The “Mathiya Seyal Kuzhu” (central working committee) of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) also known as the Federal Party will be meeting today (Aug 29) in Vavuniya. The committee is generally referred to as “Mathiya Kuzhu”(Central committee). The Central Working committee is the key representative body of the ITAK. It comprises representatives elected by each district as well as ex-officio members. The ITAK is the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces and the chief constituent of the three -party configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Earlier I had been looking forward to the ITAK central committee meeting taking place soon. This was because I expected the chief Tamil political party to discuss the prevailing political situation in the country and formulate a basic policy framework for the future. The election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa followed by the overwhelming electoral victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has created an unenviable situation for the Sri Lankan Tamils in particular and the numerical minority communities in general.
Sri Lanka’s ruling regime today takes great pride in proclaiming that it is “of, for and by” the majority community. The minority ethnicities may have equality on paper but in practice will be relegated to second class status. Several Constitutional provisions face an existential threat and the limited progress achieved on many fronts including ethnic relations and power sharing may be rolled back. In such a situation it is imperative that a party such as the ITAK meets, discusses and forges a political approach to cope with the new regime’s policies. Moreover the ITAK had suffered an electoral setback in the recent polls and it is very necessary to discuss its decline in depth and devise plans to revive and re-invigorate the party.
Sri Lanka’s ruling regime today takes great pride in proclaiming that it is “of, for and by” the majority community. The minority ethnicities may have equality on paper but in practice will be relegated to second class status
It is in that context that I was awaiting the ITAK committee meeting with great expectations. However some disturbing developments this week has altered my mindset on this matter. I now await this meeting with concern rather than hope. The long festering internal strife within the ITAK has taken what may amount to a disturbing and dangerous turn.
Trial of strength
In last week’s article I did say that sparks may fly in this meeting. But what seems more likely to happen is an explosive showdown which may result in fracturing the party. Instead of discussing crucially important issues and formulating a future approach, the ITAK conclave in Vavuniya may become the arena for a trial of strength between two broad factions unless of course saner counsel prevails on both sides in time.
The intra-party conflict within a political party would not be a matter of great concern but for the fact that the ITAK being weakened or divided at this point of time would be most undesirable from a Tamil perspective. On the one hand there is greater majoritarian consolidation but on the other hand there is increasing minority fragmentation. While the two main Sinhala dominated party led alliances have more than 175 Sinhala MP’s among themselves the remaining 45 plus non – Sinhala MP’s represent around a dozen parties or more. In spite of faults and deficiencies the election of a bloc of MP”s from a single Tamil party or alliance has been immensely helpful in containing or checking majority domination to some extent at least in the past. The TNA which had 16 seats in the last Parliament has only 10 in the new one. Of this the ITAK tally is 6. A split therefore needs to be avoided.
What is saddening and maddening about the current ITAK crisis is that it could have been easily averted by ITAK president Somasundaram Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah had he acted with more restraint and greater responsibility. Even worse is the fact that Senathirajah himself has contributed and is contributing to the problem in very great measure through his utterly selfish lust for power and greed for post. In fact there is growing suspicion that Senathirajah himself is fomenting much of the friction through his accomplices and minions while posturing as the innocent aggrieved victim of conspiracies against him.
Readers may recall that this columnist has written several articles in the past about the problems within the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular. I outlined some of the prickly issues in last week’s article in this paper and appealed to both sides to avoid a possible confrontation. The final two paragraphs of the piece were as follows –
“It is expected that the ITAK leader would level charges against ITAK secretary Thurairajasingham and others at the 52 member executive committee meeting in Vavuniya on August 29th. In such a situation ITAK parliamentarians like Shritharan and Sumanthiran will also present their side of the story with supportive evidence. If that happens the sparks are sure to fly and place the ITAK leader in an unenviable position.”
“As an old acquaintance of “Maavai” Senathirajah and having the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamil people at heart, this writer wishes fervently that the ITAK leader would act with mature responsibility and adopt an urgent course correction. Likewise it is to be hoped that others like Sumanthiran and Shritharan too conduct themselves with greater restraint and prudence to prevent a serious calamity befalling the chief political configuration representing the Tamils of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.”.
