Under the LTTE's shadow

Print edition : April 25, 2003

At an all-party meeting in Colombo, (from left) TULF leader Anandasangary, UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem. A file picture. - SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The TULF president's decision to assert the party's independence vis-a-vis the LTTE in a context of the political winds blowing against the TULF for its "guilt by association", pose questions regarding his own future - and that of the TULF, the largest democratic political party of Sri Lankan Tamils.

SOME recent comments made by Veerasingham Anandasangary, the veteran Sri Lankan Tamil parliamentarian from Jaffna district, about his party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and its relationship with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have caused a flutter in Sri Lankan politics. Anandasangary was elected president of the TULF in controversial circumstances last year (Frontline, July 19, 2002). He has been viewed as a leader who maintains relative independence in the Sri Lankan Tamil political environment where the LTTE has established virtual hegemony through coercive force. Sangary, as he is generally known, has through his observations highlighted a dissident viewpoint against the imposition of the Tigers as the "sole representatives" of the Tamil people.

In March 2002, Sangary stated publicly that the Tigers were not the "sole representatives" of the Tamil people. Addressing a TULF meeting in Jaffna, he said that the party, though it supported the LTTE in the peace process, was an independent organisation. The TULF was not subservient to the LTTE in order for it to "sit when asked to sit or stand when asked to stand", Sangary said. It was incorrect to term the LTTE the "sole representative" of the Tamils when, apart from those that constitute the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), other parties were also represented in Parliament, he said. These other parties include the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Sangary reiterated this position in media interviews. He emphasised that the TNA's Articles of Association had not specified that the LTTE was accepted by the TNA as the "sole representative'' of the Tamils. Sangary declared that the TULF would not contest as a part of the TNA in the coming elections to local bodies.

His statement was welcomed in Sinhala nationalist circles as the first sign of a hitch in the relationship between the LTTE and the TULF in recent times. The pro-Tiger Tamil media within and outside the country were critical of Sangary. One publication said the TULF leader had shot himself in the foot. Some TNA leaders were critical of him and said that the Tigers were indeed the sole representatives of the Tamils.

LTTE front organisations railed against Sangary. TULF secretary-general and MP from Trincomalee district, Rajavarothayam Sambandan, tried to pour oil on troubled waters by issuing certain explanatory statements. Officially the LTTE remained ominously silent.

The last parliamentary elections saw the TULF and three other parties - the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) faction led by Suresh Premachandran - forming a loose alliance, the TNA. It fared well in the North-Eastern areas and got 15 seats in Parliament, including an appointed one. The TULF got seven seats, TELO four, the ACTC three and the EPRLF one seat. The TNA, while sitting in the Opposition, has been supporting the Ranil Wickremasinghe government in Parliament.

Since its formation the TNA has played a role that is secondary to that of the LTTE. Despite having suffered at the hands of the Tigers and having lost several of its leaders in assassinations carried out by the LTTE, the TNA opted to "forgive and forget", in the interests of greater Tamil unity. Its election manifesto emphasised this Tamil unity principle and urged a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. The TNA wanted Colombo to de-proscribe the LTTE and engage with it in the negotiations facilitated by Norway. Since fighting was on between the government forces and the Tigers, the LTTE felt that only it should represent the Tamils at the talks and be afforded "sole representative" status.

This "sole representative" concept was a controversial and ambiguous one. In the first place, the LTTE had sought to deny "independent" representative status to any other Tamil political party and was prepared to tolerate a limited role for these outfits only if they were totally subservient to it. So the TNA, by saying that the LTTE could be the sole representative of the Tamils, was making a virtue out of necessity. On the other hand, there was a glaring contradiction in the TNA describing the LTTE as the "sole representative'' of the Tamils and then sitting in Parliament as representatives of the Tamil voters in the North and East. Furthermore, the political and ethnic heterogeneity of the North-Eastern provinces was not conducive to any claim of such a status. All the districts other than Jaffna had an ethnic plurality, resulting in Muslim and Sinhala candidates from parties such as the ruling United National Front, the People's Alliance, the National Unity Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress winning seats from those regions. Moreover, substantial numbers of Tamil votes were polled by Tamils from parties other than those in the TNA: while the EPDP won two seats, PLOTE and the UNP won one seat each. The prevailing proportionate representation system militates against any single party monopolising the seats.

Despite these factors, the epithet of "sole representative'' was loosely and somewhat widely applied to the LTTE in the Tamil political context. The last elections saw the TNA canvassing for votes in LTTE-controlled areas too. The TNA campaign was vehemently anti-EPDP and to a great extent pro-LTTE. Apart from notable exceptions like Sangary, most of the TNA leaders sang hosannas for the LTTE. All this made other political parties dub the TNA a front organisation of the LTTE. EPDP leader Douglas Devananda called members of the TNA "Tiger nominated agents". The EPDP charged that pro-LTTE youths had rigged the polls and cast bogus votes for specific TNA candidates. (Sangary was not one of these candidates.)

An LTTE flag being hoisted to mark the opening of a court complex set up by the Tigers in Kilinochchi, on March 11, 2003.-AFP

The TULF leader, a former Trotskyite with a Left-leaning background, had been a tower of strength to his party in the face of LTTE hostility. It was Sangary who rallied the party and helped keep the TULF-controlled Jaffna Municipal Council going in the aftermath of the LTTE killing one Mayoress (Sarojini Yogeswaran), one Mayor (Ponnuthurai Sivapalan) and a prospective Mayor (Pon. Mathimugarajarajah). It was Sangary who spearheaded the TULF campaign in the 2000 and 2001 parliamentary elections. He won the most number of preference votes in the district. Unlike several TULF personalities in the past who either curried favour with the LTTE or held themselves back from criticising it, Sangary had been blunt in his comments with regard to the Tigers. He was equally harsh with the EPDP. It was widely believed that he had reservations about toeing the LTTE line. He had tried to forge an independent approach but found none of the MPs or front-ranking leaders backing him. Two senior TULF leaders outsmarted Sangary by appealing to the Tigers on the question of nominating a National List TULF member to Parliament. Some TULF leaders who are hoping to replace him have also been "complaining" about Sangary to the Tigers.

