Controversial Northern Provincial Councillor Anandhi Sasitharan is once again in the news. Sections of the media reported that the Defence Ministry was pondering on the possibility of making the 42-year-old wife of former senior tiger leader Ezhilan undergo a period of rehabilitation in order to “prevent her from propagating separatist sentiments”. Anandhi responded to the news reports by convening a press conference in Jaffna and stating that she could not be forced into rehabilitation as she had never been a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organisation. Anandhi who was elected from the Jaffna district with 87,870 preference votes also warned that compelling her to undergo rehabilitation would reflect negatively on Sri Lanka in the international sphere.
"A wife trying to trace her missing husband was very justifiable and few found fault with her for that. The sight of a single mother with three young daughters seeking the truth about a husband and father aroused much sympathy."
Despite the media furore the fact of the matter is that news reports about Ananthi Sasitharan going into rehabilitation are at best in the realm of the speculative. It is not the intention of this column to tread into that territory and discuss related pros and cons. What is more concrete however, is the reality of the woman Councillor from the North being viewed from the perspective of the defence establishment as an irritant at best and menace at worst. The reasons for such perception deserve some delving into.
Being under the glare of the media spotlight is nothing new for Anandhi Sasitharan. She has been in the news before, during and after the Northern Provincial Council election campaign which she contested on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ticket under the ‘house’ symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). Anandhi, whose number was “One” in the candidate list for the Jaffna district came second in the preference vote tally, with 87,770 votes. Chief Ministerial candidate Canagasabapathy Visvalingam Wigneswaran came first with 132,355 votes. Wigneswaran and Anandhi were the two candidates who hogged the media spotlight most during the campaign.
Sivagnanam Shritharan elected at the 2010 Parliamentary poll on the TNA ticket as a Jaffna district MP is described by many as a fellow traveller of the LTTE, due to his perceived links to LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the global Tamil Diaspora. Shritharan’s provocative actions and pronouncements including that of his recent Parliamentary reference in glowing terms to LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran have reinforced that impression further. Moreover, Shritharan is closely related to Velayuthapillai Bhagheerathakumar alias Theepan - the former Northern Commander of the LTTE who was killed in the Battle of Aanandapuram on April 4 2009.While clarifying that he had never been an LTTE member, Shritharan has found it to be politically profitable to bask in the ‘glory’ of being suspected as one.
If Shritharan is regarded as the foremost tiger fellow traveller among TNA parliamentarians, Anandhi is fast-becoming his counterpart among TNA provincial councillors. Like Shritharan she too has close contacts with tigerish sections of the Diaspora and receives favourable attention in the overseas Tamil media. As in the case of Shritharan, Anandhi too has never been a member of the LTTE officially.
Her spouse was a senior political wing leader of the LTTE - Sinnathurai Sasitharan alias “Major Ezhilan” who served as the Tiger Political Commissar of Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts. He was reported as “missing” after the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Anandhi who has been raising the issue of “disappeared” persons in general and that of her husband in particular used the name of Ezhilan liberally in her electoral campaign. She was not portrayed or projected as a candidate on her individual merits but as “Ezhilalin Manaivi Anandhi (Ezhilan’s wife Anandhi).
In the aftermath of the war it was as the wife of Ezhilan that Anandhi first shot into the limelight. She presented herself before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 when it held sittings in Kilinochchi and testified that her husband had gone missing after May 2009. Anandhi stated that she had personally witnessed his surrender to the armed forces at a point near Vattavaahal in Mullaitheevu district. She was a Govt employee at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat at the time she deposed before the LLRC.
That disclosure made her a sensational figure then. This was the first time after the war that the spouse of a senior LTTE leader had been bold enough to come before a commission and testify that her husband had surrendered and was now reported missing. Speaking to the BBC Tamil service after her testimony Anandhi related her version of what had happened then. Anandhi said when her husband Ezhilan went with other senior LTTE leaders to surrender she and the three children had walked behind. She said she saw her husband being identified as “Maavilaaru Ezhilan”. According to Anandhi an Army officer had asked her to turn back and surrender along with other Tamil civilians as she was a Govt. employee and assured her that Ezhilan would be released later.
