Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader and Cabinet Minister of Livestock and Rural Community Development, SaumiyamoorthyArumugam Ramanathan Thondaman died of a cardiac arrest on May 26. The 55-year-old political leader known as Arumugam and Thonda would have celebrated his 56th birthday on May 29 but fate decreed otherwise. Arumugam Thondaman had a fall while walking inside his house numbered 135 on Kumbukgahawatte Mawatte off Parliament Road and lost consciousness. Thondaman was immediately taken to the Thalangama Hospital but passed away within a few minutes of admission. It was found that Thonda had succumbed to a massive heart attack.
The sudden demise of Arumugam Thondaman came as a huge shock to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He rushed to the hospital. Thereafter, many other political leaders from government and opposition ranks flocked to Thalangama. Mahinda Rajapaksa was visibly upset over Arumugam’s death. The Prime Minister told the media that Minister Thondaman had met him only a few hours earlier. He had spoken about several issues concerning upcountry Tamils of recent Indian origin known as “Malaiyahath Thamilar” or hill country Tamils. Apparently, Arumugam had spent an unusually long time talking about many issues including the 1,000 rupee daily wage, housing with Indian aid and problems caused by COVID-19 and urged speedy solutions, recalled an emotional Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The unexpected death of Thondaman at this juncture comes as a blow to the government in general and the Rajapaksas in particular. Arumugam was the sole Cabinet minister from the Indian Tamil community in the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Moreover, Thondaman stood by Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 presidential election. Other upcountry Tamil leaders like Palani Digambaran of the National Union of Workers (NUW) and Velusamy Radhakrishnan of Upcountry People’s Front (UCPF) deserted Mahinda and backed Maithripala Sirisena.
After Mahinda’s defeat, the NUW and UCPF teamed up with Mano Ganesan’s Democratic People’s Front (DPF) and together forged the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA). The three-party TPA got seven seats at the 2015 parliamentary poll while the CWC got only two. Despite this setback, the CWC still remains the single largest political party and trade union representing hill country Tamils and plantation workers. The TPA supported Sajith Premadasa at the 2019 presidential poll while Arumugam Thondaman backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The CWC led by Thondaman is contesting the forthcoming parliamentary election as part of the SLPP led alliance while the TPA has thrown in its lot with Sajith’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya.
Against this backdrop, the support of Thondaman and the CWC is of crucial importance to the ruling regime. His death therefore creates a vacuum that needs to be filled in a manner that benefits the Rajapaksa Government. The immediate need was to replace Thondaman’s vacancy in the list of candidates being fielded for the Nuwara Eliya District. The bigger necessity was to find a suitable successor to Arumugam as CWC leader.
Thondaman family fiefdom
The CWC is an organisation that has been the fiefdom of the Thondaman family. Plantation patriarch Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman (snr) reigned over the CWC like an uncrowned monarch for almost five decades. When the time came for Thondaman (snr) to groom a successor, he brought in his only son Ramanathan who successfully contested the Central Provincial Council election on the UNP list and was made a provincial minister. The affable, easy-going, gentlemanly Ramanathan was not cut out for the world of cutthroat politics.
Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman realised this and began promoting Ramanathan’s son and his grandson Arumugam instead. Ramanathan retired gracefully and willingly to let his son come to the fore.
Arumugam’s “entry” as CWC secretary in charge of finance and youth affairs in 1993 saw the “exit” of M.S. Sellasamy, the CWC’s long-standing General Secretary, Colombo District MP and State Minister in the Ranasinghe Premadasa Government. Arumugam was appointed General Secretary in 1994 and contested in Nuwara Eliya at the 1994 parliamentary election. He won with over 75,000 preferences. After Thondaman’s death in 1999, Arumugam Thondaman donned the mantle of leadership. He also became a Cabinet minister. Soon there were internal problems and five of the eight CWC parliamentarians broke away and formed a new party.
Thereafter, Arumugam Thondaman reigned supreme as the undisputed leader of the CWC. There were defections and splits from time to time from the CWC. Likewise, there were realignments at times and some of the “prodigals” including M.S. Sellasamy returned to CWC folds. The CWC contested different elections in tow with the Chandrika Kumaratunga led PA, the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNF and the Mahinda Rajapaksa led UPFA at different times. Arumugam Thondaman continued to be Cabinet minister under successive governments except for the “Yahapalanaya” Government of 2015-19. He has also been returned to Parliament from the Nuwara Eliya District in every election since 1994.
