Sri Lanka’s Main Tamil Party Set To Split As Elections Approach
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) appears to be headed for a split
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), of which the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) is the single largest constituent, appears to be heading for a split, with the Sampanthan and Wigneswaran factions failing to find a common ground to work together.
A likely outcome is the emergence of two new groupings, with the ITAK and its adjuncts being on one side, and a conglomerate or congeries of groups headed by the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran being on the other side.
The two factions have been on the verge of a split several times before but have stayed together in an uneasy relationship either because there was no alternative path in sight; or because there was no immediate need to part ways ; or because of pressure from an external force which, both sides believed, could not be alienated.
Just prior to the August 2015 parliamentary elections ,there was a move in the TNA to oust Wigneswaran from the Chief Ministerial post because he had declared that he would remain neutral and not campaign for the TNA or any other party.
When challenged on the grounds that he owed his election and position of Chief Minister to the TNA/ITAK, Wigneswaran declared that people had voted for “him” as an individual and not as a candidate of the TNA or the ITAK.
However, because the TNA won the parliamentary elections handsomely, and the dominance of the ITAK and its leader R.Sampanthan continued, the move to oust Wigneswaran was abandoned.
Nevertheless , trouble in the TNA continued to brew. By June 2017, it had come to a head with Wigneswaran inquiring into the conduct of some of his ministers and asking them to step aside to enable free and fair investigations. This was resented by the Sampanthan group which saw it as nothing but a biased political witch hunt.
The TNA hatched a plot to move a No Confidence Motion against Wigneswaran. However it was thwarted at the eleventh hour due to the intervention of an external force which warned that any split in the TNA or ITAK would mean the end of the elected provincial council which that force had worked hard to wangle from the Rajapaksa administration in 2013. Eventually, a compromise formula was arrived at and both sides abided by it.
However, fundamental differences between the Wigneswaran and Sampanthan groups continued to exist, with Wigneswaran obliquely accusing Sampanthan of having compromised the Tamil cause for the sake of a cushy relationship with the powers-that- be in Colombo, namely, the government as well as the Sinhala majoritarian parties.
Despite the regular taunts expressed through the media, the Sampanthan group did not retort or react. It continued to stick to its policy of engaging the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala majoritarian parties in the hope of getting the Tamils’ demands met in course of time.
Meanwhile, Wigneswaran had founded or inspired the formation of the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC), a conglomerate of likeminded political and social bodies and individuals. The TPC is likely to be the nucleus of a political party which Wigneswaran may form nearer the next provincial elections which are likely in 2019, if not at the end of 2018.
On his part, Sampanthan has been keeping up the refrain that the Tamils cannot afford to be disunited and that the TNA is the best bet to ensure unity and lead the Tamils, given its long history, its present strength, its standing among the Western democracies, and its acceptability to the Sri Lankan national leadership and the powers-that-be in New Delhi.
But even as it called for unity, the Sampanthan faction has not reached out to the Wigneswaran faction. Nor has there been any attempt on the part of the Wigneswaran group to find common ground. Sampanthan and Wigneswaran would not even meet each other.
While the Sampanthan faction have been busy with the process of drafting a new Sri Lankan constitution and taking up Tamil issues in parliament, Wignewaran and his cohorts have kept debunking these efforts as a farce.
But Wignewaran has not been entirely wrong. The powers-that-be in Colombo have not yielded to the Tamils’ demands, even if many of these had been declared legitimate by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the US-Sri Lanka co-sponsored resolution of 2015 at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The promised independent domestic Judicial Mechanism to go into charges of “war crimes” is yet to be set up. The Office of Missing Persons has only now come up and has a very long way to go before it can do the job it is meant to do, which is to trace the missing.
The military are still holding acres and acres of private land. Suspected militants who are seen as “political prisoners” by the Tamils are still languishing in jail awaiting trial.
Work on the new constitution was proceeding extremely well till it got to the penultimate stage of drafting, namely, deliberation at the Steering Committee headed by the Prime Minister. Work on it has ground to a halt.
The TNA feels that the draft constitution will be presented to parliament eventually, because it has no clause which the Sinhalese Buddhist majority can oppose. But hopes of it’s getting to the next stage, which is a debate in the Constitutional Assembly, are receding by the day. This is an acute embarrassment to the Sampanthan group and is excellent grist to Wigneswaran’s mill.
However, Wigneswaran’s demand for a muscular approach to the government and the Sinhala-majoritarian parties has been rejected by the Sampanthan group which swears by the wisdom of continuing the policy of persistent and patient engagement with all stakeholders. It also believes that the wishes and interests of the international community should also be kept in mind as the world outside has an axe to grind too.
Meanwhile, elections are approaching. The TNA/ITAK has been witnessing a steady erosion of its support base in the North and East. It has reportedly slid from 80% in 2013 to 60.% in 2015 and to 35% in the February 10 local bodies elections. This has been one of the reasons for Sampanthan to call for the “unity” of the Tamils.
Sampanthan is aiming at uniting the Tamils under his leadership and under the banner of the TNA/ITAK. He is arguably the most respected and level headed leader the Tamils have now. The ITAK and TNA are still the single largest political groupings in the North and East.
Interestingly, of later, Wigneswaran too has been calling for “unity”. But it is not a call without strings attached. In his speech at the launch of his book in Jaffna on Saturday, he spelt out the conditions of unity.
Wigneswaran made it abundantly clear that there can be no unification of different and contradictory ideologies and approaches. It has to be an unity of perfectly likeminded people.
He then went into a list of attributes people must have to make unification possible. The list was a verbatim repetition of the litany of complaints against the Sampanthan group ,though he did not name the group or the leader. But everyone in the audience knew that the cap was meant to fit Sampanthan, who was the chief guest at the function.
But Wigneswaran thanked Sampanthan for accepting to be the “chief guest”; swore that he never acted against the TNA; and declared that he stood for TNA’s unity.
Explaining the contradictions in Wigneswaran’s stand (inviting Sampanthan to be the chief guest but repeating the complaints against him) a members of the Sampanthan faction said that Wigneswaran may be hoping to be put up as the TNA/ITAK candidate in the next Northern Provincial Council elections.
“There isn’t a ghost of a chance of Wigneswaran’s being the party candidate. But Sampanthan will not say this now. He would like to keep Wigneswaran’s hopes alive,” the member said.
When rejected, which is certain, Wigneswaran will have to decide whether to float a new outfit and fight an election without an established party machinery to back him, or to get back to an apolitical life in Colombo.