Sri Lanka: TNA’s Sambanthan Ready For Armed Struggle? – OpEd


Recently, R. Sambanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance, asserted that “there is a need to think about an armed struggle if it is the only way to get a political solution.” According to New Suthanthiran, presumably a pro-TNA weblog, the statement was made at the 16th National Convention of the TNA held in Jaffna on June 30, 2019.

Meanwhile, on July 11, Sampanthan claimed, “the efforts of this government may not be to our complete satisfaction, but they are certainly better than the former regime” (See TNA’s Twitter feed). These are two contradictory messages, which emanate from the differences between the TNA’s promises to and the expectations of the Tamil people and the party’s contemporary politics.

The first statement implies that TNA has been struggling hard to win a political solution to the problems encountered by the Tamil people, albeit without success. The second statement justifies the need to collaborate and support the UNP-led government because it is “better than the former (Rajapaksa) regime.” The twitter statement was made immediately after helping to defeat the JVP sponsored no-confidence motion. Before delving into the contradictions, I would like to highlight two fundamental problems in the first statement.


First, Tamils are not in a position to think about an armed struggle. They do not want to think about an armed struggle. I had the opportunity to travel to most parts of the country in 2017 and discussed politics and social issues with many Tamils, including political activists. None of them indicated that violent methods are necessary to win their rights. My understanding is that the Tamils are a defeated group of people who still live with defeatist psychology. What one can sense among most Tamils is frustration. They are frustrated that the government is not doing enough to resolve their fundamental problems.

In 2017, many people were struggling on the streets to go back to their homes. People of Keppapilavu are protesting for their land even now. On January 27, 2019, Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka) quoted a protester as saying “We plead with the President to hand over our ancestral lands back to us as promised…This is not an agitation against the government nor the Army.”

Moreover, the Tamils have not engaged in political violence or even radical mobilization after the end of the war. There is no desire to go back to the violent past. Also, they have not forgotten the destruction caused by the war, especially during the last phase of the battle. They are still dealing with the traumatic past. Therefore, even if Sambanthan decides to take up arms, there will be no soldiers to fight.

Second, I do not believe that Sambanthan was serious about the need to think about an armed struggle. It was political rhetoric aimed at appeasing the Tamil sentiments. However, if the statement was serious, he did not learn his lesson from recent history. The lesson is that political violence against the state will not work in Sri Lanka. So far, the state has successfully terminated three organized insurgencies — two by Sinhala youth and one by the Tamils. In a way, the Sri Lankan armed forces have mastered the art of counterinsurgency. Therefore, a TNA inspired violent resistance will be brought under control rather quickly.

Promise and Politics

However, the second statement reflects the reality of TNA’s politics. It is an ally of the UNP-led government, and it supports all of its actions without getting anything in return for the “Tamil people.” Conspiracy theorists suggest that individual members are rewarded handsomely for the unconditional support.

Nevertheless, there has been a considerable gap between this unconditional support and what was promised to the Tamil people. The party promised the moon and delivered nothing. For example, during the 2015 Parliamentary election, the TNA pledged that it would achieve power-sharing, implementation of the UNHRC (Geneva) resolutions, merger of the North-East provinces, demilitarization of the former war zone, resettlement of the internally displaced, release of political prisoners, a comprehensive development program for the North-East and so on (See the election manifesto). It could hardly deliver on any of these promises.

Summing up this reality, M.K.Sivajilingam, a former member of the TNA, pointed out that “Tamil prisoners are still languishing in prisons, lands grabbed by the armed forces are still under occupation, the accountability process is in limbo and the process to bring about a new Constitution has been stalled…” (Daily Mirror, “Tamils Won’t Support any Southern Leader: Sivajilingam,” July 29, 2019).

The TNA has been increasingly described as a “proxy” of the UNP. The party was more animated when President Sirisena sacked the UNP government in 2018. Tamil critics complain that no such animation could be seen in relation to Tamil issues. This dichotomy is one of the reasons that contribute to Tamil frustration vis-a-vis TNA’s inaction. Hence, there has been a need for TNA to appease Tamils sentiments. The party relies on rhetoric like the one delivered by Sambanthan. One could expect more such statements from the TNA as two national elections are approaching.

Enthusiasm Gap

Now the question is, will the Tamil predicament change? The answer is an emphatic no. The government is not doing anything because it fears that concessions to the Tamils will undermine its electoral gains in the forthcoming national elections, especially the presidential election. The TNA continues to support the UNP-led government because of the belief that a Rajapaksa led government will be detrimental to Tamil interest and wellbeing. Hence, it will extend unconditional support to the UNP while talking tough.

In 2015, when the TNA was tacitly supporting the UNP backed presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, some of us advocated an electoral pact. The idea was ruled out due to the fear that a formal pact could backfire on the candidate. The same fear will deter an agreement in 2020, and the TNA will extend tacit support to the UNP candidate.

It is imperative to note that Tamil frustration could become a problem for the UNP. The party cannot win the forthcoming presidential election without Tamil votes. The party does not have adequate support within the Sinhala community to win without minority votes. Tamils, on the other hand, could be less enthusiastic to vote for a presidential candidate in the next election. This possible enthusiasm gap could be costly to a UNP candidate.

The current politics of the TNA could also hurt it in the parliamentary election. In the past, the Tamils have voted for the party mainly due to lack of acceptable alternatives. This time around, however, Wigneshwaran, former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, has his party, the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK). One can expect the TMK to give TNA a run for its money if it decides to contest the general election.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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