How and why the TNA was formed twenty years ago
23 October 2021
The formation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was signed by R. Sampanthan (TULF), N. Kumarakuruparan (ACTC) N. Srikantha (TELO) and K. Premachandran (EPRLF)
Nevertheless, the TNA has continued to remain the chief political representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils by consistently winning the most number of seats in the Tamil inhabited areas of the North and East in elections
When the TNA was formed in 2001, four political parties were its constituent members. They were the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF)
Currently, the TNA is experiencing turmoil between the constituent parties on one hand and within the chief constituent on the other. There is inter-tension among the three constituents with the TELO and PLOTE ganging up against the ITAK
The origins of the Tamil National Alliance lie in the East. The factor that triggered it off was the October 10, 2000 Parliamentary election. The results in the North-East sent shock waves to the Tamils in general and some Tamil parties in particular
When the 2001 election campaign got underway the LTTE did not openly support the TNA. The main reason for this was that the LTTE too was uncomfortable about this new development. The tigers believed that an armed struggle was the only way to liberate the Tamil people and ruled out the parliamentary path
D. B. S. Jeyaraj
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is now twenty years of age. The premier political configuration of the Tamil people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka came into being on October 22, 2001, a few weeks ahead of the 2001 December Parliamentary Election. Much water has flown down on either side of the Elephant Pass Isthmus since then.
Nevertheless, the TNA has continued to remain the chief political representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils by consistently winning the most number of seats in the Tamil inhabited areas of the North and East in elections. The TNA has been getting a bloc of MP seats numbering double digits in the Parliamentary polls of 2001, 2004, 2010, 2015 and 2020. It also got the highest number of Tamil representatives in the Eastern Provincial Council Election of 2012 and Northern provincial council poll of 2013. Besides these successes, the TNA also came “first” in over 40 Local authorities in the North-East at the 2018 local elections.
The TNA of 2021 is not the TNA of 2001. When the TNA was formed in 2001, four political parties were its constituent members. They were the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). Of these, the Tamil Congress and EPRLF are no more with the TNA. The TULF too underwent a transformation. The TULF president Veerasingham Anandasangaree was “expelled” from the TNA at the behest of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sangaree fought back through legal means and retained control of the TULF. Thereafter the bulk of the TULF membership re-configured itself into the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) while Anandasangaree remained at the head of the much depleted TULF.
The ITAK known as the Federal Party (FP) in English, had been the chief constituent of the TULF since 1976. The TNA in 2001 had contested under the Sun symbol of the TULF. From 2004 onwards it has been contesting under the House symbol of the ITAK. Currently, the TNA has three-member parties namely the ITK, TELO and the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). The TNA in the present Parliament has ten MP’s from the Jaffna, Wanni, Trincomalee, Amparai and Batticaloa Districts. Of these 10 MP’s, six are from the ITAK, three from the TELO and one from the PLOTE.
Currently, the TNA is experiencing turmoil between the constituent parties on the one hand and within the chief constituent on the other. There is inter-tension among the three constituents with the TELO and PLOTE ganging up against the ITAK. There is also intra-tension within the Chief TN constituent the ITAK/FP. The TNA’s political adversaries and rivals along with sections of the media seem to opine that the TNA internal dissension would spill over into open rupture after 20 years of existence. If these dire forebodings of doom were to come true the 20th anniversary of the TNA is very likely to be its last” united” celebration. Other schools of thought disagree, saying these perceived rifts are nothing new and that such fault lines have been visible from the TNA’s inception.
However, there seems to be broad agreement in knowledgeable Tamil circles that the TNA in general and its chief constituent the ITAK in particular need an urgent course correction to meet internal and external challenges.
It is against this backdrop that this column focuses on the TNA this week. I have already written extensively about matters concerning the TNA because it is the foremost political representative of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka’s North and East. I intend writing – with the aid of my previous compilations – a series of articles intermittently about the evolution and growth of the TNA. Contrary to popular belief the TNA at the beginning was not a tiger creation. It was formed independently with cautious indirect backing by the LTTE. Thereafter the LTTE took it over and controlled it. This article will therefore denote the TNA’s 20th birthday by relating how the TNA was formed on October 22, 2001.
