By D.B.S. JEYARAJ
Veteran Tamil Politician Veerasingham Anandasangaree reaches the age of eighty today (June 15th). Sangaree as he is generally known was born on June 15th. 1933 in Point Pedro. Though not in Parliament now, the octogenarian is yet active in politics and functions as the Secretary-General of the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF).Earlier he was the TULF president.
The TULF which swept the polls on a separatist platform in 1977 and won 18 of the 19 Tamil majority seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is now a shadow of its former self. Sangaree himself remains in the news still , but has declined considerably in political importance.The vibrant leader known for his independence and outspokenness has now joined the configuration called Tamil National Alliance(TNA) in the larger interests of the Tamil people to broad base Tamil unity. I doubt however, the irrepressible Anandasangaree would remain within TNA folds for long in view of the audible rumblings of discontent over alleged hegemonic domination by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK).
Sangaree himself has been expressing his frustration and dissatisfaction publicly on numerous occasions. His speeches at several events organised under the aegis of the TNA have been critical of the conduct of the prevailing TNA hierarchy. He also speaks in similar vein to media organs if and when interviewed. Recently he left the “unity” meeting convened by the Catholic Bishop Joseph Rayappu in Mannar and told press persons he was walking out, as he was dissatisfied with what was being discussed or not discussed. His latest outburst was a two part public letter to ITAK General secretary Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Mavai” Senathirajah rebuking the Jaffna district MP for a purported statement criticising Sangaree.
All these flashpoints of tension are indicative of the simmering tension within the TNA. In Sangaree’s case he feels that the TNA hierarchy is not treating him with the respect and position he deserves. After all Sangaree entered Parliament in 1970 while Rajavarothayam Sampanthan was elected seven years later. It is indeed well known that Sangaree was treated shabbily and let down badly by his erstwhile party colleagues when the then TULF president stood up to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Nevertheless the man opted to join forces with his estranged comrades to maintain greater Tamil unity.
In Sangaree’s self –perception his opting to join the TNA grouping was a magnanimous decision deserving appreciation. Furthermore he feels it should be lauded because he has spurned attractive offers by President Rajapaksa and instead threw in his lot with his people and the Tamil cause. Both Mahinda and Sangaree entered Parliament together in 1970 and have a long personal relationship transcending political differences.
Sangaree however does not find his act of rejecting Government offers and remaining in the opposition being welcomed in the right spirit by the TNA hierarchy. He sees himself as being treated as a poor relative denied a chair at the high table. This is devaluing Sangaree politically. Illustrative of this mindset is the statement made by him recently. Anandasangaree said, when the TULF was functioning independently, visiting political dignitaries and diplomats made it a point to meet him. But now after he joined the TNA he is no longer met by them as head of an independent party. The unkindest cut is that despite his political seniority, Sangaree is not included in TNA delegations also. He thus feels left out in the cold.
When Anandasangaree was elected unanimously as president of the TULF in June 2002 before the TNA being formed, I wrote an article in “The Sunday Leader” titled “Former Trotskyite now leads the TULF”. I ended the article with the following paragraph – “Anandasangaree takes over the TULF reins at a critical phase in the island’s politics. His party itself has accepted the overall dominance of the LTTE. Given Sangaree’s fiery independent streak it is very likely that the TULF while backing the LTTE politically would also try and retain some functional autonomy. That however depends on the extent to which his party colleagues will cooperate with him. If such enlightened unity and support is not rendered the ex-Trotskyite may very well be presiding over the Swansong of the TULF”.
What I referred to in that article was proven true subsequently. Sangaree fell foul of the LTTE for trying to uphold the independence and dignity of the TULF. His colleagues let him down and hitched their wagon to the LTTE star. The original TULF became a caricature of its former self. It is alive currently only because Sangaree is alive and after he is no more the party too would be no more. The rest of the TULF transformed into the TNA for a while and was recently reborn as an ITAK avatar.
The ITAK is the dominant entity enjoying pre-eminence in the TNA. Not only Sangaree but other party leaders in the TNA are also dissatisfied with this state of affairs.
They want to register and re-establish the TNA as an alliance where each party would enjoy equal status. In short a bunch of dwarfs want a giant to crouch down and be on par with them. But I do not think the ITAK is likely to oblige and I do not blame the party for that is the nature of politics and the pursuit of political power.
