A costly divide

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Differences within the Tamil United Liberation Front, once the most authoritative voice of Tamils in Sri Lanka, threaten to destroy the party's independent identity and give the LTTE the upper hand.

in Colombo

TULF president Anandasangaree (centre) at an all-party solidarity meeting in Colombo in August 2001. Among others in the picture, (from right) Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem and United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

SIMMERING differences within the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) are threatening to trigger a major change in Sri Lanka's Tamil politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, the party set the tone for the island's minority political discourse, and its stalwarts could call the then budding Tamil militants "our boys". But today TULF is at quarrel with itself over whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) should be recognised as the "sole representative" of the island's Tamils.

In view of its moorings as a political formation intended to unify the Tamils, the developments in the past one year have been depressing. Although on the face of it the internal differences seem to be around the stand to be taken on the LTTE, far more serious is the internal race for leadership. A cocktail of these two factors has driven the party to the precipice.

Party president V. Anandasangaree is emphatic that the LTTE should not be accepted as the sole representative of the Tamils and that the TULF should maintain its identity. Vice-president and senior leader Joseph Pararajasingham and general secretary R. Sampanthan differ with him strongly and passionately.

Anandasangaree maintains that TULF has historical roots and accepting the rebels as the sole representatives of the Tamils would go against the party's "founding principles". He is certain that a separate identity for TULF would be in the larger interests of the Tamils. "The LTTE will very soon realise that I have taken the correct stand," the TULF president told Frontline. Recalling the positions taken by TULF representatives in parliamentary debates, Anandasangaree said that the party had always striven to safeguard Tamil interests. As for his own position on the matter, he emphasised that "even without any request from the LTTE," he had defended the stance take by Tamils and had welcomed the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA), submitted on October 31. Maintaining the distinction between the LTTE and TULF, he said, was "in the larger interest of Tamil politics".

Pararajasingham and Sampanthan argue that "current political dynamics" should direct the party's policy. Anandasangaree, they said, was "not swimming with the tide" and hence had "lost the confidence of the party's rank and file" - a view endorsed by a majority of the party's Central Committee.

TULF and three other Tamil parties - the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) - formed the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and won 15 seats in the 2001 parliamentary polls on a campaign favouring talks between the government and the LTTE.

The LTTE, according to TULF members who consider it to be the sole representative of the Tamils, is the major Tamil political player as "even the government has started talking to them". Two attempts to move a no-confidence motion against Anandasangaree were caught in controversy. A shaken but optimistic Anandasangaree said that there was nothing to negotiate on the issue; he is confident that his view will prevail. "The rank and file will give me support," he said.

According to informed Tamil commentators, behind this argument is the story of a leadership battle for the post of party president. "They all know that power lies with the LTTE," said a former militant, adding that a race for leadership was on and that the rebels were being used by the contestants. According to observers, deep within, TULF continues to consider the LTTE (and the former militant groups that have taken the parliamentary route) as "boys who will ultimately be reined in". They believe that within TULF there is reluctance to accept the Tigers as the sole representatives of the Tamils. "The only difference between Anandasangaree and the others is that he makes it public," an informed observer said. This, according to the Tamil commentators, has strengthened the position of those aspiring for party leadership.

Yet another view is that the spat will weaken TULF and consequently strengthen the position of the LTTE. Pointing out that the LTTE had assassinated the TULF's leadership in the past but had not been able to bring the party to an end, a former militant said: "Without firing a single shot, the LTTE has now put TULF on the path to self-destruction." Analysts feel that a struggle within TULF could strengthen the ACTC, TULF's old rival.

Founded as the Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972 when the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party came together, the party took the name TULF with the entry of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) a few years later. A high-point in the political programme of TULF was the Vadukottai resolution of 1976, which spelt out the case for a separate Tamil state. Immediately after the resolution, the CWC, headed by the late S. Thondaman, left TULF and re-asserted the identity of the CWC because he saw the circumstances surrounding plantation Tamils, the party's support base, as different from those of Sri Lankan Tamils.

In its long history, Sri Lanka's Tamil politics has been dogged by internal differences - be it on the political front or in relation to the militant formations. However, the early days of TULF established it as a party that mattered. Spurned by the discriminatory political system and enchanted by platform speeches promising a better future, Tamil militancy sprouted.

"They encouraged us from public platforms," said a former Tamil militant, who has since left politics. "There is no doubt about it. We were fed by their political speeches. They were inspiring and made us want to do things," he said. However, in a reverse process, today TULF leaders are lectured to by the LTTE, one of the several groups that consist of what they once called, and continue to call "our boys".

Political commentators say that the current argument about the LTTE is "politically convenient" and hence "is being pushed with vigour", though the actual differences are over leadership issues.

THE jostling for political space started with the formation of the TNA. The alliance was launched on the eve of the 2001 Parliamentary elections, but its roots can be traced back to the 2000 elections, when Tamil votes, particularly in the eastern districts, were splintered, helping the People's Alliance (P.A.) and the National Unity Front.

Tamil civil society groups, mainly teachers and students from the Eastern and Jaffna universities, formed the Tamilar Marumalarchchi Kazhagam (Tamils' Renaissance Front). Subsequently, they started discussions with leaders of TULF, TELO and other political parties.

Even at this stage, TULF was reluctant to permit the entry of erstwhile militant parties such as TELO. Discussions with local LTTE leaders cleared the air and an alliance was formed, whose main purpose was to ensure that the Tamil vote was not split. "It was to get the Tamil polity back to the 1977 stage," recalls one of the activists behind the TNA's formation.

THE move proved politically advantageous as the TNA won 15 seats in the 225-member Parliament and emerged as a dominant single bloc. While there were suggestions that the TNA register itself afresh as a political party, the move was put on hold. It is not without significance that the group's parliamentary leader Sampanthan refers to it as the "Alliance of Tamil Parties" rather than the popularly known "Tamil National Alliance". Meanwhile, internal leadership problems were simmering. The divide deepened after Anandasangaree stayed away from a meeting with the LTTE leadership in Kilinochchi, in contrast to other leaders who were constantly in touch with the rebel leadership. "Fundamentally, and in every way, it is a leadership battle," a former militant said.

Not ruling out the personal factor, Anandasangaree said: "Now they are enjoying power in all aspects. They want the presidency also." But the TULF veteran, - with a political standing of over four decades and supporters in formations ranging from the Sri Lankan Left to the old Tamil Congress - is in no mood to give up. Instead of being angry with his opponents within the party, the former schoolteacher, who once represented the currently rebel-held constituency of Kilinochchi in Parliament, feels that they need sympathy. "It is foolish on the part of our people. They should have explained and convinced them (opponents) that taking an independent stand is beneficial to the Tamils".

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