As far as the CWC was concerned, Thondaman was its undisputed leader. He was both its President as well as General Secretary for many, many years. Arumugam’s trusted loyalist Muthu Sivalingam was appointed CWC chairman. However, the Elections Commission’s directive that one individual should not hold both President and General Secretary posts compelled Arumugam to make some changes in 2018. He relinquished his General Secretary post but remained as CWC President. Arumugam brought in former Central Province Minister Anushiya Sivarajah as CWC General Secretary. She was the daughter of CWC stalwart V. Annamalai who along with S. Thondaman (snr) was an appointed MP from 1965 to 1970.
Nephew Senthil and son Jeevan
Apart from creating a record of sorts by appointing a woman as CWC General Secretary in a male-dominated political realm, Arumugam brought in two from the “family.” One was his nephew (elder sister’s son), Senthil Thondaman, who served as minister in the Uva provincial administration headed by ex-chief minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa. Currently, Senthil functions as a coordinator of plantation worker affairs under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Senthil was appointed Vice Chairman of the party.
The other from the “family” was Arumugam’s only son Jeevan Kumaravel Thondaman. Arumugam and Rajalakshmi Thondaman have two daughters, Vijayalaxmi and Kothai Naachiyaar. Jeevan returned to Sri Lanka after pursuing legal studies in the UK. He was appointed Deputy General Secretary of the CWC and also its secretary in charge of youth affairs. It was obvious that Arumugam had begun grooming Jeevan to be his successor. It was only a matter of time before Anushiya Sivarajah would have been replaced by Jeevan. Arumugam’s unexpected death precipitated matters and caused a mini-upheaval.
According to CWC sources, Arumugam’s flamboyant nephew Senthil, with a decade of political experience, was staking his claim as successor to ArumugamThondaman as opposed to his 26-year-old cousin Jeevan who is comparatively inexperienced in active politics. While Senthil had more support within the CWC political committee, the high-handed Senthil was reportedly unpopular with the rank and file. The CWC branch membership at grassroot level in the hill country preferred Jeevan despite his youth because he was Arumugam’s son. Another school of thought consisting of CWC women members wanted Arumugam’s dental surgeon daughter Dr. Vijayalaxmi known as “Viji” to take over.
It was against this backdrop that a CWC delegation led by Senthil called on Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the succession stakes and seek the Prime Minister’s advice. There was a sense of urgency as the vacancy in the Nuwara Eliya candidate list had to be filled within three days in accordance with election laws. The politically-astute Mahinda Rajapaksa who was first elected to Parliament fifty years ago on May 27, 1970 at the age of 24 told CWC representatives that Arumugam’s son Jeevan should be nominated as candidate to replace his father in the present context. This is what the people would expect, he pointed out.
Jeevan Thondaman’s candidacy
Mahinda said the CWC leadership issue could be decided later thereby holding out some hope to Senthil that he could become CWC chief in the future. The CWC delegation consisting mainly of political committee members thereafter formally requested SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to approve Jeevan as a candidate. Since the SLPP chairman and secretary G.L. Peiris and Sagara Kariyawasam were present at the meeting, it was officially decided that Jeevan Thondaman would replace his father in the Nuwara Eliya candidate list. A press release was issued saying the CWC political committee had requested Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to nominate Jeevan as a candidate. It seems certain that the government would foster a sympathy wave in the upcountry by utilising the memory of Arumugam Thondaman.
The prevailing bonhomie between Mahinda Rajapaksa and the CWC and the easy manner in which the Prime Minister is exerting his influence over the organisation nowadays is in sharp contrast to the past where President Mahinda Rajapaksa was at loggerheads with the CWC led by Arumugam Thondaman. This column therefore journeys down memory lane to the time when Mahinda Rajapaksa and Arumugam Thondaman clashed with each other politically. There were two major instances of friction.
The first was in 2005. When Mahinda Rajapaksa first contested the presidential election, he sought the aid of Tamil and Muslim parties. However, these parties firmly supported Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP and garnered much votes for him. Had the LTTE not enforced a boycott in most parts of the north and substantial areas of the east, Mahinda may very well have lost that poll. Hell hath no fury as a Medamulana Machchiavelli scorned. For obvious reasons, Mahinda was extremely annoyed with Arumugam.