My article seemed to have struck a responsive chord among many readers. I got several mails and calls from familiar and unfamiliar readers endorsing the views expressed. What was more important was what seemed to be good news emanating from Jaffna. Several well-intentioned individuals and groups from professionals, social activists and religious dignitaries were actively engaging with Senathirajah and earnestly requesting him to ease and resolve the situation.
The initial response from the ITAK leader was positive and encouraging. He appeared to have realised the gravity of the situation. Senaathirajah seemed apologetic and “confessed” that he had been misinformed and misled by some of his cohorts. The impression conveyed to some intermediaries was that of “Maavai” being willing to call it quits and extend an olive branch.
Alas! That was not to be. A mini-bombshell exploded midweek. Four important ITAK officials - all of them aligned to Senathirajah - gave notice of a no confidence motion against ITAK general secretary Krishnapillai Thurairajasingham. Funnily enough notice of the motion against Thurairajasingham was sent to him directly as he is the General secretary.They wanted the no confidence motion to be taken up for discussion and voting at the General working committee meeting . The wording of the motion called for immediate removal of Thurairajasingham from the office of General Secretary. The four signatories are former Northern Provincial Council Chaiman CVK Sivagnam, ITAK party treasurer K. Kanagasabapathy, ITAK Mayor of Jaffna Emmanuel Arnold and Ex-Northern provincial councillor Paranjothy Kuhabalan. As stated in last week’s article Sivagnanam and Kanagasabapathy are regarded as the right and left hands of Senathirajah.
The ITAK general secretary Thurairajasingham is a former Batticaloa district MP. He is also a former Eastern provincial councillor and ex-provincial minister. Thurairajasingham like Senathirajah contested the last parliamentary poll and lost. The main allegation in the no confidence motion against the General Secretary is that he did not inform the ITAK president Senathirajah or consult him before nominating defeated Amparai district candidate Thavarajah Kalaiarasan as the TNA national list MP.
What had happened was this. The TNA which had been elected to nine seats was entitled to appoint a national list MP. Since the TNA contests under the ITAK symbol of House, it is the ITAK secretary who acts officially on behalf of the TNA. Earlier when election nominations were being finalised, TNA parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan had wanted his deputy Kathiravelu Sanmugam Kuhadasan who was also a prospective candidate to be appointed as the TNA MP on the national list. The TNA nomination committee agreed to Kuhadasan being nominated as MP after elections. With the TNA getting only one National list seat in the 2020 polls, it was Kuhadasan who had to be nominated as MP. However there was a hitch.
The Ampara/Amparai district had failed to return a Tamil MP. The district was one where the Tamils numbering 19% were the third largest ethnicity. Moreover most Tamil areas were under-developed. Thus an MP was necessary to look after Tamil interests in the district. Moreover the Elections Commission had urged ITAK secretary K. Thurairajasingham to select the MP to be appointed as soon as possible. Hence an emergency meeting was held at Sampanthan’s residence with Thurairajasingham, Sumanthiran and Kuhadasan participating. Sumanthiran had apparently gone to Trinco to appraise Sampanthan of what had happened in the main counting centre at Jaffna Central College on August 7th.
The intra-party conflict within a political party would not be a matter of great concern but for the fact that the ITAK being weakened or divided at this point of time would be most undesirable from a Tamil perspective
Kuhadasan magnanimously agreed to forego the MP seat that should have been rightfully his. It was decided to appoint defeated candidate Thavarasa Kalaiarasan of the ITAK as national list MP. Kalaiarasan was an ardent ITAK activist and was the Naavithanveli Pradeshiya Sabha chairman. So Kalaiarasan was nominated to provide Amparai district a Tamil MP. Thurarajasingham did the paper work and Kalaiarasan was gazetted as MP.
ITAK leader Senathirajah however had other ideas. A meeting was convened hastily by the ITAK Jaffna branch where a resolution was passed urging that the defeated ITAK leader should be appointed as MP. Ex-NPC chairman C.V.K. Sivagnanam and ITAK Jaffna branch head Kanagasabapathy went to Trinco with the proposal to appoint Senathirajah as MP. Senathirajah himself telephoned Sampanthan and Thurairajasingham insisting that he be made MP. Senathirajah pleaded that he did not want to be MP but had to bow down to the wishes of party members who wanted him to be the MP. Therefore he wanted the MP post. Senathirajah’s efforts were not fruitful. Pressure was exerted on Kalaiarasan to resign the post by pro-Senathirajah elements. Kalaiarasan simply became “inaccessible”.
