Sri Lankan Tamil Politics, Sumanthiran And Wigneswaran – OpEd


The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) emerged as the chief political entity representing the Tamil community in Sri Lanka with the downfall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Despite the lack of meaningful political achievements in the last six years, the party seems to be gaining more acceptance within the Tamil community. This is evident from the fact that in the last general election, the party managed to increase its parliamentary representation by two more seats. Therefore, the developments and/or issues within the party have the capacity to impact the interest of the Tamil community. This article looks at a possible leadership struggle within the TNA.

Sambandan’s Leadership

Rajavarothayam Sambandan, as the leader of the party, was in an unenviable position after 2009, due primarily to three reasons. One, the party lacked decision making experience as the LTTE made all decisions, and the TNA was expected to simply carry out those decisions. The party did its best to implement LTTE’s political decisions. Two, during the war, the party did not operate in a normal political environment, which damaged its capacity to develop a culture of inclusiveness and democratic decision making. At the operational level as well as the decision making level, it is in fact a party of few individuals. Three, it is a coalition of Tamil political parties, which compelled the leadership to focus more on party cohesiveness rather than socio-political issues of the community.

Presently, Sambandan is pretty elderly and he may probably retire from active politics sooner rather than later. His pace is already too slow. Sambandan’s retirement would force the TNA and the Tamil community to search for a new leadership from within the next generation (not in terms of age) of Tamil politicians. This is where the focus could turn to Canagasabapathy Wigneswaran and Mathiaparanam Sumanthiran. Both have been creating controversies and have been at loggerheads. Perhaps, the war has already been started between the two. The cold-war between Wigneswaran and Sumanthiran is certainly on.

Wigneswaran’s Politics

Wigneswaran’s nomination for the chief minister position of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) raised many eyebrows. He was an outsider and lacked political experience. These two elements, probably contributed to Wigneswaran’s politics as the Chief Minister. Wigneswaran’s politics in the last two years point to two clear trends: (1) he has been radicalized, and (2) his actions are divisive.

Wigneswaran probably was the most moderate Tamil chief ministerial candidate the South could yearn for in 2013. For example, Wigneswaran, in the run up to the Northern Provincial election, accused political parties in Tamil Nadu for unnecessarily interfering and taking advantage of the Sinhala-Tamil issue, which he insisted was an internal affair. He also wanted the Tamil Nadu parties to stay away from the Sri Lankan conflict so that the Sinhala and Tamil people could find a solution on their own without outside involvement.

This was exactly the Sinhala position vis-à-vis the conflict. Tamils traditionally refused to accept the “internal problem” argument and were hell-bent on internationalizing the conflict. Since, Wigneswaran’s position went against Tamil nationalist views, the TNA had to claim that this was Wigneswaran’s personal opinion; not of the party. This was in 2013.

Today, Wigneswaran certainly is one of the most assertive personalities within the Tamil polity. He calls the violence committed on the Tamil people during the last phase of the war “genocide” and wants international community to intervene to punish perpetrators of violence and to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. Recently, for example, during a meeting with Samantha Power, Wigneswaran emphasized the need to pressure the Sri Lankan government to address grievances of the Tamil people. He no longer believes that issues could be resolved bilaterally.

An interesting question is, why did Wigneswaran transform into a radical warrior suddenly? Perhaps, there are several reasons including the fact that the government is slow in finding solutions to Tamil issues. However, a notable feature is that he became really tough after the collapse of the Rajapaksa government. For example, he resisted the Sivajilingam sponsored “genocide” resolution in 2014. Reports indicate that Wigneswaran was “skeptical” of the use of the word “genocide” in the resolution. In 2015, Wigneswaran himself tabled the genocide resolution of the NPC.

This probably allows him to lead a hardline faction of the TNA and the Tamil community. However, he is engaged in radical politics while alienating the TNA as a party. After winning the chief ministers position with the assistance of TNA votes, Wigneswaran decided to be “neutral” in the last parliamentary election. However, he indirectly asked the Tamil people to vote for the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). Was there an ethical problem in asking (indirectly) the Tamil voters not to vote for the party while continuing with the position secured with the TNA votes?

Wigneswaran did not think so.

