The Tamil political parties have never demonstrated sufficient unity in the pursuit of a constructive solution to the Tamil question. Alliances were often formed, bringing together Tamil political parties with divergent ideologies under one umbrella. But their political conduct has not resulted in the achievement of their political goals.
It is not just the Tamil political parties but even the alliance formed by the Tamil militants had fizzled out, with the deaths of hundreds of cadres as a result of the rivalries among the Tamil militants.
The first Tamil alliance to be formed was the Tamil United Front (TUF), which later evolved into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a political outfit that shot to fame following the Vaddukoddai Resolution, unanimously adopted at the first convention of the TULF in 1976, which demanded a separate Tamil state.
The first Tamil alliance
The Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) led by late S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by late G.G. Ponnambalam and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) led by late Saumyamoorthy Thondaman formed the constituent partners of the TULF at that time. However, Thondaman broke away from the TULF, declaring that he was not in a position to support the demand for a separate Tamil state as he represented the Tamils of a different identity, hailing from the central hills of Sri Lanka.
Later, following the death of Chelvanayagam, an ITAK stalwart from the Eastern Province, C.Rajathurai, too fell out with the new leadership of the TULF. Leading the TULF at that time was Appapillai Amirthalingam. Rajathurai soon joined the J.R. Jayewardene Government as a Cabinet Minister.
Though the TULF had recorded a massive victory with its campaign for the establishment of an Eelam in the North and East during the 1977 General Elections, a political campaign that also raised the late Amirthalingam to the position of Parliamentary Opposition Leader – and the first Tamil to become so – the younger generation that formed part of his following had already decided on a political course of their own, with a new ideological positioning that was geared towards militancy. It was this generation that sought the power of weapons to pursue their political dream and decided to fight for a separate Tamil homeland.
The extremism embedded in the Tamil political scene emerged soon after the 1977 polls, and Tamil militancy began to take wing, which was followed by the infamous ‘Black July ‘communal riots in 1983.
However, divisions emerged among the Tamil militants as well, though they had a common goal of creating a separate Tamil homeland for themselves.
As the attacks carried out by Tamil militant outfits against the Security Forces increased in the mid ’80s, the late Lalith Athulathmudali who handled the Defence portfolio for the Jayewardene administration, had once famously remarked that it was fortunate for the Sri Lankan Government to have serious divisions amongst Tamil militants, given that, had they been united, they (Tamil militants) would have been able to reach their goal of creating a separate state without much difficulty.
The Tamil militants had even formed an alliance in the mid ’80s, following the political discussions with the Sri Lankan Government, held in the hilly capital of Bhutan, Thimpu – a political process that was initiated by India.
A coalition of militant outfits
The alliance of the Tamil militants at that time was known as the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF), and the militant outfits represented by ENLF during the talks were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and the Eelam Revolutionary Organization Students (EROS).
Soon after it was taken, a famous photograph of the leaders of the respective Tamil militant outfits – V. Prabhakaran, K. Pathmanabha, Sri Sabaratnam and V. Balakumar – holding hands, to show the formation of the alliance, was published prominently in the media.
However, this alliance of the militants was short-lived. By then, the LTTE had sought to establish its supremacy and had not only wiped out the cadres of both TELO and the EPRLF but also their leaders – Sri Sabaratnam and K. Pathmanabha – who were gunned down brutally by the LTTE.
The only member in that famous picture of the ENLF alliance to survive was EROS Leader, V.Balakumar. He was also one of the persons who were initially listed as having surrendered to the Security Forces and later reported missing, when the war finally came to an end in 2009.
Ever since Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, the Tamil political leadership had been clamouring for equal rights and the recognition of their ethno- political identity.
However, neither the Tamil leaders nor their parties had ever shown a united front in the pursuit of securing the political rights for the Tamil community since the time when Tamils began agitating for the recognition of their political rights.
Most of the Tamil leaders from yesteryear belonged to the legal fraternity. It had often been said, that they were carrying out the Tamil struggle with one leg in Hulftsdorp and the other in the Sri Lankan Parliament.
These leaders were shrewd enough to enjoy the best of both worlds – as highly respected politicians representing the North and also as eminent lawyers practicing in the South, while making their political manipulations. Despite Tamil political leaders such as late G.G. Ponnambalam, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and M. Thiruchelvam expressing their solidarity with the TULF, it was too late. The three leaders did not live long enough to provide the correct leadership or the required guidance.
History repeating itself
History repeated itself when a crucial meeting was held last Saturday (11) in Mannar, headed by the Mannar Catholic Bishop, Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph. The meeting was convened for the purpose of reaching a consensus among constituent partners, represented in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
The TNA was formed in 2001, with the blessings of the LTTE, when the outfit began engaging in peace talks with the Colombo Government, facilitated by Norway.
The former Tamil militant outfits excluding the party headed by Minister Douglas Devananda – the EPDP – along with the TULF, came together to form the TNA. Several TULF stalwarts such as R.Sampanthan and V. Anadasangaree who were at one time on the LTTE hit list had grown closer to the outfit, through the close association of LTTE’s political wing leader at that time, S.P. Tamilselvan.
However, TULF Leader,
V. Anandasangaree, kept away from the LTTE backed TNA following serious differences in ideology, claiming that he was unable to express his views independently. He remained the General Secretary of the TULF.
The TNA since its formation had remained politically stable, winning the majority of seats at the Parliamentary elections and at the local elections in the North and East that followed.
Nevertheless, the TNA had turned out to be a shaky alliance, following the annihilation of the LTTE. The ITAK headed by R. Sampanthan is the premier constituent partner of the five-party alliance and the other political parties such as the EPRLF, PLOTE, TELO and the TULF are insisting that the TNA should register as a political party in order to gain equal importance for all constituent parties and to prepare for success during future hustings.
The ITAK’s old guard is of the view that being too flexible within the alliance might cause it to lose its grip over the alliance, as the premier constituent party.
As the proposed Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls draw closer, the civil society in the North feel that the TNA should not suffer a setback during the Northern polls, similar to the humiliating defeat it suffered during the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) election
This compelled the Mannar Catholic Bishop, Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph, to take some steps to help stabilize the TNA, and to make the alliance a single strong party. This effort appears to have failed as the ITAK led by R. Sampanthan, appears to have misgivings about registering the TNA as a political party, especially in the light that such a move might diminish the importance of the ITAK as a political outfit.
Though the allies have failed in registering the alliance as a political party, it was agreed at the Mannar Bishop’s meeting to work together towards ensuring a convincing victory at the forthcoming NPC polls.
As the Mannar Bishop has called for another meeting with the TNA on 8 June, mostly aimed at dispute resolution to achieve a much higher political goal, the absence of unity among the constituent parties within the alliance is indicative of a greater malady – that even after experiencing severe setbacks and immense loss of lives, the Tamil polity is still unable to learn lessons from the past and to build on those lessons.