ITAK General Secretary
Senathirajah was furious. The ITAK leader raised the issue in Trincomalee when the nine-member Politbureau met at Sampanthan’s residence on August 15. However the ITAK president switched gears and began to berate the ITAK General secretary K. Thurairajasingham for not adopting correct procedure in appointing the MP. He said the TNA Co-ordinating Committee should have decided on the matter. He also said that the TNA constituents TELO and PLOTE should have been consulted.
Three others in the ITAK Politbureau were supportive of Senathirajah. They were CVK Sivagnanam, Xavier Kulanayagam and KV Thavarasah. Those supportive of Thurairajasingham were S. Shritharan, MA Sumanthiran and Dr. P. Sathiyalingam. It was a 4 to 4 tie but Sampanthan clinched the issue by coming down firmly in support of Thurairajasingham. Furthermore Sampanthan stated he fully endorsed Thurairajasingham’s action and shared responsibility for it. Instead of letting it go, the ITAK leader said that the National list appointment issue would be taken up at the Central Committee meeting in Vavuniya on August 29.
The Ampara/Amparai district had failed to return a Tamil MP. The district was one where the Tamils numbering 19% were the third largest ethnicity. Moreover most Tamil areas were under-developed. Thus an MP was necessary to look after Tamil interests in the district
It is in this context that the no confidence motion against Gen. Secy. Thurairajasingham is going to be taken up at the Vavuniya committee meeting. Senathirajah’s real grouse is that he was not given the national list MP post. Instead of saying so directly, he is harping on proper procedure not being adopted. The ITAK leader certainly has a point in saying that correct procedure was not followed but what he does not seem to realise is that this was so because of his deplorable conduct.
Had Senathirajah been a responsible unselfish party leader with the larger interests of the Tamil people at heart, he himself should have taken the initiative in appointing an Amparai district Tamil as MP. Instead Senathirajah was trying to grab the seat for himself at the expense of Amparai district Tamils. The crux of the matter is that adopting improper procedure was a necessary evil to thwart the unjustifiable avarice of Senathirajah and ensure justice was done to Amparai Tamils.
Interestingly enough there is a history between Senathirajah and the Amparai Tamils. In 1994 the LTTE was controlling the greater part of Jaffna district while the EPDP was entrenched in the army controlled off-shore island areas. So the ITAK which was then a component of the TULF did not contest Jaffna. Senathirajah contested from the Amparai district and lost. The TULF won three seats in Batticaloa and one in Trincomalee and was entitled to a national list seat which was earmarked for Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.
“Maavai”Senathirajah however demanded the national list seat for himself stating that the Amparai Tamils required Parliamentary representation. Buses and vans with Amparai Tamil youths were transported to Colombo to pressurise the TULF hierarchy into awarding the MP seat to Maavai in the name of Amparai Tamils. This was not acceded to and Senathirajah protested that Amparai Tamils were being given step-motherly treatment. The very same Senathirajah who wanted to be an MP to represent Amparai Tamils was now prepared to deprive them of an MP so that he could re-enter Parliament.
Three other motives
All this is likely to be aired in the open when the no confidence motion against Thurairajasingham is discussed. A frank discussion would certainly expose Senathirajah and reflect badly on him. Yet the ITAK leader egged on by his henchmen and cronies seems determined to go ahead with his anti-Thurairajasingham moves. Apart from wreaking vengeance on Thurairajasingham for nominating another as National list MP, there may be three other motives behind the no confidence motion exercise.
Firstly by removing Thurairajasingham, the ITAK leader may intend replacing him with a loyalist puppet. Secondly he may utilise the Central Committee vote as a trial of strength to gauge how much of support he has within the 52 member committee as opposed to his perceived adversaries. Thirdly and most importantly the no confidence motion may be nominally against Thurairajasingham but is also targeting the others involved in denying a national list MP post to Senathirajah, namely R. Sampanthan and MA Sumanthiran.