IN the midst of all this, Sangary has been trying to maintain a degree of independence without rocking the boat. He is the only TULF MP not to have participated in LTTE-led public meetings or for that matter meetings conducted by the Tigers themselves. He has refrained, as far as possible, from joining the regular trips undertaken by TNA MPs to Kilinochchi to receive political instructions from the LTTE. The summoning of its members by the LTTE amid wide publicity has been a humiliating experience for the TNA. Also, the LTTE's political adviser, Anton Balasingham, had stated openly that the TNA was at the LTTE's beck and call and was there to obey orders. Sangary was the only TNA leader to object to this statement.

Sangary has also been careful not to let LTTE-inspired anti-India views influence the Tamil body politic. When, for instance, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed a resolution against LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and hostile reactions to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa emanated from Sri Lankan Tamil circles, Sangary issued a statement condemning the reactions. He urged that no offensive comment be made against any Indian leader, including the Chief Minister. Recently at a ceremony in Colombo he appealed to India, in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner, to "forgive and forget" the past. This approach too found no favour with the LTTE hierarchy.

The Tigers had interfered with certain acts by Sangary regarding the appointment and transfer of public servants in Jaffna. Regarding meetings chaired by him on development projects, the Tigers have often asked for a change of time and venue at short notice. The Tigers asked Sangary not to go to the United Nations as part of the official Sri Lankan delegation. Sangary obliged, but was bitter about it. The Tigers resent his influence with members of the government and the diplomatic corps.

In recent times two issues have left Sangary and the LTTE estranged further. The first related to the LTTE's refusal to let the TULF observe the 75th birthday of its assassinated leader Appapillai Amirthalingam in Jaffna. The other issue concerned the opening of the Jaffna Public Library with Sangary as the chief guest on the occasion. The TULF leader delivered stinging rebukes to the LTTE on these issues. This led to the LTTE demanding that Sangary be removed from the TULF leadership. At a meeting in Kilinochchi, the head of the LTTE's political wing, S.P. Thamilchelvan, told the TULF members present (Sangary was absent on the occasion) that the Tigers were not happy with Sangary on three counts. The first reason concerned certain media interviews given in Canada by him, allegedly criticising the LTTE. The second related to supposedly adverse comments about the LTTE's position on high security zones (HSZs) in Jaffna that he made to the visiting Japanese special envoy, Yashushi Akashi. The third concerned the public position on the reopening of the Public Library by Sangary. Even though the TULF has remained silent on the Tiger ultimatum, there are moves afoot by anti-Sangary elements to use the Tiger card and remove him from the leadership of the party.

It was against this backdrop that Sangary came out openly challenging the LTTE's hegemonic approach. Being a shrewd politician he realised that he could not put it off. Knowing that the party's rank and file were unhappy with the TULF's deferential attitude towards the LTTE, he struck a responsive chord in Jaffna. Sangary told this writer: "The bulk of the 250-plus party members present were happy about what I said. They came up and congratulated me."

Besides the personal stakes involved, Sangary's decision to assert the TULF's independence is politically pragmatic. Sangary has sensed that the rank and file is disillusioned with the upper level TULF leaders letting themselves to be dictated to by the LTTE. With the LTTE becoming increasingly unpopular owing to its taxation and conscription moves, the political winds are blowing against the TULF too through "guilt by association". Earlier, those Tamils who disliked LTTE-style politics supported the TULF. Now with the TULF playing second fiddle to the LTTE and also subsuming its identity in the TNA, the swing is in favour of an alternative. This trend may well be advantageous to the EPDP and PLOTE, even the UNF.

The TNA arrangement has not been politically profitable to the TULF. The other parties have gained by latching on to it. Also, the LTTE has been building up the other parties and undermining the TULF while promoting internal dissension against Sangary. There is reason to suspect that if and when local authority elections are held the LTTE will "fix" the polls in such a way as to ensure the success of candidates of other parties at the expense of the TULF. On the other hand, there is going to be a voter swing against the TULF on account of its involvement with the TNA and its association with the LTTE.

Another point is that after the TULF joined the TNA and began to toe the LTTE line, the party began to lose its prestige nationally and internationally. Many international representatives do not meet TULF leaders now as such meetings are seen as being pointless and redundant. A recent "omission" by the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary is a case in point. The LTTE also does not make it any easier by its arrogant handling of its relations with the TULF in a "command-control mode".

Under the circumstances, the move by Sangary to assert the TULF's independence and go it alone without irking the LTTE too much is somewhat risky yet seemingly astute. This can save it from getting caught up in an anti-Tiger mood, prevent a voter swing in favour of non-TULF parties; bring prestige to the party and allow for it an independent role. The TULF retaining its own identity and being supportive of the LTTE on matters affecting the Tamil people could serve the Tamil cause better. What Sangary wants is for the TULF to bow its head to the LTTE slightly without prostrating itself as it does now.

The question, however, is whether other TULF leaders and the LTTE would see matters in such a light. If Sangary is able to get the rank and file to support him wholeheartedly, then the other TULF leaders too may revise their stance. On the other hand, if the LTTE and other TNA partners close ranks against Sangary, the TULF will face much pressure to remove him. While the prevailing ceasefire has temporarily ensured Sangary's physical safety, the coming days will determine the future of the largest democratic political party of Sri Lankan Tamils - the TULF.

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