Wigneswaran’s attitude certainly created a rift within the TNA, with Sumanthiran taking the charge against the Chief Minister. It would be interesting to see, if the “neutral” Wigneswaran will seek the TNA sponsorship in the next provincial council election or lead his own group. In fact, Wigneswaran presently maintains that he is not a member of the TNA and he does not have to be loyal to the party. The TNA obviously, is struggling to effectively deal with Wigneswaran’s revolt.

Sumanthiran’s Theories

Wigneswaran’s recent politics should have made Sumanthiran’s cause relatively easy. However, the new politician has been making statements that has created resentment against him within the Tamil community. First, Sumanthiran went to Switzerland and claimed that what happened during the last phase of the war, according to internationally accepted definitions, was not “genocide.” It sounded like Sumanthiran was arguing in the International Court of Justice, of course representing the offender.

He also called Wigneswaran’s genocide resolution “foolish.” The Tamils were upset and blamed Sumanthiran for serving the agenda of external forces. Sumanthiran missed the points that the Tamils have been using the term genocide to mean that serious acts of violence were committed on their community and the genocide case will not go to an international court.

Adding to the Tamil frustration, Sumanthiran recently demanded that the NPC pass a resolution calling the Muslim expulsion from the North by the LTTE an act of “ethnic cleansing.” Remarkably, Sumanthiran claimed that if the NPC does not pass such a resolution, the world will not take their claims of genocide, seriously. There are two important factors here. One, Sumanthiran did not explain how an NPC resolution on Muslim expulsion would change the international attitude on the question of genocide. Two, if this is such an easy task, why did he not approach his party to sponsor a resolution in the NPC. After all, the NPC is controlled by the TNA.

Instead, he went public. Obviously, he was taking advantage of the opportunity to criticize Wigneswaran. Sumanthiran is also leading a demand for the ouster of Wigneswaran from the Party. Sumanthiran has been criticized heavily within the Tamil community for his recent attitude and according to reports from the North,even posters have come up against him.

Obviously, there has been a cold-war between the two most prominent next generation leaders of the TNA. Both obviously are leading factions loyal to them while being delegitimized among others. This could lead to an imminent crisis within the TNA, especially in the post-Sambandan era. One has to wait and see how the party will respond to this emerging challenge.

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.

12 thoughts on “Sri Lankan Tamil Politics, Sumanthiran And Wigneswaran – OpEd

  • December 2, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    The comment about Sumanthiran are fabricated and not true. The author pretending to be saying little about Wigneswaran’s faults, totally twists the Sumanthiran’s sands.
    1/ Sumanthiran was the first to ever raise the matter as genocide in Parliament, even before Northern Province comes into existence. He in many high profile meetings held by diaspora, and internal meetings raised this matter as genocide. Only thing that he said otherwise is, we are not ready yet at UNHRC, nor in meetings with countries concerned with human rights to make them accept it as genocide yet. We need to convince at least a few before taking it to UNHRC and to the world in public. Otherwise for example UNHRC may decide it is not genocide, if we press ahead on our own. It is genocide and last UNHRC statement says, we will see once the judicial proceedings begins as with the current resolution. Sumanthiran is the TNA’s official foreign office handler, kind of shadow FM.
    2/ SL foreign minister Mangala Samaraveera informed that it was a genocide (on behalf of SL government), in the same meeting TNA foreign office handler M A Sumanthiran announg it was ethnic cleansing of Tamil-Muslims (chased out of their area). The author of this article delibrately attempting to hide the fact that it is part of ongoing UNHRC guided activities. The author is hiding the important fact that if Tamils are not prepared to resolve the Tamil-Muslim issue in appropriate ways, the Tamil issues will also be delayed at UNHRC. The author may be part of the group who oppose the intervention of UNHRC, who burns American resolutions and works against the resolution. TNA is working with UNHRC, as well as new government is also trying to work with UNHRC in appropriate ways. Denial of the need to resolve Tamil-Muslim issue once and for all is not an agenda of TNA, but the opposition that lost the elections in big way.
    There is no cold-war. The mater was raised by TNA members and sumanthiran raised it internally. Unfortunately, it was leaked by via the opposition-party media and had to be dealt with in public. There is no personnel intent.
    3/ Wigneswaran in coded announcements called the people to vote against TNA. TNA members will not allow him to continue, without continuous protests, which will be severe.

