ISSN 2330-717X

Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance In Transition? – OpEd


The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was formed in 2001. At its inception, it was an umbrella organization consisting of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). The organization was a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) creation. Since it was an LTTE creation, the party supported the LTTE and took orders from the LTTE.   

Rewriting History 

In the recent past, there has been an attempt to detigerize the TNA. Some of the current leaders argue that the LTTE did not form the TNA. The process of detigerizing TNA is not universal. It targets the South and non-Tamil media. In the north, the party’s nexus with the LTTE is upheld because the Tiger connection is vital for harvesting votes. It is ludicrous to argue that the TNA was formed independently of the LTTE because nothing happened within the Tamil polity in this period without the LTTE approval. In this period, trying to be active and independent within the Tamil polity could cost one’s life. Even those who argue that the TNA was formed independently of the LTTE agree that it had “cautious indirect backing” of the rebels.  

Long before the current leaders of the TNA started rewriting the history, an independent analyst pointed out that “The TNA, founded in 2001 with the LTTE’s encouragement, was the ambiguous product of the Tigers’ anti-politics: a political formation with no real autonomy and no right to dissent, but used by the LTTE to claim popular support” (International Crisis Group 2012, p.6). In 2004, the party claimed that the LTTE was the sole representative of the Tamil people. In its 2004 parliamentary election manifesto, the party stated that “accepting LTTE’s leadership as the national leadership of the Tamil Eelam Tamils and the Liberation Tigers as the sole and authentic representatives of the Tamil people, let us devote our full cooperation for the ideals of the Liberation Tigers’ struggle with honesty and steadfastness” (p.4). As I said, it is ludicrous to claim that the TNA was an independent entity its inception. The TNA members were rebels without arms.  

Transition: From Rebels to Partners 

After the LTTE was gone, the TNA became independent and making decisions without too many constraints. In 2015, the party supported Maithripala Sirisena for president and extended its tacit approval for the Yahapalana government. Some of my friends indicated that one of the top-tier leaders of the TNA worked behind the scene for the UNP campaign in 2015. During the Yahapalana government’s tenure in office, the United National Party survived at least two no-confidence motions with the TNA assistance. The TNA’s collaboration with the UNP was such that some commentators called the party a proxy of the UNP. 

One significant aspect of this collaboration was that the TNA did not try to become a part of the government by accepting ministries. The support was mostly unofficial and secretive. Why didn’t the TNA join the government? The TNA did not join the government in 2015 because the Tamil people were not there. They were mentally not ready to be part of a Colombo government. The TNA leaders feared that they would be called traitors if they join the government. It is imperative to note that the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leaders were often called traitors by the LTTE sympathizers due to their association with the Colombo government. This fear prevented the TNA from officially joining the government despite the deep desire among some TNA members to do so. This was one reason why Sumanthiaran became an “almost” minister, not an actual one.

2020 Campaign

It was against this backdrop, a recent campaign speech by Sumanthiran becomes significant. On July 11, the Kalaikkathir newspaper reported a statement Sumanthiran made at Sembiyanpattru. According to Kalaikkathir, Sumanthiran has stated that “I agree that we need to work toward development. We don’t know when we will get a political solution. In a democratic environment, one has to negotiate and patiently wait for a political solution. In this interim period, we need to improve our economic development.” Sumanthiran was indirectly suggesting that political solution is not feasible in the short run; hence the Tamils should worry about “development,” which is reasonable, and it reflects the reality.

What he said next may be very significant, and it could mark a considerable transformation of Tamil politics. He said, “even if we are to join the new government (after the election), we need strength to negotiate ministries, number of ministries, and the nature of power (of these ministries).” One, it indicates that the TNA is now ready to join the government as a partner. Two, the TNA, which hitherto asked Tamil people to vote for it to negotiate devolution of power and political autonomy, is now asking Tamil people to vote for them to negotiate ministries. In my view, this is a significant transformation. Sumanthiran argued that there had been a change within the Tamil community. He said, “expectation of our people was to secure the political rights because we can handle development issues if we have political rights. Now we see a change in this trend.” One has to wait and see if there has been a change within the Tamil community or if Sumanthiran is projecting his deep desires on the Tamil people. 

The TNA or Sumanthiran joining a UNP-led government cannot be a big surprise. The chemistry between the two is excellent. But it is certain that the UNP or the Samagi Jana Balwegaya (SJB) will not win the August election. Is Sumanthiran talking about joining the SLPP government?   

What surprised me the most in this speech was that the TNA (or Sumanthiran) is willing to join even the SLPP government. This is new. Sumanthiran declared that “this (the SLPP) government needs a two-thirds majority. But political analysts predict that they will not get a two-thirds majority. Against this backdrop, they might need our support. I have already indicated to them on what basis or condition we may join the government…In response, the government has responded with positive signals.”

This is big news. Are the government and the TNA already in negotiation, or is Sumanthiran taking Tamils for a ride? Any information on this from the government could be extremely valuable.

Nevertheless, Sumanthiran stated, “nothing could be predicted now. We cannot just say that we are joining the government and accepting ministries…But I am not saying that we will not do that.” I am sure this is news for the Tamil people as well. It would be interesting to see if the TNA manifesto, which is expected sooner rather than later, will reference its plans to partner with the SLPP government. 

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

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