In the case of Anandasangaree vis- a- vis the TNA there is another dimension too. It was the issue of subservience to the LTTE which resulted in the parting of the ways for Sangaree and his former party. Thereafter the party acting on orders of the LTTE expelled Sangaree in an act described as “dead corpses walking” by the UTHR (J). But Sangaree to his credit did not cave in meekly. He fought against his expulsion in courts and also to retain control of the party. Finally Sangaree was the victor in the legal battle.
Moreover Anandasangaree did not roll over and play dead when the LTTE intimidated him. He remained politically active and continued to criticise the LTTE . He wrote numerous public letters to LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran advising him to change his ways, stop the war and go in for a negotiated settlement. This was indeed a rare occurrence in Tamil politics as very few Tamil nationalist leaders with a democratic political background and roots did so.(Douglas,Karuna,Pillayan etc are former armed militants). Sangaree earned the respect and admiration of many including a very large segment of the majority community by this action.
Ultimately Sangaree was proven right. The LTTE was defeated militarily. Prabhakaran dragged the Tamil people down with him and has caused irredeemable harm. The political mantle once again acquired a democratic form after the Tamil National Alliance began contesting elections and winning without being propped up by the LTTE.
But the problem here is that the impact and influence of “tigersim” (to borrow a description made famous by Ram Manikkalingam) lingers on still even in the absence of the LTTE on the Island. The LTTE structures abroad are yet active and the Global Tamil Diaspora exerts much influence over mainstream Tamil politicians and media in the Island.
What is increasingly discernible against this backdrop is a marked reluctance by Tamil political leaders and opinion makers to acknowledge the destructive role played by the LTTE in worsening the tragic Tamil plight in Sri Lanka. Instead of an honest introspective self-appraisal the emphasis is on laying the blame elsewhere. The negativity of the LTTE is ignored, overlooked or glossed over.
In such a context the position of Anandasangaree is akin to that of being a prophet not recognised in his own country. What Sangaree warned about the LTTE and the Tamil people has come true but the Tamil political elements who played second fiddle to the LTTE are unwilling to even grudgingly accept that. Instead of admitting their guilt and praising Sangaree for his courage in speaking truth to the LTTE when tiger power was at its zenith, these politicians and so called media personnel, resent the fact that Sangaree was right and they were wrong. There would never be proper admission and appreciation of his historic role in standing up to the LTTE as by doing so they would only be exposing their own deficiencies and shortcomings. Hence the step-motherly treatment towards Sangaree!
Sadly by joining the TNA for the sake of broader Tamil unity, Sangaree has somewhat tarnished his image amidst general public opinion. Anandasangaree with his leftist origins and democratic credentials enjoyed much popularity and acclaim among most decent people with interest and insight into the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. Anandasangaree’s defiance of the LTTE in this respect was an act admired widely. The UNESCO award bestowed upon him illustrates this. In 2006 Sangaree was the recipient of the UNESCP- Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of Tolerance and Non-violence. Among other distinguished winners are Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.
Even more important than the international honour was the regard and respect he earned among the Sinhala community. Lakshman Kadirgamar was part of the Government without a Tamil political history. Anandasangaree however was steeped in Tamil nationalist politics. Here was a Tamil political leader from a mainstream Tamil political party daring to criticise the tigers at a time when most of his colleagues were mortgaging their body and soul to the LTTE in return for a mess of pottage. Such a phenomenon was indeed dazzling and Sangaree had the trust and affection of many Sinhalese. Some even wanted to make him Governor of the North or East at one time but Sangaree was not so inclined.
His critics within the Tamil polity accused him of being a political stooge of Mahinda Rajapaksa but Sangaree with the courage of his convictions continued upon his chosen course undeterred. He retained his independence and never toed the Government line although it was necessary to avail of state protection because of the tiger threat. Had not Sangaree been given protection he could have been killed by the tigers long ago. Anandasangaree proved his critics wrong after the fall of the LTTE. Instead of singing hosannahs to the victors and seeking rewards from the government the man remained with the opposition pointing out the shortcomings and blunders made by President Rajapaksa in dealing with reconciliation issues.