Some days ago there were reports in the Tamil newspapers that Senathirajah’s son Kalaiamuthan had a tete-a-tete with TMTK leader and Jaffna MP C.V. Wigneswaran. There were also speculative reports that moves were on to form a new united front among Tamil nationalist parties including the ITAK/TNA that would exclude Sampanthan, Shritharan, Sumanthiran and Thurairajasingham. One does not know whether there is any truth to the reports about forming a new alliance sans the Sampanthan led quartet. However it does provide much food for thought in the current no confidence motion milieu.
The no confidence motion attempt by Senathirajah’s cabal had a predictable response. There was a closing of ranks among those supportive of the MP seat being given to Amparai’s Kalaiarasan instead of the ITAK leader. Jaffna district MP Sivagnanam Shritharan who had already sent a formal complaint about the manner in which ITAK Jaffna candidate Saravanapavan had attacked him in his newspapers, forwarded another detailed complaint to Senathirajah. Shritharan had already provided Senathirajah a CD with audio-visual evidence about how ITAK youth elements had run riot at the Jaffna Central College premises.
Former Northern Provincial minister and defeated ITAK candidate for Wanni Dr. Pathmanathan Sathiyalingam also submitted a formal complaint to Senathirajah with details of how Saravanapavan’s newspapers had attacked him during the election campaign. He attributed the drop in ITAK votes to this campaign and demanded action against the media “mudalaali.” Incidently the complaints against Saraanapavan are nothing new. The ITAK leader had been informed of this on several occasions in the past but did not take any action as Saravanapavan was closely associated with Senathirajah.
Jaffna district MP and ITAK/TNA spokesman Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran presented the ITAK leader Senathirajah a dossier with precise details of how certain prominent persons in the ITAK had systematically worked during the election campaign as well as pre-election days to politically undermine him. He has also chronicled the unpleasant happenings at Jaffna Central College premises on Aug 7th. Sumanthiran has demanded that the ITAK president should immediately take action against eight individuals and sack them from the party. These comprise an ex-MP from Jaffna, a Colombo lawyer, four youth activist and two women members.
Chief strategist Sivagnanam
Meanwhile Senathirajah’s chief strategist C.V.K. Sivagnanam began communicating with members of the central committee in a bid to canvass support for the no confidence motion. He reportedly met with a mixed response in the North. There was support as well as opposition. Sivagnanam thereafter began contacting Eastern representatives. Though Thurairajasingham is from Batticaloa, there are many ITAK stalwarts in the East who are not well disposed towards him. In fact some have been clamouring for a change. If Sivagnanam had thought he could capitalise on those sentiments, he was in for a rude shock.
In spite of their issues with Thurairajasingham, most Eastern ITAK committee members refused to support the no confidence motion against him. One reason was that the appointment of Kalaiarasan to represent Amparai district Tamils was welcomed as a positive move by Eastern Tamil ITAK members. Senathirajah’s efforts to block that and grab the MP post for himself was strongly resented.
The ITAK leader egged on by his henchmen and cronies seems determined to go ahead with his anti-Thurairajasingham moves. Apart from wreaking vengeance on Thurairajasingham for nominating another as National list MP, there may be three other motives behind the no confidence motion exercise
Another reason was that even those Batticaloa Tamils who wanted a change of Gen-Secy did not want Thurairajasingham to be removed through a no confidence motion. They felt a senior leader of Thurairajasingham’s calibre should not be demeaned or humiliated in this way. Sivagnanam was reportedly taken aback when a youth leader from the East stated “If you bring a no confidence motion against the secretary from the East, we will bring a no confidence motion against the President from the North”.
I telephoned M.A. Sumanthiran and inquired from him as to what was likely to happen if the no confidence motion was taken up for a vote. The Jaffna district MP who is also a Presidents Counsel replied that there are some issues pertaining to the ITAK party Constitution that needed to be clarified before a no confidence motion vote could be taken up. He declined to elaborate further.
Fire-cracker or Damp Squib?
It is against this backdrop that the controversial ITAK committee meeting is scheduled to take place today (29) in Vavuniya. It remains to be seen whether it would be an explosive fire-cracker as expected or simply fizzle out to be a damp squib. One thing however is certain. The fault lines visible within the ITAK/TNA will not simply vanish in the days to come.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org