2010 Election Results
The origins of the Tamil National Alliance lie in the East. The factor that triggered it off was the October 10, 2000 Parliamentary election. The results in the North-East sent shock waves to the Tamils in general and some Tamil parties in particular. No Tamil was elected in the politically sensitive Trincomalee District. In Batticaloa, only two Tamils from the TULF were elected. Another Tamil won from the ruling People’s Alliance (PA). In Amparai District a Tamil Independent backed by the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) was elected.
The Wanni District with six seats saw Two Sinhala (from PA and UNP) and one Muslim Congress MP being elected. Three Tamil MP’s from the TELO and one from the PLOTE were elected. Jaffna which had nine seats in those days saw the EPDP getting four including the bonus seat. The TULF got three. The Tamil Congress got one. The United National Party (UNP) got one.
No Tamil party got enough votes entitling it to a national list seat. 2000 saw the Tamils being underrepresented in the North-East. Moreover, Sinhala dominated National parties and Tamil parties like the Government affiliated EPDP had done well. One reason for the non-governmental Tamil political party debacle was disunity, fragmentation of Tamil votes and the lack of an imaginative or inspiring political agenda.
Eastern University Seminar
The seriousness of the situation was acutely felt in the ethnically heterogenous East rather than the near homogenous North. A seminar analysing the situation was held at the Eastern University. It was chaired by former “Daily Mirror” columnist Dharmalingam Sivaram alias Taraki. Several academics, journalists, teachers, professionals, social workers, undergraduates and political representatives participated.
It was resolved at this conference that the different Tamil political parties in the opposition should unite under an umbrella organisation to prevent fragmentation of votes. It was also felt that such an organisation should be broadly supportive of the LTTE. It was also decided that the LTTE’s approval for the move be obtained. A steering committee consisting mainly of journalists, academics and social activists with three joint chairs was formed to coordinate the implementation of this task.
This formidable consisted of three aspects. Firstly the approval and implicit support of the LTTE. This required guarantees of safety and security by the LTTE that it would not assassinate Tamil politicians in the opposition. In return, these Tamil parties had to acknowledge the pre-eminence of the LTTE and endorse it as the sole representative of the Tamils in any negotiations.
Secondly, the political parties with a militant history like the EPRLF, PLOTE and TELO had to declare that they would lay down arms and not collaborate with the state in hunting the LTTE. They also had to sever links with para-military outfits linked to them like the Razeek group (EPRLF) Mohan group (PLOTE) and Ranjan group (TELO). All three were active in the East.
Thirdly the non-militant parties like the TULF and Tamil Congress had to agree to work together in a common front with the ex-militant groups. Both parties were reluctant as they felt the ex-militant groups hands were tainted with blood. Besides the TULF stood for an “unarmed democracy”. There was also the long, embittered history of rivalry between the Tamil Congress and the FP-TULF.
The TULF was Wary
The TULF was also wary because of its 1989 experience. Pressure by New Delhi had resulted in militant organisations like the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), TELO and EPRLF contesting under the aegis of the TULF sun symbol along with TULF candidates. However, none of the original TULF candidates won. Only Appapillai Amirthalingam got in through the national list (he had contested and lost in Batticaloa).
The LTTE in the Wanni was not directly involved in the negotiating process. But Karikalan the former tiger political commissar for Batticaloa-Amparai was supportive and indirectly involved. Even as the talks were on the LTTE assassinated “Robert” the TELO head of Aarayampathy Pradeshiya Sabha (this Robert is different to the EPRLF “Robert” killed by the LTTE in Jaffna in 2002). The assassination was a major setback as the TELO wanted to pull out of unity talks as a result.
The committee however persisted in its efforts and appealed to the LTTE’s military leadership of the East. The eastern regional military commander then was none other than Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias “Col” Karuna. The LTTE “explained” the assassination as a “mistake” due to a communication gap between the intelligence division and the political wing.
Subsequently, leading personalities from the TELO and EPRLF met with Karikalan in secret and discussed matters. Assurances were obtained. Likewise, some TULF personalities also met with LTTE leaders and had discussions.