"If elected she would fight for justice and help bring those responsible before international courts and face punishment. Therefore people particularly women should vote for her. This simple speech was quite effective. Anandhi was the only woman candidate contesting in Jaffna district from the TNA. This too was to her advantage"
Whether true or false Anandhi’s testimony before the LLRC and her subsequent media interviews did make a powerful impact. LTTE media organs amidst the Tamil Diaspora derived maximum mileage out of it. It later came to light that Anandhi had been encouraged and supported by TNA parliamentarian Shritharan to go public and testify before the LLRC. Nevertheless, a wife trying to trace her missing husband was very justifiable and few found fault with her for that. The sight of a single mother with three young daughters seeking the truth about a husband and father aroused much sympathy. Besides, there was a romantic touch as the Sasitharan-Anandhi union had been a love story.
Anandhi was born on September 10, 1971 to parents hailing from the Kankesanthurai and Chulipuram areas in Jaffna. She was the fifth in a family of six children. Her elder sister Vasanthi who joined the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) had been killed by the LTTE at Kurumbasitty in 1989. Some years later Anandhi’s younger brother had joined the LTTE. He went missing after a while and is presumed to have been killed in combat.
Anandhi was a student at Victoria College in Chulipuram when she first saw Ezhilan who was then in the LTTE. He was from the Atchuvely area in Jaffna. Ezhilan was then active in the political wing of the LTTE. He had come to Victoria College to deliver a lecture to the students. It was customary in LTTE-controlled areas then for tiger cadres to address students in their respective schools.
Ezhilan with his dashing looks made a positive impression on young starry-eyed Anandhi. Also, the progressive views he expressed in his lecture on matters such as caste, dowry and women’s rights impacted greatly on her. It was a case of love at first sight for Anandhi. But that was not so for Ezhilan. When Anandhi conveyed her feelings to him through intermediaries he rejected them immediately. Anandhi however persisted and finally met him face to face and proffered her love. Again Ezhilan turned it down saying he was wedded to the ideal of “Tamil Eelam” and advised her to concentrate on her studies.
"She would associate and disassociate from organisations whenever it suited her and would “bad mouth” her erstwhile comrades after a tiff. She would also accuse prominent NGO activists of exploiting her for their selfish ends after getting their help in many ways"
Anandhi was not one who gave up easily. She kept on trying to win Ezhilan’s heart. In the meantime, she finished her secondary schooling and began pursuing accountancy studies. She gave up studies after getting a Government job. Anandhi started working as a clerk at the Jaffna Kachcheri from June 10 1992. She worked at the Valigamam west AGA office in Chankanai from 1993 to 1996.
During these years her passionate ardour for Ezhilan did not diminish. Determined to win her heart’s desire Anandhi kept on persevering. Finally Ezhilan melted. But soon there was another problem. The Sri Lankan armed forces regained control of Jaffna through “Operation Riviresa” in 1995-96. The LTTE including Ezhilan relocated to the Northern mainland of the Wanni. Anandhi too followed soon after. She worked at the Mullaitheevu District Secretariat as a clerk from 1997 to 2003.Thereafter she began working at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat as a management assistant from 2003 onwards. She continued to retain that job until obtaining a release last year to contest the Northern provincial poll.
Ezhilan too began rising up in LTTE ranks as a political wing member. He was a particular favourite of the LTTE political wing chief Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan. Ezhilan was made Political Commissar of the Vavuniya district by Thamilselvan with the approval of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran. After the ceasefire came into force in 2002 Ezhilan was transferred to the politically sensitive Trincomalee area as LTTE Political Commissar.
The Oslo-facilitated ceasefire had begun crumbling after 2004. The decisive turning point was in the Trincomalee district when the LTTE blocked the Maavilaaru River in the Moothoor region and prevented water from flowing into Sinhala inhabited areas. This was in July 2006. Ezhilan played a prominent role in justifying this decision and gave many media interviews about the river Maavilaaru and the importance of the blockade. Hence he came to be known as “Maavilaaru”Ezhilan. The war escalated due to the Maavilaaru episode ultimately resulting in the Mullivaaikkaal debacle.