Being critical of the Rajapaksa regime was acceptable but teaming up with the TNA was unacceptable for mainstream majority public opinion. The conduct of the TNA leaves much to be desired. The party is yet to officially condemn the LTTE for its role in restraining civilians from leaving tiger controlled territory holding them as virtual hostages. Individually many prominent TNA leaders are aligned to Diaspora Tamil organisations linked to the LTTE and indulge in provocative rhetoric. In such a situation many Sinhala admirers of Sangaree are troubled and saddened by his joining the TNA. They cannot comprehend how a man who valiantly combated the LTTE bravely can now throw in his lot with perceived tiger lackeys and stooges who treated him so nastily at the behest of their masters.
There is some validity in this disappointment as the historic role played by Sangaree in defying the tigers cannot be discounted or underestimated. Anandasangaree’s contribution in this regard is of two phases. The first was the one from the early nineties of the 20th century to the early years of the 21st century. This was the time when he functioned as senior Vice President of the TULF and provided yeoman service in keeping the party ticking in the face of several leaders being killed by the LTTE. The second phase is the one where he was President of the TULF and fought against overwhelming odds by defying the LTTE till its defeat in May 2009.These phases are the finest hours in Sangaree’s political life.
Anandasangaree was a lonely man during these phases. This was not the loneliness of being at the top but the loneliness brought about by adhering to one’s principles and advocating unpopular causes. There were no mobs to cheer him or garland him. There were no peddlers of influence around him. There was always some Tamil media organ or website attacking him. Privately many would admit that the man was right and admire his courage but publicly they would remain silent at best and abusive at worst.
Those travelling along this straight but narrow path are almost always lonely. They only have the courage of their convictions and the understanding of a few to sustain them. This writer understood Sangaree’s situation well because he too has in his own way experienced it in the past and is experiencing it in the present and will experience it in the future too. It is this sense of empathy which led me to support Sangaree through my writings at a time when he was fighting a heroic battle against a LTTE instigated intra – party attempt to de-throne him.
As stated before at a time when the TULF was under grave threat from the LTTE it was Sangaree who rallied the party around and provided moral strength to withstand the pressure. He planted himself in Jaffna and masterminded the Jaffna Municipal poll campaign in 1998. It was this success which helped the TULF restore lost prestige and regain a firm footing in Jaffna politics again.
Then the LTTE killed two TULF mayors and a mayoral aspirant. Again it was Sangaree who held the party together and kept running the Jaffna municipality with the help of his erstwhile protegee Nadarajah Raviraj as acting mayor. If Raviraj had declined the mayoralty or been killed then Sangaree was prepared to become Jaffna mayor himself and defy LTTE diktat then.
I was also witness to another incident in Toronto in 2000 which illustrated the man’s courage and dedication to the party. Sangaree was in Canada when elections to Parliament were announced in Sri Lanka. He was preparing to return and take charge of the election campaign. This was a time when the TNA had not been formed and the TULF faced danger from both the LTTE and EPDP. His daughter was pleading with him not to go back but stay on in Canada. Sangaree refused but kept on repeating “Whatever the danger I must face it. If we dont contest that is the end of our party”.
Yet the very same TULF which owed its current preservation to this man’s courage and dedication turned against him when the LTTE wanted him out. When Sangaree was fighting a lone battle against those who wanted him out at the behest of the LTTE there was no media support for him. Many newspapers ignored this man then. I think they did not fully comprehend what was going on.
It was at this time that I supported Sangaree and gave much publicity to his struggle within the party. This was not due to my personal relationship with him alone. In fact I had many, many close friends in the TULF with whom I became alienated because of my support to Sangaree. My stance was due to two reasons. One was that I felt he was right in standing up to the LTTE. The other was that I felt his colleagues had treated him shamefully and that as an underdog he had to be supported.
Sangaree’s problems with the LTTE began because he stood up for the party and discouraged the tigers from interfering too much in TULF matters. When Anton Balasingham made insulting remarks about the TULF it was Sangaree then in Canada who issued an effective rejoinder. The TULF rank and file was overjoyed by Sangaree’s defiance. The late Raviraj stated publicly at the TULF meeting that it was Sangaree who salvaged the self respect of the party. This was the beginning of the dispute between the LTTE and Sangaree. Yet when the LTTE exerted pressure the TULF bigwigs shamelessly threw Sangaree to the wolves or in this case the tigers. Some of these bigwigs are the ones who are meting out humiliating treatment to Sangaree now.
