Sumanthiran’s “middle path” the most feasible when compared to the two extremes of conciliatory politics on the one hand and confrontational politics on the other
Saravanapavan intensified attacks on Sumanthiran through his newspaper ‘Uthayan’
A well-endowed pro-Tiger media organisation in the west jumped into the anti Sumanthiran fray and obtained many critical statements through their local agents
Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran was in the eye of a raging political storm some weeks ago due to a YouTube interview given by the 56-year-old President’s Counsel cum politician to the ‘Truth with Chamuditha’ show. A few of the questions and answers in Sinhala were picked up by a Tamil TV – reportedly aligned to a northern politician – which allegedly mistranslated the words of Sumanthiran with a mischievous slant. This in turn led to a cacophony of angry voices over mainstream Tamil media and social media – within and outside Sri Lanka – berating the former Jaffna District parliamentarian and accredited spokesperson of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) for what he had purportedly stated in the interview.
Political attacks being launched against Sumanthiran is nothing new. The lawyer-politician with liberal, relatively-moderate views has been the favourite target of “hawks” on either side of the ethnic divide in the past. The striking difference this time was that much of the attacks emanated from within the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular. Many TNA ex-MP colleagues of Sumanthiran including ITAK leader Somasundaran“Mavai” Senathirajah issued statements critical of Sumanthiran without even contacting their erstwhile fellow parliamentarian to verify facts. This was followed by many Tamil media reports about a series of “consultations” organised by Senathirajah among TNA ex-MPs to discuss the removal of Sumanthiran as party spokesperson and ouster from ITAK.
Finally, Sumanthiran released a twelve-minute YouTube video where he gave an “explanation” of what had actually transpired and how his interview in Sinhala was being distorted by interested parties to vilify and attack him. He also expressed regret over the fact that none of his colleagues including ITAK leader Senathirajah had extended to him the courtesy of seeking his version of events before unilaterally issuing statements criticising him. To his credit, Sumanthiran defiantly stood by all what he actually stated in the interview as opposed to the unfounded accusations of his critics. This video clip turned the tide in Sumanthiran’s favour leaving a lot of people with egg on their faces.
Furthermore, the Sinhala interview was translated to English and Tamil. The transcripts were published in influential sections of the mainstream and social media. Many people read the transcripts and realised that the attacks against Sumanthiran over this interview were unfair. As a result, there was a pro-Sumanthiran “sympathy wave.” There was also a backlash of sorts where the critics of Sumanthiran were vehemently criticised by a large number of people supportive of the ex-MP.
Tempest within the TNA tea cup
Writing in the Daily Mirror of May 16, 2020, this columnist observed thus: “It appears that the raging anti-Sumanthiran storm would gradually subside into a tempest within the TNA tea cup though relations between Sumanthiran and some Tamil politicians are likely to be drastically affected.” This is what seems to have happened.
After being confined to Colombo for many weeks due to anti-COVID-19 restrictions, Sumanthiran was back in Jaffnaa few days ago. The TNA/ITAK spokesman also conducted a press conference in Jaffna where he seemed confident and at ease. One of the strident demands made by Sumanthiran’s critics in the TNA was that he should be immediately removed as party spokesman. In that context, it appeared therefore that the turmoil in the TNA was over for the moment. However, as this columnist noted earlier, the relationship between Sumanthiran and some of his political fellow travellers is likely to be seriously affected if not impaired in the future.
Unlike in the past, this particular incident concerning Sumanthiran seems to have evoked much interest among various persons interested in observing the Tamil political scene in Sri Lanka. Many were struck by the fact that TNA ex-MPs had attacked Sumanthiran. They were curious to know why and how this had happened. Several friends and acquaintances from all the major Sri Lankan ethnic groups have been asking, requesting and suggesting that I should delve into this matter and explain what had really happened in this instance. At the same time, quite a few members and supporters of the TNA too communicated with me and supplied various tit-bits of information. They urged me to reveal full details about what they termed as the “Sumanthiranukkethiraana Sadhi” (Conspiracy or plot against Sumanthiran).