Thus, Thondaman was faced with a prickly predicament soon after Rajapaksa became President in 2005. He tried to “cool” Mahinda down by announcing that the CWC would offer unconditional support to the new President from opposition ranks. Despite this, the new government began cracking down. In typical Rajapaksa fashion, there were two police raids.
In the first police raid, a special Criminal Investigation Department (CID) team was sent from Colombo to search a youth centre run by the CWC-controlled Nuwara Eliya Divisional Council at Kotagala. The pretext was to find evidence of misappropriation of funds allocated from the Estate Infrastructure Ministry. According to police, they found a large stock of TVs, sewing machines, bicycles and roofing sheets meant for plantation workers and reported that the store had been rented by CWC MP V. Puthrasigamani. The police sealed the store but no charges were laid. Media reports, however, implied the stock of goods had been obtained fraudulently.
A second raid, again by a special CID team from Colombo, took place on the home of Arumugam Thondaman. Police claimed to be looking for evidence of misappropriated funds but gave no indication that they had found anything. No charges were laid. In further developments, the security given to Thondaman was reduced. CWC Badulla MP Vadivel Suresh was enticed into the government with a deputy minister post. Attempts were also made to undertake development activities in the estates without CWC involvement. The CWC was to be undermined on its home turf.
Thondaman flirts with LTTE
Thondaman struck back. In a controversial move, the CWC leader flirted with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He made a trip to Kilinochchi and met the then Tiger Political Commissar Suppiah Paramu Tamilselvan for political discussions. Thondaman spoke to the press on his plans to form a united effort among the upcountry and Western Province Tamil political parties.
Arumugam told the media that his party and the LTTE discussed the strategic need to form a broad Tamil front to meet the challenges from the southern polity and to further the common aspirations of both the Tamil communities in the northeast and the upcountry. Although the challenges faced by the Tamils in the northeast and the upcountry are different in scope, both communities have to face the common challenge posed by Sinhala nationalism, Thondaman told the media then.
“Emerging new political formations in the south have created an urgent strategic need for northeast and hill country Tamils to work together. Such a broad front will be able to confront the rising threat to the security and welfare of Tamil people living in all areas and to resist attempts from the southern polity to relegate the status of Tamils to second-class citizens,” Thondaman was quoted by media then.
Nirupama Menon Rao
This overt shift by the CWC towards the LTTE sent alarm bells ringing in India House. The then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Nirupama Menon Rao intervened to bring about rapprochement between Rajapaksa and Thondaman. Meetings were set up. After some haggling and hiccups, an understanding was arrived at. Thondaman ditched the LTTE and his plan of a broad Tamil front. Instead, the CWC joined the government.
Arumugam Thondaman took oaths as Cabinet Minister of Youth Empowerment and Socio-economic Development. Other CWC MPs who assumed office were M.S. Sellasamy - Deputy Posts Minister, M. Sivalingam - Deputy Estate Infrastructure Minister, S. Satchithananthan - Deputy Education Minister and S. Jegadeeswaran - Deputy National Integration Minister.
However, many Poya days later in 2007, there was another crisis. It all began when Basil Rajapaksa, the President’s brother and intermediary in dealings with the CWC, got embroiled in a heated argument with the plantation Tamil politicians. The causes were childish and consequences puerile. The villain of the piece, or peace, was Kandy District MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage. The CWC’s Muthu Sivalingam had set up an electricity scheme in Nawalapitiya through funds allocated under the decentralised budget. Aluthgamage had allegedly demanded prominence in the ceremony but was refused. He had then met Presidential Adviser Basil Rajapaksa and allegedly conveyed a distorted version about what had happened.
Basil-Thonda slanging match
Basil Rajapaksa was apparently misinformed that Sivalingam had criticised “Mahinda Chinthana” and refused to give due credit to the government. When Basil accused Sivalingam about it without clarifying whether it was correct or not, a heated argument ensued. The usually unflappable Basil Rajapaksa lost his cool and used harsh language on Sivalingam, compelling Arumugam Thondaman to enter the fray on Sivalingam’s behalf. This resulted in Thondaman and Rajapaksa engaging in a verbal slanging match, threatening mutual destruction. There were media reports that Rajapaksa had called Sivalingam ‘Para Demala’ but this was denied by both sides publicly. It was admitted however that intemperate language was used in a fierce argument.