There were two hitches. The PLOTE led by Dharmalingam Siddharthan was willing for unity but the PLOTE cadres in Vavuniya (PLOTE stronghold) were unwilling to align with the TELO (also influential in Vavuniya). Likewise, the TELO hierarchy was also reluctant to unite with the PLOTE as it feared erosion of support in the Wanni. Finally, the PLOTE or its political party the Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF) opted out.
The second was the long-standing antipathy of the Tamil Congress towards the Federal Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi) and its successor the TULF. The Tamil Congress wanted all parties to unite under the Tamil Congress symbol of cycle and contest instead of the TULF’s sun.
Dr Yogalakshmi Ponnambalam was then the dominant personality in the Tamil Congress as her husband Kumar Ponnambalam had been killed in January 2000. After protracted discussions held at her residence, she consented to unite and contest under the sun symbol. Similarly, some stalwarts in the TULF were also reluctant to unite with the Congress and other ex-militant groups but gradually they were won over or reduced to silence.
At the penultimate stages of negotiations, the LTTE in the Wanni got directly involved. Some leaders of the TULF, Tamil Congress, TELO and EPRLF were contacted by telephone and urged to unite and contest under the TULF “Sun” symbol. The LTTE factor galvanised the negotiating parties into concluding talks successfully.
A working agreement among the TULF, ACTC, EPRLF and TELO was reached to form a coalition known as the “Thamizh Thesieeya Kootamaippu” or Tamil National Alliance. The TNA would contest under the TULF “sun” symbol. A scheme apportioning candidates to each party in the different electoral districts was also agreed upon. The formation of the Tamil National Alliance was announced through a press communiqué dated October 22, 2001.
The TNA was born!
The press communiqué issued on October 22, 2001, heralding the formation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was signed by four persons representing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), (ACTC, TELO) and EPRLF. They were R. Sampanthan (TULF), N. Kumarakuruparan (ACTC) N. Srikantha (TELO) and K. Premachandran (EPRLF). The press statement had four salient points that more or less amounted to “articles of association” for the TNA.
The first was about how places on candidate lists were to be allocated to each of the four parties in a Parliamentary General election. The arrangement was as follows:
Jaffna-TULF – 7; ACTC – 3; TELO – 1; EPRLF – 1
Wanni-TULF – 3; ACTC – 1: TELO – 4: EPRLF – 1
Batticaloa-TULF – 5: ACTC – 1: TELO – 2 ; EPRLF – 1
Trincomalee-TULF – 3: ACTC – 1: TELO – 2: EPRLF – 0
Amparai-TULF – 5: ACTC – 1; TELO – 1: EPRLF – 0
The second point was about nominations as national list MP’s. The order of priority was TULF, ACTC, TELO and EPRLF. If the TNA was entitled to a national list MP in terms of votes received it would first go to the TULF nominee. If entitled to a second MP it would be for the ACTC nominee.
The third point was that the constituent parties should refrain from attacking or criticising each other publicly. Special care should be taken during the election campaign about not engaging in propaganda or counter-propaganda against a fellow TNA constituent.
The fourth point was about intra-TNA disputes and problems. If and when such issues occurred the TNA constituents should discuss the matter among themselves in a peaceful way and arrive at an amicable solution through a majority vote. If that was not possible the services of an outside facilitator panel should be enlisted to help resolve the issue.
The facilitator panel or “anusaranaialarkuzhu” comprised the following six members:
2. Kanthiah Neelakandan
4. Nimalan Karthikeyan
5. S. Thiyagarajah
6. K. Jeyabalasingham
The facilitators were respected members of the Tamil community primarily based in Colombo. They were mainly professionals or successful commercial entrepreneurs. With the exception of S. Thiyagarajah who was then the treasurer of the TULF, they did not belong to any political party.
Baptism of Fire
It was under such circumstances that the TNA was born. It was loosely formed without a party constitution or structure. The newly formed alliance had its baptism of fire when Parliamentary elections were held on December 5, 2001. The TNA in its manifesto urged a negotiated settlement of the ethnic conflict and emphasised that the LTTE would represent the Tamil people at such talks.