Somasundaran Senathirajah known as “Mavai”
Initially, what intrigued me most in this was why ITAK leader Somasundaran Senathirajah known as “Mavai” had turned against Sumanthiran in this regard. It seemed that many TNA ex-MPs and stalwarts had found the courage to issue anti-Sumanthiran statements only after Senathirajah himself had issued a statement. I was puzzled because I knew cordial relations had prevailed between Senathirajah for quite a long time. Although Sumanthiran is very close to TNA chief Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and functions as a key aide and trusted deputy to the veteran leader, he has also maintained an amicable working relationship with ITAK leader Senathirajah too.
It was Senathirajah who had first offered a TNA national list MP post to Sumanthiran. He had done so twice. Once after Joseph Pararajasingham was assassinated in Batticaloa and again after the “resignation” of M. Kanagendran known as “Eelaventhan,” Sumanthiran apparently refused then. Later in 2010, Sumanthiran became TNA national list MP after he was offered the post by both Sampanthan and Senathirajah. Sumanthiran has also been Senathirajah’s chief counsel in at least two important cases.
One concerned the return of army-occupied lands in Valigamam north division and the other related to the historic case where the Supreme Court ruled that seeking federalism was not espousing separatism. Sumanthiran also has been treating both Sampanthan and Senathirajah with equal respect addressing the former as “Aiyah” and the latter as “Anna.” In the 2016 elections, Senathirajah had diligently campaigned for Sumanthiran along with himself. So what or who had soured relations between Senathirajah and Sumanthiran now?
It was against this backdrop therefore that I undertook a journalistic investigation into the turmoil in the TNA concerning Sumanthiran. In the process, I did uncover some interesting information about the conspiracy or plot within TNA folds against Sumanthiran. It appears that former Jaffna District TNA parliamentarian Eeswarapatham Saravanapavan has played a key role in this sordid drama.
However, before relating some of these relevant details, I wish to place on record a fact that is already known to many people. Sumanthiran and I are relatives. We are second cousins. Our grandmothers were sisters. He is younger to me by ten years. Incidentally, my entry into political journalism was over 40 years ago while he entered active politics ten years ago. Personally, I would like the course of Tamil politics to be more pragmatic and cooperative in the aftermath of a tragic war. Nevertheless, taking prevailing reality into account, I realise Sumanthiran’s “middle path” is the most feasible when compared to the two extremes of conciliatory politics on the one hand and confrontational politics on the other. I am supportive of him currently because I like his way of doing politics so far. If I do disapprove at some point in the future, I shall certainly offer constructive criticism then.
The internal conflict in the TNA is best understood in the context of competition between candidates on the same party list to secure more preference votes. Jaffna electoral district comprising the administrative districts of Kilinochchi and Jaffna elects seven MPs. At the 2015 elections, five were elected from the TNA, one from the EPDP and one from the UNP. Given the drop in TNA votes at the 2018 local authority polls as compared to the 2015 parliamentary election, political analysts opine that the TNA may win only four seats in 2020. This “prediction” if proven true would result in one of the five Jaffna MPs elected in 2015 being knocked out of reckoning. The five TNA Jaffna District parliamentarians elected in 2015 in order of preference votes count were S. Shrikaran, S. Senathirajah, M.A. Sumanthiran, D. Siddharthan and E. Saravanapavan. Of these, Siddharthan is from the PLOTE while the others are from the ITAK.
At one stage, it was felt that ITAK leader Senathirajah would not contest the parliamentary poll in 2020. It is a well-known fact that Senathirajah had been eyeing the Northern Province Chief Minister post in 2013. Sampanthan however brought in retired Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran as chief ministerial candidate. He was assisted in this by M.A. Sumanthiran. Senathirajah was disappointed but accepted the inevitable gracefully. Wigneswaran proved to be a huge disappointment. After running or ruining the Northern Council through an inefficient administration, Wigneswaran backstabbed Sampanthan politically by breaking away and forming his own party and later forging a joint front against the TNA.