If Sangaree’s valiant fight within the TULF was a courageous feat the man displayed a rare fighting ability and tenacity after his electoral defeat in 2004. Instead of slinking into political oblivion with tail tucked between hind legs or going out to pasture with his children in Britain, Canada or Denmark Anandasangaree chose to remain in Colombo and fight it out. Instead of keeping mum or adopting the path of least resistance, Sangaree opted to take the bull by its horns or the tiger by its jaws.
Sangaree has always been a brave fighter. Contesting as a 26 year old man from Jaffna against UNP Colombo Mayor VA Sugathadasa in 1959.Parachuting as an unknown outsider into the unknown Kilinochchi in 1960 as LSSP candidate. Going against his two Tamil Congress parliamentary colleagues and voting against the 1972 Constitution. Combating the “powerful” campaign of SLFP Tamil Cabinet Minister Chelliah Kumarasuriar at Kilinochchi in 1977. Engaging in bitter acrimony with fellow TULF members over his demand to carve out Kilinochchi as a separate district from that of Jaffna. Defying the LTTE during Jaffna municipal elections and its aftermath. Resisting his ouster from TULF boldly instead of caving in to tiger pressure etc are all indicators of Sangaree’s courage and determination.
His finest hours however were during his septuagenarian years. Sangaree struggled to keep the party alive amidst great adversity. He sold his jeep and some other personal assets to keep the party afloat. Some loyal TULF members, supporters and personal admirers chipped in to provide additional finances. He also fought many legal battles relating to politics.
What was remarkable about the man was his dogged determination to articulate his viewpoint and advocate a negotiated settlement to the ethnic crisis on federal lines. While there were many voices within the Tamil nationalist spectrum and among the human rights community to condemn the state and its minions, there were comparatively few voices amidst Tamils who criticise the LTTE. The tiger was a holy cow for most Tamils and few Tamils dared to differ, let alone criticise it. It became in the words of famed Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy the “Pesaap Porul” or unspeakable theme.
But not for Sangaree. He waded into those dangerous waters without hesitation. He was branded traitor and a knave, and as a man who sold out and as one who has sold his soul etc. Yet he firmly stood his ground continuing to do what he thought was right. By doing so he touched upon many issues that were “untouchable” among Tamil political and media circles. Sangaree also succeeded in giving voice to the unexpressed sentiments of the silenced Tamil majority . He was often the voice of the voiceless Tamils.
His abhorrence of war and espousal of non – violence stemmed very much from very personal loss, suffering and pain. Sangaree has lost many relatives to political violence and terror. His elder brother Rajasangaree was the chairman of Chavakachcheri Citizens committee during the Indian Army period. Rajasangaree spoke out against Indian army atrocities and was killed by the EPRLF on Oct 26th 1987.
Anandasangaree’s younger brother Gnanasangaree was killed in Kilinochchi by the LTTE for criticising the tigers publicly. This happened on Feb 10th 1988. Two of Gnanasangaree’s sons spoke out publicly against their father’s killing. They were taken away by the tigers for questioning. They never returned home.
Another brother Ganeshasangaree’s son was Yogasangaree. This nephew of Anandasangaree was elected as an EPRLF member of Parliament for Jaffna district in 1989. On June 19th 1990 Yogasangaree was in Madras for an EPRLF meeting at Kodambakkam with Secretary – General Padmanabha. LTTE assassins suddenly entered and sprayed the hall with machine gun fire. Fourteen including Padmanabha and Yogasangaree died.
On July 7th. 2005 Islamic “terrorists” set off human bomb explosions in subway trains and a surface bus. One of those killed was a young girl of Sri Lankan origin. She was Sayanuja the daughter of another brother of Anandasangaree named Parathasangaree.
So when Anandasangaree spoke out against war and political violence and talked of a negotiated settlement and peaceful co-existence he was speaking from the heart. Despite the overwhelming odds he has remained steadfast to his political mission. In that sense the past years where he resisted the LTTE is perhaps the best and most productive period of his life. The LTTE and its minions may have slandered and condemned him as a traitor but all right thinking people with a proper understanding of what was going on in Sri Lanka would have had only praise for this man’s dedication and courage.
