundantly clear had the nation listened to the voice of Anandasangaree, thousands of lives could have been saved. Although the pro-LTTE elements vilified Anandasangaree, history has vindicated Anandasangaree.