In such a situation, Senathirajah began staking his claim again for the Northern Chief Minister post. This was accepted. It became obvious that Senathirajah would quit his MP seat and contest the provincial poll if and when NPC elections were held. Although the NC was dissolved in 2018, elections are yet to be held. Meanwhile, Senathirajah’s son too entered politics. Kalaiamuthan, Senathirajah’s eldest son had returned to Sri Lanka after working as an engineer in the UK. He contested the Valigamam Pradeshiya Sabha election in February 2018 and became a councillor. With the entry of his son, Senathirajah changed his stance. He now toyed with the idea of continuing to be MP and let his son contest the Provincial Council poll. Kalaiamuthan Senathirajah being made a provincial minister was also on the cards.
Lord Beaverbrook of Lankan Tamil Politics
It was under these circumstances that a brand new relationship began blossoming between Saravanapavan and Senathirajah. Ex-Jaffna District MP Saravanapavan is the Lord Beaverbrook of Lankan Tamil politics being the proprietor of the “Uthayan” and “Sudaroli” newspapers and some other commercial enterprises. He was earlier associated with the Sabra Finance company that declared bankruptcy over 35 years ago causing immense hardship to numerous Jaffna residents who had invested their life’s savings in the firm. How Saravanapavan got the better of his brother-in-law Nadesapillai Vithyatharan and obtained nomination in 2010 as TNA candidate is a story worth recounting on another occasion. The brothers-in-law are reportedly rivals now with Vithyatharan editing the “Kaalaik Kathir.”
When Saravanapavan contested elections in 2010, he projected himself as the “Oorp Pirachinaiyai Ulagariyach Cheitha Oodagap Poaraali” (the media warrior who informed the world about domestic problems). In spite of posturing as a media warrior, Saravanapavan has not hesitated to utilise his influence to foster his businesses. At the 2019 presidential poll, Saravanapavan’s newspapers attacked Gotabaya Rajapaksa strongly.
Saravanapavan attended the new President’s meeting with media heads and editors in his capacity as a newspaper proprietor. He used the opportunity to request tax exemption for his factory in Vavuniya like how the “Yahapalanaya” Government had given him. Gota deflected the request saying tax exemption matters were handled by Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Saravanapavan then telephoned Mahinda who evaded the issue by saying wait until the budget or something to that effect. This episode concerning Saravanapavan was the talk of the town for quite a while.
Saravanapavan’s chances of being elected as MP again could be nil if Jaffna does elect only four from the TNA in 2020. The only way to ensure his success was to align with a strong TNA fellow candidate, engage in joint canvassing and bask in reflected glory. Therefore, Saravanapavan was compelled to hitch his wagon to the Senathirajah star. He managed to do so by latching on to Senathirajah’s son first and then to the father himself.
Senathirajah had cut his political teeth by assuming leadership of the ITAK youth league leadership fifty years ago. When Kalaiamuthan evinced an interest in becoming the ITAK youth wing leader, the father was happy. Saravanapavan endorsed and promoted Kalaiamuthan’s desire by placing a vehicle at his disposal and allegedly financing regular trips to all parts of the north and east. This endeared Saravanapavan to Senathirajah and the seeds of a mutually-beneficial partnership were sown.
Friction with Sumanthiran first occurred
It was over this “youth” issue that friction with Sumanthiran first occurred. Sumanthiran has been very consistent in promoting greater participation and responsibilities for youths and women within the party as well as in overall political affairs. As such, he had been very much involved in re-organising and re-vitalising the role of the ITAK youth wing. So when Kalaiamuthan backed by Saravanapavan attempted to take over the youth wing, several youths resisted it and sought moral support from Sumanthiran. This apparently was given.
Realising that his chances of winning youth front leadership elections were remote, Senadhirajah’s son Kalaiamuthan backed out at the last minute after staging a drama of refusing the post to avoid charges of dynastic politics. A Batticaloa youth Seiyon was elected Youth Front President while Kalaiamuthan became General Secretary of the ITAK Jaffna District Youth Front.