    • December 3, 2015 at 2:08 am

      The content of the article is reasonably even-handed. The author of the article has not said that Wigneswaran is an angel nor is Sumanthiran. Sinnathurai Srivas has not substantiated his assertion that “The comment about Sumanthiran are fabricated and not true…”. Sinnathurai is either a rabid hater of Wigneswaran or an unabashed admirer of Sumanthiran. It will be really bad if he is both.

  • December 2, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Wigneswaran is an upstart in politics. He is an ungrateful and unrepentant politician who has kicked the ladder that he used to climbed to the top. The NPC administration should be controlled by the TNA. But the TNA leadership has allowed Wigneswaran a free hand to run the Council according to his whims and fancies. Wigneswaran’s conduct during the parliamentary elections was despicable. That shows the charactor of the man whose guru is the rapist and murderer Premananda another conman who received two consecutive life sentences and 62 crores fine for raping 13 Thamil orphan girls (3 of them under the age of 16) and murdering a youth who blew the whistle. This is his dark side and Wigneswaran is a wrong example to women. He can never hope to become a leader of the Thamil people even in his next birth. How the TNA is tolerating a Chief Minister who worked against the TNA is a mystery. Only Sumanthiran had the guts to raise the issue during the meeting of the General Committee of ITAK. Others with no backbone were playing safe! On the question of genocide, what Sumanthiran says there is not enough evidence to prove genocide in an international court of law. On the other hand he says genocide took place in Sri Lanka from 1956 onwards. In parliament, he claimed the grabbing of land belonging to the people of Valikamam North is genocide. Incidentally the UNHRC reports by the experts panel headed by Yasmin Sooka and the report by the OISL (the OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka) never mentioned the word genocide in their report. Explaining the reason for the ommission Responding to a question sent by The Hindu in this regard, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the High Commissioner, stated via email: “This [the U.N. report] does not preclude such a finding [that genocide was committed] being made as a result of further criminal investigations, including by the hybrid court that we recommend.”

    “The crime of genocide requires specific objective and subjective elements. On the basis of the information we were able to gather, we did not come to the conclusion that these elements were met,” she said.

    In February, Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution, blaming successive governments in the country of committing “genocide” against Tamils.

    The spokesperson pointed out that given the circumstances in which the investigation was carried out, the OHCHR was able to conduct “a comprehensive investigation”, with over 3,000 written submissions, interviews in 11 countries, photos, videos, and satellite imagery with expert analysis.

    • December 3, 2015 at 3:03 am

      Eelam Tamils have entered a new era. The leadership is sincere and honest – both attributes lacking in other political parties. There is bound to be differences in opinion among the leaders. History will record as to who is right. Thanga’s Wigneswaran bashing is hasty, hollow, personal and unbecoming.

    • December 3, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      These comments have any sense and nothing to do with Premananda. You guys never change after all these disasters. So many years passed but same Tamil politics again. If they do not have points, they talk about person cast or about friendship or family. Come on wake up. Do not waste time. Do something good to the society. Do not spread evil news.

      • December 3, 2015 at 5:50 pm

        Thanga’s character assassination of Wigneswaran by implying his association if any, with a conman, rapist and murder convict was a descent into abject low low. Sumanthiran himself will disapprove this sort of support.

  • December 2, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Unlike in other political parties the stoush between Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran is based on principles and not on corruption – for example on the definition of certain terms. At the end of the civil war there is photographic evidence of a twelve year old captive being shot dead at close range. Was this genocide? The previous Governor of Northern Province made it impossible for Wigneswaran to execute his duties. Sumanthiran did not offer any tangible help to Wigneswaran. Wigneswaran claims to espouse the views of the grassroots. Sumanthiran must find out the feelings of Northern Province Councillors.
    Sumanthiran’s demand that NPC pass a resolution calling the Muslim expultion from the North as an act of ethnic cleansing is purely political. The late Balasingham expressed regret long while ago followed by an apology by Prabhakaran in 2002. Has Sumanthiran forgotten that in June 2007 non-resident (whatever this means) Eelam Tamils were herded in Colombo and trucked to an internment camp in Vavuniya? Was this ethnic cleansing? If so he must demand apology from the new GoSL. The civil war was the result of several pogroms against Eelam Tamils long long before the advent of Eelam Tamil liberation movements. Sumanthiran must demand apology from GoSL.
    To cut a long story short “Sumanthiran is trigger happy to order”.