When the 2001 election campaign got underway the LTTE did not openly support the TNA. The main reason for this was that the LTTE too was uncomfortable about this new development. The tigers believed that an armed struggle was the only way to liberate the Tamil people and ruled out the parliamentary path. The LTTE had for years criticised representative democracy and accused many elected Tamil representatives of being traitors. The tigers had assassinated several prominent Tamil MP’s in the past. Now for the first time, the LTTE was indirectly supporting a Tamil political grouping at an election. This to its hierarchy was a tremendous loss of face.
That was one reason the leadership based in the Wanni allowed its eastern political commissar Karikalan to do the spadework. The Wanni leadership came in only at the penultimate stages to merely assure the TNA constituents that they did not oppose the move. This reluctance to identify themselves with parliamentary democracy in any mode was the reason for the LTTE to “outsource” the task of forging a Tamil alliance to a core group consisting mainly of journalists and academics in the Batticaloa District.
It is relevant to note that several of these journalists and academics who played a part in forming the TNA were killed later by para-military forces aligned to the intelligence apparatus of the state. Some were killed during the fratricidal warfare between the mainstream LTTE and the breakaway faction led by the Karuna-Pillaiyan combine. A few journalists involved later contested on behalf of the TNA and became MP’s. But many journalists and academic participants of the TNA forming exercise were compelled to flee the country and seek refuge abroad in later years.
The tigers were touchy about another matter also. Having been used to order the Tamil people and get things done the LTTE was uncomfortable about an election where people had to be persuaded or convinced into extending support as opposed to doing so as commanded.
If the LTTE were to support the TNA openly and the Tamils did not vote accordingly that would reflect badly upon the LTTE. Moreover, there was also the tiger tendency of viewing only itself as the authentic representatives of the Tamil people. The LTTE was not prepared to “share” this status with any other body at that juncture. It must be recalled that the LTTE too was suspicious about the TNA. What if some TNA members crossed over or turned against the tigers after getting elected?
2001 Election Campaign
Thus the 2001 election campaign was conducted without overt LTTE participation. The tigers also refused to let TNA candidates conduct election propaganda meetings in areas controlled by it. But the LTTE did not block Tamil voters in regions controlled by it from voting. They were allowed to vote in cluster booths set up in “border” areas.
The greatest benefit for the TNA candidates was that they could campaign without fear of violence from the LTTE. But this time the perceived danger was from the EPDP in the north. EPDP supremo Douglas Devananda identified the TNA as a big political threat to his dream of becoming the sole alternative to the LTTE’s sole representative.TNA candidates were attacked when they engaged in election propaganda in EPDP strongholds.
When the 2001 election results were announced the TNA contesting under the sun symbol of the TULF had done well.
In Jaffna, the TNA got six of the nine seats. Anandasangaree, Senathirajah, Raviraj (TULF) Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, Vinayagamoorthy (ACTC) and M. K. Sivajilingam (TELO) were elected on behalf of the TNA. The EPDP got two seats inclusive of Devananda and Maheswaran of the UNP also won. In the Wanni, the TNA got three of the six seats. Adaikkalanathan (Selvam) Raja. Kuhaneswaran (TELO) and Sivasakthi Anandan (EPRLF) were elected on behalf of the TNA.
In the East, R. Sambanthan was elected in the Trincomalee District. Chandranehru Ariyanayagam won in the Amparai (Digamadulla) District. Both were from the TULF. In Batticaloa, the TNA got three seats. Thangavadivel alias “London Murugan’ (TELO) Krishnapillai alias “Vellimalai” (ACTC) and Joseph Pararjasingham (TULF) were elected. On the strength of votes received the TNA was also entitled to a national list seat. Veteran politician and president of the TULF Murugesu Sivasithamparam was nominated.
The TNA under the TULF label had fourteen elected and one appointed MP in 2001. Of these fifteen the TULF had seven, TELO had four, ACTC had three and the EPRLF one. The “unity” of these Tamil parties seemed to have reaped political dividends in the 2001 Parliamentary poll.
However, the TNA due to internal rivalry on one hand and the hegemonistic designs of the LTTE on the other lost all its self–respect and let the tiger jackboot walk all over it. So much so that Douglas Devananda was to describe the TNA derisively as Tiger Nominated Agents. How and why this situation came about would be delved into in detail in intermittently forthcoming articles.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org