Relations between Senathirajah and Sumanthiran deteriorated further due to two other misunderstandings. The first was when Sumanthiran began advocating a greater role for youths and women in the ITAK and TNA. This was interpreted by a faction of Senathirajah loyalists as Sumanthiran’s gambit in the chess game of ousting 77-year-old Senathirajah. There is a group of Senathirajah loyalists in the ITAK who meet very regularly at the party office located in Martin Road, Jaffna. This pro-Senathirajah clique is dubbed derisively by younger elements in the ITAK as the “Martin Road Mafia.” In recent times, Saravanapavan too has drawn closer to this group.
The second misunderstanding was when Sumanthiran mooted a proposal to amend the established practice of selecting parliamentary poll candidates. What has been happening is that all incumbent MPs are automatically guaranteed re-nomination. The process of selecting candidates is only to fill vacancies in the nomination list. This is the usual practice in most political parties too.
Sumanthiran proposed that nominations should start afresh and that all prospective candidates including sitting MPs should submit fresh applications and be selected on merit after competing with other applicants. This would help increase talented qualified youngsters entering politics he argued. TNA leader Sampanthan endorsed this saying the party required more educated and able young people.
Excreta collided with the oscillator
The excreta collided with the oscillator! Almost all incumbent MPs reacted strongly against Sumanthiran’s suggestion. The MPs felt threatened. Their refuge and strength was Senathirajah who organised a counter-strike. A resolution was passed by the parliamentary group and political committee that all incumbent MPs should be given nomination automatically. Fresh nominations were for filling vacancies in the list only.
It could be seen therefore that almost all the TNA parliamentarians were pissed off with Sumanthiran over his “equalisation” proposal. As for Saravanapavan, he intensified attacks on Sumanthiran through his newspaper “Uthayan.” Ironically, Sumanthiran and his juniors had appeared “gratis” for Saravanapavan in several cases concerning his newspaper. Some cases were reportedly won while others were pending. Yet, Saravanapavan’s media was now attacking Sumanthiran.
Moreover, other MPs suspected of being close to Sumanthiran were targeted. Sumanthiran raised this issue at the ITAK nomination board meeting and argued against Saravanapavan being nominated because his paper was attacking ITAK stalwarts. This however was overruled because of the decision that all sitting MPs should be automatically nominated.
Saravanapavan and “Martin Road Mafia”
It is at this juncture that Sumanthiran’s controversial interview exploded on the Tamil political landscape. This was what the anti-Sumanthiran elements in the TNA were waiting for. It was an easy matter for Saravanapavan and the “Martin Road Mafia” to convince Senathirajah that he should issue a hard-hitting statement condemning Sumanthiran. Once ITAK leader Senathirajah critiqued Sumanthiran, others too were emboldened to follow suit. In some instances, TNA stalwarts and ex-MPs were approached by a “U-No-Hoo” and asked to issue anti-Sumanthiran statements.
Senathirajah’s name was invoked to compel persons into issuing statements criticising Sumanthiran. A well-endowed pro-Tiger media organisation in the west too jumped into the anti-Sumanthiran fray and obtained many critical statements through their local agents. However, some TNA ex-MPs like Sampanthan, Shritharan, Thurairatnasingham, Kodeeswaran and Ms. Shanthi Sriskandarasa did not join the anti-Sumanthiran bandwagon. TNA leader Sampanthan issued a statement defending and justifying Sumanthiran. Saravanapavan too has not issued an overt statement criticising Sumanthiran though his newspapers did so. Moreover, his newspaper even “edited” Sampanthan’s statement before publishing.
The situation began de-escalating after a few telephone conversations between Senathirajah and Sumanthiran where some of the differences were ironed out. The ITAK leader admitted that he had erred in not contacting Sumanthiran and obtaining his side of the story before issuing a statement. Matters cooled further when Sampanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran along with Siddharthan met in Colombo and frankly discussed the situation further.
Although it may be too early to comment, it appears that saner counsel has now prevailed and the IAK/TNA internal crisis is over. Sumanthiran’s journey to Jaffna and the staging of a media conference indicates that the TNA turmoil is finished for now. It remains to be seen whether ITAK leader Senathirajah will realise how he has been manipulated by vested interests and take appropriate remedial action in the future.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org