  • December 2, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    Here we go again! Has nothing been learnt after all these years and mass murders etc. etc
    Reminds one of the old political fights between the TC and the FP. This must please the southern polity no end!

  • December 3, 2015 at 7:56 am

    This is another clear indication that Tamils never learn anything from the past and never going to achieve anything for their own society in the Future. Please do not escalate personal issue. Please do not forget about resolving the Tamil problem after all these sacrifices. When we compare about our sacrifice, Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran power struggle is not an issue at all. We do not know whole story. Sumanthiran is planning to take over TNA leadership; he may think Wigneswaran may be major hurdle for him.
    If you look at the issue clearly, Sumanthiran does not have any leadership skills and do not know how, when and what to talk in front of the public or other foreign official. He is not an able person to handle the most affected Tamil society issue. He is not convinced himself Tamil historical ethnic cleansing. We need a vibrant person who can understand the Tamils problem and talk diplomatically in front of public and the foreign official and carry out the task sue diligently. We have to think about whole society benefit not an individual or party benefit.
    Please stop criticizing Wigneswaran. Tamil problem is not a particular party problem. Please come out from Tamil way of thinking (Mahabaratham) and ask someone to die for the party even that party is doing wrong things. It is thoughtless, empty, very personal and improper for this article. Please think about our Tamil Society in back home. I do not think these provide any benefit to our society. Finally, this issue wasted all of our energy in an unproductive way.

    • December 3, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      John hit the nail on the head “Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran power struggle is not an issue at all” but left a hammer mark on the timber with the criticisms on Sumanthiran. Since independence in 1948, Eelam Tamils have had sincere and honest leaders. Dishonest politicians have been shown the door. TNA is trying their best to wring out as much as possible off a still obdurate GoSL. How much will eventuate? Very unfortunate that an armed struggle was needed to arrive at this position.
      TNA bashers (in particular Wigneswaran bashers) must get out of this phobia.

  • December 5, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Wigneswaran is an elected Representative of the Tamil people of the North while Sumanthiran is an appointed MP on behalf of the TNA. Each has his strength. The crying need of the hour is how to do one’s best on behalf of the Tamil people, not indulge in scoring petty points to no purpose other than bring the plight of the Tamil people down further.They are down anyway. Plainly it seems so stupid and all too mundane!

  • January 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Kailas Pillai is barking at the wrong tree viz Sumanthiran. It is a well known fact that at the last parliamentary election Wigneswaran worked against the TNA and clandestinely appealed to the voters to support the Thamil People National Front(TPNF). This is a treacherous act and a stab in the back of TNA. And an example of someone kicking the ladder that helped him to climb. Without TNA Wigneswaran is nobody. No party will tolerate someone openly and defiantly breaching party discipline. Sumanthiran merely wanted the party (ITAK) to take disciplinary action against Wigneswaran who contested as an ITAK candidate. Someone says Sumanthiran is an appointed MP, probably he has gone to sleep since August. Sumanthiran won handsomely by polling 58,043 preference votes coming third behind Sritharan and Mavai Senathirajah both sitting MPs. Sampanthan now realises that Wigneswaran was a bad choice and the man is a hypocrite. Someone is arguing that Wigneswaran’s personal conduct has no bearing as chief Minister. The fact that he has built a temple for a serial rapist and worship him as an avatar does not matter a we bit? Could someone in similar position survive if it is found out he has sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi asking him to pardon 4 accused persons undergoing life imprisonment in Pulai jail, because the case against them are “false”? When it comes to administering the NPC, Wigneswaran is a total misfit. In 2015 the NPC spent only 38% of the budget as at November 30, 2015. But during December of the same year he spent an additional 45% in one month? Pray what type of administrator is Wigneswaran? So people like Kailas Pillai should not hold a brief to Wigneswaran a moral bankrupt.


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