Ezhilan and Anandhi got married on June 6, 1998 at Mulliyavalai in the Mullaitheevu district. LTTE political chief Thamilchelvan presided over the ceremony. Anandhi continued to work in Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi during the time Ezhilan was stationed in the Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts. After being driven away from Trincomalee, Ezhilan and other tiger cadres relocated to the Northern Wanni. Ezhilan began working in the LTTE secretariat in Kilinochchi. Anandhi working at Kilinochchi Kachcheri, stayed together with her husband.
The Anandhi-Ezhilan couple have three children; all of them girls. The eldest Nalvizhi was born on May 23, 1999.The second Ezhilvizhi was born on 22 November 2001.The youngest Kayalvizhi was born on July 15 2003.
The family left Kilinochchi when the army advanced and moved to the Mullaitheevu district. After the war ended in 2009, Anandhi and the children stayed in an IDP camp for a while and relocated to Kilinochchi where she resumed working as Management Assistant in the Samurdhi Department at the District Secretariat.The children were sent to Chulipuram in Jaffna while the mother shuttled between both places. It was in Kilinochchi that Anandhi came under the sway of Shritharan who encouraged her to testify before the LLRC.
Apart from the media, the LLRC exercise also attracted the attention of several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and International NGO’s concerned with issues such as disappearances and women’s rights. Anandhi had much interaction with them. Some NGO’s found her useful in helping to mobilise women with “disappeared” families and utilise them for demonstrations. Other organisations had hopes of manipulating her and controlling her. A few wanted to display her as their “trophy”. Initially she went along with these organisations but soon it became apparent that Anandhi had an independent agenda and would not play second fiddle to another. The interaction with these organisations resulted in writs of habeas corpus being filed in courts by Anandhi along with some other women for their respective family members who had allegedly “disappeared”.
Anandhi now began involving herself with NGO activities concerning women and families of disappeared and/or missing persons. She was a fixture at demonstrations often enjoying huge media attention. This resulted in some ill-will between grassroots activists and Anandhi who was accused of gaining publicity without any constructive input while they who did the spadework were ignored. There was also resentment in some circles about the wife of a tiger leader posturing as a champion of human rights.
Anandhi had a blow hot blow cold relationship with some NGO’s. She would associate and disassociate from organisations whenever it suited her and would “bad mouth” her erstwhile comrades after a tiff. She would also accuse prominent NGO activists of exploiting her for their selfish ends after getting their help in many ways.
Even as Anandhi engaged in human rights activism she also began exploring ways and means of going abroad. One of the avenues she tried was that of seeking political asylum in Switzerland. She claimed that she was being persecuted after her deposition before the LLRC. This asylum application made from Sri Lanka was rejected by Swiss authorities. Later on she got an opportunity to go to Geneva and attend an NGO sponsored meeting on the side at the UNHRC. Anandhi however was not given a visa to enter Switzerland as she had previously sought asylum and had been rejected. Thus ended her Geneva hopes.
"She presented herself before the LLRC in 2010 when it held sittings in Kilinochchi and testified that her husband had gone missing after May 2009. Anandhi stated that she had personally witnessed his surrender to the armed forces at a point near Vattavaahal in the Mullaitheevu district"
A new window of opportunity opened out as elections to the Northern Provincial Council became a distinct certainty. ITAK General Secretary and TNA strongman Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” approached her and asked her to contest on the TNA ticket. She readily agreed. Subsequently Maavai began having second thoughts about his overture as TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan raised objections. Then came Shritharan’s intervention on her behalf. Strengthened by Shritharan’s endorsement Senathirajah ignored Sampanthan’s objections and granted nomination to Anandhi - wife of Ezhilan as TNA candidate from Jaffna.