CWC officials and important supporters then met at the Taj Samudra and discussed the issue further. A decision was taken to submit letters of resignation from ministerial posts. It was implemented promptly. It was also decided that the CWC would summon a meeting of branch officials to discuss pulling out of the government completely. The CWC hierarchy was in for a shock when a meeting was held in Kotagala. The overwhelming opinion among branch officials was that the leaders had acted hastily. Branch officials felt this was not an issue requiring a pull-out from the government.
Thus, it became apparent that a wholesale pull-out from the government was unwelcome at that point of time. The CWC therefore refrained from pulling out from the government and joining the opposition. So the CWC members did not cross over to the opposition from government ranks despite resigning their posts. When tricky money bills came up for voting, the CWC supported the government. Thondaman also attended party leaders’ meetings of the government though he was not a Cabinet minister.
Wounded pride, hurt ego
Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa too did not accept the CWC resignations. They were kept in a state of limbo. The CWC security or staff was not reduced. Their official vehicles were not removed too. But they did not receive their ministerial emoluments. Both sides were in a standoff situation. Tragicomically, this situation was not over some matter of principle or key policy differences but due to wounded pride and hurt ego. Arumugam’s grandfather Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was a master strategist. He often adopted tactics bordering on political brinkmanship. The grandson too had demonstrated often that he was a chip of the old block as far as political manoeuvering was concerned. It was now Arumugam’s task to extricate the CWC from an unenviable situation without losing face. Thondaman had an ace up his sleeve. This was the collective agreement signed with estate managements in December 2006.
Strike at the ‘collective agreement’
The last wage agreement was renegotiated and revised in December 2006. The parties to the agreement remained the same. They agreed then that the agreement would be effective up to December 31, 2008. According to the December 2006 agreement, the total wage package of a plantation worker was revised to Rs. 260 per day. The package consists of a basic wage of Rs. 170, price share supplement of Rs. 20 and an attendance incentive of Rs. 70. But now, Thondaman felt the time was opportune to strike at this collective agreement. So the CWC used a clause in the agreement where a signatory could opt out by giving a month’s notice. The CWC informed the managements of its intention. The CWC demanded a revision of the agreement to increase the daily wage to Rs. 200 per day. Negotiations began with the estate managements under the auspices of the then Labour Minister Athauda Seneviratne. Even as discussions were on, CWC spokespersons told the media that a work slow campaign would commence if agreement was not reached. Thondaman too increased pressure on the President by raising further demands. He began pressing the government to implement the 10-year action plan for the welfare of plantation workers. The CWC also submitted a charter of demands to the President to improve the lot of the plantation sector workers.
Thondaman’s bargaining power
Even as the government-CWC cold war continued, fresh political developments further increased Thondaman’s bargaining power. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe along with Mangala Samaraweera, who had quit the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, was canvassing JVP support against the government on the 2007 budget vote. Moves were also on to submit a no confidence motion against the then Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda. It appeared that the JVP would support it. The possibility of the JVP voting with the UNP against the government posed a dicey situation where the CWC, with five MPs, could hold the power balance. In a scenario of equally-matched division, the CWC could tilt the scales either way if it wanted to. The then CWC Spokesperson R. Yogarajan kept the CWC’s options open by declaring that the CWC would decide on its course only after examining the budget in detail. The political animal in Mahinda Rajapaksa became sharply alive. The then President stepped in and quickly resolved the workers’ wage issue. A daily wage of Rs. 200 was agreed upon. A person working 25 days would get Rs. 5,000. With other emoluments, it could exceed Rs. 7,000. With that ‘victory’ in hand, the road was clear for the CWC to rejoin the government and accept their old portfolios. They were all sworn in to the posts held earlier. The plantation prodigals were back in government folds.
Things have changed now
This then was how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman clashed politically many years ago. Things have changed now and currently the CWC in a post-Arumugam scenario is turning to Mahinda Rajapaksa for guidance. It appears that the Rajapaksa grip on the CWC could tighten in the days to come.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org