That is exactly why his current political stance has disappointed and disillusioned many. Even though he could have gained much by joining forces with President Rajapaksa he did not do so and remained independent. But for reasons that are understable from his point of view Sangaree has fallen into the company of his erstwhile political fellows of the TNA. It is easy to see that it was the ideal of Tamil unity that drove him into those folds but the question is whether Sangaree should spend his final phase in surroundings where he is treated with pointed disdain and disrespect. As the Tamil poet Auvaiyar sang, “Mathiyaathaar Thalai Vaasal Mithiyaamai Koadi Perum”(Not setting foot upon the entrance of those who do not respect you is worth a crore).
This does not mean that Anandasangaree has to break with the TNA and form a rival outfit or embark upon a confrontational course with the ITAK. It also does not mean that he has to join the Government or align with President Rajapaksa. It would be better I think if Sangaree moves the TULF out of the TNA, but not engage in adversarial politics with the Tamil combine.
What I think he should do at this critical juncture of his eventful life is to function independently at the helm of the TULF. The TULF was a political organisation to which he devoted himself and has safeguarded despite great political hardship and danger to his life. Therefore it is nothing but correct for him to charter an independent course for the party. What the fate of the TULF would be after Anandasangaree is unknown, but it would be safe to say that unless something akin to a political miracle happens the golden twilight of Sangaree would amount to a swansong of the TULF. What I would like is for that swansong to be sweet and dignified.
How does one do that? In my opinion Anandasangaree can undertake a two-fold task.
The first would be to focus on the development of Kilinochchi district and work for the upliftment of its people. Let it not be forgotten that Anandasangaree’s constructive contribution to Kilinochchi as a Town council chairman and MP has been enormous. His role in improving the educational standards of the rural under-developed region is commendable. Let it also not be forgotten that it was Sangaree who fought against his party and first raised the demand for Kilinochchi to be carved out as a separate administrative district. I distinctly remember the angry disapproval evinced by former TULF leaders Appapillai Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam when I interviewed Anandasangaree on his Kilinochchi separate district demand in 1981 for “The Island”.
Today in this post-war era there is a crying need for addressing the concerns of Kilinochchi and its people. Anandasangaree the driving force behind the Kilinochchi district demand must now devote himself to help repair and restore the battered and shattered lives and livelihood of Kilinochchi people. Sangaree can pioneer a new form of politics by forming a non –governmental organisation that would initiate a number of projects aimed at bettering and uplifting the district and its people. This would not be the politics of seeking votes but that of genuine service to the people. Given his political stature and the esteem with which he is held by the majority community I am confident Sangaree can make this venture a success if he dedicates himself to this noble objective.
The second and even more important task could be that of true reconciliation. Meaningful and durable reconciliation among all communities in general and the Sinhala and Tamil communities in particular is of the utmost importance in the present situation. I doubt very much that this reconciliation can be brought about by harping on the accountability theme alone. This reconciliation –and I mean the genuine article- is an imperative need for the war affected Tamil community. Again there is opportunity in this for Anandasangaree. As stated earlier Sangaree has built up a lot of trust and admiration among the Sinhala people by his defiance of the LTTE.
His joining the TNA and politicking with the grouping has certainly currently eroded that image to some extent. All however is not lost! Sangaree still retains a substantial amount of respect and goodwill among the majority community. This would be a sound basis for him to embark upon a campaign aimed at promoting reconciliation. Of course this reconciliation can only be built only upon a foundation of justice and equality. It requires at the outset a sincere - people to people approach - at grass root level. In my opinion Sangaree is capable of spearheading such a process of reconciliation. He will meet with much success if and when it is perceived that he has no links to the TNA.
All this of course is possible only if Anandasangaree’s health permits it. I am fully congisant of the incongruity of suggesting to an octogenarian basking in golden twilight to take on two formidable missions. Yet I do so only because I know the man well. “Sangaree Annan” as I call him is not one who will “go out gently into that night.” Being a doughty fighter he can only “rage against the falling of that light.”
Today a heavy darkness is descending upon the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. It would be better I think to light small candles wherever and whenever possible to dispel this darkness in a small, limited way instead of hoping for a political miracle to occur and spread shining light. My appeal to Veerasingham Anandasangaree as I wish him well on his eightieth birthday is for him to fight this enveloping darkness by lighting his own bright candle.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org