As stated in these columns earlier the Northern provincial poll led to serious differences in the TNA. Though former Supreme Court Judge CV Wigneswaran was ultimately approved as the “unanimous” choice as Chief Ministerial candidate there had been widespread support for Senathirajah’s candidacy in the party. This led to many Byzantine intrigues beneath the facade of unity. Subterranean resentment against Wigneswaran continued to prevail. This hostility towards Wigneswaran was fuelled by one school of extremists within the Diaspora.
This paved the way for a convergence of forces hostile to Wigneswaran. The idea was to boost the fortunes of another candidate and enable that person to garner more preferences than Wigneswaran. This would have been humiliating for Wigneswaran. It could have also given rise to a demand that the person with most preferences should be the Chief Minister. Initially former Jaffna Municipal Commissioner CVK Sivagnanam and ex-Parliamentarian MK Sivajilingam were thought of as potential contenders for the preferences crown. Finally the dice was cast in favour of Anandhi Sasitharan.
It was felt that being a mother of three children whose husband had disappeared, Anandhi would strike a responsive chord among women. Besides, the phenomenon of a wife fighting for the life of her husband or seeking justice on his behalf was sure to evoke sympathetic feelings in the Tamil psyche. Hindu mythology relates the tale of Savithri who locked horns with Yaman the god of death and won a reprieve for her husband Sathiyavaan.The Tamil epic”Silappathikaaram” narrates the saga of Kannaki (Pathini Deiyyo) who sought justice for her husband Kovalan’s death from the Pandyan king and in its absence, burnt down Madurai city. Anandhi in that context could be depicted as a latter day combination of Savithri and Kannaki.
While those seeking to undermine Wigneswaran backed Anandhi on the one hand, diehard tiger elements opted to support her on the other, for another reason. As the wife of Ezhilan she was identified with the LTTE. If she topped the preference poll then that victory could be portrayed as a triumph of the tigers and justification of the LTTE. A third school of thought threw in their lot with Anandhi because her success would strengthen the hands of international forces seeking an indictment of the Rajapaksa regime in the tribunal of world opinion.
Thus the stage was set for a well-endowed campaign to boost Anandhi Sasitharan’s capacity to harvest the maximum number of preferential votes. Abundant advertisements in the newspapers, colourfully attractive posters, proliferation of pro-Anandhi leaflets and flyers became the order of the day. Vehicles with loudspeakers went about the streets of Jaffna blaring forth ultra-nationalistic Tamil songs and slogans in support of Anandhi. A battalion of youths wearing tee-shirts with Anandhi’s name, face and candidate list number rode around on motor cycles. “Volunteers” working for Anandhi were reportedly provided with, refreshments, transport and an allowance of 500 rupees per day. Obviously hidden hands were financing the campaign. Anandhi herself told people that relatives from abroad were helping her.
The cold war between
Wigneswaran’s backers and Anandhi’s supporters was also visible as the campaign unfolded. Great care was taken to prevent Anandhi being on the same platform as Wigneswaran. The schedule was arranged in such a manner that Anandhi would deliver her speech and move on to another stage before Wigneswaran mounted it. This practice was followed until the final round of meetings. Also the time allocated to Anandhi for speaking at election meetings was rather inadequate but she managed to utilise it to her advantage by resorting to a simple message.
Anandhi Sasitharan introduced herself as the wife of Ezhilan. She then related how her husband and other senior tigers who surrendered had disappeared. She said her children had no father now and she herself no husband. There were many like her and she wanted to seek the truth about what had happened on behalf of herself, and all the others. If elected she would fight for justice and help bring those responsible before international courts and face punishment. Therefore people particularly women should vote for her. This simple speech was quite effective. Incidentally, Anandhi was the only woman candidate contesting in Jaffna district from the TNA. This too was to her advantage. As the campaign progressed there seemed to be a rising tide of support for Anandhi Sasitharan. Panic began setting into the Wigneswaran camp that the ex-supreme court judge would be beaten by the wife of Ezhilan in the race for preferences. After all had not an actress got more preference votes than a veteran leader in the Gampaha district at an earlier poll! Likewise was Anandhi Sasitharan going to win more preference votes than C.V. Wigneswaran?
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org